Liberty County middle school teacher Darius Peterson joins us to talk about teaching in a military community and strategies for making connections through history.

episode 107

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Liberty County middle school teacher Darius Peterson joins us to talk about teaching in a military community and strategies for making connections through history.


Ashley Mengwasser: Welcome to another episode of Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers, a place for educators to share and learn. I'm Ashley Mengwasser. We're so glad you're listening to this podcast series presented by the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting. Today, we're cruising back in time. The thrust of teaching history and teaching students is really one in the same, making connections, making connections to the past, making connections to young learners. Therefore I decree in the year of our Lord 2022 that this episode shall be dedicated to the topic of making connections and motivating students in the classroom with Darius Peterson. My teacher feature today is Darius Peterson, an eighth grade history teacher at Snelson-Golden Middle School in Hinesville, Georgia. Darius is in his sixth year as an educator, and my does he have an interesting background. A royal welcome to our guest of honor, Darius Peterson. How are you, Darius?

Darius Peterson: I'm well, Ashley. Thank you. How are you?

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm excellent. I'm just happy to see you.

Darius Peterson: Awesome. I'm glad to be here.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're remote for this episode, but I'm looking at you here on Zoom. Got the teal headphones and everything, you got it going on. Well, context matters in history, Darius, and we need a little bit of yours to understand you. So to start us off, I'll just provide some background here. Your wife is a military service member, active duty, in the army. She's stationed at Fort Stewart in Hinesville, which is about 40 miles southwest of Savannah, for our listeners, and lists Fort Stewart as the largest army installation east of the Mississippi River. I love a superlative. It spans 280,000 acres. I don't know how many that would be for historians, but to sum it up, you're a man married to military, Darius.

Darius Peterson: Yes. As you mentioned, I am indeed a military spouse and my wife currently serves here at Fort Stewart. We moved here about three and a half years ago, and we have a daughter, Mariah Grace. And I currently teach at Snelson-Golden Middle School. And here we are today, just excited about having the opportunity to impact the lives of our future, which is our students.

Ashley Mengwasser: Where were you before you came to Georgia?

Darius Peterson: Right. So we were actually at Fort Carson, Colorado, which is Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Ashley Mengwasser: And Snelson-Golden, your school now, that's a very cool name. Is there a Snelson-Golden tagline? There must be.

Darius Peterson: Yes. Yes. There is. And that tagline is, the future starts here.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that. And you're connecting the past, the president, and the future in your job.

Darius Peterson: Yep. That's right.

Ashley Mengwasser: You've earned some outstanding accolades there in just three short years. Darius. You were the WTOC top teacher in October, a title awarded by your local Savannah news station, channel 11, and now teacher of the year at Snelson-Golden. That must be so affirming. What does teacher of the year status entail?

Darius Peterson: Oh. It entails a lot, of course being a role model for students and also being a support for your colleagues and your peers. So, you know, just interacting with parents and stakeholders and community partners and ensuring that we're building a bridge to ensure that our students achieve. So that's what all of those awards mean, that we just know how to build those bridges and build those relationships.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, when it comes to this profession to continue the military metaphor, Darius, you weren't drafted. You enlisted an education. So what made you want to become a teacher?

Darius Peterson: Yeah. A number of reasons actually, but the one that sticks out to me most is I, myself, was born into what somewhat call a disadvantage. And so my family, of course, we had economic struggles and my grandmother raised me up until her demise. And so after I went to live with my mother, there were still some struggles and it was my teachers and those educators in my school community that actually helped me through those hard times. And so it's my desire, as an educator and as a teacher, to be that teacher for someone else, to be that teacher that I had for my students, that motivator, that encourager, the one who of course helps us to get across the finish line.

Ashley Mengwasser: Across the finish line. And when I first spoke with you, Darius, you said this, I wrote it down. I want to reach the student that I once was.

Darius Peterson: Definitely. That is my vision.

Ashley Mengwasser: Incredibly powerful and so full circle of you. I love that. Well share some nuances of the military community.

Darius Peterson: Well, there are quite a few. We move quite frequently. So there are times when we are in one place maybe for two to three years, and then we move a on. So sometimes it can become difficult to build solid relationships because we're moving so frequently. However, one thing that I've learned to do is just make the most of where we are, and of course live out that purpose every single day, and of course take advantage of time. And so being a military spouse, I understand that time is limited and I want to make the biggest impact wherever I am so that whenever we leave, our absences felt.

Ashley Mengwasser: What is it like teaching students who are from military families? Are they just like other middle school students or not so much in your opinion?

Darius Peterson: What a great question. It's actually pretty interesting. I believe that military children have more flexibility. They are those who just roll with the punches. The?y do very well with just going along. You know? They also desire accountability. They want you to hold them accountable and they want to know what they're doing right, and what they're doing wrong. And they just have that flexibility that the average student may not have. Not much makes them uncomfortable because they're always on the go. So it's pretty interesting to see them adapt to the new environments, and, of course, like I said, be flexible.

Ashley Mengwasser: Do they face unique challenges being from military families?

Darius Peterson: I believe they do. And I'll say that because, you know, and I'll use my daughter, for example. Mariah is four years old now. And my wife recently returned from a deployment. And so often military children are faced with having one parent in the home or only having a access to one parent as the other may be on a tour or deployed or serving elsewhere. And so those unique challenges of having a parent, but that parent not being accessible, is something that military children, it's a unique situation for them. But, of course, when we're surrounded by a strong community that makes up the difference.

Ashley Mengwasser: There are creative solutions to that quandary. And also you being in the classroom, being the educator that they see every time they come to school provides some semblance of stability and regularity in their lives.

Darius Peterson: Right. Right. 

Ashley Mengwasser: Here we are in the 2020s, Darius. I don't fully believe it. I was expecting flying cars and teleportation by now, to be honest. I'm a little disappointed, but that is not your problem. I am curious though, how has the study of middle school history changed compared to when older generations learned it, when we learned it?

Darius Peterson: Well, I believe that the study has changed quite drastically, Ashley. When we look at the way that we learned years ago, we're not going to date ourselves.

Ashley Mengwasser: No. We're not.

Darius Peterson: But when we looked at the study of history years ago, information was not as accessible to us as it is to the student now. And so it's easy for our students to use their iPhone or their iPad to type a question into Google and get tens of thousands of answers to those questions, and quite frankly, we didn't have that. We didn't have that capability. And so the study of middle school history has changed because now we have to teach students how to filter information that may be a little questionable. And so we of course teach them the importance of primary and secondary sources, and, of course, giving them the skills they need to be able to differentiate between credible news sources and those who may not be. And so it's changed in that students have access to more information. You know? We had just the teacher, just the textbook, maybe a novel, but now these students have so much more that they have access to.

Ashley Mengwasser: And it's changed in another way you told me in terms of what's part of the discourse, that you're looking at varying perspectives and history, and not just a list of facts. Tell me about that.

Darius Peterson: So when we look at history, many people think that it's just information, but I pride myself in making sure that students understand the varying perspectives, understanding that there are two sides to every story, and that one reserves the right compose their own perspective as well. And so just teaching students that you have to see every side. We can't just take one side and forget about the other, but we have to look at it from a holistic perspective in order to, of course, develop our own train of thought.

Ashley Mengwasser: When you position the subject to your students, how do you describe history? What is your spin to them as somebody who is very passionate about this subject? How do you define history?

Darius Peterson: Right. So great question. I actually teach my students that, and it's our tagline, that we learn about the past to impact the future. And so we learn about the things that have happened to effectuate change in our communities, in our families, in our schools, in our businesses for the future. So we are learning about the past to impact the future.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that definition. That's great, Darius. To my next question you may say, Ashley, I have no idea, but I hope you do because this feels like it would be powerful intel for an educator, and it leads to our next point about connecting with students. How do your students perceive you? Do you know?

Darius Peterson: Oh wow. I do. And if you ask them, I'm sure they probably would give you a good laugh, but just one who is inspirational. I think I'm a comedian and they do too at times. Now, of course, they have a different type of comedy so sometimes my humor is dry humor to them, but they got to catch on. 

Ashley Mengwasser: They can be a tough crowd sometimes.

Darius Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. And so they would say that I'm inspirational, that I'm funny, and that I'm definitely only one who's one of their biggest cheerleaders. And so that's how they would perceive me. And that's who they know me to be.

Ashley Mengwasser: You actually told me about an exercise you did with them to kind of solicit a little bit of feedback on how do you view your teacher, Mr. Peterson. Tell me about that exercise.

Darius Peterson: Right. So with that, we have so many softwares and devices that we can use to get feedback. And so oftentimes if you're doing it the traditional way, students don't always want to write or express how they feel because it's easy for you to identify them. So we did an anonymous exercise where they had you, of course, log into the near pod and just give one word to describe Mr. Peterson. And you'd be shocked to see some of the things that they shared, so just those adjectives that I just gave inspirational, funny, motivational, all of that tied into one.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's very smart of you, Darius. Knowing this is advantageous because if you're interested in the art of making connections with your students, knowing how they perceive you, and also knowing how to interact with them seems like a recipe for success. Tell us how you actively connect with your students.

Darius Peterson: Right. Well, I pride in again building strong relationships. And so I believe that in order to connect with students, in order to foster achievement for them, and in order to see them become their best self, it begins with a solid relationship and understanding the way that that student learns, the unique things about them and of course, meeting them where they are. And so when I say building that relationship, I'm talking what's your favorite color? What are some of the things that you like? What are some things that you don't like? How can I help you to become better? How can I help you to achieve in Mr. Peterson's Georgia Studies class? You know, and again, after building that relationship, then we can move forward into fostering achievement.
Ashley Mengwasser: Is there a story, and I know I'm asking you this cold, in which a student came around because of a way that you connected with them?

Darius Peterson: Oh. Most certainly. I can even give an example of this summer. I actually had the opportunity to teach summer school. And, of course, nobody wants to be there, Ashley. At summer school we're supposed to be beside the pool. Right?

Ashley Mengwasser: I just wanted to be in school all the time. I was not a normal kid.

Darius Peterson: Oh wow. Well, you know, this student of course was not happy to be there. Virtual learning last year was difficult for some students and they needed that additional support. And so some parents elected to send their students to our summer remediation and acceleration program. And this student did not want to be there. And so of course, Mr. Peterson coming in happy, pumped up, ready to get started, and he was just not feeling it. And so I identified that, and of course, I went over, spoke with him, and he was not feeling it at first, but fast forward, that became one of his best summers.

Darius Peterson: He looked forward to coming and seeing Mr. Peterson, and getting that dose of energy and that burst of inspiration. And of course being motivated for the day. And so into this school year, that same student comes to see me every day. We do our fist bump.

Ashley Mengwasser: Fist bump.

Darius Peterson: And we talk about what a great day we're going to have and we move forward from there. So it's the small things that count. It's the small things that motivate them. And it's when we pay attention to those things we can, of course, again, foster achievement for our students.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm glad you brought that up. And I'd wager that the more connected you are, the easier the task of motivating them to learn. Right?

Darius Peterson: Right.

Ashley Mengwasser: Share some of your motivational strategies that you use to get students excited to learn about history. Take us down to the nitty gritty with you, Darius.

Darius Peterson: Yeah. Yeah. So one of the biggest things that I would encourage any educator to do, and I know it may be hard at times, but get in character, get in character.
Allow them to see you in a different light. You don't have to be stoic and serious all the time. Allow yourself to step into character. And when you do that, students will see that there's a flexibility to your personality. And it encourages them to embrace themselves even more. Ashley, there are times when my principal may come in and Mr. Johnson may see me standing on top of a desk or he may see me lying on the floor or wearing something silly. You know? I get in character. And I let the students know that that's okay, that it it's an expression of my personality. And that gets them so excited to see that authenticity with fun. And they, of course, become motivated to learn. So social studies and history already has a connotation that it's supposed to be dry and boring. But when you spice it up with just a little animation, it definitely makes a difference.

Ashley Mengwasser: What sort of things are you doing to yourself? Are you in costume up there, Darius? I need to know more, all the details please.

Darius Peterson: Well, I can change my voice sometimes. I will, like I said, stand on desks. I may wear a hat. I may wear shades. I may dance and sing. I don't know, whatever I'm feeling at the moment, Ashley. 

Ashley Mengwasser: You may have some Grade A ideas for teaching middle school history in an inspiring way, just based on what I've already heard about how you motivate your kids. Share some teaching tips with our history teachers listening, some precise things that they can do as they teach history in their classrooms.

Darius Peterson: Right. So of course, you know, when we think about history, it's something we really need to talk about. And when I say that, it's not just a cliche. We literally need to talk about it. So there are times when we should foster our discussion in our class, and allow our students to articulate their thoughts. And there may be times when, of course, students may not be as vocal, but we have to find ways to get them to articulate their thoughts even the more. One way that I do that is a write, pair, share.
And I know we've heard of think, pair, share, but the write, pair, share is when a student can write down whatever they're thinking, and then we simply swap papers. They don't have to write their names on it. They don't have to give any indication as to who they are when writing. They're just writing their opinion. They're writing how they feel or their perspective. And we will get up around the classroom, swap those papers, and then I'll call on someone, pick a Popsicle stick, to read, and that person will share that perspective. And then, as a class, we'll discuss where we stand with that person's viewpoint. And so that's a way that we can foster engagement. It allows students to articulate their thoughts without the fear of someone discovering who they are. So sometimes those anonymous discussions and those anonymous write, pair, shares makes a difference in Mr. Peterson's class.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love write, pair, share. What else do you have, Darius?

Darius Peterson: Well, also walking notes. And so I'm sure that just from the things that I've shared, you can tell that there's a lot of movement in my class.

Ashley Mengwasser: History is an active learning experience in your classroom. Sign me up.

Darius Peterson: It is. Yes. Most definitely. And so with the walking notes, what we do, instead of me lecturing for 15 to 20 minutes, I will of course print my lecture notes and I'll turn on some groovy music, and we will walk around the classroom and read Mr. Peterson's lecture notes while they are taking notes for themselves. And I've taught them various note taking styles. You know, one of their favorites is Cornell notes. And so they will have the opportunity to move at their own pace. I may give them 15 minutes to rotate the room and read the information and they take their notes, come back, and we all share and discuss together what we've learned.

Ashley Mengwasser: We could do this all day. I could listen to you talk, Darius. I love your voice. You're so happy and upbeat. And I know that resonates with your students. Is there anything else though you want teachers to know about teaching history? Anything you want them to remember?

Darius Peterson: Well, I want them to remember that this is important and that this subject is one that will teach our students the skills that they need to, of course, continue being successful as they move beyond high school. And so I would just encourage them to stay in the race. I know that it can become daunting at times, especially in these times, but what you're doing is making a difference and it matters. So just continue. Be strong. Make a difference. And continue impacting the lives of our students.

Ashley Mengwasser: So inspiring, Darius. You're not just teaching history, dude. You're making it. You are making it.

Darius Peterson: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Ashley.

Ashley Mengwasser: Two teacher of the year nominations, the future is bright for you. Thank you for sharing your time and talents, Darius. Did you have a good time?

Darius Peterson: I did. It was awesome.

Ashley Mengwasser: Come back anytime and bring your teal headphones. We need to improve our fashion standards here in the studio. That's another powerful episode of Classroom Conversations for the history books. Thank you for joining us on the platform for Georgia's teachers. As you continue your work in the present, know this, you're a great teacher. Bye bye.