Bozeman High School's principal was surprised while walking down a hallway one day when he heard singing that sounded like Woody Guthrie or Neil Young.
It was teacher Derek Strahn, playing guitar and singing Depression-era songs in his American Studies class to help students understand what that decade was like for ordinary Americans.
Strahn's ability to engage students is just one reason why he won the title of Montana's 2010 history teacher of the year, Principal Rob Watson told the School Board this week.
The award honors one teacher from each state who has shown creativity and imagination in teaching American history and using original documents to bring the subject to life.
Winners get a $1,000 check, history books for the school library and reproductions of historic posters. The award is sponsored by the History Channel, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Preserve America.
English teacher Jim L. Thompson, Strahn's partner in teaching the popular college-level Advanced Placement American Studies class, said Strahn once said that "Exceptional teachers combine passion and compassion," and that is a good description of Strahn himself.
"I'm honored and humbled," Strahn, 44, said Tuesday, sitting in his classroom. "It just encourages me to keep experimenting and trying new things."
The classroom walls are alive with the faces of dozens of historic figures, from George Washington to Muhammad Ali, Adolph Hitler, Rosa Parks and Sitting Bull.
Rather than spoon-feeding students one interpretation of history, Strahn said, he wants to challenge them to look at the historic evidence and come up with their own meaning. That way, he said, "They understand history can be an exciting thing, not a stale thing."
He is proud of his collection of hundreds of songs, art works and primary documents from American history, posted on the class website. They help students understand that just like today, Americans in the past had widely conflicting opinions, even about as revered a figure as George Washington.
After the first president led troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, Strahn said, some called for his impeachment. One recent class assignment was to come up with a propaganda song expressing one of those viewpoints. He told students they could write new lyrics to a tune like "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Some chose Lady Gaga.
Another class exercise is built around reading Thomas Paine's revolutionary pamphlet "Common Sense." The two teachers put on a mock TV show, "Good Morning Colonial America," with Thompson as host. Strahn plays King George III, complete with crown, robe and arrogance. The students then get to pepper the king with Paine's zingers.
It's great when the students get into it, Strahn said. One student got up on the desk and shouted "Give me liberty or give me death!" quoting another revolutionary figure, Patrick Henry. Role-playing makes it fun, but the lessons also sink in.
"I think he's an excellent teacher," said Katie Suisse, 16, a junior. "He definitely deserves (the award)."
From age 10, Strahn grew up in Bozeman. He attended junior high in the same building where he now teaches high school.
After graduating from Montana State University in political science, he worked at a bakery for a while. Then he returned to MSU to earn a master's degree in history.
For nine years he worked for the city of Bozeman as the planning department's historic preservation officer. He found he loved the educational talks and tours he gave to kids and adults, not the regulatory part of the job. He finally decided to teach the subject he was passionate about.
Starting from scratch as a new teacher nine years ago was time consuming and labor intensive, he said. His wife, English teacher Katy Paynich, would take their son to the park while he stayed home to grade papers or develop new lessons. They now have three boys.
Strahn now finds time to write about Bozeman-area history for the Bozeman Chronicle and to write two-minute history spots for KGLT public radio, called the "Montana Medicine Show."
"I'm happy to be a teacher," Strahn said. "I love it.
"That would be death to me, to work an 8 to 5 job and every day ask why am I here? Why does this matter?" he said. "Thankfully, with teaching I don't have to ask. I don't think I'll ever be stuck in a rut teaching."
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.