The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

August 21, 2010

‘Discover the history’

Teacher honored for using technology

SOMERSET — John Harris strode about Union Cemetery in downtown Somerset with gusto.

He was summing up what the cemetery had to teach about local – and national – history.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889. The French and Indian War. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

One way or another, they’re all represented.

“In one little area, you can hit all kinds of history,” Harris said Thursday. “These stories are really cool.”

That enthusiasm – coupled with a unique approach to teaching – won Harris a $5,000 Innovation in History Education award this spring from the History channel. The contest he won stressed the use of technology to develop engaging, content-rich lessons.

Harris, who teaches junior and senior high students at Somerset Area, won for his elective course “Hunting History: Discovering Your Hometown.”

Class ‘pretty fun’

Students use GPS devices to track down coordinates Harris gives them and explore local history at churches, old buildings and in cemeteries.

And his one-semester class

– offered twice a year – is always booked solid with 30 high schoolers.

“When you can offer something that kids can get their hands on – in their backyard – when they go through town, they see historical sites,” he said. “When you can turn them on to that, word gets out that that’s pretty fun.

“They discover the history all on their own.”

The students then are expected to make a multi-media presentation on what they’ve learned.

Harris spent $2,000 for hand-held GPS units and digital cameras for the kids, money he won in another contest for coming up with the idea.

Back at Union Cemetery, Harris was busy pointing to this (graves of fallen Gettysburg soldiers), then to that (decorative columns from the county’s first courthouse).

“Union Cemetery not only has the town’s founder, Adam Schneider, but has a guy here, Alexander Coffroth, who was one of Lincoln’s pallbearers,” Harris said. “He was one of Lincoln’s closest friends.”

Harris said congressman Coffroth was the only Democrat to have been a pallbearer for the Republican president.

‘Into real life’

Praise was effusive for Harris and his methods.

“John Harris’ dedication to history teaching, his innovative use of technology and his forward approach to engaging students are remarkable,” Libby O’Connell, chief historian at the History network, said in a release.

“All of our winners exemplify exciting trends in innovative and effective history education.”

Mark Ware, director of the Somerset County Historical Society, concurred.

“He brings it out of the book and into real life,” Ware said.

“It isn’t your normal sit and study and test,” he said.

“He makes the history fun. He makes it relevant to their lives.”

Even adults are starting to compliment Harris on the course, so the 14-year teacher may offer a summer program for adults.

In all, the History channel gave out $25,000 in prizes.

“It’s not often that teachers get their ideas recognized,” Harris said. “It’s pretty special.”

Unlike his $2,000 prize, which had to be spent on the students, Harris was able to pocket his $5,000 winnings.

The 46-year-old father of three young children says he might use the cash for a nice vacation with the family.

“If my wife (Diane) has her way, it might be about a new refrigerator,” Harris joked. “I don’t have much say there.”


Text Only | Photo Reprints
Local News
  • smothers ‘It breaks my heart’: Shooting victim’s death leaves trail of shattered lives

    Victoria Smothers knows what people thought when they heard that a young black male had been shot to death in Moxham last week.

    April 16, 2014 2 Photos

  • School violence studied

    On a typical day last year, Pennsylvania schools caught 11 students toting weapons similar to ones used to slash 21 students and a security guard at a Pittsburgh-area high school, according to the state Department of Education. An untold number of others likely brought weapons to school but weren’t caught, safety experts say.

    April 16, 2014

  • Home is Where The Tribune-Democrat is Delivered!

    April 17, 2014

  • egg hunt17 ACRP quietly notes 25th anniversary

    There will be little or no fanfare accompanying Alternative Community Resource Program’s 25th anniversary.
    And that’s how the executive director, Frank Janakovic, wants it.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • windber17 Windber students earn top ‘Overchiever’ rank

    Windber Area school’s PSSA scores have been tops in the region for the past several years.
    This year, they’re among the head of the class statewide, Pittsburgh Business Times annual Schools Guide shows.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Wise, Charles Police charge bank robbery suspect

    A Johnstown man was jailed on $250,000 bond after police said he robbed the West End Branch of AmeriServ Financial. Charles Wise, 48, of Barron Avenue, was charged with two counts of robbery.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Inmate awaits sentencing for assault on guard

    A former inmate faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced for assaulting a corrections officer at State Correctional Institution-Somerset, authorities said.

    April 16, 2014

  • windber pool Pool stays afloat despite troubles

    When a valve broke at the Windber Recreation Park pool last month, its municipal authority caretakers feared that meant the end for the pool’s aged, much-patched liner.
    But the old liner has held up – a stroke of luck that will save Windber Municipal Authority from having to seek a line of credit to cover repairs or risk delaying the pool opening, the authority’s recreation director, C.W. Beckley, said.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Creativity blossoming for spring art show

    The 16th annual Art in Bloom spring art show will brighten the Cambria County Courthouse in Ebensburg from noon to 6 p.m. April 26 and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 27.

    April 16, 2014

  • Alcatraz Challenge offers escape from routine

    Greater Johnstown Community YMCA is gearing up for its indoor biathlon, the Alcatraz Challenge.

    April 16, 2014


Do you think that Jack Williams will get the 270 signatures from city residents needed in order to have a referendum placed on a municipal ballot to have the city's pressure test mandate repealed?

I'm not sure
     View Results
House Ads