YPSILANTI – Michele Anderson uses real life experiences as a way to teach history to her high school students. Through field trips, role-playing and guest speakers, she has found a way to help her students make historical connections to their lives.
Anderson, from New Boston, Mich., was recently named the 2014 National History Teacher of the Year by HISTORY® and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. She was selected for the National History Teacher of the Year Award from more than 1,000 nationwide nominees. She received $10,000 and attended a ceremony in her honor in New York City in Dec. 2014.
Anderson, who teaches high school history at John Glenn High School, in Westland, says she first realized she wanted to be a teacher during junior high school.
“There was a student at my school who was constantly getting picked on by a teacher,” said Anderson. “I went through all of elementary school with this student, and looking back on it now, I’m pretty sure the student would be identified as being autistic. I decided I wanted to be a teacher, so I could create a safe classroom where that would never happen.”
Anderson has been lauded for leading her students on creative and original community outreach trips and oral history interview projects with World War II and Korean War veterans. Her work has drawn the attention and acclaim of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 2013, she received the Michigan Historical Commission’s Governor John B. Swainson award for her efforts to preserve the memory of Michigan’s defense workers and World War II veterans.
“My interest in veterans goes back to my grandfather and to the other veterans in my family,” Anderson said. “I can trace a family member back to almost every major American conflict since the American Revolution. My grandfather, who was a WWII veteran, survived the Bataan Death March and was a slave soldier of the Japanese. His story was so compelling that I decided to make this the topic of the paper I presented at the 13th Undergraduate Symposium at EMU. I brought my grandfather as my special guest, and we had a hard time leaving once the audience found out he was there.”
Anderson graduated from EMU in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and secondary certification. She earned her masters in history from EMU in 2000.
“I think what I liked best about Eastern was that the university offered something for every student, whether it be campus life, recreational activities or challenging academics,” said Anderson. “As a student in the Honors Program, I also enjoyed being able to register early for classes and take advantage of EMU’s smaller class sizes.”
Anderson cites one professor in particular at Eastern who brought her the greatest amount of ”aha” moments. JoEllen Vinyard, a professor of history at EMU, said Anderson combines an eagerness to learn with an ability to put the "bits and pieces" of history together in a meaningful framework.
“Michele was a student in several of my graduate classes that combined travel with studying, and was a catalyst in the group for pushing on to learn more, such as when we were in search of the house on Lake Michigan rumored to belong to Al Capone,” said Vinyard. “She is a wonderful example of the many history teachers who are making a difference.”
“Dr. Vinyard was absolutely my favorite professor at Eastern,” Anderson says. “I took every available class with her, because I knew somehow she would cover something in class that would relate to life - whether it was visiting a local cemetery, going to a historical museum or digging through historical archives for research. Dr. Vinyard taught history through real-life experiences – the same principles I use today to teach my high school students.”
Citing some examples of class projects, Anderson noted that last year was the 70th anniversary of D-Day, so she had each of her students write a short message to a Michigan soldier who died in the Normandy Invasion. They sent the messages with sand from Michigan, to be poured on the soldiers’ graves that are located in the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France by the Lakeview High School Band, which was performing in France.
This year, with the help of a grant from Target Corporation, Anderson will be taking her students to the Ft. Wayne Museum in Detroit, where local veterans were mustered in for Vietnam. She enjoys working with local organizations, such as the National River Raisin Battlefield and the Detroit Historical Museum, which give her ideas for developing her lesson plans.
“Students get excited about history when somehow it becomes real to them,” said Anderson. “Teachers have to help students make connections between what the student is learning and how that piece of history relates to something in their life.”