Gray-New Gloucester High School history teacher Michelle Strattard likes helping her students navigate the world.

“It’s not my job to tell them how, but to give them the tools to do that,” she said.

Strattard, a history teacher at Gray-New Gloucester High School, said part of her job is to prepare “responsible, engaged citizens” by giving them the tools to navigate a complex world. Contributed

Strattard was named the Maine History Teacher of the Year last month by the Gilder Lehrman Institute, a national nonprofit organization that promotes K-12 history education. The organization’s 10 finalists for its National History Teacher of the Year will be announced this fall.

A Gray resident and a teacher for nearly six years, Strattard said students are more interested in history when she connects it to their immediate surroundings.

Taking her students to New Gloucester’s Shaker Village is one way to do that, she said. In the upcoming school year, she will teach a Shaker Studies course focusing on how the last remaining Shaker community in the country has influenced American culture and the world. The school and Shaker Village have had a learning partnership since 1986, she said.

“In normal times we go once a week and do onsite learning,” she said.

One of her favorite lessons taught last year involved assessing the World War I experience through the letters and documents of Maine soldiers.

“People from Maine have gone on to have a huge influence on things,” she said, and she hopes that will inspire her students.

Students relate better to primary sources, such as the soldiers’ letters, than to traditional textbooks, she said, so that is her preferred teaching method.

“She seeks out new learning and is not afraid to challenge herself to try new things in the classroom in an effort to help her students learn better,” said former colleague Shane Gower, who now teaches at Maranacook Community High School and nominated Strattard for the award.

Amid claims by some conservatives nationwide that critical race theory is negatively infiltrating public education, Strattard said she’s not worried about what she calls the natural evolution of history.

“It can be hard when kids come in with misconceptions,” she said. “I try and combat that by telling them that history is like a person – we have good days and bad days.

She emphasizes that history has room for all interpretations and points of view that are constantly coming to light with new research and context.

“We’re not going to stop teaching traditional stories, but we’re going to teach more stories,” she said. “At the end of the day we’re going to respect everyone’s humanity.”

Still, she said, difficult conversations allow for solutions, and as advisor of the high school’s chapter of Model UN (United Nations), she gets to see that play out.

Through the club, she leads anywhere from 15 to 30 students in state and national competitions, where they deliberate issues that have included fast fashion, illegal arms trades, or climate change.

“It’s really fun to see them tackling real-world issues,” Strattard said about the competitions.

Strattard said she is excited to go back to school this fall, especially with more classroom resources provided by the award, including access to primary sources through the Gilder Lehrman Institute. The award will assist her, she said, in preparing a generation of informed citizens. 

“I’m not there to change their minds. I just want them to learn and apply the information however they can,” she said.

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