West Springfield teacher James "Jim" Percoco loves history. And now he's making it.
The longtime history teacher recently was named one of five 2011 inductees to the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kan. The induction ceremony is set for June 17.
No teacher is more worthy of this recognition, said former students, many of who pursued careers in history or teaching. Percoco was nominated for the honor by fellow teachers and administrators at West Springfield High School. Thirty-two teachers made it past the lengthy nomination process to the selection committee's table, said Jenny Harder, the hall of fame's director of Induction and Recognition. Each year five inductees are chosen.
Teachers are evaluated based on previous honors and achievements, degrees and certifications obtained, the contributions they have made to their communities, their teaching philosophy and the 'it' factor that makes them exceptional.
Percoco, one former student said, focused on out-of-the classroom lessons.
"He always had something up his sleeve to try to keep us interested," said former student Jennifer Shearin, Class of 1989, who now teaches history at Yorktown High School in Arlington. Thinking outside of the classroom, she said, is one of Percoco's strengths.
"I was involved in this in-depth project in 11th grade where we sort of adopted this American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens," she said. Students working on the project visited Saint-Gaudens' works, the most famous of which might be the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common. The memorial honors the American Civil War Union Army colonel, who died during a failed attempt to capture Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
"[Percoco] really focused a lot on public art and how we memorialize people," said Shearin, who was taught by Percoco during his first years as a teacher.
"He's the only history teacher that I've ever known who's taught [using] art. He taught us to look at the stories behind the people that make up for how we remember [historic figures].
"He would teach us some of the symbolism behind the monuments," Shearin added.
Using monuments to study history remains a tool used by Percoco, 53, during his lessons today.
"I like icons and looking at icons. How they develop and how we extend their legacy... and what that says about us," he said.
"I don't use a textbook because they're bland. They're boring. I think I can do a better job of making history come alive for the kids than reading a textbook," he said. "I've always been interested in monuments since I was a kid, and that's the thing I try to bring to life for my students. ... It's a reason I moved to [Washington] D.C.
"Monuments give us a landscape that we can read. Monuments are really biographies in bronze. They're stories," he added.
When applying for teaching jobs in Fairfax County, West Springfield nearly missed out on Percoco.
"I was hired in 1980 because I could teach history and tape ankles," he said. "I was actually hired over someone who had a part-time job at the school, but because of [a background in sports medicine] I was considered a critical hire."
West Springfield Principal Paul Wardinski said Percoco's honor has raised the level of play among teachers in the school and caused a surge of energy to educate.
"There's a pride factor. People say 'I go to school, I work with Jim,'" he said. Since receiving the honor, Wardinski said the school has received calls and emails from Percoco's former students, including one who recently was pinned on as a brigadier general.
"Thirty years later, he still remembered the impact Jim had on him. That says something," Wardinski said.
Since signing on at West Springfield, Percoco has authored three books on history: "Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments" published in 2008; "Divided We Stand: Teaching about Conflict in U.S. History" published in 2001; and "A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History" published in 1998. This book is in its 20th printing and has sold more than 20,000 copies, he said.
Percoco said he'd always played around with the idea of writing a book. It wasn't until he was approached by a publisher after winning the Walt Disney Company American Teachers Award in 1993 that he began to put thought to pen. Some of his other honors include the USA TODAY All-USA Teacher Team in 1998, the 2010 Virginia Preserve America Teacher of the Year Award from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of History and the 2010 State Teacher of the Year Award within a discipline of history.
"Being a writer secondary to teaching has allowed me to work with kids in a different way," he said, adding he shows students how editors have marked up and critiqued his writing before it's published. Showing the students the edits he said lets students know that good writing is important and even published authors are edited. "It's created a really good ally in my classroom."
Many former students of Percoco's cite his Applied History class as a hallmark of their high school learning experience. The class, unique to West Springfield, is a year-long elective that pairs students with local historic sites, such as Ford's Theatre National Historic Site and George Washington's Mount Vernon, during the second semester.
Priya Chhaya, Class of 2000, said, "Having Mr. P as a teacher twice -- first for AP U.S. History and then for his course [in] Applied History -- had a significant impact on my career choice." Chhaya works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"Prior to taking his courses, I believed the stereotype that history really was all about names and dates with no real connection to the real world," she said. Percoco, Chhaya added, also is a fan of using Hollywood film as a tool to show students how history is interpreted.
Percoco said as part of his lessons on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, "Next [fall] we're doing a unit on Hollywood films on the Civil War. Movies often reflect the time period they are filmed... [and] how we view history."
Former student Brandon Butler, a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, said "[Percoco] is the most inspirational teacher that I have ever had, and has definitely had an impact on my life, and my choosing to be a history major at VMI. He teaches for the sole purpose of teaching and for the love of history."
Butler graduated high school in 2008.
"I honestly cannot think of any other teacher that deserves this recognition more than Mr. Percoco."