AURORA | The debate was getting fierce. Tempers were flaring, and the crowd was splitting up along lines based on wealth and class.
Rich landholders clashed with poor subsistence farmers. The wealthy spouted arguments about national interest; the destitute insisted they would lose what little resources they had. At issue was the future of the land itself and changes to the community’s food production. Should the country opt for a new system of farming, an “enclosed” approach that would do away with the idea of common fields and common land?
As freeholders, yeomen, rectors and squires argued with passion for and against the move, Amanda Westenberg sat apart. Seated on a desk with a clipboard on her lap and a slight smile on her face, she acted as a silent moderator. Her guidance came in encouraging the more reluctant debaters to be louder. She stepped in only to push a shy speaker to give their opinion, to speak louder and with more conviction to the assembled villagers.
Westenberg, the recipient of the 2012 Teacher of the Year award from the Colorado Department of Education, was pushing a classroom full of Aurora teenagers to become actors in the drama of the Agricultural Revolution.
After more than 20 minutes of debate, Westenberg called for the final vote. The history students posing as the wealthy members of the early 19th-century English village won the day. With more land, money and power, they swayed the decision to do away with common land and enclose their community, changing the agricultural direction of the land and laying the critical steps for the coming Agricultural Revolution.
Then, Westenberg brought the class of high school juniors and seniors back to 2012. The students seemed to catch their breath collectively, and Westenberg explained why land disputes in England in 1813 had any kind of meaning for modern teenagers.
“Enclosure changed the entire structure of the villages. Before, everyone had a voice in the community,” Westenberg told the 30 students gathered in the crowded classroom at Rangeview High School. “The peasants and poor farmers end up losing their voice in the decision-making process, because essentially, they end up losing their land.”
As she spoke, the students came back to themselves. Gone were the furious freeholders and the stuffy nobility. They were AP European history students, taking notes and prepping for the test to come at the end of the year.
Such dramatic changes aren’t a rare sight in Westenberg’s classroom at Rangeview, where she’s been teaching for seven years. Whether she’s teaching AP European history, Honors U.S. history or modern Latin American history, Westenberg works to offer students the same kind of immediacy with the subject matter. Through carefully designed classroom exercises like the one that saw students arguing the pros and cons of enclosure in 19th century England, Westenberg is intent on making history come alive.
That’s Westenberg’s real mission, and she quickly underplayed the accolades that came last month with the CDE Award. She gives credit to all of her colleagues and to the larger teaching profession. She speaks to the deeper value of teaching before she devoted any focus to the recognition from state education officials.
“There are just so many really good teachers. It’s an honor for the profession, but I definitely don’t feel like I am THE Colorado teacher of the year,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be a representative of my school, of Aurora Public Schools, of the state of Colorado. To me, it’s an acknowledgement of the profession.”
On the day when she led students through the Agricultural Revolution debate, Westenberg said teaching history isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to some of history’s slower moments and movements.
“The Agricultural Revolution is important history, because it’s starting the Industrial Revolution … It’s incredibly boring, and they won’t get it,” Westenberg admitted, speaking between answering students’ questions and clarifying assignments. “The purpose of things like simulation is for them to experience something so they’ll understand its causes and consequences.”
But the reasoning behind the in-class goes deeper, Westenberg said. It’s about sparking interest, it’s about creating an attachment to the events of centuries past. The push is about uncovering the human drama behind the movements and the isolated dates. It’s a kind of historical study that wasn’t always available to Westenberg, who received her first degree in geology, but moved on to history for its scope.
“If you have an emotional experience, you’re more likely to remember and empathize. I think historical empathy is really important,” Westenberg said. “This generation is different than mine. I grew up sitting at a desk and taking notes, doing stuff in a workbook. I didn’t experience this. They care.”
That much was clear in the responses of Charles Scott, a 16-year-old junior in Westenberg’s AP European History class. Scott, who played the role of a poor freeholder during the debate, argued against enclosure with a constant passion. He said he was appalled at the nobles’ arguments, he insisted that the move would rob him of his livelihood and his future.
After class, his demeanor had cooled considerably.
“Any time we do a debate, I try to play my character as best as I can. When you get into your character like I do, it’s when you can feel the emotion of a real person in that situation,” said Scott, who has plans of pursuing a career as a surgeon. “Ms. Westenberg does a lot of hands-on activities. Like me, she’s a visual learner. It’s easy for me to see something and interact with something. Then I grasp the concept.”
For Westenberg, who’s taught at Rangeview for seven years out of a nine-year career, the historical concepts in her class should be as diverse as her student body. The Rangeview social studies department offers a wide range of history courses, specialized classes that sound like they’re straight out of a college catalogue.
“I love the kids,” she stated simply with a laugh. “Rangeview has a ton of diversity. There are a lot of backgrounds to appreciate and to consider in my instruction. You look at what we’re teaching here — Latin American history, African-American history, women’s studies — it’s a good recognition of the fact that American isn’t homogeneous. Neither is Aurora Public Schools.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707