One day last June, Gilchrist Jr./Sr. High School social studies teacher, Darla Brandon, found herself in a cellar prison talking with Nat Turner, the man who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
“There were multiple people in tears. It was very impactful,” Brandon said.
Brandon was not speaking to the real Nat Turner, but a historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. It was part of a teacher’s institute she attended this past summer.
“It was probably one of the most powerful historical experiences I’ve had simply because the program brings back the human aspect of these events,” she said. “It makes you think about the topics you’re teaching. ‘Wow, I’m not doing this justice. I need to bring the story back. I need to bring the humanity back into these events.’”
Brandon spent the summer at several trainings, taking her halfway around the world. She is now bringing the skills she learned back into her classroom at Gilchrist, where she teaches social studies and works as an academic advisor helping students prepare for college and career.
“Most teachers try to use their summer to develop professionally in some way,” she said. “I think the best way to do that is to get out and travel, to take advantage of the amazing institutes they have across the country.”
Brandon’s two largest trips were to Virginia and Chile. Both professional development programs were funded by grants and private donors. One trip took her to Colonial Williamsburg, which was based in Williamsburg, as well as to Richmond, Yorktown and Jamestown. She also traveled to Chile as a teaching consultant with National Geographic under the Center for Geography Education in Oregon, or C-GEO.
Brandon traveled to Colonial Williamsburg in June 15th to 23rd.
“It’s like an amusement park,” she said of the city renovated to encompass colonial America. “It’s the Disneyland for the history buff.”
The trip was packed full of training, touring and learning.
“The moment we land, they have someone pick us up and we start going right away. We had days when we were up at 5 a.m. and we were doing stuff until midnight,” Brandon said. “You were just so engulfed in the experience that you wanted to keep going.”
The training covered American history from the colonial period to the Civil War. It involved hands-on activities and visiting historical sites.
There were many lessons Brandon plans to bring back to class, but the most relevant is the idea of “value tensions.” She began using this as theme from the very first week of school this fall.
“Every event in history was some type of conflict between different values,” she said. “There’s not always a right or wrong value, or a right or wrong answer, or a right or wrong side.”
That perspective and theme is helpful in tying students in the present to the events of the past. And it helps her tie the lessons in her class the whole school year long.
“Sometimes in history it’s hard to find that overall theme because it’s so vast,” she said. “So this brings a nice way to tie it all together throughout the year and throughout my classes.”
Brandon headed to Chile earlier in the summer, starting on July 5.
The excursion went to the Elqui Valley, the coastal region, the Andes Mountains and the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on planet Earth.
“We were explorers,” Brandon said. “Our professors would engage us in different topics through the regions.”
The CGEO organization’s goal is to bring geography awareness to the classroom. It engages teachers by taking them to locations around the globe to learn about geography on the ground. Of the 200 to 300 applicants every year, about 14 are selected.
This was Brandon’s second year participating in the program. Last year she traveled to Iberia, Spain and Portugal with CGEO.
In Chile, much of the trip happened at high elevations, Brandon said, as high as 14,000 feet.
“You could feel the lack of oxygen when you got to those higher elevations,” she said. “You had to walk really, really slow.”
Through the program she and her fellow teachers developed lesson plans which they use in the classroom. It allows her and the other teachers to integrate more geography into those lessons. Brandon plans to host a geography night on Nov. 9 at Gilchrist School, thanks to the lessons she learned on the Chile trip.
Reflecting on her training this summer, Brandon said she relished the chance to delve into history and geography so deeply. And she looks forward to sharing it with her students.
“The reason I like history so much is because, to me, it’s the most relevant and impactful thing we learn in school,” she said. “We deal with it, we interact with it, and we impact it every day. The stuff we learn in history class comes up in current events and politics around the world on a daily basis. The social sciences makes us better citizens overall.”