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History teacher recognized for inspiring students to act

Kristin Grant, a history teacher at Glencoe Central School, is one of six teachers who won the Kennedy Center-Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. | Karie Angell Luc/for Sun-Times Media
Kristin Grant, a history teacher at Glencoe Central School, is one of six teachers who won the Kennedy Center-Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. | Karie Angell Luc/for Sun-Times Media

Central School history teacher Kristin Grant inspires her students not just to learn, but to act.

Former student Zoey Bond, now a sophomore at the University of Michigan, was so motivated by Grant’s teaching on the Holocaust that she and others formed the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Teen Committee on Conscience.

Now Grant is being recognized for that influence, as one of six recipients of the national Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, which honors those instructors who have inspired and transformed students. The award is named for and funded by the acclaimed music artist, whose works have been part of the American tapestry for half a century.

Teaching her students about the Holocaust, Grant took the lesson a step further by showing how history had sadly repeated itself with more recent genocides.

Bond was so moved by Grant’s teaching that she and other members of the Holocaust Museum’s Teen Committee on Conscience put together a play based on interviews with survivors of recent genocides, including Cambodia, Rwanda, the Holocaust and Darfur. More than 6,000 people in over 40 schools have now seen the production, called “Raining Season,” which continues to be performed in the Chicago area.

“Without her encouragement, I would never have imagined that I could play a role in ending intolerance,” Bond wrote of Grant in her nomination letter. “Six years later, I have come to appreciate how powerfully the ideas she ingrained in me in her classroom have impacted the rest of my life. She is responsible for my roots in social justice — my inability to be a bystander.”

The fact that Grant made such an impact on Bond makes the teacher proud.

“I was uncomfortable with the idea of being singled out but I was incredibly excited and happy to be recognized,” she said. “I think what I was being recognized for is what every teacher hopes they can accomplish — and that is to help our students find their voice on their way to making a contribution to the world.”

The recognition was obviously a very happy late career chapter for the Wisconsin native, who has been teaching since 1978 and came to Central School in 1985, working with the fifth- through eighth-graders.

“When people find out you teach middle school, most people think you are crazy,” Grant said. “But this age is especially fun to teach because they are just coming to the point where they have their own opinions and it is exciting to help them clarify what those are and have reasons for those opinions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone had reasons for their own opinions and could back those opinions up?”

Grant believes she has been successful as a teacher in part because she has not fallen into routines.

“You have to change it up and don’t always tell them what you are going to do. You have to keep them guessing,” she said.

Working in collaboration with other Central teachers, Grant’s students have taken trips to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie and survivors have been invited to visit the classrooms.

“The truth can be discouraging as the students can see the world as a discouraging place,” Grant noted. “What I try to do is see how to connect their knowledge of the past to see something they can do in the present to make a positive impact.”

With Grant’s lessons serving as an inspiration, students have done service projects like car washes and bake sales to raise money for causes important to them.

It may be a history class, but Grant also keeps class conversations modern, talking about privacy versus security, for example, to a class full of today’s students, who are too young to have a direct recollection of 9/11.

“They really don’t have clear memories as to what happened, and even more shocking from my perspective, they don’t know what the world was like before that,” Grant said. “They don’t see the contrasts.”

With the developments in Russia over the last few weeks, Grant also finds this an interesting time to dive into the history of the Cold War.

But how does the teacher herself know if her message is cutting through?

“When I look at my class and they are really busy and they are engaged with ideas and the bell rings and they are still talking about it,” Grant said, “That is when I know I win.”

Her efforts have won her praise from the top levels of District 35.

“She is a genuine and compassionate individual and she looks at each child and has a way of doing things that connect with that individual,” said Superintendent Cathy Crawford. “Each child thinks they are the only child in her classroom. She is very good at that.”

Grant now has to find a way to spend the $10,000 award that accompanies the Sondheim prize.

“How many times in your life does someone hand you a big chunk of money and say, ‘you can do whatever you want’?” she said. “[Sondheim] gave it no strings attached, which implies a lot of respect to the recipient.”

Grant said she is leaning toward donating some of the winnings to teachers in districts that are not as affluent as Glencoe, plus a Lake Forest organization that donates books to children in underprivileged areas.

The award is an exciting cap to her long career, since she intends to retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. There were health scares three years ago – brain surgeries for both her and her daughter within a month (both are fine now) — and she believes it is time for the new generation to enter the classroom.

“I think children should have people who are fresh and there are plenty of people coming who do what I am doing and should have that opportunity,” Grant said. “They are full of ideas and ready to go and they just can’t find jobs. There is a point where we can step away and let those people have their chance.”

However, she leaves the door open to pursuing other educational ventures.

“I’ll find other ways to make a contribution,” Grant promises.

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