October 17, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

History teacher Matt Vriesman works with students at East Kentwood High School
Matt Vriesman, a 2007 graduate of Calvin University, teaches at East Kentwood High School in Kentwood, Michigan.

Walk into one of Matt Vriesman’s history classes and you may think you entered the wrong room.

“We just put King George III on trial for tyranny,” said Vriesman.

His classroom looks more like a courtroom.

“Kids like to investigate, kids like to argue,” said Vriesman.

This approach to teaching is a key reason why Vriesman, a 2007 graduate of Calvin, not only was awarded the Michigan History Teacher of the Year Award, but also why The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recently honored him as its National History Teacher of the Year.

“I have been blessed with fantastic educational opportunities which have fostered a passion for justice and for telling the truth about American History. The truth is that all men are created equal but have been treated differently. We must be able to engage in honest conversations with our students. They want that, and they deserve that.”

Always interested

Vriesman’s love for history isn’t a new phenomenon. “Ever since I was little that was what I was interested in,” said Vriesman. “I’d reenact key historical moments in U.S. history with my action figures.” Vriesman was introduced to historical books at an early age, and he’d take family trips to Virginia or the east coast and see the historical sites.

He entered college thinking he had this history thing figured out.

“I thought I knew a lot about American history,” said Vriesman, upon entering Calvin University. But after a history class or two, he soon realized: “I might not know anything about American history. I was stunned by some of the things I learned about American history, and it made me more curious.”

Hooked on history

Vriesman started to thrive as his curiosity was given the space to explore.

“I liked history coming into Calvin and I became absolutely hooked at Calvin, especially when I started diving into the books.”

What he had experienced throughout his life was what he calls a public memory narrative of history, more memorizing textbook material, and typically only getting history from a single source. At Calvin, he was introduced to academic history, what he calls “a genuine quest for truth and knowledge.”

He says this approach allowed more voices to be heard and for history books to be cross-checked by multiple sources.

“Historians ask questions. Historians investigate. They don’t memorize a textbook. We challenge textbooks,” said Vriesman. “In my Calvin history courses, I was confronted with the reality that the African American experience was vastly different from the public memory narrative of America’s past, that just really shook me up. I moved past public memory narratives when I was faced with academic history where you start to broaden the sources you bring into a history class, where you say here’s the dominant narrative, and here’s this group, and this group, and this group’s experiences. And they don’t all line up. In academic history we are trying to draw conclusions that can corroborate a wide variety of sources.”

Paying it forward

That’s what Vriesman’s class is doing now, not relying on one dominant textbook to reveal if King George III was indeed a tyrant, but doing the investigation themselves, hearing from many witnesses.

“That’s what history is, you take a primary source and say, what do you think? And then, you broaden the pool of sources,” said Vriesman.

In the end, Vriesman sees students engaging more and gaining a broader and deeper understanding of history. And in this East Kentwood courtroom, the investigation into King George turned out a split jury. “Half the class said yes, he was a tyrant,” said Vriesman, “the other half said no.”

A high honor

On Tuesday, October 24, Vriesman will be honored as the National History Teacher of the Year at a ceremony in New York City. The ceremony, hosted by Peabody and Emmy Award-winner Deborah Roberts, will be livestreamed (registraton required) at 5 p.m. and include a video created by the History Channel that highlights Vriesman’s career and accomplishments.

The National History Teacher of the Year Award highlights the crucial importance of history education by honoring exceptional American history teachers from elementary through high school. The annual award honors one K–12 teacher from each state, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools, and US territories and names one of the state winners the National History Teacher of the Year. For 2023, that's Matt Vriesman.

“It is really gratifying to see one of our graduates acknowledged with such a high honor,” said Kate van Liere, chair of Calvin's historical studies department. “Matt's teaching exemplifies so many of the values we work to instill in all our students, like passion for the truth, love for his community, and zeal to work for justice both locally and globally. I remember him as a curious and enthusiastic student in my senior seminar, and it's inspiring to see how far that curiosity and enthusiasm has taken him. We're very proud of him and the many other great teachers out there who have graduated from Calvin.”

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