Originally created 04/23/98

National Teacher of the Year stresses history

WASHINGTON -- For high school teacher Philip Bigler, history should be lived and breathed if teen-agers are to learn.

And if students live and breathe something, they get riled up as well, says Bigler, 45, named Wednesday as the 1998 National Teacher of the Year.

Like when students manage the 1960 presidential race between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, using computer simulations to follow the candidates' progress in each state: "Kids are standing on desks screaming and yelling."

Even if Kennedy doesn't always win in the replay, he said in an interview, students acquire a deep understanding of issues, campaign finance, polling and a defining election for postwar America.

In Bigler's classes, students also become members of a Greek polis to debate issues of their day and merits of their societies, made a sacred pilgrimage to Mecca, argued the death penalty before the Supreme Court and recreated the court-martial of Lt. William Calley, leader of the Army platoon that massacred civilians at My Lai, Vietnam.

"You become personally invested," said Amanda L. Neville, 21, a Georgetown University senior who took courses under Bigler at McLean High School in a comfortable Virginia suburb of the capital. "You take on a part of history."

Neville, an English major, argued the death penalty in the 12th grade for an advanced placement government course. She researched Supreme Court documents at the Library of Congress.

It doesn't hurt to be a teacher near Washington, D.C., and within a short drive of Civil War battlefields. Students interview residents of the Soldier's and Airmen's Home for firsthand accounts of the world wars.

Neville's charges also visit Gettysburg, recreating the battle as experienced by Joshua Chamberlain, one of four officers whose experiences were recreated in Michael Shaara's 1975 historical novel, "The Killer Angels."

"The kids see how important point of view is in writing," said Bigler.

And it helps to be a working historian, with a master's degree in American studies. A teacher for 20 years, Bigler took a couple of years off to write an official history of Arlington National Cemetery.

He's written the story of Lt. Sharon Ann Lane,the only U.S. servicewoman killed by direct enemy fire in Vietnam. And as time allows while doing promotional tours as teacher of the year, he will write an account of the final months of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

History has been a living matter for Bigler, who grew up in a Navy family and moved to northern Virginia from Florida in the 1960s. Though not a veteran, he was inspired by Marine Col. Ralph Sullivan, who taught American history and Latin American history at Oakton High School in Vienna, Va., directly after returning from combat in Vietnam.

"He challenged me intellectually," said Bigler, who taught for a while at the same high school but doesn't know Sullivan's whereabouts. "He showed me that you never were going to know enough, you have to continue to learn."

"To help young people in the same ways that my teachers helped me is both a privilege and an honor," said Bigler.

Despite the historical simulations that figured into the award by the National Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic publishers, Bigler also assigns a heavy dose of reading, "the key for all learning," he said.

For the past two years, he's been teaching juniors at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an exclusive magnet school. Most are Internet wizards who instinctively turn to the Web for research materials, which always means a glut of information. He helps students evaluate Web sites.

"You get this pile of papers, and there's so much stuff that ... it's hard for them to sort out what's important and what's not," he said. "As a historian, you have to be able to assess the credibility of any kind of source you have."


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