Kentwood — East Kentwood High School students traveled virtually along the Niger River Trail recently using cowrie shells as currency to make trade deals.
The ultimate goal in navigating the stretch from Mali to the Middle East was uniting West Africa.
“Change West African history, and probably history forever!” said teacher Matthew Vriesman, as students rolled their dice.
The AP World History class was playing Mansa Musa, a game Vriesman created to teach the huge importance of trade routes in world history. He designed it after the classic 1985 video game, The Oregon Trail, and named it after the 14th-century Mali king.
“You are going to try to grow the power of Mansa Musa through diplomacy,” Vriesman told his students. “Instead of invading you are going to negotiate with each other.”
‘A historian is an investigator. A historian is an arguer … A historian is a philosopher on a quest for truth, and that’s exciting.’— National History Teacher of the Year Matthew Vriesman
Welcome to Vriesman’s classroom, where energy and engagement are obvious goals, but there’s a bigger mission, he explained, and it’s what’s getting national attention.
“My No. 1 goal is to empower students. Hopefully, by going through the development of the systems they live under, it will make them a little bit more aware of their own agency.”
Vriesman was recently named 2023 National History Teacher of the Year by the The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. More than 7,000 educators were nominated, according to a press release from the institute. He will be honored on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at a ceremony in New York City hosted by Peabody and Emmy Award–winner Deborah Roberts, ABC News 20/20 co-host and senior national affairs correspondent.
“Vriesman’s teaching stood out for his exceptional ability to tell the story of American history through the lens of his community,” read the press release.
His classes also reflect the hallways at East Kentwood, the most diverse public high school in Michigan.
Vriesman said one thing he is most proud of at East Kentwood is student diversity in Advanced Placement courses. While Black students made up 18% of all students in Michigan but only 7% of AP test-takers in 2017-2018, according to information from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, last year at East Kentwood 33% of students were Black, and 34% of AP History test-takers were Black. The number of sections of AP History has grown from from 5 to 14.
“If you teach truth that resonates, you find a larger pool of students who are willing to challenge themselves,” Vriesman said.
Lessons that Engage, Inform & Inspire
Sophomore Jaycie Gasper describes Vriesman’s teaching as “kind of crazy sometimes, but that’s what keeps it interesting. He definitely keeps you entertained. He really strives for students to understand the material, love the material and live the material.”
While on any given day Vriesman’s students may be on a 45-minute trip through Africa, putting King George on trial or learning how Grand Rapids played a large role in the national Civil Rights movement, he’s always on a quest to make high school history “more equitable, palatable and better,” he said.
“He is so headstrong and so passionate. You are wanting to learn more. The way he teaches is so amazing,” said sophomore Faith Roe, who is in his World History class.
Vriesman teaches AP United States History, AP World History, and AP African American Studies. He is also the Model United Nations director. A graduate of Calvin University, he earned his master’s degree at Missouri State University.
“I basically want to bridge the gap between college- and graduate-level history and high-school history,” he said. “(Historians) pretty much agree on different narratives than we present in high-school history textbooks.
“If you go to college-level history past 101 and you get to real history … you realize you can’t overestimate the impact that race has had on the development of every single American institution socially, culturally, economically and politically.”
‘If you teach truth that resonates, you find a larger pool of students who are willing to challenge themselves. … As history teachers, we have an immense responsibility to confront racism and call it what it is.’— National History Teacher of the Year Matthew Vriesman
Jaycie said she definitely notices different names and faces in Vriesman’s lessons. “I would learn about historical figures in Black culture and I wouldn’t know who they were (in Vriesman’s class)… It was really interesting to learn about them.”
Exposing Students to the Research
Vriesman brings his lessons to students and on a larger scale. He created the website Antiracist APush, which includes nine AP U.S. History units spanning 1491 to present. Each has related lessons and topics and is based on the work of historians.
“The purpose of Antiracist APUSH is to help students identify and expose the racist policies that have led to the deplorable racial disparities in American society. This is achieved by exposing students to the research of leading professional historians,” Vriesman states on his website.
“If our society is to have a more equitable 21st century, all Americans must be able to contextualize Black suffering and articulate the history of injustice. Much structural change and healing is needed. As history teachers, we have an immense responsibility to confront racism and call it what it is.”
Examples of APUSH topics are: Busting Myths about Race and Indentured Servitude; From Historians: The Missing Pieces of America’s Education on Slavery, Racism and Antiracism; From White Abolitionists: The Truth about the Confederacy, its Flag and its Monuments; Racist Federal Housing Policies; and Today’s Wealth Gap.
Vriesman also shows how history is local. A lesson on his website is Great Migration Case Study: Fighting Jim Crow in Grand Rapids, MI, which he worked on in partnership with the Grand Rapids Public Museum and its archives. The lesson is also on the museum’s website and includes a virtual historical tour.
Vriesman, who taught in South Korea and Kuwait before starting at East Kentwood six years ago, based his graduate research on a line in a textbook about the demographic shift in the Democratic party in the 1930s that he knew was wrong.
‘He really strives for students to understand the material, love the material, live the material.’— Sophomore Jaycie Gasper
In 1936 the Black vote shifted from Republican to Democrat. The textbook states: “Blacks, several million of whom had appreciated welcome relief checks, had by now shaken off their traditional allegiance to the Republican Party.”
“This is a racist stereotype and a lie,” Vriesman wrote on his website. “Historians have completely debunked this myth, so if we teach this to students we are not teaching history; we are teaching racist mythology. (Primary source data is overwhelmingly clear: the majority African American vote is consistently motivated by issues of racial justice, not economic benefits.)”
He said he wants students to learn to use multiple primary sources and to identify the difference between history and public memory.
A historian is not a memorizer, he said. “A historian is an investigator. A historian is an arguer… A historian is a philosopher on a quest for truth, and that’s exciting.”