CHICAGO — Joshua Bill's students at Waukegan High School have pondered the contradiction of Thomas Jefferson owning slaves while boldly writing that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence.
"I ask the kids if Jefferson is a hypocrite," said Bill.
The answer to that provocative question can vary — and that's OK with Bill, who lets students draw their own conclusions based on analysis of historical writings.
Bill, 31, is the new face of history education, representing a shift away from bulky, one-version-of-the-facts textbooks and a focus on names and dates. Instead, today's students are expected to analyze multiple documents and evaluate different points of view — tasks more akin to college-level work.
The transformation in teaching history is putting the subject back in the limelight after years of being swept aside in the name of education reform, history educators say. And the spotlight is brightest right now in the Land of Lincoln, where Bill is the first Illinois teacher to win the prestigious National History Teacher of the Year Award, which comes with a $10,000 prize.
The renewed emphasis on teaching history represents a sea change from the last decade, when history "was essentially crowded out of the curriculum," said Linda Salvucci, chairwoman of the National Council for History Education. She blames the federal No Child Left Behind reforms enacted in 2002, which put pressure on schools to increase performance in reading and math.
As a result, schools reduced time spent on subjects such as history, which weren't required to be tested under the federal law.
"There is no doubt, anecdotally and statistically, that history really did suffer," said Salvucci, an associate professor of history at Trinity University in Texas.
States still could test students on subjects besides the all important reading and math. Illinois, for example, tested in social sciences in certain grades until 2004-05 when the exam was eliminated following state budget cuts. That was a blow to history educators who feared that what wasn't tested wouldn't be taught.
Dismal student scores on national assessments in U.S. history also took their toll, as did embarrassing polls showing many Americans couldn't name the sitting vice president.
"If you're not teaching it (history), what do you expect?" said Tim Bailey, a 2009 National History Teacher of the Year from Utah.
He said he left an elementary school in Utah several years ago after administrators told him to reduce the time he spent on history and increase reading and math instruction. Instead, he transferred to another school to teach eighth-grade history.
Teaching techniques such as expecting students to analyze authentic historical documents are not new, Bailey said. But they have taken on increased emphasis with the rollout of new "common core" standards on what students from kindergarten through 12th grade should learn to prepare for college and work.
Most states, including Illinois, have adopted the standards. The state's public school students are scheduled to be tested on them in 2014-15.
The subject of history is woven into the common core as part of English language arts and literacy standards that emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills.
History educators would prefer to have separate standards for their subject, but inclusion in the common core is a positive step in restoring history's prominence in the school curriculum, said Salvucci.
"We're becoming important again," agreed Mike Berrie, a 20-year educator and the social studies chair at Waukegan High School, where Joshua Bill teaches.
Unlike the old days of "rote memorization of facts," Berrie said, students are learning to become their own historians, weighing facts, identifying nuances and forming their own opinions.
Berrie pointed to Bill's lesson on the famous Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates held around Illinois in 1858. Using excerpts, students examine the tone of each man's words in different debate locations, trying to figure out if geography influenced the message.
They were asked to examine whether the two orators framed their arguments over race and slavery depending on whether they were addressing a more southern or northern audience. Students had mixed views.
Berrie submitted a letter of support for Bill's nomination for the 2012 national history award, which has been given since 2004 by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Bill received the award last month during a ceremony in New York City.
The Waukegan teacher was selected from among more than 1,000 nominees for doing an outstanding job of instilling passion in his students, said Kathleen Wesner, who oversees the award program. She also cited Bill's efforts to reinvigorate a partnership with the Waukegan Historical Society so students could access historical documents to learn about their own town.
"I encourage them to take on controversial topics," Bill said.
These include race riots in Waukegan in the 1960s, and immigration that transformed the largely white community to the Latino-dominated Waukegan of today.
The majority of students at the city's high school are Latino from low-income families. The school has struggled for years with low test scores.
Bill brings history alive through "virtual field trips." One was a re-enactment of the Revolutionary War's Battle of Bunker Hill. Students portrayed American and British solders, using wadded paper balls as ammunition. The balcony in the high school auditorium served as the "hill."
The re-enactment, Bill said, was the "hook" that engages students, who study the American Revolution through documents such as Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and the letters of John Adams.
Raised in southern New Hampshire near Boston, Bill was exposed to history as a child.
"The American Revolution happened not far from where I grew up," he said.
So why did he become a teacher?
Bill recalled playing school with his siblings as a child and being frustrated that as the youngest, he never got to be the teacher.
Attending a small Catholic school for elementary and high school, he learned history the traditional way — through "memorization, reading a textbook and taking notes on what happened."
Although "knowing what happened was important," he said, "the why, and constructing my interpretation, was not part of that."
Arriving at Lake Forest College in Illinois, Bill majored in history and education and was exposed to teaching methods he now uses in his classroom.
Waukegan senior Eduardo Cruz was one of two of Bill's students who attended the award ceremony in New York City. He watched Caroline Kennedy present the award.
Cruz said he fell in love with Bill's history class his junior year. He perused 100-year-old records at the Waukegan Historical Society and participated in the Revolutionary War battle re-enactment.
Bill instilled the idea that students themselves can be historians, he said.
They can challenge long-held ideas, develop their own perspectives and above all, Cruz said, understand that, "History is not just black and white."