Teaching the past to the future

TUWMATER – Inside Robert “Bob” Cooksey’s classroom at Tumwater Middle School, there are Civil War posters, Pacific Northwest coastal tribal masks, a model of a covered wagon and a stack of hand-stitched quilts.

Every day, history comes to life for Cooksey’s students as they sew, chop wood, write letters, churn butter and learn other activities that were common during the 1800s.

And students in the school’s Homesteaders program even take it a step further by dressing in period attire and re-enacting some of the lives of South Sound’s past residents at events during the year such as the upcoming New Market Pioneer Fair.

Last week, Cooksey learned he had won the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching History by the Washington State Historical Society Board of Trustees. The award, which includes $750 and a gold star of recognition, is presented to an outstanding teacher of Pacific Northwest history from an accredited K-12 school or nonprofit organization, according to awards coordinator Shanna Stevenson.

“I was really humbled,” Cooksey said. “I don’t do this to get an award. I do it to have fun.”

In addition, Cooksey said he’s part of a team of educators who work with students on the Homesteaders program, including his wife, Verna — who works with the girls on pioneer women’s skills — and social studies teacher Tyler Haywood.

“I feel like I’m getting an award for them too,” Cooksey said.

Teaching is a second career for Cooksey, who has taught at Tumwater Middle School for 14 years. He spent 27 years “with Uncle Sam,” as he puts it, working in the military police and as an agent for the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations.

His wife taught special education, and the couple traveled around the world with the military. Teaching seemed like a natural progression, Cooksey said.

“Most of my career, in my job, I had to train people,” he said.

In 1995, Cooksey went through the Troops to Teachers program, and he earned his master’s degree and teaching credentials from Pacific University in Oregon. He came to the South Sound area because that’s where the jobs were. He worked as a substitute teacher in Tumwater, Lacey and Olympia schools for a year before landing a social studies job at Tumwater Middle School.

His favorite part of teaching?

“The kids,” Cooksey said. “I enjoy watching my kids grow up.”

Cooksey said he and the other social studies teachers try to keep the curriculum interactive and hands-on as much as possible.

“They forget that they’re learning,” he said.

The Homesteaders program covers all the requirements for the Washington state history course that students would normally take in high school. But the students also learn pioneer skills and the history of Tumwater and Olympia.

Students have to apply to get into the yearlong course, begun in 1987 as part of a celebration for the state’s 1989 centennial.

On a recent morning, a class of eighth-graders in the Homesteaders program divided into groups. The girls worked indoors on knitting projects and the boys were outside learning how to use blacksmithing tools.

“It’s like a hands-on way to learn history and social studies,” said 14-year-old Danielle Won. “It’s activities versus reading it out of a book.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433