Jack Runion has been a teacher for 17 years, and his passion for history is unwavering. He keeps a plaque on the wall of his social studies classroom that serves as a reminder that his job is way more than simply reading from a book, reviewing some handouts or delivering a slick PowerPoint slideshow.
“Teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths good theater,” it reads.
When he steps before his eighth-graders at Hurricane Middle School, Runion, 45, aims to offer more than a lesson. He knows he must assume the role of gifted storyteller to hold the oft-divided attention of his students, many of whom spend their free time heads-down on their phones or buried in electronic devices playing video games — places where the drama of the Civil War likely cannot compete.
“History is absolutely powerful when it’s done right,” defends the Hurricane native and Marshall alum, who earned an honorary Golden Horseshoe award earlier this year from the state of West Virginia for teaching, mentoring and coaching 15 winners of the state’s long-running history contest.
“West Virginia’s history is unique,” observes Runion. “From the Hatfields and McCoys on through the battle for Blair Mountain, our miners marching and all that. There’s so much stuff in our history that would, I think, truly shock some students — to be aware that all of that happened right here close to where they live.”
While Runion is doing his part to keep West Virginia’s history alive, national test scores offer a sagging picture of the current state of history in U.S. schools. The U.S. Department of Education every five years offers one of its National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in national history to a small slice of the country’s eighth-graders.
While West Virginia students do not participate in the NAEP history exams, in 2014, 11,200 students from other areas of the country participated. Just 18 percent of those students scored at or above the “proficient” level in history. Broken down by race and ethnicity, 33 percent of Asian students, 26 percent of white students, 8 percent of Hispanic students and 6 percent of black students were at or above “proficient.” The newest set of NAEP history scores are set to be released in November.
Historian Philip Hatfield, who lives in Putnam County, is doing his part to keep state residents engaged in history. He hopes that includes young people. The psychologist and Air Force veteran caught the history bug from his family as a child. He has published numerous scholarly articles and five books about the Civil War — including one about a close-to-home skirmish, the Battle of Hurricane Bridge, fought in 1863.
While overlooked by some historians, this battle set the stage for the Union Army to hold its stake on key supply lines on the James River and Kanawha Turnpike. According to Hatfield’s research, this allowed Federal forces to hold onto the Kanawha Valley for the duration of the war.
Hatfield’s latest book, set for a December-January release, is titled “Sacrifice All for the Union: The Civil War Experience of Capt. Jonathan Valley Young.” It offers a deeply personal and intensely researched glimpse into the life of a Kanawha Valley man who was morally convicted to leave his family and fight — much like Hatfield himself, who joined the military after 9/11.
“History is a road map to the future,” Hatfield says. “The lessons in history are mankind’s memo to himself.”
Seeking to engage his community around those ideas, Hatfield spoke to a riveted crowd of more than 50 on Oct. 3 at the Hurricane City Municipal Building. He’s leading a second Hurricane Bridge Battlefield Tour on Nov. 9 to offer locals an up-close telling of the history that occurred right where their homes are built and their businesses stand.
Hatfield, who has grown children and grandchildren, hopes more youth will understand the value of learning local history.
“It produces ownership. It’s a personal investment. When you are studying an area you grew up in or have personal ties to, it’s more real. Local history is something that belongs to everyone. And it will come alive for you if you know where to look.”
Hatfield says he doesn’t blame the current education system for how it treats history education. Most schools today, he says, are bound by a curriculum on what they can cover.
“A lot of times teachers want to do it, but their hands are really tied. They try to incorporate as much materials as they can. But they have been driven by those damnable testing modules.”
There are also bigger issues. “I think a lot of times you see a curriculum that lacks depth, that lacks an emphasis on critical thinking. And the core problem is that history isn’t valued in the curriculum the way it once was,” he said.
In West Virginia, social studies education begins in kindergarten and continues through 12th grade. In the first grade, it’s community-focused; by the third grade, geography skills are incorporated and map skills are introduced. From fourth to sixth grade, the focus becomes U.S. history, from Native Americans up to the present era.
In the eighth grade, West Virginia history is introduced, and, along with it, the Golden Horseshoe program — an annual state history exam that began in the 1930s. This concludes with those earning the top scores in each county receiving the Golden Horseshoe award.
According to Joey Wiseman, the West Virginia Department of Education’s executive director of middle and secondary learning, that distinction is such an honor that you still see it mentioned in state resident obituaries.
Wiseman lauds the state’s history focus, which includes an annual History Bowl, where teams compete from around West Virginia, and a summer history camp for seventh-grade students who are about to move fully into their West Virginia studies in eighth grade.
“We really make it a true experience for eighth-graders,” said Wiseman, who describes the state as a “melting pot” from its inception, with a rainbow of cultures from around the world settling in pockets across the state.
“For so many years, we didn’t have good transportation. People were isolated in the mountains,” he said of West Virginia’s tough terrain, which precluded easy travel. “People were very rooted in the communities.”
That tradition can still be felt — a tradition of independence but also connectedness that continues today, he said.
“We’re very much bound by our roots and where we came from and the hard work people from this state had to do to make this mountain region livable.”
Wiseman said state social studies teachers work to keep the history curriculum fresh and updated. They even assisted in the renovations of the state museum at the Culture Center in Charleston. Teachers also write the questions for the Golden Horseshoe test itself.
State standards in social studies are reviewed every six years to ensure they keep up with current events. The state, which does not test each year in social studies, also requires a civics course in high school, which ties into what Wiseman believes are the overarching values that make the state unique.
“West Virginia is very much rooted in community and country. It’s a very patriotic group of citizens who base their beliefs on the love of their country and the Constitution. We’ve been very grounded in that,” he said. “Social studies education has had a major impact on producing civic-minded citizens who are productive members of their community.”
Hatfield says he hopes future teaching in history will be more rigorous to encourage student focus and critical thinking skills. Many students, he believes, have not been taught how to effectively complete independent research. Once they arrive at college, they are often under-prepared.
“The core problem is not that history isn’t taught, but that it isn’t valued in the country the way it once was. I think that’s the real issue,” Hatfield said. “There is not an immediate gratification or reward. The pursuit of history is a depth subject, and it requires patience, time, lots of research and critical thinking. Those skills apply in all phases of life.”
Runion says he’s doing his part to ensure his students know that history matters. When he was completing his teaching degree at Marshall and beginning to teach social studies, he was often asked if he had coaching skills. He did not. As a backup, he added Spanish to his degree program as a way to get his foot into the door. But history, he always knew, was in his heart.
In his classroom, he is passionate in his delivery. He tries to tie big issues back to local things in students’ lives, to make them more real. He works hard with quizzes, and he coaches students who want to compete on the state exam.
History is full of details, names, dates and places. Runion still requires students to learn the names of the state’s counties, mindful that some may have never journeyed far from home. He knows that they might one day want to understand what is out there, in the bigger dreams they dream. He wants to guide them to paying closer attention to what is going on in the world and making a connection greater than their life experiences now.
History education, he believes, is the gateway to broader understanding.
“Today, we can Google anything,” he said, “but it’s not even close to the same thing when you hear someone explain to you what it was like to live through the Vietnam War, for example.”
By being passionate and sharing experiences, teachers can make history come alive. “If we stop that, I think we’re short-changing future generations of adults.”
He adds, “If you don’t know your history, you’re bound to repeat the mistakes.”