Adams State alumnus encourages love of history

(06-19-2018)

john willis and Annika Cortright standing outside the iron gate of the white house in washington dc

Photo by Gina Willis
Sargent High School student Annika Cortright and John Willis do a little sightseeing in Washington, DC, before the National History Day Finals in College Park, Maryland.

On Saturday, May 5, John Willis, Adams State University Class of 1995, received the National History Day in Colorado Senior Division History Teacher of the Year Award.

Inspired by Dr. Ed Crowther, emeritus professor of history, Willis changed his major from pre-physical therapy to history after his freshman year. "The way Dr. Crowther interacted with the class and used humor to teach was inspiring to me. I decided to focus on becoming a high school social studies teacher and coach."

One of Willis' students, Annika Cortright, finished in first place in the category of Senior Individual Exhibit at the Colorado State competition for an entry on the Haymarket Affair. She and Willis will attend the National History Day Finals in College Park, Maryland, in June.

"John really cares about his students' success," Crowther said. "It is clear when you observe him with his students that he builds effective relationships with them. It is no wonder he has garnered recognition from National History Day in Colorado and that one of his students is competing at the Nationals in College Park, Maryland."

Other Adams State faculty, including Dr. Phyllis Kearns-Cramer and Dr. Willie Montoya helped prepare Willis for his own classroom. "They really emphasized real classroom experiences in addition to educational theory and practices. I felt like I knew and was prepared for some of what I would encounter in a high school classroom when I left Adams."

Willis has taught for over 20 years at Sargent High School, including grades 7 through 12, and a variety of social studies classes. Currently, he teaches grades 9 through 12 in World History, US History, Government, Economics, and Social Studies.

For Willis, social studies builds an informed electorate/citizenry. "This has always been important, but possibly to a greater degree today. All of us, as Americans, need a level of understanding of our history and government, other cultures and religions, as well as the skills to seek out reliable information, and engage in appropriate civil discourse. History fair's role in all of that is as a framework for young people to practice and refine those skills."

Since receiving his bachelor's degree in social studies education from Adams State, Willis has continued with professional development courses, with up to 30 additional credit hours. "I have always believed that it serves me better as an educator to seek out individual courses that I feel will improve me as a teacher, as opposed to going all-in on another degree."

This is Willis' third trip to nationals with students. He traveled with Mary Hood, individual website, in 2015, and Wren Green and Abby Walls, group performance, in 2016. During the 2001/2002 academic year, Willis received the Sargent Secondary Teacher of the Year Award and the District Teacher of the Year, which he received again this year.

His first ten years of teaching, Willis coached middle and high school basketball and middle school track and cross-country. He has sponsored Student Council, the class of 2014, including helping to organize their Junior Prom. He currently is the sole sponsor for the Sargent Knowledge Bowl team.