MICHIGAN CITY – A Barker Middle School social studies teacher has been busy making a little history of her own.

Mariah Pol, who teaches seventh and eighth grades, recently received news she’s been named the 2019 Indiana History Teacher of the Year. The award is presented annually by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a national organization dedicated to K-12 American History education.

First presented in 2004, the award highlights the crucial importance of history education by honoring exceptional U.S. history teachers from elementary grades through high school.

Pol was awarded a $1,000 honorarium, while Barker will receive a core archive of American history books and Gilder Lehrman educational materials. A National History Teacher of the Year, which includes a $10,000 award, will be selected from the pool of winners, including Pol, this fall.

“Social studies isn’t just names, dates, and places on a map,” Pol said. “It’s much more than that. My responsibility is to teach empathy … I chose history because of the multiple perspectives in history and how it shapes the world today. I think it’s important to teach students to understand the diversities and complexities of the world so we can create a more peaceful future.”

Barker principal Frederick Greene nominated Pol through a 20-page application document that included lesson plans, statements, photos, a resume and letters of recommendation.

Pol said one aspect of her teaching career – which started at Barker five years ago – that stood out on the application was a history fair. She started it three years ago as a way for students to design individual historical research projects. They spend about two months working individually or in groups on a research paper, website, exhibit, performance, or video documentary; then present it to different committee members.

Projects that do well advance to the district level of competition at the University of Notre Dame, a feat that Barker students have achieved each year, and there’s a chance for competition at the state level. Each year the subject changes – last year, Pol used a fellowship she attended in Japan to help provide the necessary research information.

That fellowship is one of 11 she’s been awarded in her short teaching career. In fact, Pol received the good news about her History Teacher of the Year award while on a one-month Fulbright-Hays fellowship to Morocco through the University of Arizona Center for Middle Eastern Studies Program.

She studied the history and culture of Spain and Morocco, focusing on Judaism and Islam, and comparing border issues between the two countries and those of the United States. She was one of 14 teachers in the nation chosen for the all-expense-paid trip.

This month Pol is embarking on another fellowship to South Korea to study how the Korean War shaped modern South Korea. It's awarded through the Korean War Legacy Foundation, for which she works part-time creating online curriculum.

Under the direction of Pol as Student Council Sponsor, Barker Student Council members acted as oral historians as they conducted videotaped interviews with four area Korean War veterans last April. They also digitally archived photos and letters, and because of their efforts, Northwest Indiana Korean War vets are now featured on koreanwarlegacy.org.

“It helps me so much professionally and it helps me on a personal level too,” Pol said of the teaching fellowships. “It’s hard to be a younger teacher, finding your place as you continue in the profession. I wanted to continue to learn and grow and have something to work for.”

The 27-year-old, who is single, knows this is a good time in her life to take advantage of such travel opportunities.

“You have the summertime to travel and learn more about what you teach about,” she said.

And teaching, she said, was something she knew she wanted to do at a young age. Her mother worked at a piano store, where an employee, the late Lee Marsh, offered to provide the 5-year-old Pol with free piano lessons. She continued to take lessons until age 18.

“I can’t imagine my life without music or without the skills, hard work and discipline she taught me," Pol said. "I want to be that kind of teacher for future generations of students.”

Pol graduated with High Distinction from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Social Studies Education. During her undergraduate time, she traveled extensively to Ghana, England, Cuba and Ireland to learn history from multiple perspectives.

In addition, Pol said, “When I teach historical events, we look at primary and secondary sources from that time period, giving them those tools of analysis they can use when they look at modern media.”

And now, thanks to a Michigan City Community Enrichment Corporation $7,000 grant awarded to Pol and Barker Curriculum Coach Amy Hamann in March, students will learn about the world through the purchase of 30 virtual reality headsets.

“I can share my travels with my students. It’s more immersive. I can control what they are looking at through a tablet, zooming in on details I want them to look at,” Pol said.

She said her greatest joy as a teacher is “seeing my students passionately care about something they never considered caring about before. I love seeing debates and discussions they have with each other, and how they critically think about issues now, such as those between the U.S. and other countries.”

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