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June 20, 2016

History is ever-present in Mr. Frank's classroom

Iroquois teacher Dennis Frank honored with prestigious Social Studies award

picture of Dennis Frank 
Mr. Frank is pictured in front of the historical campaign signs that decorate a wall in his classroom.

History is what happened in the past, but in Iroquois teacher Dennis Frank's classroom, social studies is about why it matters today and what students are going to do about it tomorrow.

"Have we learned the lessons of Vietnam, and if so, what are they?" he implores of his class on a Tuesday morning this spring. Mr. Frank is delivering the final lesson in the Vietnam War unit. He weaves a thread that connects the war, the turbulence and loss of trust in government of the 1960s with present day events from the Middle East to the presidential campaign trail.

"If I can't convey that it's relevant, then I don't think I'm doing my job. I am trying to connect what we study to what's going on in the world, in the country," Mr. Frank said after the lesson. "You hear all the time that history should be studied so you don't repeat the same mistake, but we do repeat mistakes. The question is, 'Can you identify those same mistakes?'"

Mr. Frank's 24 years of teaching social studies in the district have won him praise from former students and now the Capital District Council for the Social Studies. Surrounded by family and colleagues at the council's annual dinner in May, Mr. Frank received the council''s prestigious Robert J. Neiderberger Award. It is given each year to an area educator who, over the years, has made a significant contribution to social studies education.

"Mr. Frank is very deserving of this award," said Iroquois Principal Vicki Wyld. "Students in his class always note that he holds them to high expectations and makes them think deeply about the history of our country. He loves social studies, but he also loves working with middle level kids."

"It's a great combination of two things that I love," he said. "I love American history and I love teaching this age group - it's a very engaging, active and inquisitive group of students. I couldn't imagine being anywhere else."

It is clear that he puts a great deal of care and preparation into the lessons and activities in his classroom. Mr. Frank said that newspapers ultimately form the basis for class readings, with articles about current events serving as companions for the history that they are studying. For example, when they are learning about Teddy Roosevelt and the era of reform, they may also read something from that day's New York Times about regulation of e-cigarettes or food safety.

picture of Dennis Frank 
Mr. Frank talks with World War II veterans Earl Flatt, left, and Bill Rochelle after they spoke to Iroquois students this spring. Mr. Frank oversees a program each year that brings World War II veterans to the school to talk about their experiences.  

Mr. Frank also incorporates a great deal audio and visual materials into his class and he combines and edits clips from various sources to fit into a particular lesson. His closing remarks on Vietnam gave way to a video that incorporated clips from multiple documentaries.

Fellow Iroquois Team 81 member, English teacher Frank Adamo, said that in Mr. Frank's classroom, students gain reading, writing and critical thinking skills, citing authentic projects like the Immigration Narrative and Truman Trial. He said this learning - and Dennis' contributions to the life of the school extend well beyond the walls of his classroom. They include trips to Ellis Island, overseeing the annual visit of World War II veterans to Iroquois and swing lessons that coincide with studying the 1920s.

"Dennis cares deeply about the academic and emotional growth of each of his students, and his impact is felt long after they leave for Niskayuna High School," Mr. Adamo said.

Mr. Frank sees it as a team effort. He is grateful for the support he has felt from the district, the community, principals and directors over many years, and considers himself incredibly lucky to be part of a great school and team of teachers.

"I have to give the kids credit. They work hard," he said. "If they can see history as something important to follow today's world, that would be great. If they can realize that they can make a difference by speaking up and doing something and taking action, that would be great."

As he ended the unit on the Vietnam War, Mr. Frank brought his students to the computer lab to learn more about the people whose names are on the Vietnam Wall. In the classroom, he talked about a growing distance between American citizens and soldiers.

He said that the war forced people to confront their government in a way that they hadn't previously, and then he asked the students a question that they had very likely heard before:

"But what about now?"