Thorp teacher makes history come alive

Tom Christian

By Brian Myrick/Daily Record. Tom Christian speaks during a television interview at Central Washington University television studio, Thursday, July 8, 2010.

Posted: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 2:00 pm | Updated: 12:41 pm, Tue Jul 13, 2010.
By MARY SWIFT staff writer | Daily Record
THORP—Tom Christian never bargained on a certain degree of celebrity – or being part of an effort that resulted in two Emmy awards.

All Christian wanted to do was to turn teachers – and their students – on to U.S. history.

As it turns out, the 66-year-old Christian, who came to Kittitas County from the Midwest 30 years ago, has done all three.

Credit Christian’s role in creating Thorp’s Teaching American History project, a federally funded program that helps teachers in Central Washington learn how to make U.S. history come alive.

His enthusiasm for the program is obvious. So is his enthusiasm for education.

“I’ve been in it 40 years now,” he says. “I love to teach. I love to work with kids and I love to work with teachers.”

The early days Born into a working class family in a factory town in Illinois, Christian was raised to be independent.

“There were really no restrictions,” he recalls. “From an early age I was taught to make my own decisions and I was expected to take responsibility for those decisions. If I did poorly in school, the consequence was that I had to study with my parents.”

In ninth-grade, he flunked a quarter of science.

“Once my parents found out, I was restricted to the kitchen table for a certain period every night until my grade came up.”

Christian was just 17 when he graduated from high school and headed off to college, following the lead of a good friend.

But it would be two years before his academic promise would start to shine.

“I went to college to become a CPA,” says Christian, who paid his own way through college by working in the factories. “It bored me silly. I just couldn’t sit on my butt.” Then, in his junior year, he joined the debate team.

“That turned me on so much that my grade point just shot way up,” says Christian, who ended up majoring in public speaking and drama with a minor in business. Then, armed with a teaching certificate, he headed off to a career in education.

“That was back in 1966,” he says.

Learning to love history His first job was at his alma mater. His assignment? Teaching English and U.S. history. The latter would prove a humbling experience.

“The first U.S. history class I walked into was an honors class,” he recalls. “I didn’t know squat about U.S. history and they were bright kids. I spent the first year with those kids nailing me every day.”

Consider it a lesson learned: he embarked on a personal effort to gain a deeper, more complete understanding of his country’s past. Along the way, he fell in love with U.S. history.

But a decade later, “I was burned out and I quit,” says Christian. He left the Midwest and moved to Southern California where he spent four years running horticultural crews for some of the area’s largest malls.

The experience was a gift. “It was fascinating,” he says. “I loved it. Those four years taught me that I didn’t need teaching to make a living. I could pick and choose what I wanted to do.”

It was a revelation that would pave the way for his return to the classroom.

“Teaching became fun for me once I realized I didn’t need to do it for a career, that I was doing it because I wanted to do it,” says Christian, who returned both to the Midwest – and to teaching.

A move to the Northwest In 1980, he moved to the Northwest, a place he’d never visited. He landed in Cle Elum, walked into a local bank, planning to open an account, and learned from a teller that there was a teaching position open in the tiny Thorp School District.

He’s been on staff at Thorp ever since, though his role is no longer in the classroom but as director of Thorp’s Teaching American History grant program.

In the late 1990s when the groundwork was being done for what would be known as the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning), Christian learned that social studies was being dropped from the test.

“That was a total red flag to me,” he says. “Logically, if you have a statewide test and you were going to drop a subject that subject is going to lose favor.”

To Christian, that was unacceptable. “Even today, I still believe social studies is one of the most important subjects we teach in school,” he says.

Then came the day his former superintendent left a flier in his mailbox about a conference in Portland. He went and learned about Teaching American History, a new federal grant program funded through the Department of Education that Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, now dead, had pushed for.

Byrd wanted a return to the traditional teaching of U.S. history, Christian says, a chronological study of the nation’s past that put events and the people involved in them into context so that students “would get that real statement of American values” and experience “the goose bumps we used to get when we were growing up.”

The program’s focus – increasing teacher knowledge of U.S. history – resonated with Christian.
“I got excited,” he says. “It was a way to stop history from being pushed aside during the whole WASL process.” In 2002, with just a month to prepare, he applied for a grant.

He didn’t get it.

The personal touch

“I decided to give it one more try,” Christian says now.

Only this time, he would hit the road to make his pitch face-to-face. “I spent almost a year doing this. It gave me a good solid base. I met all of the superintendents of the five districts I wanted in the grant. I met the principals. I met face to face with historians. I got them all on board.”

With the stakeholders in place, he submitted the grant proposal in 2003.

“I received $800,000 and it was to be used over three years and I was to make all my own decisions, which fit into the way I’d been raised, about how to spend the money and train teachers,” Christian says.
In October 2003, 25 teachers from five school districts met for the project’s first workshop at Central Washington University.

The project was a hit.

“It rejuvenated teachers,” says Christian, who also hired education professors to come in during working lunches to talk with teachers about how best to present the content. “I can’t measure that but I can look in their faces and see that they feel rejuvenated and inspired.”

Christian himself went out four times a year to observe each teacher in the classroom and to offer suggestions on how to increase course content or improve how it was presented. (One year, he did 200 observations.)

“You’re driving from Easton as far south as Granger and everything in between, all the way out to White Swan,” he says. “It’s a lot of travel.”

At the time the project started, so few teachers were involved that Christian gave each participant a budget that allowed that individual to travel to some historic site. Many, like Jason Eng of Ellensburg’s Mount Stuart Elementary, visited Boston.

“They had to use the money on themselves to increase their teacher knowledge,” he says. “They couldn’t use it in the classroom.”

In 2005, Christian applied for a second grant and got $1 million.

“By then, there were 18 different districts in Central Washington that wanted in,” he says. “So that upped the number of teachers.” In 2008, he got another $1 million three-year grant and was able to take in another 90 teachers. In all some 200 teachers have been part the program.

The project – and its work with Central Washington University’s media production department – has garnered two regional Emmy awards. One is for the DVD “Moments in American History.” The second is for the website www.momentsinamericanhistory.com.

Christian is now working on a fourth grant – this one for a five-year program – that he will submit in 2011. “I’ve met with 17 different districts that want in. I have seven more to meet with,” he says.

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