The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 21, 2010

‘Discover the history’

Teacher honored for using technology

Bernie Hornick

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.”