Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A history teacher's brilliant idea

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
June 22, 2012 -- Updated 1549 GMT (2349 HKT)
A Minnesota teacher used
A Minnesota teacher used "March Madness" style brackets to get his kids talking about heroes such as Martin Luther King.Jr.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A history teacher started using a "March Madness" style tournament to involve students
  • William Bennett says Josh Hoekstra injected excitement into history
  • Students were required to pick the person they think best embodies courage in U.S. history
  • Bennett: Hoestra prepares his students for more than a test; he prepares them for life

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- In a typical, unassuming classroom at Rosemount High School in the suburbs of Minneapolis, U.S. history teacher Josh Hoekstra had a very novel idea about how the subject is taught.

The 39-year-old husband and father of three has been teaching U.S. history for 13 years. He's seen firsthand the demise of U.S. history education, now our high school seniors' worst subject.

This school year, after watching his students' intense interest in college basketball's March Madness tournament (rather than school), Hoekstra invented his own teaching curriculum, called Teach With Tournaments, to transform U.S. history content into a similar competitive, student-driven tournament.

William Bennett
William Bennett

"There is no reason that teaching U.S. history in the 21st century cannot be an amazing experience for all involved," Hoekstra told me. "Kids need to make a personal connection with the people they are studying. Kids who 'hate history' are the ones who never were exposed to the human side of the people they are studying."

The goal of Teach With Tournaments is simple -- immerse students in the personalities and character of the great men and women of history through competition. For this school year, the tournament focused on one theme: the most courageous figure in U.S. history.

Each student chose a historical figure he or she thought best embodies courage in U.S. history, from military heroes such as Alvin York to civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to humanitarian pioneers such as Clara Barton. Each choice was then paired off in the bracket system.

Students were required to research their character's accomplishments and then defend their choice in front of the class. Afterward, the class voted and the winners moved on to the next round, eventually narrowing the field of 64 to one champion.

Josh Hoekstra and his family
Josh Hoekstra and his family

The genius of Hoekstra's plan is that his students are required to use new arguments for each round. Like a good coach draws up a new game plan for each opponent, so too must students innovate and dive deeper into their research.

It wasn't long before their competitive juices kicked in. In the first round of the brackets, Tom Burnett, one of the heroes of Flight 93 on September 11th, lost by the slimmest of votes to U.S. Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient Michael Murphy. The girl who represented Tom Burnett was in tears over the outcome.

"This is a student who had become deeply connected to the person she was researching and was overcome with emotion. To see this type of passion from a 16-year-old girl in a public high school classroom is rewarding beyond words," Hoekstra said.

Over the school year, the brackets whittled down to two final characters, the aforementioned Murphy and WWII hero and Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone.

Before the final vote, Hoekstra asked his class for any last arguments. A student with special needs raised his hand and spoke on Murphy's behalf. He praised Murphy for sacrificing his life to save his team in Afghanistan, but he said what really makes Murphy his choice was that when Murphy was in 8th grade, he defended a special needs student who was being bullied.

"For this young man a personal connection was made beyond what was in the headlines," Hoekstra recounted. "Everyone in that room, including myself, learned something because that one nervous student with a shaky voice was emotionally invested in the material."

One special needs student discovered what millions of our students are missing -- a deep, personal connection to American history.

In the course of human history, the American story is great and unique, one filled with men and women of courage, character, and compassion. We must bring it to life for other students like Hoekstra did for his.

His Teach With Tournaments innovation may very well be one of the tools. Already teachers across the country are using it, Hoekstra says, and it's replicable for any subject or any classroom. (I came to know Josh when he called into my radio show, Morning In America. He uses some of my books in his classroom.)

Teachers like Hoekstra are a great influence on their students. Education expert Eric Hanushek estimates that the difference between a great teacher and bad teacher in a child's lifetime earnings is hundreds of thousands of dollars. But more important than paychecks, a great teacher instills in his students character and a passion for self-instruction.

In one of Hoekstra's brackets, WWII hero Audie Murphy lost to Louis Zamperini, the brave prisoner of war survivor and subject of the book "Unbroken." The young man representing Murphy was heartbroken that he didn't win. Audie Murphy was more than just a war hero, this young man argued. At a young age, Murphy's father left him and his family, leaving Murphy to hunt for food and provide for his many siblings.

At the same time, back at his home, this particular young man was watching his own father slowly succumb to cancer. He would soon be without a father and in a similar position as the young Audie Murphy. Like great teachers do, Hoekstra was preparing this boy for more than a history exam.

He was preparing him for life.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT