A Class Act in History

Mary Lou Brewer was my Honors History teacher for two years at Minnechaug Regional High School. Her course was always enriching, informative, engaging and exciting. It was the kind of class that you were excited to get to, even after lunch, and were sad to see end. Ms. Brewer not only wanted us to do well in her class, but also expected us do well, which made her students strive to perform to their best of their abilities. We participated in interactive, hands-on learning experiences that reinforced the concepts and ideas we were focusing on in our readings and class discussions.

One such activity was a mock trial conducted in the classroom as part of the curriculum. During junior year, John Brown stood trial for treason concerning the incident at Harper’s Ferry. Each student was assigned to a team, either prosecution or defense but the rest was left to the students to determine. As a team, the students would decide who was an important part of their case, assign roles to each other and research the characters. We were trained in parliamentary procedure and held the trial in the classroom, with every student holding an integral part in the trial.

We wrote two extensive research papers during junior year as well as a senior thesis, which some students presented at a state conference. During senior year our yearlong “media project” was a cooperative learning experience that integrated technology with research, team and character building and presentation skills. We studied the roaring twenties and had a dress up competition and “dance-off.” When learning about the middle passage, class was conducted under our desks to better understand the cramped quarters of slaves on the boats. Every learning experience was memorable, but the important lesson is not the experience itself, but the way in which the content was taught so that her students would remember the not only learn the information but remember it.

Sitting in my social studies methods class at American University, I would share some of the experiences I had in Ms. Brewer’s class during those two years. My classmates were astounded at the kinds of activities we did and the breadth of material I covered during those two years. They would recall never learning a particular subject and not only had I learned it, but learned it meaningfully and remember the information to this day.

I always knew that I was lucky to have had Ms. Brewer as a teacher and that she was one of a kind. Not every high school student had the same experiences that I had. It wasn’t until I began my master’s degree in education that I knew what made her different. I would say that Ms. Brewer is a progressive teacher with a constructivist background. Ms. Brewer seems to have had all the aspects of an effective teacher by creating meaningful learning experiences, hands-on opportunities for students’ to construct there own meaning. She wasn’t focused on tests, although we had them, they were supplemented with other ways for students to showcase their talents. The research papers we wrote were focused on the process, not the product. We were given several opportunities to rewrite until we got that final A. (If we got two A’s on the first two papers of the year, we didn’t have to write the third. You bet we all worked as hard as we could to get A’s on those first papers). She showed passion for what she was doing as well as passion for her students. We all respected her and did not want to disappoint her. I hope that someday a student of mine will look back on the experiences she had in my class with the same fond memories with which I have for Ms. Brewer’s class. While I am learning that this type of teaching is the most effective for student achievement and success, Ms. Brewer has taught me through experience.

-- Amy Palone, American University