Award-Winning Teacher Strives to Make History Relevant

In the back of Alysha Butler’s American history class, on a large, white dry-erase board lies a variation of a well-known African proverb: “Until the lion becomes the historian, the hunter will always be the hero.”

The quote hints at the veteran teacher’s attempt to augment the curriculum given to her so that it includes the voices of marginalized groups.

During a recent class, Butler and her 11th graders discussed how indentured servants’ fight for land during the 18th century compelled white landowners’ embrace of a system that would dehumanize and disenfranchise future generations of Africans.

During that session, many of the young people came to realize how ideas, more so than money, power and force, fermented dominant attitudes of that era.

“For everyone [at the beginning of the activity], ideas were at the bottom of the ranking. By the time we finish and do the same activity [later in the unit], ideas will rise to the top,” said Butler, a teacher in her 10th year at McKinley Technology High School and recipient of the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s (GLI) 2019 Teacher of the Year award.

On Wednesday evening, during a ceremony at the Yale Club in New York City, CNN anchor and political analyst John Avlon presented Butler, a participant in GLI’s Hamilton Education Program, with an award and a $10,000 prize.

Butler’s style of teaching history includes the voices of other groups, a strategy that helps students reconcile events currently unfolding in the news.

“We have to give students a safe place to talk about ideas and guide them toward an informed position and answer,” Butler said. “Students are concerned about injustice, inequality, and the way things are. I try to take the conversation toward our role in changing it [and showing them] there are ways to do that.”

Butler, a third-generation South Floridian and history enthusiast, cites her family’s history and “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass” as sources of inspiration for her pedagogical approach. After obtaining her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, she forwent an opportunity to pursue her doctorate after realizing that her talents would be better served helping high school students sharpen the research skills and critical thinking necessary for college.

After a stint at two Broward County, Florida, schools, including her alma mater, Butler moved to the D.C. metropolitan area. Since 2009, she has used museums and historical landmarks to make her content come alive for her students. The latest excursion, scheduled for early November, will introduce students to the slave cabins near George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, Virginia, home. This experience will follow a trip to the National Museum of the American Indian that Butler mandated as a summer assignment.

Last year, as part of her commitment to connecting the past and present, Butler and her students, with the use of a grant, helped preserve history at Mount Zion AME Cemetery in Georgetown, what’s assumed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Butler pointed to those moments as pivotal in motivating her to facilitate impactful history lessons at McKinley Tech. At this juncture in her career, she said she wants to explore the possibility of working with museums, and acting as a liaison between those institutions and other history teachers. Butler also expressed a desire to develop a curriculum that allows educators to incorporate marginalized voices in their lessons.

One supporter of that endeavor would more than likely be M. Louise Jones, principal of McKinley Technology High School, who characterized Butler as a teacher dedicated to improving her craft at every turn.

“Ms. Butler would be the first to say that not every day is a winner, but she takes feedback and reflects,” Jones said. “The students love her. She tries to make learning relevant to them. She tries to make them think and [become] better civically-minded adults. It makes me very proud that she’s bringing recognition to her, the school, and her students.”

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