Education Q&A: Brenda Barth of Bow creates passion for history

  • Brenda Barth is a social studies teacher at Bow High School. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

  • Brenda Barth, social studies teacher at Bow High School Courtesy photo—

Monitor staff
Published: 8/17/2020 8:31:05 PM

For Brenda Barth, it’s the stories of real people that make history come alive.

That’s what she’s trying to do this summer, in a class on local history designed for the COVID era.

Barth, 46, has been a social studies teacher at Bow High School for the past 19 years. She was a finalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year in 2018. And this summer, she’s teaching for the first time a local history class that focuses on historic places in Bow and Dunbarton.

The class is a hybrid experience that happens mostly remotely but also takes the students – masked and distanced – outdoors, to cemeteries and cellar holes at the Hammond Nature Preserve, to the ruins of a gristmill at Kimball Pond, to a former president’s home at Franklin Pierce Manse and to statues on the State House lawn. The curriculum includes both the lives of ordinary people who lived in the area and some of the more well-known historical figures like Franklin Pierce and Daniel Webster.

“I think they are more invested in history when we tell them stories of people,” Barth said. “So I do want to talk about the legislation, and I do want to talk about the wars and how that works, and how that impacted the country on a large scale. But it think it feels more real to students and they see the value in understanding history when we can personalize it.”

Barth, who lives in Concord with her husband and two children, plans to be in the classroom teaching in the fall, as part of Bow High School’s in-person instruction model.

She sat down with the Concord Monitor recently, to discuss her class and being an educator in the time of COVID. The following transcript was edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to become an educator?

There were two professors in particular, at my undergrad and one at my graduate level, who really taught me about what education could be and the importance of social history. Bringing the stories, as much as I can, into the classroom so that when we are studying a time period, to try and make that local. Looking at people who are buried in a cemetery who fought in the Revolutionary War as a platform to talk about the Revolutionary War. In grad school, I had a professor who got me out into the woods with classes, looking at cemeteries and cellar holes and it created this wave of excitement for what I could do in education. That’s one of the things that my students say, “you’re so excited about this.” I know, it’s so cool! We are looking at three cellar holes within 300 feet of each other, and these were homes and these were communities, and this was a road that people traveled up through Canada.

Do you have a favorite moment from your time teaching?

Any time a student has an “aha” moment is very special. [In 2018] I worked with a student during the summer on his senior project. His project was to transcribe a man’s journal from the 1800s. Someone had found it in Dunbarton, in a barn. We learned in the man’s journal he was once a teacher, he was a pirate; it tells that story. It was just a really proud moment for me as an educator to see someone do something local and to get so much out of it.

What’s been the biggest challenge of teaching during COVID-19?

For me, it has been not seeing my students. I think sometimes we take for granted the energy that can come from the classroom. Something that I really thrive on is seeing the expressions of my students, which tells me if they are engaged in what I am talking about. And if they are having a good day or a bad day — are they bouncing into the classroom with excitement to share something? Are they coming more slowly? It really allows me to gauge the mental well-being of my students, and for me that was the hardest piece with COVID. Sometimes you are working with a group of students and not all their cameras are on, because they are not comfortable with that, and you want to respect their comfort levels, but you don’t always know how they are doing.

Have there been any successes in all this?

I think it’s allowing us to rethink education and what it looks like. So, competencies, project-based learning, meeting the needs of each of our students, creating flexibility with the pace that individual students need, it gives us a chance to talk about the way that we teach while we teach that way. For me, the greatest growth as an educator is just the opportunity to rethink what a class day looks like, what the structure looks like, while continuing to work to meet the needs of the students.

How are you feeling about returning to the classroom in the fall?

I think there is still so much unknown, and as much as I am someone who embraces change, uncertainty is difficult for me. I am trying to figure out how to meet the needs of my students who may be in my classroom or at home. It is very challenging and sometimes overwhelming at times to imagine. But I think if we go back to that idea of caring for each person every day and trying to individualize the learning, I think it will be successful. It will just look very different and we need to be understanding and respectful of that, as educational communities.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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