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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT