Davis teaches all sides of history

June 02, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

Editor's note: This is the final story in a monthly series highlighting excellent educators in Washington County high schools.

WILLIAMSPORT - There are at least two sides to every story, and Williamsport High School teacher Harry Davis makes sure his history students understand all of them.

"If they miss that lesson, then there's no use in studying American history," he said.

When teaching about World War II, Davis helps students understand why Germans followed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. When he teaches about the Cold War, he explains how the fear between the Soviet Union and the United States was shared equally.

Davis, 55, said a lesson on Nazi Germany is not as cut-and-dried as describing an evil man leading an evil nation. He doesn't try to make Hitler out to be a hero but wants students to understand the country's political climate.


"They were starving, and this man fed them and got the country back on its feet," he said. "The people buying into him were desperate."

Davis, who has been teaching at the high school for 18 years, completed degrees at Hagerstown Community College and Frostburg State University before landing his first job as a teacher at Williamsport's Springfield Middle School, where he taught for nine years.

Joe Arnold, a former Boonsboro High School history teacher, helped Davis mold his views on discipline in the classroom.

By "skinning his own skunks," Davis has been able to teach his students that they can't get away with anything in his class.

The man who hired him, Jack Seburn, the supervisor of social studies in Washington County Public Schools at the time, taught Davis what has become his teaching philosophy - the three F's: fair, firm and friendly.

"I forgot to add one more: fast," he said.

In a semester's time, Davis guides juniors through early-American history to the present. Around the back part of his room, he tacks up posters that serve as a visual timeline for his students.

"The closer we get to modern times, the easier it is to teach," he said.

Davis, who said crises draw student attention and participation most, tries to make connections between the country's past and present.

When teaching about the Vietnam War, Davis shows students a video from the 1969 Woodstock musical festival - a clip of Country Joe McDonald singing his famous protest ballad, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" - to balance students' historical perspectives on that war.

Davis has a special segment in his class in which students have the opportunity to talk about what's happening in the news today.

"The story of American history is told as we progress," he said.

Students hungered for a discussion when the lead singer of the country music group the Dixie Chicks proclaimed she was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush.

Davis reminded them that celebrities were blacklisted during the McCarthy era for expressing personal views.

"Before, you were a Communist. Now, criticism means you're unpatriotic," he said. "Without protesters, what are we defending?"

Students also debate about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They asked why Bush was allowed to start a war against Iraq when Congress is the body granted the authority to make such a declaration.

"We mentioned there wasn't a declaration but that he had the permission to work in the country's best interest," he said.

During that discussion, Davis referred to the Vietnam War, in which much controversy surrounded then-President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to beef up the country's presence in the war.

Watergate, he said, is a perfect example of when the Constitution works. President Richard M. Nixon was brought down by the laws created by the country's founding fathers, he said.

"The basic lesson is you have responsibilities, not everything is fun and not everything is immediately rewarded, but a good citizen does his job and does it honestly," Davis said.

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