Leading present youth into past times

Group names instructor Civil War teacher of year

April 04, 2004|By Daniel C. Wilcock | Daniel C. Wilcock,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Robert Rinehart, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, began a journey of self-discovery five years ago when he found a diary-size manuscript in his parents' desk.

The manuscript told the story of his great-great-grandfather Samuel Hoover's life as a young man during the Civil War. When Rinehart first held the slender text, a mere 10 pages of type, he had no idea how its contents would change him as an individual and as a history teacher.

Rinehart was recently named "Civil War Teacher of the Year" by the Civil War Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to battlefield preservation.

Rinehart said he owes the award to his pupils and his great-great-grandfather, whose story stoked his passion for Civil War history.

In 1862, Hoover enlisted in the 130th Pennsylvania Regiment and within months faced Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederates at Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle of the war. He was wounded and later discharged.

"His wounds saved me," Rinehart said, sitting in his classroom, walls plastered with maps, flags and historical pictures. "The ripples that have occurred throughout our history, whatever the event was - minor or major - we're still feeling the effects today."

Rinehart, who is 38 and has taught at Southampton for eight years, shares his ancestor's story to show that history is alive. He makes this lesson the cornerstone of his classes.

With Rinehart as their energetic guide, the 12- to 14-year-olds in his class explore how history can be close to home.

"John Wilkes Booth's family land was about two miles from this school," he said. "Most of these kids know who John Wilkes Booth is because they've played in [his] back yard ... and they are very much aware that he was the man who ended the life of Abraham Lincoln."

Being in close proximity to history is a familiar experience for Rinehart, who grew up in York, Pa., a 20-minute drive from the Gettysburg battlefield. He said he's visited Gettysburg more than 50 times and called it "one of the most thought-provoking, tranquil places in America."

Rinehart encourages pupils to look everywhere for history - including current events.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, 12 of Rinehart's pupils testified in front of the Maryland General Assembly, reading letters containing their thoughts on the attacks and asking for a day of remembrance.

"They've got to see the parallels in history," Rinehart said, comparing America before and after the attacks to the vast changes that occurred with the Confederacy's attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., in 1861. "If they don't, like we know, people are doomed to repeat things."

Historical preservation, he said, is one way of ensuring that society won't repeat tragedies.

Rinehart not only teaches his pupils about the war, but he also orchestrates lots of activities. As a component of Southampton's curriculum, pupils are required to fulfill service-learning requirements. In Rinehart's class, this has meant raising community awareness about historical preservation.

Pupils draft letters to elected officials and individuals they select as "heroes." These letters tell what learning about the Civil War has meant to them and how important it is to preserve its legacy.

One such letter resulted in a school visit in February by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican who praised the letter he received and the pupils' understanding of history's importance.

They've also circulated petitions calling for the conservation of threatened historic sites, gathering thousands of signatures in support of preservation instead of development.

Pupils can also volunteer in an annual two-month fund-raising effort. Each year, Southampton pupils are encouraged to raise money by selling pictures of the school's mascot, a lion, on construction paper for 25 cents. Teams of pupils raise money for a variety of causes, and the team that raises the most money wins a pizza party.

Last school year, Rinehart's class donated $1,710 to the Civil War Preservation Trust and this year his class hopes to visit Gettysburg with a $3,000 donation.

But Rinehart's award was given for more than fund raising, said Jennifer Rosenberry, education coordinator for the Civil War Preservation Trust.

Rosenberry offered reasons such as Rinehart's efforts to foster civic values and historic awareness among his pupils.

"He's very dedicated to his kids and to battlefield preservation," she said.

Southampton Principal Barbara Canavan said Rinehart's teaching and service-learning fund-raisers are "exemplary."

"It really is near and dear to his heart," she said. "He was able to take a period of history and make it come alive for the kids."

Based on Rinehart's award and success in teaching pupils about the Civil War, Southampton has decided to hold its first "history day." On May 17, pupils will take part in historic activities instead of their regular schedule.

"The major issue is teaching children to preserve," Rinehart said. "And to be preservation-aware."

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