Kidsburgh Heroes: 2 Pittsburgh history teachers win national recognition from Yale

John Carlisle will occasionally jump up and down and wave his arms to make a point during AP History classes at Penn-Trafford High School. At Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, history teacher Erin Provance always leaves her classroom door open, often lingering long after classes to chat with students.

For their outreach to kids and dedication to teaching, Carlisle and Provance won the 2020 Yale Educator Awards. The recognition goes to teachers who have supported and inspired their students to achieve at high levels. Nominated by matriculating students at Yale, Carlisle and Provance join a select group of 57 teachers and 24 counselors from 41 states and 19 countries.

John Carlisle of Penn-Trafford High School.

Carlisle and Provance share a rare gift for making history – which can be a staid recitation of facts in lesser hands – exciting.

“Mr. Carlisle taught me to think outside of the box,” says Sofiya Bidochko, a first-year student at Yale who nominated the Penn-Trafford teacher. “While history can be said to be a more rigid subject with specific historical facts and dates, he taught me to interpret these events and relate them to a bigger picture. By taking AP US History and AP World History, I look at the world and government differently. History repeats itself many times and he showed me that it is my duty to learn from history to create better outcomes in the present.”

According to nominating student Daniela Naumov, Provance shows students that academic success is not solely based on test scores. Instead, she emphasizes passion and commitment to lifelong learning.

“In attempting to navigate college as a first-year amidst a global pandemic, I’ve found myself questioning the purpose of my education more than ever,” Daniela says. “ I keep Ms. Provance’s words in the back of my head, reminding me to choose things that bring me joy, fulfill my inner purpose, and contribute to the greater good rather than focusing on what may `look good.’ ”

Both teachers say that teaching history, often considered unchanging and fact-based, is a fertile field for discussion. Despite perceptions that history is static, Provance engages her students with different viewpoints. While teaching World War I, for example, she pointed her class to exciting and dynamic stories from the conflict.

Daniela Naumov, left, nominated history teacher Erin Provance for the Yale award.

“I hope what the kids take out of it is that understanding history helps us understand ourselves and helps us understand the world,” Provance says. “It gives us a platform from which to speak in a truly divisive political landscape right now.

“I think what the kiddoes find out is that it empowers them to create arguments, to see multi-faceted sides and to use evidence to support their arguments.”

Carlisle’s approach includes exploring the local history that took place near the school. Being close to Bushy Run Battlefield and other French and Indian War sites allows his students to bear firsthand witness to the past, including re-enacting battles from the conflict.

He also embraces technology and urges students to use their cell phones in class – up to a point.

“When I’m teaching, I encourage students to use their devices to research some of the things I’m going over and develop a deeper understand of that,” Carlisle says. “In my experience, students have never caused any issues with being on their devices or using them in a wrong way when I’m teaching. I encourage it to help them understand history a little bit better.”