Heather MacKenzie is an Instructional Coordinator for Social Studies and World Languages for Henry County Schools, the eighth largest school district in the state of Georgia. She came into this position two years ago after 14 years as a classroom teacher, where she had experience as a Special Ed, Elementary, and Middle School teacher. During her career she has enjoyed presenting at the local, state, and national levels, as well as serving as a consultant and curriculum writer for the Georgia Humanities Council.
1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
A love of and respect for history has been a constant in my life. Born and raised in Philadelphia, my earliest memories are weekend outings to Valley Forge or field trips to Independence Hall. In high school I used to spend all day laying out and studying on the Princeton Battlefields. I even remember when the Liberty Bell was next to a bus stop! However, I would say I truly became hooked on history in high school. Like most educators, I was inspired by an educator. Mr. Tom Wilcox was my US History teacher at The Hun School of Princeton. That man knew everything! I had always enjoyed and even exceled in social studies and history courses throughout my years as a student, but in 11th grade Mr. Wilcox engaged us in a way no other teacher had: he made connections. I suddenly saw history as a living, breathing discipline as opposed to the study of dead men and dates. Now, this was before the age of pervasive technology use in the classroom. This was when textbooks were akin to gospel and that was how you learned everything about the past. Except in Wilcox’s class (He was the cool teacher who went by one name like Cher or Beyonce; No formalities needed). Mr. Wilcox would dive into rich lecture and discussion and presentations would be peppered with slide shows of his personal travels and anecdotes. He made whatever topic we were studying relevant to a group of teenagers. His expectations for us were unparalleled and we each worked hard to meet them because he empowered us to do so. Years later when I became a history teacher myself, his teaching was the meter stick to which I measured myself against. This year I will return to Hun for my 20th Reunion and can’t wait to thank Wilcox for “hooking” me on history.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
My favorite thing to do in my personal time is to travel and over the years I have been fortunate enough to do quite a bit of it. The majority of my travels have been to historical sites or small towns that would bring history to life. While some places like Williamsburg, Virginia, have been maintained for tourism, the most fascinating places are those that time has seemingly forgotten. Places where I am studying the past but enjoying the present, like learning to two-step in Cody, Wyoming, or bringing the house down at karaoke in Frankfort, Kentucky (It was a mic drop moment). In addition, during my travels I have connected with other educators or lovers of history, and formed friendships that have lasted years. I’m truly grateful for how full my life has become as a result of those travels.
3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I began my career as a Special Ed teacher where I addressed all content areas but specifically the focus was on reading and math. In 2004, I was accepted into my first of four Teaching American History Grant programs and it changed the trajectory of my career. Working with and learning from historians, professors, and peers provided a laser focus for me and guided me into positions where I was able to spend more time with social studies content. As a cheerleader for social studies education I have also worked closely with amazing organizations like the Georgia Council for the Social Studies (GCSS), Georgia Council on Economic Education (GCEE), and other national organizations, that promote history and social studies education and best instructional practices within the disciplines.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I once read a comic/cartoon that said “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to standby helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” I feel that History is not only the study of the past but the application of the skills that we want all citizens to possess: critical or analytical thinking and the ability to investigate multiple sources or perspectives before forming judgements. While the cartoon made me giggle with the idea of ‘it’s funny because it’s true,’ I know so many amazing individuals who do something with their knowledge—they advocate, organize, educate. That is what gives me hope for the continued growth of history education.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
Asking for a favorite aspect of history is like asking who your favorite student or child is! Based on my upbringing I am partial to colonial or revolutionary history. Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite president so I am a bit obsessed with history of the progressive era and his global reach. Essentially, I tend to shift my preference based on whatever I am reading or studying at the time but if I had to select one aspect, I would say that I am captivated by the history of pop-culture and how music, films, spirts, etc., have influenced American culture. I think this aspect of history is of particular fascination to me because of its fluidity. It is ever changing and it has always been a great way to connect with others.
6. What are some high points and low points of being a district social studies coordinator?
The high points of this position occur any time that I have the opportunity to interact with teachers. I have the pleasure of serving teachers in Henry County but my role as a district coordinator has afforded me the opportunity to work with teachers from around the state and country. I am inspired by them daily and through my dealings with them, am consistently reminded of the great responsibility of this role and how important it is for me to be their voice. The low points of being a district coordinator is that I often miss the students!
7. What trends or changes are happening in social studies education now?
I know that the saying goes, “The only thing is life you can count on is change” and feel confident that it must have been an educator who first coined the phrase. There are a number of things happening in education both at the state and national level but the trend I have seen pop-up the most is the idea of 21st Century Learning. This broad umbrella covers a number of initiatives including personalized learning, project-based learning, tech-enabled instruction, STEM, and so on. At the core of 21st Century Learning is the idea that we are charged with preparing students for jobs that have not yet been created. However, this also refers to preparing students to assume roles as citizens in a global community and that is where social studies education can be of the most support. This is daunting but also exciting because I immediately link it back to the study of history. This is not the first time that we have seen such seismic shifts in mindset or practice and my belief is that as long as we continue to build up great citizens and leaders, we will prepare our kids for whatever they choose to do after graduation.