Fifth-graders inevitably find themselves drawn into Kate Hunter’s social studies lessons, whether the subject is homelessness, bullying or the sacrifice of World War II veterans who were the students’ great-grandparents.
On Thursday, state and local officials gathered at Minnesauke Elementary School in East Setauket to celebrate the 53-year-old teacher’s selection as the nation’s Outstanding Elementary Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Hunter and the two winners at the middle-school and high-school levels will be honored in San Francisco next month at an annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies.
For Hunter, Thursday also offered a chance to get a jump on Veterans Day, which is Nov. 11, and provide timely instruction in the values of courage, honor and self-sacrifice.
The lesson started with a reading from the children’s book “America’s White Table,” which describes how one family decorates a small table to commemorate the solitary suffering of an uncle who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Then, one by one, youngsters in Hunter’s classroom stepped forward with hand-drawn tributes to service members in their families: a great-grandfather who enlisted in the Army during World War II and lost a leg in combat, a great-grandfather who fought aboard a Navy destroyer, an aunt who served with the Marines in the Gulf War.
The teacher told her fifth-graders that she sees something of those patriots in the children’s own faces — and in the support they show one another.
“Well, it’s wonderful, sitting here, my favorite place, looking at you,” said Hunter, who has taught at Minnesauke for 14 years. “I think we’re in good shape to meet any challenges.”
Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state’s policymaking Board of Regents, joined local administrators from the Three Village school district in observing the lesson. Tilles said he was moved.
“She can make social studies into a real-life situation,” he said of Hunter’s approach. “All the connections that kids had with relatives who served in the military, and what an impression they made and what heroes they were.”
Reviewers for the National Council for the Social Studies, representing more than 15,000 educators in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and scores of foreign countries, agreed.
“NCSS is proud to honor Ms. Hunter and her approach to helping students understand and see themselves as active participants in the issues that matter most to them and to our world,” said the group’s executive director, Lawrence Paska.
Hunter described her job as “turning social studies into social action,” and her resume reflects this. Prior to teaching, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a legislative aide to then-Rep. Robert Mrazek (D-Centerport) and for the American Physical Therapy Association.
Thursdays in Hunter’s classroom also are “news days,” when students bring in articles they’ve read about local, national and international events. Readings often result in social action.
Last year, for example, a fifth-grader reported on drinking-water pollution in Flint, Michigan, where corrosion of pipes because of government mismanagement had resulted in lead poisoning. Minnesauke students responded by raising $940.50, which they sent to a charity serving the Flint area.
Two years ago, Hunter’s students learned there were 21,000 homeless children living in shelters in New York City. To underscore that stark number, each of the 21 youngsters in the class collected 1,000 pennies, which were used to buy Mets game tickets for a group of homeless fifth-graders in Queens.
Nicholas Dokadze, 10, is studying with Hunter this year and said he’s lucky to have drawn her class. He recalled one recent project, in which classmates wrote to an Ohio student expressing their support after learning through Facebook that he had been bullied.
“Even though we’re so far away, we still have a connection,” Nicholas said.