When the Past is Present
Teacher of the Year’s Perspective
Two life-changing moments hit award-winning teacher Christopher Dier at the age of 21.
The first struck in a Constitutional law class in his senior year of college. He took the opposing side of a disagreement about arresting Vietnam War draftees for burning draft cards. His classmates argued laws must be followed. He supported the war resisters. “No one ever changed the world by following unjust laws,” Dier said.
That exchange made him question going to law school, and that doubt led to his second life-changing moment: watching his mother teach history.
“I saw the impact she was having,” he said. “I got into teaching to carry that on.”
As it turned out, he followed in Lynne Dier’s footsteps so literally that he took her position teaching history at Chalmette High School when she retired. He even teaches in the same sunny classroom, Room 215. And as far as impacting students, the Louisiana Department of Education gave him its highest honor this year when it named him “2020 Teacher of the Year.”
Not taking the commonplace approach to teaching world history is key to his success in the classroom, one of his former students told the award committee. Kelsey Billiot, now a Loyola University student, wrote in a letter of recommendation that Dier overcomes student resistance to learning history by going beyond the memorization of lifeless facts.
“Every student who walks in his classroom immediately feels a sense of inclusion and sheer learning,” Billiot wrote. “They are nurtured and encouraged to be curious, to ask questions, and to seek answers for their own satisfaction.”
Instead of monotone lectures about long past events that seem alien to teenagers, Dier assigns several documents describing the event. Each one provides a different perspective. Comparing the perspectives allows them to analyze and synthesize the material in the same way that historians draw conclusions.
He also enlivens the material by incorporating events that are relevant to the students’ own culture. In a recent segment about Nazi Germany, for example, he related the story of Anthony Acevedo, a Mexican-American army medic who was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Instead of being held at a POW camp with other prisoners, he was sent to a concentration camp for “undesirables.” Acevedo wrote a real-time diary of his experiences of torture, starvation, and forced marching.
“That hits my Latino students,” Dier said.
That day in college discussing war protestors also carried forward. Dier’s favorite topics are resistance movements – Mohandas Gandhi’s struggle against British colonialism; Nelson Mandela’s fight against South African apartheid; student resistance to Adolph Hitler’s brutal reign; and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggle to secure Civil Rights.
His students also benefit from the cultural curiosity that prompts him to visit sites of important historical events. Over the summer, he traveled to Hong Kong where a contemporary resistance movement is taking place. While there, he met with student protestors conducting a hunger strike intended to pressure authorities to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainline China.
His coursework starts with the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Central America and, if time allows, concludes with the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The frustrating part of teaching history is debunking the many unfounded conspiracy theories that profit-focused television programming perpetuates. As Dier suggested that, “people not watch the History Channel.”