Brett Van Gaasbeek, a teacher working toward his has Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) in Ashland, has known he wanted to teach history since he was in eighth grade. Though cautioned by relatives that he would never make much money, he could not shake his passion for the subject—or his conviction that in telling stories of human trial, courage, and leadership he could awaken academic curiosity in others. It’s been a great career, he says. But last fall he hit a wall.
“My junior-level AP US history class was not very interactive, my senior government students had ‘senoritis’ in September, and in the sophomore class for US history, I was assigned the lowest achieving students with the most troubling behavior,” Van Gaasbeek wrote Ashbrook’s MAHG program Director, Christian Pascarella. “I always love the challenge of a new course load, and after the first couple of months, the seniors came around and the AP kids learned how to talk history. But I just could not crack the sophomores.
“No matter the lesson or classroom management change, the class was not interested in anything. Leading this dissent was a student with the classic bad attitude . . . . Her goal was to get thrown out of class on a daily basis. My goal was to find anything that would hold her attention—and keep her off her cell phone.”
What finally worked? Van Gaasbeek introduced material he had studied the previous summer in the Ashbrook program. Those enrolled must take one “Great Text” course exploring an important book or author whose work teaches something about America. Van Gaasbeek opted to take Professor Dan Monroe’s course on Ernest Hemingway.
“My only earlier experience of Hemingway was reading The Old Man and the Sea in high school. I hated it. But when I saw this course offered, and by my favorite professor, I thought, ‘Hemingway can’t be as bad as that.’” Monroe’s course helped Van Gaasbeek reflect on the emotional impact of World War I on its veterans. When he taught that war this fall, Van Gaasbeek asked his sophomores to read two Hemingway stories featuring characters suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Many students at my school have parents or siblings in the military,” said Van Gaasbeek, whose school, Northwest High, is in an economically stressed neighborhood on the outskirts of Cincinnati. “Some students are thinking, ‘What can I expect when my brother gets home from Afghanistan?’”
When Van Gaasbeek’s classroom troublemaker read Hemingway’s “A Big Two-Hearted River,” she suddenly wanted to join the class discussion. “We learned that her father was a Desert Storm veteran who has PTSD and has been like Nick (the main character) for all of her life. She has never understood his mood and his disconnect, but now she sees her father differently through Hemingway.”
For the first time, the student actually completed her quarterly class assignment, an analysis of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms.
“Sometimes you wonder if what you do really matters,” Van Gaasbeek mused. “I have found that what we do in education cannot be quantified by testing or other statistical data. The ripples we send through the students have no end. Dr. Monroe’s teaching of Hemingway led me to use him in class. This allowed me to connect to a student. That student is now connecting to a father. . . The MAHG program has always been amazing and you are all to be commended for the experience you provide teachers. But I would like to thank you all for the shot in the arm this educator needed during an exceptionally challenging year.”