By Emily Younker
Globe Staff Writer
WHEATON, Mo. —
The dust has barely settled on this year's History Day competition, which wrapped up at the state level last month, but Jason Navarro and his students are already gearing up for next year's contest.
With that kind of enthusiasm, it might come as no surprise that Navarro, who teaches American and world history at Wheaton High School, has been named Teacher of the Year for the state of Missouri through the National History Day competition, which he sponsors for students at his school.
"It's very exciting and surprising," Navarro said, "because I know a lot of good people were up for that (award)."
The Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award recognizes outstanding National History Day teachers. Two state winners, one each at the junior and senior levels, are selected from each state, the District of Columbia, Defense Department schools and U.S. territories. The winners of the national award will be selected from among the state winners, who each will be awarded $500.
Winners are selected based on "development and use of creative teaching methods that interest students in history and help them make exciting discoveries about the past" and "exemplary commitment to helping students develop their interest in history and recognize their achievements," according to the History Day organization.
Navarro was nominated for the award by Paul Teverow, a professor of British and European history at Missouri Southern State University and coordinator of the regional History Day competition.
"I haven't seen his teaching, but I see the results of that," Teverow said. "I see that he has students get involved in History Day, and (they are) students from a variety of backgrounds who do this all as an extracurricular activity, and the fact that he inspires them to do this obviously reflects well on his talents as a teacher."
Navarro took over as his school's History Day sponsor when he arrived at Wheaton 12 years ago. He said participation among students at the high school, which has an enrollment of about 200 students, has grown over the past few years.
This year, for example, he took 15 students to MSSU for the regional competition, and 11 of them advanced to the state contest, which was held last month. One student placed third at state, making her an alternate for the national contest in June.
"We're a small school, so we're pretty happy to put those kind of numbers in," he said.
Navarro said participation in the contest is also completely voluntary for students, whereas other participating schools in the region require some students -- gifted students, for example, or students in specific history classes -- to compete.
"To me, that's one of the most important things -- our kids are able to do well and compete, doing it completely before school and after school," he said. "I'm just very impressed with their level of dedication."
But dedication isn't hard to come by when you like history and are motivated to do well, which seems to describe most of his students, Navarro said. He attributes that partly to the way he teaches history.
"We teach history as a story, and we try to make it exciting for them and help them to see that people in history are real people making real decisions," he said. "I do like to lecture because I think history is a story. We do some hands-on work. I do like group discussion quite a bit; sometimes we'll just get in a circle and talk about something."
Navarro also gives credit for the success of the History Day program -- and his award -- to others in Wheaton, including the school district's administrators, other teachers and the general community.
"Everybody is amazingly supportive of this program," he said. "When we qualify for state, they make sure we get there and fund us. I want to brag about them because we don't do this without them."
History buff from the beginning
Navarro said he has always been a history buff, but it wasn't until he was a student at Missouri Southern State University that he realized he wanted to make a career of it. A native of Diamond, he graduated in 2001 with a degree in history education and landed his first job at Wheaton, where he has been ever since.
He said the study of history is important because of its ability to teach us about ourselves and our surroundings.
"I think it helps to understand our world today to understand where we've come from and where we might be going," he said. "Most of the things we consider modern problems have been dealt with and talked about before on some level."
As an example, he points to the balance of federal government power vs. states' rights. He said the struggle for power from both the federal and state governments can be seen today over issues such as Social Security or the regulation of health care, but the same struggles can be seen as far back as the American Civil War, when the two levels of government conflicted over how to deal with slavery.
"History is being made as we speak," he said.