In her fifteen years as an educator, Stacy Hricko has taught every English and history class offered in grades seven through twelve, with a few electives thrown in. Currently, she teaches English and leadership in Melissa Independent School District, where she is also the National Honor Society and Student Council advisor. She is a 2007 recipient of the Humanities Texas Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities Award. She is a native Texan and has lived in Grayson County for twenty-five years. Ms. Hricko delivered the following remarks at the Humanities Texas spring board reception on April 15, 2011, at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
I’ve been teaching for fifteen years. During that time, I’ve seen many changes in educational theory, best practices, and testing methods. One thing, however, which has not changed is my desire to get kids to think by whatever means possible. When I was observed for the first time (in a TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills] remediation class) during my first year of teaching, I had to meet with the principal after school to talk about it. He commented on the activity I had done in class that day and asked where I’d gotten the idea. When I told him I got it at a Gifted and Talented workshop, he told me I needed to save those types of activities for GT kids and stick to the basics with everyone else. I went back to my room, upset by my mistake, and thought long and hard about what he’d said. I believed in my heart of hearts he was wrong. So, I made the decision right then to close my door and keep doing what I was doing, even if that meant going against what he told me to do. All twenty-eight of those kids, who had previously failed TAAS, passed. I knew I had done the right thing. That was the first time I chose to do things my own way to help kids. Ever since, I’ve been looking for ways to really get information to kids.
I have attended close to one hundred professional development trainings over the years. I would dutifully take notes, and upon my return to school file those notes away, never to look at them again. My Humanities Texas notes are in a binder on my desk, and I refer to them at least weekly. Prior to attending the 2007 Humanities Texas teacher institute, I taught primary source documents the best way I knew—as a separate unit. "Ok, kids, we are going to spend a few days looking at primary source documents." They were separate documents, unconnected really to each other or anything else, and, to be quite honest, it wasn’t really a great and exciting unit, but it was in my TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills] and I did it. Then, in the summer of 2007 I went to Fort Worth and spent three days really learning how and when to use those sources, and that first institute changed not only how I teach, but how I think.
Primary sources are not special-occasion documents, nor are they something that should be taught in isolation or reserved only for special kids. They are nuggets of history that have a story to tell. I can force my students to learn a list of dates, terms, or formulas and they may remember those things long enough to take a quiz or test, but most students will never own them. I have discovered through my learning with Humanities Texas that when kids discover something, they own that knowledge for life.
I will freely admit that the first few times I tried this new method of teaching in 2007 things did not go as I planned. But I kept trying, hoping to get it right. It was after the third or fourth "failed" attempt that I began to notice something. My kids were taking the conversations we’d had about the documents outside my classroom. They were talking about the documents in the hallway, at lunch, even on the bus. The government teacher emailed me and said the kids were talking about them in his class. In their minds, they were just trying to prove their viewpoint superior to that of a friend’s, but I saw something completely different. They were owning the information, arguing different perspectives, and making valid arguments, all based on the text. And the best part for me was that the kids were thinking—actually learning without even realizing it.
After four summer institutes I am still learning how best to use the model of the institutes in my classroom. My kids have looked at letters, diaries, hospital records, hotel ledgers, meeting minutes, shipping logs, government documents, and a host of other things they don’t consider "reading." Sometimes we look at them together; sometimes I have them look at the documents alone first. It all depends. Some days I get it right. Other days, well, my days are spent with teenagers so there’s no telling how things may turn out. But I do know this: were it not for Humanities Texas and the teacher institutes, it would not have occurred to me to teach this way nor would I have been brave enough to email the National Archives and Records Administration or other entities to help me find just the right document.
In today’s ever-changing world it is imperative that we teach kids to think, evaluate, and make valid arguments based on facts. The institute shows teachers how to do just that. It is my hope that the summer teacher institutes continue because I know without a doubt those institutes are impacting our teachers and thereby making a huge impact on the students of Texas.