The Norwich Free Academy (NFA) community is rooting for one of their own to take home a national award this month. Already a recipient of state and national awards, social studies teacher Karen Cook was recently named a finalist for 2019 National History Teacher of the Year.
Cook, who has taught at NFA since 1998 and now heads the social studies department and honors program at the school, was first inspired to study history growing up in Canterbury and learning about Prudence Crandall. Crandall, Connecticut’s Official State Heroine, opened New England’s first school for African American women in Canterbury in 1833.
“As a young person living in Canterbury, learning how the town was so different back then raised so many questions for me,” she says. “It made me wonder, ‘How did everything change so much?'”
Cook now uses local history to inspire her own students.
“We integrate local history into the U.S. History curriculum,” she says. “We look to make connections and encourage students to do independent research related to local history. We do a lot of projects with local history groups.”
Every March NFA students participate in a Women’s History Month Tea that takes place in town, dressing up as famous women from history and giving presentations in character.
Cook says that teaching a U.S. history class to English learners recently “was one of the most surprising, rewarding, and enjoyable experiences I’ve had.” She asked students to debate what Norwich should do with a fire-damaged, historical building downtown that some thought needed to be demolished.
“I didn’t know if they were going to care about this issue. They passionately cared about it,” she says. “Even though they’re immigrants to the city, some recent arrivals, they think of Norwich as ‘my city,’ and they were on both sides of the issue. Even the following year many students came up to me to continue discussions about the city’s decision.”
Fellow social studies teacher Joseph Lewerk, who teaches at Killingly High School, nominated Karen for the National History Teacher of the Year award.
“Karen was the first person that came to mind when I saw the call asking for nominees,” he says.
“I first met Karen through a Teaching American History program run out of EASTCONN eight or nine years ago. I was impressed at the time because she and other NFA teachers had a specific, multi-year project planned,” Lewerk says.
Later, Lewerk’s own children attended NFA, and his daughter took a class with Cook.
“My kids’ experience in the social studies program at NFA was very impressive. The classes were challenging, and they really got a lot out of them,” he says. “It’s really a credit to Karen for running such a stellar program. Social studies often doesn’t get a lot of attention, it gets pushed to the back burner. She’s done a great job of spotlighting social studies for the region and state at large.”
“It’s very humbling to be nominated for this award,” says Cook. “I have so much gratitude that someone would go out of the way to nominate me.”
Cook agrees that social studies too often receives less attention than some other subjects, but thinks that is starting to change.
“This discipline concentrates on teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills, and those are the skills employers are telling us they want employees to have,” she says. “First and foremost, we’re in the business of helping create effective citizens. It’s not enough to know what causes climate change. If you don’t know how lawmaking works, there’s no chance of fixing that. Social studies teaches you how to use the political process.”
The National History Teacher of the Year will be announced later this month, and that the winner will take home a $10,000 prize and attend a special ceremony in New York City hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute.
“Karen is definitely receiving well-deserved recognition,” Lewerk says. “Hopefully she’ll go all the way to the top.”