WOODLAND, Wash. >> Katie Klaus’s junior history class just voted Hitler for U.S. president.
Of course, they didn’t know they were voting for him.
Jones, Klaus describes, is one of four candidates running for U.S. president in a hypothetical 2050 election. He’s energetic and idealistic, and believes the U.S. lost the war because of traitors. He wants to put them on trial and annul the recent peace treaty. He wants free state-run universities and better pensions, especially for veterans.
His catchphrase: Make America great again.
“This was the 1932 election in Germany,” Klaus announced to her class after counting the votes. “And you just voted for Hitler.”
“Woo!” the class cheers sarcastically.
“Sometimes we can’t understand how Germany elected Hitler to power. . But look what you all did,” Klaus lectured her class. “You can see what led Germany to put Hitler in power.”
It’s one of the main lessons Klaus hopes to teach her students: perspective, the ability to understand how and why history becomes history not just from reading a textbook and memorizing a date, but by placing themselves in the shoes of people who made history.
She also loves to incite debate. She considers her mission accomplished when a class erupts in spontaneous discussion.
Now, Klaus, 26, gets to take her passion to a new level. She recently learned she won $24,000 toward her graduate degree in American history and government. The James Madison Fellowship Award is given to one Washington teacher each year, and Klaus is the second Woodland teacher to claim the award since Sharon Conditt earned it in 2009.
Klaus said she’ll most likely get her degree through a part-time online program at private Ashland University in Ohio. She’ll be a full-time teacher while she studies.
Her students say the fellowship is well-deserved. To them, Klaus is unorthodox in the best way, a teacher who “nerds out” as much about history as she does about dogs. Her bubbly spirit, loud voice and creative ideas make her class fun — or bearable depending on which student you talk to.
“She has moments where she gets into it. She’s in the zone. She’ll nerd out,” junior Tyler Goss said. “She wants people to get on her level.”
Like when she lectured on psychology for 60 minutes in a British accent, taught a lesson in social psychology by playing the movie “Mean Girls” or had her history students play “rock, paper, scissors” to demonstrate how economic systems operate. Klaus’ students said she’s even found a way to make note-taking interesting with animated presentations.
“She’s a lot younger than a lot of other teachers. She has a lot of energy,” junior Isaac Andersen said. “Things like (today’s lesson) . make it interesting. It’s always more fun. It seems like we do things that aren’t just school, and it definitely makes it not boring like some classes.”
Klaus said a love for history comes naturally. While other students struggled, Klaus aced her classes at Ridgefield High School, then at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where she got her bachelor’s in history teaching with a minor in Spanish (she’s fluent and teaches English as a second language at Woodland High).
A voracious reader, Klaus said she sees history as a narrative, where the characters are real, raw and colorful.
“It’s not so much the dates,” she said. “It’s the story behind the dates. . I put myself in the history. Like when you’re reading fiction, history is like that for me. It really comes alive for me.”
Like the story of a March 1783 speech George Washington gave to his soldiers, when they were angry at the possibility of not being paid. The story gave her chills the first time she heard it her freshman year in college.
Klaus particularly loves studying the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, an emphasis of the James Madison Fellowship. The Constitution, she said, “provides a great conversation about compromise.”
It’s an instrument for one of her most important lessons as a teacher.
“You can have different opinions. You can come from different walks of life, but you can respect each other’s viewpoints,” she said. “You can leave a discussion not having changed your position, and that’s OK.”
Klaus said history, if underappreciated at times, has often been characterized as the boring subject, and it’s been marginalized by a national focus on the core subjects of reading and writing, math and science.
“With Google now, because you can instantly access information, history has changed in the fact that I mean, yes, I can go and Google anything. Yes, they can go and Google, ‘When did this happen?’ But it’s again that perspective behind it. The why. What does this mean? What can we learn from it? Those are the questions, those are the skills (that) … we’re trying to teach them,” she said.
Perspective is what makes Klaus’ class exciting.
“There are kids who think that history is boring. And if they do, it’s because they have not found the history that interests them,” she said. “I hope to instill and change that feeling that history is boring or that history doesn’t matter. It does matter.”