Passion for the past
Whitefish's Gary Carmichael has been hooked on history since he was a kid
By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian - October 9, 2006
WHITEFISH - Time seems a bit of a blur to Gary Carmichael, a jumbled web of connections rather than a distinctly linear track.
In his Whitefish classroom, the history teacher anchors the latest news of the present deep in its roots from the past, using futuristic technology to create a “time machine” of sorts for students. Beginnings and endings - those hallmarks of history - are hard to find here.
“You always have to push the envelope,” Carmichael said, “for yourself, and for your students.”
That push has propelled him to the top of his profession; this fall, Carmichael was chosen as the state's “Teacher of the Year” by the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation.
“It's a tremendously satisfying honor,” he said in that excitable and infectious way of his. “It means so much.”
Carmichael's own history reaches well into western Montana's past. His great-grandfather was a three-term commissioner in Missoula County, his grandpa a doctor who delivered most of Missoula. On the other side of the parentage fence, Missoula old-timers will remember Haines wholesalers.
“We go back a ways,” he said.
But it was all that road tripping with his mother, not the family album, that ignited the “passion” for history that has stayed with Carmichael all these years. She hauled him around Montana, he said, to Butte and Virginia City and other small towns with big stories.
“I was hooked.”
Especially after seventh grade, with Mr. Price for history.
“He was great,” Carmichael remembered. “He did the typical type of instruction; read-the-book-and-respond sort of stuff. But he also had us doing projects.”
They'd build timelines and maps, he said, take field trips to touch history directly.
“He really made it come alive.”
Which is precisely what Carmichael's been awarded for doing.
His classroom would be unrecognizable to Mr. Price.
“I use lots of technology to transport students back through time,” Carmichael said. “It's one thing to read about the Civil War, but when you're listening to soldiers' diaries while you're watching the events unfold, that opens up a whole new way of learning.”
Carmichael's own studies have not been limited to history and teaching. He's also become an expert in multimedia research.
That techie background, surprisingly, made him a fine fit for his first teaching post, in the tiny town of Saco, somewhere between Malta and Glasgow. It was 1990, he recalled, and “it was a very progressive school. We had more computers than students, all the latest technologies. In many ways, Saco in the early 1990s was way ahead of where many Montana schools are even today.”
He calls the Saco years “a wonderful experience, with lots of master teachers to learn from.”
He stayed only a few years, though, before graduating to Great Falls, then finally to Whitefish in 1997. At each stop, Carmichael said, he further refined his style: Start in the present, because that's what kids know. Then explain what's happening in terms of the past, because that's what history's good at. And finally use the tools of the future to make it lively - always keeping the story in history.
That approach has taken Carmichael far beyond Montana classrooms, around the world, in fact, as an online social studies teacher for the Discovery Channel. Not only did he teach online, he also taught teachers how to integrate technology into their classrooms.
Internet learning is powerful, he said, because it connects you with a community of students, teachers and colleagues from around the globe, what he calls “a classroom without walls.”
It's no mistake that the computer lab at Whitefish High has new movie-making software. Carmichael's still pushing that envelope, trying to find new avenues for learning.
A history class with Carmichael quickly becomes an adventure in role-playing, an exercise verging on gaming.
And that, he said, is what “hooks them, by making learning fun. Kids are excited by technology. I just bring it together with the story of history.”
And make no mistake: In Carmichael's world, history is absolutely relevant to today, perhaps even more so to tomorrow.
“You have to understand,” he said, “these students were born in 1990, 1991. They have no knowledge of the first President Bush, no knowledge of how we got to where we are.”
And so his history class is large part current-events class, bringing history alive and using it to guide discussions of the future.
The problem with traditional textbook history learning, he said, is “the story has been taken out of it. The text is a skeleton. My job is to put some flesh on it.”
So they'll take the local census from 1920, drop it into a computerized spreadsheet and statistically analyze demographics, ethnicity, gender. When they note lots of Japanese in 1920 Whitefish, it's a launching pad into Western railroad history, which gets back to Manifest Destiny, to men such as Carnegie and Morgan.
That leads to the history of labor law, which leads right back to Butte, which leads to the industrialization of America.
And oh, by the way, that old census map also shows whether your house was built in 1920, and if so who lived there. Call it bedroom history.
Why were there so many billiards halls? Prohibition.
And the story rolls on.
“We try to look at the national perspective through a local lens,” he said, because local is what students know. It's all cause and effect, Native American history and modern-day lawsuits, economic history and today's Superfund sites.
The students love studying the '60s, he said, because of the music and the empowerment of youth. And for some reasons, the '80s, although that one's admittedly harder to explain. That gets their attention, allowing him to dig further back.
The approach seems to be working. When it came time for his Teacher of the Year nomination, letters came in not only from his bosses, but also from his students.
“It was an eye-opener,” Carmichael said. “Those letters of recommendation meant more to me than any award ever could. I was the happiest teacher in Montana just to read those letters.”
And when he says it, you believe him. He really means it. He's just that sort of guy, sitting there in his Winnie the Pooh necktie.
“Mr. Carmichael totally exhibits all the necessary character traits that every effective teacher needs,” said Jeff Peck. Peck is assistant principal at the school, and wrote one of those letters.
“He's patient, he's tolerant, he's challenging. Students know that he really values them, and values their efforts.”
Carmichael's lessons are planned, rehearsed, plotted, coordinated, and yet somehow completely spontaneous, Peck said.
“Observing his class is a privilege, and it's fun, too,” Peck said. “He's always trying to do things better, to find the latest education tool that will unlock a different type of kid. He's a teacher who challenges every learning style, every learning level.”
Because, after all, without the students, teachers would be irrelevant.
“I want these students to be lifelong learners and active historians,” Carmichael said. “If they're active historians, they'll internalize many of the skills they'll need in the future.”
How to research, how to write, how to study independently and how to think. For themselves.
“That's what we want them to know,” Carmichael said. “Because when they leave here, they still have a lot to learn. We can't teach them everything, but we can teach them to learn.”
He, for one, takes his own words quite seriously.
“I've been teaching for 16 years,” he said. “And every day, there's always opportunities to learn more and improve.”