Greg Garcia, an alum of Western Oregon University and teacher at Franklin High School with Portland Public Schools, was named the 2021 Oregon History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in July. To honor this inspiring achievement, we want to share the highlights from our interview with him.
When did you graduate from WOU, and what was your degree in? Do you have degrees from anywhere else?
I have two degrees from Western Oregon University. I graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in History in 2012 and then again with a Master of Arts in History in 2014. I received my teaching license from Oregon State University in 2015.
Why did you choose WOU?
I spent my first two collegiate years at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., to save money and to help out my family on their ranch in Douglas County. My stepmother–a Western graduate herself–encouraged me to go to Western because it offered me the opportunity to maintain the same kind of personalized education that I enjoyed at Umpqua Community College. She even arranged a meeting for me with then-History department Chair Dr. John Rector. At the end of the meeting, Dr. Rector told me something that I will always remember. He said, “Yes, the University of Oregon does offer more classes, but you won’t have the kind of access to the professors as you will at Western.” Because I thrived so well with a more personalized/relation-based education at Umpqua, the matter was settled. I transferred to Western for the 2010-2011 school year, and it was one of the best decisions of my life.
Why did you want to become a teacher?
Teaching was a profession about which I always had an interest. I have been blessed to have many educators in my life. My mother is a retired English teacher. My mother is whom I [credit] the most for my creative lesson designs. She gave me that creative spark. My stepmother–the Western graduate–is a retired Title I Elementary School Principal who served her Low Socioeconomic Status (LSES) community with such honor and generosity. She taught me the true meaning of the phrase “Maslow over Bloom” which is a popular pedagogical theory that states that a teacher must take care of a student’s physical needs before tending to their educational ones.
What do you enjoy most about teaching? Please feel free to share any anecdotes or special experiences if something jumps out at you.
For the last seven years, I have routinely taught two subjects: Advanced Placement U.S. History and a variation of Psychology–either Introduction to Psychology or Advanced Placement Psych. This year, I had one of my three student teachers ask me “How do you cope with the monotony of teaching the same two lessons every two days?” The answer is student-driven instruction. That is the cornerstone of my teaching philosophy. Through student-driven instruction I create a dialogue with students that is flexible enough to include a student’s lived experiences while also allowing me to cultivate the necessary content and skills.
There are three activities that I enjoy implementing every year. One activity is called Historical Theater. In this activity, students volunteer to play characters who lived during the time in history we are studying and act out their own unique perspective to a particular issue. Every character involved in the theater has his/her/their own unique answer to that central question. No two historical theaters are ever the same, and that’s what makes teaching so enjoyable.
I also have similar systems for A.P. Psychology. In Build a Brain Workshop, students have to create their own model brain using whatever medium best suits their skills. Students have baked brain cakes. They have 3-D printed brains. They’ve made brain paintings and videotaped themselves painting it “Bob Ross style.” On the day students present, they do so in a science fair-like setting where they present their brain and condition to their partner and the students teach each other in small groups while the teacher moves around and inspects each station. The Social Psych Fair follows a similar model, except the students have two choices. They have to research the social psychological trends of either a professional team sport or country.
What would you want WOU students interested in history and/or teaching to know?
I owe much of my success to Western Oregon University’s History [department]. The amazing resources and knowledge of the faculty during my four years in Monmouth empowered me to get this far. The greatest thing is that many of them are still there. Treasure their presence and take their lessons to heart.
What do you wish people knew about being a teacher?
The biggest thing I wish the public knew was the amount of time this job demands from its people. Many people naively assume that the job ends when the students leave at the final bell. That’s woefully not the case. Teaching is the kind of profession where to be good at your craft, you have to put in overtime. And, unlike some professions, there’s no compensation for those extra hours of labor.
For example, recently I graded 70 Advanced Placement U.S. History tests–each of them with a multiple choice question section and a five-paragraph essay section. My contract says I have to be onsite from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. On that particular day, I showed up for work at 7 in the morning to prepare the tests for students and didn’t leave campus until 6:30 that night. That’s an 11 1/2 hour day with almost three hours of what would be overtime in other professions, but I will never be paid for them.
What do you wish people knew about history and/or public history?
The one thing I want the public to know about history/social studies is that the discipline deserves more of a priority than it’s getting right now. Under the current model of American education, the three core subjects are science, math and English/language arts. These are the three disciplines that are prioritized for national standards. They are also the disciplines that are prioritized when budgeting for new hires in schools.
I may be biased, but I would argue that the last five years have proven that social studies needs to be included as a higher priority core subject. Since 2016, there have been far too many instances of people struggling with articulating the basic aspects of American democracy, and the political/social health of our country has suffered from it. I argue the key to fixing that problem is to elevate social studies to the same level as math, science, and English while also infusing resources into innovating social studies instruction to be more culturally responsive. When students take more of an ownership in their learning process, they better understand the content/skills.
What does it mean to you to be named the Oregon History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History?
Winning this award means two things to me. First, it is an acknowledgement of all the experimental work I have been developing as an educator for the better part of the last decade. It’s the culmination of all the lessons I’ve learned from my mentors over the years, and I credit them with the honor as well.
The second thing it means to me is that it gives me the credibility to pass on my practices to other educators across the state and country. Many of the stories I’ve experienced have changed my life as an educator. I firmly believe that the achievements some of my students have done will help shape the future for the better. I would love to teach other educators so that they can do the same for their students and communities.
What are some of your goals for the future as a teacher and historian?
My biggest priority at this stage in my career is to package my materials so that other people can use them. Over the last three years, I have arranged all my lessons into products available for purchase on the website Teachers Pay Teachers. My store’s name is Mano Koa Enterprises [which is my way to pay] tribute to my Hawaiian ancestry but also my love of Star Trek.
I would love to see the kind of success I’ve experienced at Franklin with this project go nationwide. I’d love to see students take ownership of the historical interpretation process and help blaze their own professional trails as my students have.
I would love to partner with an organization and train teachers across the country how to do the public history project.
I’m also experimenting with new media outlets for public history, too. I am developing a YouTube channel called Mr. G’s Pop Culture Academy, which uses popular culture to teach science, history and creative writing.