Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher, author, In the Eye of the Storm


American History is our worst subject. Our students do not know who they are as Americans.

Dr. William Bennett, author, America: The Last Best Hope

Why do I have to learn history? What’s it got to do with me?

As an American History teacher, I was often asked these questions by my students. They got bored digging around in the past and more often than not, failed to make the vital connections between history and the present.

I knew I had to change that or lose them.


Through the magic of technology, history teachers today have at their fingertips a vast array of primary sources that allow them to take their students out of the classroom on a journey into the past. | Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Teaching history in the millennial generation was a challenge to say the least. These kids were used to technology and fast-paced entertainment. They were used to answers at their fingertips.

They lived on social media and unless they had a family member or members serving in the military, their only experience with war and conflict were those presented on their iPad screens or engaged in on their X-Boxes and PlayStations.

Teaching them to value American History was a challenge.

This country is the greatest political story ever told. We are uniquely blessed and we have taken unique advantage of those blessings. And although it’s the greatest political story ever told, our children have not been told that story.

– Dr. William Bennett

Undeterred, rather than beating them over the head with history, I decided to use the tools and technology they understood to my advantage, and to theirs. After all, it wasn’t the memorization of names and dates they needed, it was understanding. And what better way to help them understand history than by living it?


Each year my students embarked on a historical journey to Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, Yorktown, and Jamestown where the history they’d been learning came to life before their eyes. | Image by JN Fenwick

From American colonization to the modern age, I set about doing just that. And along the way, I realized there were other important skills, like critical thinking, reading comprehension, debate, and writing they would learn along the way.

History does not exist in a vacuum, and the teaching of it should not either.

Jennifer N. Fenwick

As a teacher, my first responsibility was to my students and to their parents who had entrusted them to me. My podium was not a pulpit from which to preach my ideals, force my interpretations down their throats, or advance any predetermined narrative or agenda. It was a platform from which to engage in research and debate, in learning to distinguish fact from opinion, in presenting all sides of an argument, and most importantly, in allowing my students to form their own opinions.

I knew the only way they would come to understand history was by taking ownership of their learning of it. And the only way they would do that, was by making the past relevant to them in the present.

My students became archeologists, explorers, settlers, revolutionaries, founding fathers, framers, activists, and more.

By assuming the role of delegates, they debated at the Constitutional Convention, put forth their arguments for or against ratification, and engaged in compromise for the greater good.

Through diaries and first-person narratives, they traveled the agonizing journey from Africa on a slave ship to a foreign land where they were considered property and nothing more.

Through diaries, letters, and historical documents, they assumed the role of drummers, infantrymen, soldiers, and nurses marching alongside the Union and Confederate armies. Along the way, they encountered both victory and defeat. They witnessed President Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address, how the Emancipation Proclamation turned the tide, and the ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Through documentaries, on-line archives, virtual tours, first-hand accounts, and classroom re-enactments, they became part of some of the most significant events shaping our country. Some of the events we studied, listed below, are often merely footnotes in our history books, while others take center stage. To me, it was all significant and worth exploring.

  • October 19, 1781, when General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown marking the end of the Revolutionary War and the birth of a new nation. “I bore much for the sake of peace and the public good. My conscience tells me I acted rightly in these transactions, and should they ever come to the knowledge of the world I trust I shall stand acquitted by it.”General George Washington, Letter to General Nathaniel Greene, October, 1781
  • December 2, 1823, when President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, forever closing the North American continent to European colonization. “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are not to be considered subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” – President James Monroe, December 1823
  • January 24, 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill marking the beginning of the Gold Rush, American westward expansion, and the significance of these events to America. “Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success and thousands will leave their bones here. Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have to beg their way home, and probably one half that come here will never make enough to carry them back. But this does not alter the fact about the gold being plenty here, but shows what a poor frail being man is, how liable to disappointments, disease and death.”S. Shufelt, in a letter to his cousin in 1850, from California.
  • September 2, 1862, when the deadliest one-day battle in American history was fought at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and how the outcome of the Battle of Antietam turned the tide of the Civil War. “In the time that I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.” – Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, USA, Commander, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, September, 1862
  • March 30, 1867, when one of the largest land purchases was finalized and the United States, acquired Alaska from Russia for approximately two-cents an acre (roughly 32-cents today). “Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the department, and we can enter upon the treaty.” [Senator Charles] Seward replied, “Why wait until tomorrow, Mr. ]Edouard de] Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty tonight.” – Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick Seward, the Senator’s son, later recalling the conversation of March 29, 1867.
  • December 17, 1902, when Orville and Wilber Wright successfully took their first flight at Kitty Hawke, North Carolina. “After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. The wind, according to our anemometers at this time, was blowing a little over 20 miles (corrected) 27 miles according to the Government anemometer at Kitty Hawk. On slipping the rope the machine started off increasing in speed to probably 7 or 8 miles. The machine lifted from the truck just as it was entering on the fourth rail. Mr. Daniels took a picture just as it left the tracks.” – from the diary of Orville Wright, December 17, 1902
  • July 16, 1945, when The Trinity Test successfully detonated the first atomic bomb, establishing the United States as the most powerful nation on earth and ushering in the atomic age. A month later, two bombs were dropped on Japan ending World War II, but revealing the true horrors of nuclear war to the world. “In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarce breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast.”General Leslie R. Groves, Head of the Manhattan Project, July, 1945

They became part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, marching alongside the thousands upon thousands of activists seeking to break through the barriers and extend civil, voting, and human rights to all. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Morehouse College Speech, 1948

They were there when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down. “Everything was out of control. Police on horses watched. There was nothing they could do. The crowd had swollen. People were blowing long alpine horns which made a huge noise. There were fireworks, kites, flags and flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. The cranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. To get a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on the West German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped each other; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people poured up the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people had climbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. A stream of East Germans began to pour through. People applauded and slapped their backs. A woman handed me a giant bottle of wine, which I opened and she and I began to pour cups of wine and hand them to the East Germans.” – Andreas Ramos, from his written personal account of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, November, 1989


The Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, marked the end of the Cold War and the division of communist East Berlin from the West. | Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Their seats weren’t at the end of a history book or in front of the screen of some long-forgotten projection. No, thanks to technology and the primary resources it offered, they had no seats at all. Instead, they were moving, seeking, learning, and growing right in the middle of it all.

And still I went further. Reaching out to other educators, individuals within my community with historical ties to some of these events, and even to my own husband who researched and collected Florida pre-historic artifacts, I invited them to my classroom. And with them they brought tangible pieces of history my students could feel and touch and learn from.

Like the pieces of a Spanish moss-woven Confederate soldier’s blanket, Civil War-era ammunition, and a soldier’s pipe. The hand-written diaries and letters of a local businessman’s ancestor who fought in the Civil War. The first-person videotaped interviews of World War II veterans living in our area. And my husband brought them pieces of his collection of ancient pottery, projectiles, tools, and fossils. I think every classes favorite was the mammoth molar (tooth) as big as some of their heads. That sure put the size of the beast in perspective for them!

And perspective was, after all the point.

Their seats weren’t at the end of a history book or in front of the screen of some long-forgotten projection. No, thanks to technology and the primary resources it offered, they had no seats at all. Instead, they were moving, seeking, learning, and growing right in the middle of it all.

For me, teaching history was never about names and dates. It was always colorful and alive, relevant and real. That’s how I‘d been lucky enough to learn and receive it, and that’s how I wanted my students to experience it.

I viewed being a teacher as my vocation and I was passionate about fulfilling my responsibility as a mentor and a guide. My goal was to give my students tools they could use throughout their lives, to encourage them on their journey, but to ultimately step back and allow them to take the helm.

And Civics was no exception. Even though it is no longer taught as a subject in our schools, I believe it to be one of the most vital pieces of education, and for me, an essential part of teaching American History.

To that end, my school participated in mock elections, hosted local and state leaders in our classrooms, participated in letter-writing campaigns to our Congressmen and women, and perhaps more importantly participated in community service activities like food drives and raising money for victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters across the globe.

One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.

– Amanda Litvinov in a 2017 article, Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools

Through the years I learned that just as history cannot afford to be viewed as a static entity, neither can the teaching of it.

That’s why to me, this current trend of using history as a means to a political end-game; of actively seeking its destruction through tendentious and divisive narratives determined to rewrite it, are lethal to all that unites us and makes us American.

The evidence of that is being seen now more than ever. Just turn on the television —from dangerous and destructive riots that encourage division and hatred, to anti-American rhetoric spray-painted across our cities, toppled monuments and burning flags, — and most destructively of all, this sweeping narrative that demands we view everything through the lens of racism; this lack of patriotism is destroying more than our culture, it’s threatening our way of life and our very existence.

A free people cannot be controlled. That’s why oppression is the goal of tyranny. It has been since the dawn of time. It is only through the dismantling of liberty, the destruction of freedom, the promotion of division, and the usurpation of the inalienable rights granted to ALL human beings by God that tyrants gain power. 

Sewing the seeds of fear and division is the first step, so that all the steps that follow can be painted with that brush and that brush only. And for one purpose only. Power. And power gained through oppression can only be maintained and strengthened through fear, by force, and by silencing any voices that rise above all the noise they created in the first place.

Jennifer N. Fenwick

The only weapon we really have against this tide is knowledge and our willingness to continually defend our right to seek it, especially in this age of intentional misinformation, misdirection, and rhetoric presented as fact.

When it comes to the history of our country this is most vital. As Dr. Bennett so eloquently stated, “If they [students] do not know what they came from, what their legacy is, what their inheritance is, how will they support or defend it?”


Through the years I learned that just as history cannot afford to be viewed as a static entity, neither can the teaching of it. How can we expect our children to value our Nation’s past if we do not value the teaching of it? | Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.

Haim Ginott

I left teaching in 2008. As the years pass, I realize that I left a bit of myself there too. In the lives of all the students I taught and in all the ways they enriched my soul.

For the past decade I have worked in the government contracting industry as a developer of training and educational products for the Department of Defense (DoD). Still a form of teaching, I suppose, but not in the same way as the fifteen years I spent in the classroom and as a coach. Those years, I admit, were the pinnacle of my career, for nothing else I would ever do would feed my soul or fill my heart with so much gratitude and pride.

My students are now adults, college graduates, husbands and wives, parents, contributing in their own ways, to the world around them. I keep in touch with many of them, thanks to the ease of social media, and I’ve even worked with a few of them at times. They still call me, “Ms. Fenwick, or Fenny,” even though I tell them they can call me “Jennifer,” now that they are grown. They have a hard time with that, as I suppose no matter how old they get, I’ll always be their teacher. A title I wear with extreme pride. As much pride as I feel every time I see their successes, celebrate another milestone in their lives, or witness the moments in which they truly blossom.

Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier.

John Dewey

For a year or two, I was witness to their growth and learning every day, then I had to let them go – on to the next chapter of their lives. But I never stopped holding them in my heart, and more than that, I never stopped being poignantly humbled and eternally grateful for all the lessons they taught me.

Empowering my students was a daily goal. Teaching them to think for themselves and to embark on a journey where seeking knowledge was always at the forefront.

For the short time I had them, I felt a deep sense of responsibility for helping to shape their attitudes and perceptions toward knowledge and learning, and not simply to just teach them American History. “Learning,” I’d explain to them, “is a lifelong endeavor. It’s not something that has a finite end, but instead, it’s something that continually shapes our lives and ultimately our growth.” And truly, isn’t that the real goal of education, to continually grow and evolve, as we gain knowledge through experience, as well as through education?

Understanding that middle school students wouldn’t understand this perspective from my words only, I set about teaching them through example. My goal? To instill in them a lifelong desire for knowledge; a deep and intrinsic desire to continually ask questions and to seek, of their own volition, the answers. In my own experience, and through the guidance of my parents and some of my own teachers, I was shown the value of the quest and ultimately the lasting effect of earning knowledge.

As a history teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. I took that position very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my kids the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all the clutter and noise, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still, the impact of seeking, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and necessary if we are to become informed citizens. 

One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference. 

When we were embarking on the history of the U.S. Constitution, I wondered, what better way for them to understand the process, the debate, the compromises that went into shaping this document, then to recreate the Constitutional Convention in my classroom? To assign each of them to the role of one of the delegates? To give them the opportunity to step into the past and assume the perspectives, if they could, of the very men who met in the Summer of 1787 to draft the document? It wasn’t the names and the dates, after all, that were important, but rather the lessons learned and the words that were drafted, that still held relevance today, that were at the heart of the lesson.

From the activity, many questions arose, many debates ensued, and many new perspectives were gained. I think one of the most important lessons my students learned, something I myself had learned when I was their age, was that history should not be judged by the principles of the present, but rather we should acknowledge the evolution of those thought processes and the changing mindset of ensuing generations. How else are we to learn from the past? How else will we prevent the repetition of events that have already transpired, that have already been sacrificed for, that have already left their indelible marks?

There’s a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded. Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country. The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The foundations that have guided us through centuries of growth and progress, through wars and discord, through changing centuries and a changing world. These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day. 

Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.

Josef Albers

When studying the U. S. Civil War, my classroom became a replica of the country during that period of our history. My students were divided into the Union and the Confederacy. They were tasked with researching each battle, each conflict, each principle, from the perspective of the side they were on. It was difficult at times. There were many issues that were difficult for them to wrap their minds around, many questions that we needed to address together. But in the end, by the time we reached the surrender at Appomattox, they shone with a sense of pride, and a deeper understanding of one of the most poignant and agonizing periods of American History.

Above all, I hoped that they walked away with a deeper understanding of the power of actively pursuing knowledge, rather than simply receiving it; of being willing to ask the questions, of doing the research, and seeking the answers on their own, and then, and only then, when armed with the information and the facts, in forming their own, individual opinions. Their successes became my reward. Their pride in themselves for a job well-done, my gift.

The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.

John Warren

Teaching is in fact a calling. There are no grandiose salaries. The work itself can be at times, frustrating and it often goes unappreciated. Our society doesn’t go out of its way to value teachers or to stress the importance of their role in the lives of future generations. Teachers go into this profession, knowing and understanding that. But thankfully, still go into it nonetheless.

I can only hope and pray that the call to teaching continues to beckon future generations. That individuals who understand the value and necessity of embarking on this career, aren’t dissuaded by the negative aspects, but look at it instead as an opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of so many.

You may be wondering at this point, if I feel so strongly about this profession, why I left? It wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it one I took lightly. An opportunity that enabled me to provide more financial support for my family, better benefits, and a better retirement package presented itself. It was as hard and as simple as that.

Though my new position has many perks, it hasn’t, nor will it ever, replace the things I gave up when I left teaching. I will always be an educator at heart. And though I’ve been out of the profession for a decade, I continue to support my fellow educators and the individuals and programs that give them the support and the tools they need to continue to do their jobs effectively and with passion.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see (Alexandra K. Trenfor),” while, “A good student is one who will teach you something (Hanifa Jackson-Adderly).

That’s the beauty of being a teacher. It’s a two-way path. The path we chose, to become teachers and the preparation we undergo to ensure we are effective ones; and the path our students walk; eager to learn, often frustrated and combative, wanting desperately to reach that capstone year so they can graduate and enter the “real world” finally.

My students are now young adults, embarking on their own lives and successfully pursuing their goals. In my heart though, they will always be the best reminders of what it truly means to teach, to inspire, and for me, to always be a lifelong learner.

I encouraged my students to strive to become individuals of accomplishment in their quest for knowledge as much as they were in the other areas of their lives. I reminded them daily that they lived in a country that values and protects their right to do so. That they should, in fact, embrace this gift and even more, actively seek knowledge, for it is this that will ultimately enable us to prevail and to grow from generation to generation.

Afterall, The best and most lasting gift we can give our students, is the ability to critically think and the desire and passion to pursue knowledge and learning throughout their lives.

It must be remembered that the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts – it is to teach them to think, if that is possible, and to always think for themselves.

Robert Hutchins

(©2019)  Jennifer N. Fenwick, former teacher and author Four Weeks and In the Eye of the Storm  

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”
~ Albert Einstein.

My students used to tell me I was a nerd. I’d laugh and thank them, taking it as a compliment. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that I loved books, and words, and writing and research, and well, learning in general.

Since I was a young girl. I got excited at the thought of finding a new author to follow, eager to read their words and to become a part of the fabric of their story. I got downright giddy when I’d come across a new word. I’d excitedly add it to my “Word Journal” – yes, I kept a journal of new words I came across. I’d write them down and then look them up and use them in conversation and in my writing. I’d been doing it since I was very young. When I shared this with my students, hoping to encourage them to do the same, they’d look at me as if I’d just spontaneously sprouted wings and a tail right in front of them! “What?” I’d ask them.

“Google transformed the way most of us get our information with a search engine that enables us to find citizen-created media content alongside the work of professionals.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon, American Journalist

“Ms. Fenwick,” they’d explain, exasperatedly, “You can Google anything;” like I was from a different planet, rather than a different era. “In my day, Google wasn’t even a word in the English language,” I’d mutter under my breath, further proving the vastness of the cavern between us.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives only once.”
~ George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

What was the fun of “Googling” everything? It wasn’t the same as writing a word down and then looking it up in an actual dictionary. The act of writing it down made it personal. And seeking out the meaning, turning the pages of the dictionary, running your fingers across the pages until they located the word you were searching for – it was like a treasure hunt; and writing down the definition, well that just meant you’d taken ownership of the knowledge. It was tangible and therefore something that would then become part of your vernacular, part of your story.  

“You can’t get that from GOOGLE!” I’d say, throwing my hands out, pleading for my students to understand the beauty of the process as I did. Nothing. Blank faces.

“Um, Ms. Fenwick,” one brave student would finally raise their hand slowly, speaking for the whole group, “Google has dictionaries too.”  Of course, it did! Apparently, GOOGLE had everything. How had I managed to get through my life, let alone three college degrees, without Google!

My love of language, history, reading, of learning in general, I could attribute to my father’s influence. He grew up in a poor, rural community in Georgia. After graduating from high school, he entered the Coast Guard, where he served for four years. College wasn’t something his family could afford, so the service was the next best thing.

For my Dad though, life was his university, living, his degree. He surrounded himself with the classics. He made sure we had a beautiful set of encyclopedias and a Webster’s hardbound dictionary in our home. A library card was a well-earned privilege. I spent many hours talking with him about history, current events, even philosophy and spirituality. He was well-read, and wise, and engaging, encouraging us to think for ourselves, to never stop asking questions.

“When you cease to learn, to continually seek knowledge, no matter what your position or pedigree,” he’d explain, “You cease living.” I loved that about my Dad, his humility and his understanding of the importance of being an active seeker of knowledge, rather than a passive receiver.

I couldn’t help but wonder at times, if the advancements being made in technology and the ease in which today’s students could access information, wasn’t somehow diminishing that active pursuit of knowledge my father was talking about.

The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.” ~ John Locke, English Philosopher (1632-1704)

Was “Googling” for information the same as opening a book and searching for answers? Was it the same as actually going to the library and looking up book titles and then searching the shelves and finding them, checking them out?

Though a great tool that allows access to a wider world of information, should Google be the only way students seek information? Is the resulting knowledge somehow less appreciated because it is so easily gained? Or am I simply as antiquated as my students think me to be; resisting the new because I had grown up in an era when Google wasn’t an option?  

I taught Language Arts and American History, so reading, research and writing were a big and natural part of my lessons. I found incorporating modern technological advances into my curriculum, along with a good dose of the old-fashioned tools – like the library and actual books – was a happy medium. I wanted my students to experience both worlds. I wanted them to uncover the answers to their questions and to seek out knowledge on a personal level; to understand the intrinsic value of life-long learning and to experience the feeling of pride and accomplishment for a job well done.

“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” ~ Bill Gates

I understood that Google was part of their generation, as were electronic books, video games, social media, and easy and instant access to everything on their cell phones.

In order to grow with my students, to engage meaningfully with them, and to remain relevant as an educator, I would have to embrace these things, BUT – and it was a pretty important “but” to me – I also felt a responsibility to keep the past alive as well. To give them opportunities to do things the old-fashioned way; to open actual books; to understand how to use and to experience a library, to write a research paper, to increase their vocabulary through reading, and yes, to keep a word journal – even if it was using the notes app on their phone.

Acquiring, retaining, and applying knowledge was the most important part of their education. And though they might not appreciate that in the moment, I knew there would come a time when some of them would actually be grateful. And for this life-long logophile and lover of learning, that’s the reason I became a teacher in the first place. 


© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle