Nashua-Plainfield educator named Iowa History Teacher of the Year

Courtesy of the Iowa Department of Education: Monday, August 15, 2022

Suzan Turner, a social studies teacher at Nashua-Plainfield High School, has been named the 2022 Iowa History Teacher of the Year.

Turner, who has taught in the Nashua-Plainfield Community School District for 18 years, received the award through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, following a recommendation from an Iowa Department of Education committee.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute promotes and celebrates accomplishments in American history education and scholarship, and every year honors one exemplary, elementary, middle, or high school history teacher from all 50 states, Department of Defense schools, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories. State winners receive a $1,000 prize, an archive of classroom resources, and recognition at a ceremony in their state, and are considered for the National History Teacher of the Year award.
Here, Turner gives her views on the importance of history in the classroom.

Suzan Turner

What spurred your interest in history, and when did you decide to become a history teacher?

My interest in history began before I even started school. My mom was an avid genealogist and took me with her to area libraries and historical societies to research. I was absolutely fascinated by the microfiche machine and row upon row of books in our massive Carnegie library that seemed to hold all the secrets of my family’s history. As I grew older, I was strongly influenced by two of my high school history teachers, Dave Garvin and Steve Schulz, who not only made history interesting and had high expectations, but took a genuine interest in me as a student and person. As a result, when it came time to make a career choice, I gravitated toward history education. I would also be remiss not to mention the role my family has played in helping me become a better history teacher. My husband Keith taught history for 23 years (mostly at Nashua-Plainfield) before becoming a school administrator, his father Jim was a history teacher at Rockwell-Swaledale for 39 years, and our youngest son Ryan, who is entering his fourth year as a history teacher, marks three generations of history educators in our family. Thus, there have been some pretty robust conversations on a regular basis over the years about history, teaching strategies, and how to support kids in becoming the best version of themselves. I wouldn’t be receiving this award without their support and influence.

How do you engage your students and make history come alive in your classroom? Why is engaging students important? 

Eighteen years ago, I was introduced to the National History Day program, and have used its curricular model ever since to excite students about learning history both inside and outside the classroom. The national program emphasizes student choice in selecting topics and categories of presentation, which is highly engaging for students, while all students follow the same intellectually rigorous research process that requires the acquisition and analysis of both secondary and primary sources, development of a historical argument, examination of multiple topical perspectives, and drawing valid conclusions that look at both the immediate and long-term consequences of their topic in history. Students visit college libraries, museums, archives, and interview people associated with their topic in history, in order to develop their projects. The program checks off every single one of the Iowa Social Studies Inquiry Standards and many of the content standards, too. Because of the national program, I’ve learned how to push students’ thinking by pulling primary sources into the classroom for students to analyze and, rather than always providing them with the sources, having them find their own primary sources to inform their thinking and conclusions regarding time periods and events in history. It is this type of student engagement that ensures a deep and meaningful learning experience for all students in the history classroom.

How do you emphasize state and local history in the classroom?

We are fortunate to have a class called “Iowa Studies” at our school that all juniors take. Since it is strictly focused on Iowa, the students get a semester’s worth of learning about significant Iowans and events that have shaped our state and local communities. One of the ways that I emphasize state and local history to make it relevant to the students is through the examination of newspapers available through Iowa’s digitized collections or our school’s free subscription to Newspapers.com. These free resources enable students to look at history through the lens of a time period or significant events in history (such as World War II or Women’s Suffrage) and examine how that event impacted our local community at the time. When students read about the community they live in and encounter familiar names, their interest and engagement skyrockets! Also, many of my students have taken state and local history a step further by recording interviews with veterans for submission to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, making a film about Nashua and World War I to show at the local Veterans Day program, writing a eulogy for a local fallen World War II soldier, and teaching classmates about the work of Carrie Chapman Catt connected to a youth voting drive. Additionally, a large number of my students have focused their National History Day projects on Iowans or Iowa-based topics which, in many cases, has raised public awareness about the significant role Iowans have played in history.

What would you like to tell teachers across Iowa?

My best advice for teachers is to take advantage of every opportunity to learn from others! That can be as simple as picking the brains of your colleagues at school for ideas, joining listservs and social media groups specific to history teachers, and attending history conferences. Additionally, teachers should apply for professional development offerings through nationwide historical organizations and museums, many of which are free. I had the opportunity to engage in rigorous learning and did some of the most valuable professional networking of my career through a Teaching American History Grant Program, as well as through participation in competitive application programs sponsored by National History Day, the American Battle Monuments Commission, Pritzker Library, and the National World War I Centennial Commission. I even traveled to Europe three separate times where I engaged in place-based learning concerning World War I and World War II, which completely transformed my approach to teaching history. Organizations such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute, National Endowment for the Humanities, National World War II Museum, U.S. Holocaust Museum, and many others offer similar awesome opportunities at no cost to you. It all starts by applying.



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