Monday, April 27, 2009

Celebrating an Out-of-the-Box Teacher

I'd like to share one of my teachers with you. History teacher extraordinaire, Bentley Brown, teaches in our Middle School and nothing he does is normal, routine or expected. If he's not hosting a Holocaust survivor as a guest speaker or talking on the phone with someone from Band of Brothers, he's up to something else great.

Bentley recently was featured in an article in The Advocate here in Baton Rouge. I have pasted the text of the article below but the original can be found here.

Thanks, Bentley, for your creativity and your heart for kids! Thanks, also, Joana for giving teachers like Bentley the freedom to take risks, to be creative and to keep things interesting.

Teacher offers unconventional elective course
Advocate staff writer
Photo by Patrick Dennis
Published: Apr 14, 2009 - Page: 1E

Bentley Brown doesn’t teach just by the book. His Parkview Baptist School world history students mummify chickens to see how the ancient Egyptians did it and conduct archeological digs in plastic wading pools.

Two years ago, he had a new idea: How about a semester-long middle school elective course about World War II?

“In the greater Baton Rouge area on the secondary level, there’s not anybody I know who teaches an elective class on just World War II,” Brown said.

Now in its fourth semester, Brown calls his class “The World War II Experience” and uses video, interviews and readings to connect students to a war fought by their grandparents and great-grandparents. He adds new material each semester.

“This just strictly came out of a passion that Bentley has for World War II and the vets that we are losing very quickly,” said PBS middle school Principal Joana Dieterich. “His dad is a World War II vet, and from that his passion for recording their story and keeping that story alive came. … It is a very popular class.”

Brown’s father, Francis Earl Brown, served aboard the battleship USS New Jersey. His father has told him of loading shells into antiaircraft guns to fight off kamikaze attacks during the battle for Saipan, a battle so furious that when it was over, Brown’s father had to pour the sweat out of his shoes.

“My dad has talked to me about history in general but particularly about World War II all of my life,” Brown said. “So my dad, he’s my inspiration for teaching history, period.”

To give the class a personal touch, Brown invites veterans and others to speak about the war. This has included telephone interviews with Don Malarkey, an Oregon resident who was depicted in the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” and Katherine Singer and Sidney Phillips, of Mobile, Ala., who were featured in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The War.”

Marlene Roe Langlois, of Baton Rouge, whose father, Eugene Roe, was depicted in “Band of Brothers,” also spoke to the class, which went to nearby Resthaven Gardens of Memory to visit Roe’s grave. A Parkview High School band member played taps, and, while there, Brown called Malarkey on his cell phone and used the speaker function to let Malarkey tell Langlois and the class about how highly the other soldiers thought of Roe.

“She was crying by the end of the conversation,” Brown said.

“The kids, they were so attentive,” Langlois said. “They had good questions. When we got out to the cemetery, it wasn’t like a couple of them would space out. They were all very interested to see what was going on.”

To keep them interested, Brown’s class is heavy on video, including two weeks showing “Band of Brothers,” which follows a paratroop company from its training through the end of the war. Brown has “Band of Brothers” T-shirts for students to wear, and for the first episode he provides military MREs (meals, ready to eat).

Because of the language used in “Band of Brothers,” Brown got parental permission before showing. At first, Brown also wondered how girls would handle the realistic battle depictions. Quite well, it turned out.

“After the first episode, two girls came up to me after class and said, ‘Mr. Brown, do Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere make it?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to wait and you’ve got to watch,’ ” Brown said. “And I knew I had them right there, because women love the emotional part of the guys helping each other in the foxholes.”

The course includes the war overseas, the effect on the home front and the Holocaust, a subject that several of this semester’s students said they knew little about. Brown created the Holocaust Penny Project, a fundraising effort whose ultimate goal is $110,000 — a penny for every person killed in the Holocaust. The funds, Brown said, will create a library of World War II materials, bring in Holocaust speakers, fund scholarships to the school and create a World War II museum and memorial on campus.

One course emphasis, Brown said, is the power of racial hatreds that fueled the war.
“He’s teaching more than just World War II,” Dieterich said. “He’s teaching tolerance. He’s teaching compassion. He’s teaching honor and valor, and he has spoken with so many different people and made history come alive to so many kids through this class. … There’s so much value in the class, and I wish we could open up more sections each year than we actually have time and space for him.”

Brown likely wouldn’t mind.

“I’m having the time of my life because I’m doing what I’m called to be doing,” he said. “I’m creating a class as I go that’s making it real for these guys and real enough for them to see.
“I tell them at the end of the semester, ‘I’ve shown you what these guys did. When you come across your grandfather, your great-uncle, the next time you stick your hand out, you give him a man handshake, you look him in the eyeballs and you tell him, ‘Thank you, grandfather, for your service to this country. I might not be here if it wasn’t for that.’ They all get it by then.”

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