Get to Know the 2017 History Teachers of the Year: Mari Harris, Idaho

This year, the Gilder Lehrman Institute recognized 52 State History Teachers of the Year for their tireless and innovative efforts to make history come alive for their students.

But who are they, really? We asked these talented teachers to answer a few questions about themselves and to reflect on the challenges and joys of teaching. We will feature a state winner every Tuesday and Thursday, so keep checking back to learn more about these outstanding educators!

This week, meet Mari Harris:


Mari Harris, Vallivue High School
2017 Idaho Teacher of the Year

Do you have a favorite/funny memory from teaching?
One of my first years of teaching, my students were having a hard time grasping how big a deal the Reformation was to the Catholic Church and the movement of settlers to the New World. All of a sudden (in high heels) I stepped onto an empty desk and declared myself the center of the universe, portraying the power of the Catholic Church. Students sat in silence, some with mouths gaping open in disbelief. Standing on top of desks (much like Robin Williams) has become my signature move in the classroom. The first time I do it in the school year (for this Reformation unit) is always a shock to students because they never expect a teacher in high heels to do it. I always do it a few of times in the year to show and emphasize big ideas and get students’ attention. During our AP US History Cold War Dinner Party, I stand on a desk and declare myself World Peace, necessary to stop conflicts and world wars from breaking out. Standing on top of desks gives students a chance to see a different side of my teaching and is a great way to make important points that students will never forget! It also allows students to make comments about my shoes, wonder if they could stand on desks, worry for my safety, and ask if the custodians know I stand on desks. Of course this is one of many moments and memories in teaching . . . who could forget getting caught by students while rapping Hamilton in my classroom when I thought I was alone!

State one fun historical fact about the town you live in or grew up in.
In Caldwell in 1905, the former governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg, was mortally wounded when he opened the gate to his yard and triggered a bomb. The bomb was put there by Harry Orchard, who implicated the Western Mine Workers Union. Industrial Workers of the World leader Big Bill Haywood was charged with conspiracy for murder and was defended by Clarence Darrow in Boise. This would become Idaho’s Trial of the Century. Orchard was eventually found guilty and Haywood, innocent.

What is the last great history book you read?
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. I loved reading about the Lusitania and seeing the irony of how much information was out there about the potential for its destruction. Erik Larson is my favorite historical author right now!

What is your favorite historical site or museum?
The Idaho State Historical Museum! It has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. Dressing up like Lewis and Clark or an Idaho Potato, seeing DejaMoo (a two headed calf), or imagining life in a Chinese store were always favorite parts of my visits. I loved taking my children there to experience our state’s great history and enjoy the museum’s outdoor exhibits as well. Now the museum is under construction and I can’t wait for the new exhibits and my annual Mother’s Day trip there! If you ever come to Idaho, it is a great place to visit.

What advice would you give to young people, in high school or college, who may be considering a career in education, but are unsure?
Education is one of the most rewarding careers. Being a teacher is more than delivering lessons to prepare students for a test, it is about preparing students for life. When they walk out of school, they need to know how to survive and be good members of society. As an educator you need to love what you do. Don’t think that teaching is something that will grow on you. Be passionate from day one and your students will respond to that! If you are unsure, sign up to volunteer in classrooms, tutor, or find a way to get into classrooms and observe what teachers do. Then, if you have a chance, interact with the students and talk with teachers about their job. Teachers are happy to share their knowledge and experiences, so please ask!

If you could travel back in time and meet any historical figure who would it be and why?
There are so many people I'd like to meet: Jonathan Edwards, John and Abigail Adams, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, and Harry Truman. I guess I would have to say, in the end, I would choose Abigail Adams! Abigail Adams was a key figure in the Revolution that we forget about. Women played a huge role in the war at home, and organizing boycotts and spinning bees and educating children about the rights of citizenship were all demonstrated by Adams. She was an outstanding First Lady and at times persuaded John Adams to think outside the box in regards to policy, personal situations, and dealing with Adams’ struggles as President. She was one of the first advocates for women’s rights and demonstrated the ability of women to think and educate themselves while raising children. Of course, you cannot forget the memorable letters between her and John. I would ask her what kept their marriage strong, how society can influence the raising of new leaders in a turbulent time, and what motivated her. What encouraged Abigail to keep fighting during the Revolution? How did she endure the role of First Lady and what was her take on the relationship between her husband and Thomas Jefferson?

Who is your favorite historian?
Carol Berkin. So many history books relish the achievements of men, while Berkin introduces so many fantastic women from our country’s history. Her book on Civil War wives looks at the mindsets and accomplishments of women during that era. I love the individuals that Berkin chooses to highlight in all of her books, some well known but many not. I consider myself a social historian, and what I love about Berkin’s work is that she tells people’s stories so we can weave them into the national narrative as enrichment and further understanding. It is so important to know what the people experiencing history were doing and thinking, and Berkin does a great job with this! I have had the opportunity to be at a conference with Berkin and her session was amazing. I went out and reread all of her books because of her passion for history!

What is your favorite historical film or series?
Gone with the Wind is my favorite movie and book of all time, however it really isn’t historical. I would probably say almost anything by Ken Burns has to be a favorite. Prohibition and The Civil War are my favorite Ken Burns series because they highlight individual stories. I think of myself as a social historian because I want students to understand the impact of all things on the individual. Ken Burns does a great job with this in his series! (Side note: Hamilton is my favorite historical musical!)

Do you have a favorite historical topic or era?
I have two because of the courses I teach (US History 1 and US History 2). First, I love teaching the era of American colonial settlement. The dynamic challenges and new opportunities the settlers had upon arrival and settlement intrigues me and gets me excited to teach every year. My students get the opportunity to create their own colonies as part of this era. Talking about reasons for settlement and relating it back to the settlement of Idaho and our local challenges is also a great way to reflect on this topic. I also love teaching the Roaring ’20s. Studying social changes for minorities, the impact of WWI, and new ideologies intrigue both students and myself. I love investigating photographs and personal accounts of this time with students! Digging into crime, education and, of course, prohibition, are all topics of great interest for me and that means I get to go crazy in the classroom.

Do your students have a favorite historical topic or era?
That is a hard question, but I generally think students love studying the Civil War because it happened in the United States and contains so much political, social, and conflicting topics to study. Students love researching battles that we don’t go over in class and sharing them with peers, writing haiku poetry from each side’s perspective, and comparing documents about causes and impacts. This is always a student favorite, but I think there are many different time periods students can get excited about (they like the Jacksonian Era because Jackson isn’t my favorite president and they love playing devil’s advocate).


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