“I think teachers sometimes forget how impactful they are, and what a difference they can make in kids’ lives.”
By Lisa Truesdale
Kent Willmann loves to tell stories. As he pedals around Longmont during his daily bike rides, he often stops to take photos of scenery and visually interesting objects that also impart a deeper message. An integral part of the Boulder County Latino History Project, he helps teachers tell the vital yet under-told story of the area’s Latino community. And as a high-school social studies teacher for 32 years in the St. Vrain Valley School District, Willmann always worked hard to choose stories about history and politics that would help his students become effective citizens.
Now, at age 61, when he’s not traveling the world with his wife, Keely, or hanging out with one or more of their three grown children, he still teaches. As an instructor in CU’s School of Education, he guides the next generation of social studies teachers toward crucial classroom techniques for preparing their students for the “3 C’s”—their civic, college and career lives to come. Willmann says that this happens most effectively when teachers share stories with students though a variety of media, often beyond textbooks, like photographs, speeches, films, campaign ads and political cartoons.
It’s especially a challenge, he says, in the era of “fake news.” In a lecture hosted by the Longmont Public Library this past February, Willmann talked about the fake news he says is “worsening the polarization of political opinion in the United States.” He’s not a journalist (“although I do have some journalistic experience, since my first job was as a paperboy”), but he knows that fake news isn’t really a new thing at all. When speaking on the subject, he likes to quote Mark Twain: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”
“Fake news is a big problem,” he says, “because consumers can now choose to only read or listen to media that validates their viewpoint.”
Why Local History Matters
That trend is the polar opposite of what he teaches in the classroom—that the key to effective citizenship, and what makes democracy (“small d”) work, is listening to and honoring differing viewpoints. In any social studies class, politics is going to come up—especially today, when the country seems more divided than ever before. So teachers need to share stories that make a legitimate case for differing opinions. You don’t have to agree, he says, but you have to listen.
“I think teachers sometimes forget how impactful they are, and what a difference they can make in kids’ lives,” says Willmann, admitting how difficult it can be to help kids sort out what they’re thinking and to listen respectfully to what someone on the other side of the spectrum is saying.
But it’s a technique that he’s seen work in the classroom. He tells the story of a boy from an ultraconservative home and a Spanish-speaking daughter of recent immigrants. The two teamed up reluctantly to work on a project, yet came away with a newfound respect for each other (and earned a good grade, too). The boy was even proud to have learned some Spanish along the way.
So, how does a social studies teacher choose which stories to tell to students?
A good teacher, Willmann says, has “three different balls to juggle”: selecting content, using effective teaching techniques, and cultivating a relationship with the kids. For the content piece, it can be difficult to determine what truly matters. “No matter which stories teachers choose, they’re always leaving something out,” he laments. “There’s no way to teach everything about history, so we have to be selective; there’s only so much class time.”
To Willmann, local history is perhaps the most crucial, and it’s why he’s so passionate about his work as co-director of the Boulder County Latino History Project.
“We often gravitate to stories that connect with our experience,” he says. “Children are the same; they, too, want to learn history that connects with their lives, and local history has that power. Our Latino history tells our students, ‘People just like you have made Colorado great. If you work hard, struggle against adversity and reach out to help others, you too can add to the story of Colorado.’”
As part of his work with the Colorado Municipal League,
Willmann helps organize an annual spring event called Doing Democracy Day, which connects students to local leaders to discuss current issues.
“It’s important to get students involved at a local level, to make them feel empowered, to make them think, ‘Hey, that person on City Council lives right down the street from me.’”
And local leaders, he adds, are just as impressed with the students they interact with at the event.
“At the end of Doing Democracy Day, the students and local leaders always tell the exact same story about each other: ‘They’re really smart, thoughtful and concerned.’ It really gives me confidence about our community’s future.”