DHS teacher named 2019 North Dakota History Teacher of the Year

McKayla Janzen and Nicholas Brengle set up props for their Cold War Bunker escape room. (Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press)
McKayla Janzen and Nicholas Brengle set up props for their Cold War Bunker escape room. (Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press)

Dickinson High School U.S. History teacher Brian Ham was named the 2019 North Dakota History Teacher of the Year.

The award is presented annually by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit organization dedicated to K-12 American history education. Beginning in 2004, the institute has honored one K-12 teacher in each state, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools and U.S. territories.

Since 2004, only one other teacher in Stark County has been named ND History Teacher of the Year — Keith Thompson of A.L. Hagen Junior High School, who received the title in 2008.

This is Ham's 16th year teaching at DHS. He tries to build connections between his content and students' lives outside of the classroom.

"I try to make it relative to what they might do after high school. ... Our department is really big on citizenship, so we try to talk a lot about learning about (how) this helps you understand the world that you live in, and that's going to help you make decisions when you're an adult and citizen in our community," Ham said.


He said he believes history is a good tool to learn about life.

"I've always believed that history should be and is a good tool to teach people how to be successful at life. I don't mean simply learning from history so you don't repeat past mistakes," Ham said. "I've always thought history is a good way to teach people about the necessity of hard work and to teach people about how important it is to be a community and how to form an opinion that is your own and not just because that's what Dad says or Mom says."

He said he tries to relate the content to their lives right now as well.

"Oftentimes I find examples in the school or in their family. ... One of the themes that pops up a lot in U.S. history is when people are afraid of something," Ham said. "If there's some big traumatic thing, they tend to ... allow the government to take away some freedoms for a sense of security. I just talked about this with my kids last hour, that you can kind of see that going on with the whole gun control thing right now."

He teaches his students to look for reoccurring themes and patterns throughout history.

"One of my classes right now is learning about how people lived in the 1920s and how that helped bring about the Great Depression," Ham said. "Well, we certainly want them to learn some lessons from that and see some of those warning signs. We'll look at that again when we get to the '50s and then we look at the '80s, you're going to see that people were kind of living the same in those decades and it led to not another Great Depression, but similar things."

To keep learning entertaining, Ham tries to do a variety of engaging activities, such as the escape rooms his students designed at Hagen last semester.

"I do kind of a neat (activity) where we write letters, and I split the class in half," he said. "This year, it'll be (on) World War II. Half the kids will be writing as a soldier, so they'll research what it's like to be a soldier in World War II and they'll write home a fictitious letter ... explaining what it's like to be them. The other half will (write about) what's going on at home, explaining what they're going through. Then I have the kids exchange (letters)."


For Ham's distinction, DHS will be given a $1,000 honorarium, a core archive of American history books, Gilder Lehrman educational materials and recognition at a ceremony.

The National History Teacher of the Year will be selected from the state winners and will be presented by John Avalon, senior political analyst and anchor at CNN, at a ceremony in New York City on October 2.

Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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