History doesn’t have to be dead and boring.

Three Bozeman teachers who are exceptional at making history come alive for kids have won history teacher of the year awards.

“I love history,” said Evelyn Ybarra, a kindergarten teacher at Irving School. She was named Montana history teacher of the year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The honor includes a $1,000 award and puts her in the running for the national award.

History is “something we have a passion for, and we hope we’re transferring that love of learning,” said Debbie Nelson, a Longfellow School fourth-grade teacher. She and fellow fourth-grade teacher Kristin Hopkins have jointly been named Montana history teachers of the year by the Montana Statehood Centennial Bell Award committee.

Longfellow School will receive a $1,000 award. On Nov. 8, the two teachers will go to Helena to ring the Montana centennial bell at 10:41 a.m., the minute Montana became a state in 1889.

It’s “very unusual,” Ybarra said, for a kindergarten teacher to win an award for history, since most 5-year-olds can’t even read yet.

“Until a few years ago, we taught social studies and not a lot of history,” she said. “We were afraid children couldn’t understand ‘long ago.’”

The possibilities opened up for her when Ybarra participated for seven years in the Teaching American History grant project at the Museum of the Rockies. Montana State University history professors brought in some of the nation’s top historians to educate and inspire local teachers.

The project stressed using biographies, primary sources and artifacts as key tools to connect kids with history. Instead of teaching a bunch of boring facts and dates to memorize, the project encouraged teachers to use hands-on materials and kids’ penchant for asking questions and figuring out answers.

Ybarra has tubs full of biographies to read to her kindergartners, who soak up biographies “like sponges,” she said. They especially love George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton.

Ybarra also uses lots of artifacts, real things from the past. She has copied pictures of household items from old Sears catalogs and asked students, “What would you use that for?” Kids also like dressing up paper dolls in pioneer or colonial-era clothing.

Last year Ybarra’s students recreated the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Kids created exhibits about things they felt were most interesting, like the introduction of Shredded Wheat, hot dogs and hamburgers, and Little Egypt the “hoochie-coochie” dancer. Then they held watermelon-eating and nail-hammering contests, just like those popular in 1893.

Ybarra has been so successful, she has given presentations to teachers from Texas to South Carolina. She also serves on the board of the National Council for History Education.

For the centennial bell history award, this was the first time in 22 years it was given to a team of teachers. Hopkins said she and Nelson work so closely together, “we’re joined at the hip.”

Fourth-graders really connect with the story of Lewis and Clark, she said. So in May they took their students to Great Falls to see first-hand the imposing waterfalls the expedition had to portage around in 1805. At the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, students got to pull a rope weighted to show how much strength it took to pull a keel boat upriver.

When teaching about Montana’s Indians, the teachers use a replica of an archeological dig at a Crow Indian tepee site and a memoir by Joe Medicine Crow. Students also visit the Tinsley House at the Museum of the Rockies to see what it was like to be Montana homesteaders. Kids are impressed that the family’s first tiny sod house held a family of 10.

Every year, each fourth-grader also does research on a historic person, writes a biography, dresses up as that person and makes a presentation, Nelson said. Kids have chosen such figures as Teddy Roosevelt, Gandhi and Jackie Robinson.

“It’s so hands-on,” Hopkins said, because when history gets abstract, it’s easy to lose kids. When students start with specific people, places and times, they get their “feet on the ground,” she said, and it becomes easier to understand the big ideas of history.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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