An inspiring fellow

by: Vern Uyetake, Laura Paxson, a social studies teacher at Lake Oswego High School, was one of 50 teachers chosen to attend the Inaugural Horace Mann-Abraham Lincoln Fellowship in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Ill., this summer. She says the experience will have an impact on her students and reflects the additional learning that many Lake Oswego teachers pursue during their summer.

When Laura Paxson first set foot inside the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, she figured her quest for documents from the election of 1860 would turn up a few photocopied, hard-to-read odds and ends.

What she found, however, was the real deal - stacks of authentic letters and historical records from the time period when Lincoln and the Republican Party came to power in an unstable nation.

Paxson, a social studies teacher at Lake Oswego High School, now has 12 lesson plans culled from those documents she can use in interactive courses at LOHS.

'What fascinates me about Lincoln is that he did not surround himself with 'yes' men,' she said. 'There was a wide variety of thinkers in his cabinet. He had to absorb various points of view and it made him a richer and better president for it.'

Paxson was one of 50 teachers from across the nation chosen to attend the 5-day Inaugural Horace Mann-Abraham Lincoln Fellowship in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Ill., this month.

Along with Paxson, several teachers from the Lake Oswego School District have - or will - participate in independent fellowships, studies and seminars this summer as a way to build enthusiasm for their profession, rejuvenate and collect fresh material for their class curriculums.

'What teachers have a responsibility to do is reinvigorate themselves so we can be lively, engaged, energetic teachers while we're (back at school),' said Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, an LOHS teacher who recently attended an 'Interpreting the Constitution' seminar at Stanford University.

While there, Wolfe-Rocca heard top-notch professors give presentations and was expected to complete hundreds of pages of reading each night. She learned the entire history of the Constitution in a single week.

'It helped remind me that there are different levels of knowledge out there,' Wolfe-Rocca added. 'There are incredible levels of complexity besides what you're dealing with in your classroom.'

Paxson hopes to take her enthusiasm and new-found knowledge about Lincoln's life and convey them to her students so they feel equally as inspired.

Paxson's personal interest in the popular wartime president grew last year when she read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book 'Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln' and began to consider what would have happened if Lincoln was not assassinated and continued his presidency.

'At the end, I knew Lincoln was going to die but I thought, 'Maybe we can stop the presses and change history!'' Paxson said. 'It was the most emotional impact I've ever felt reading a book.'

Later, when she noticed an advertisement for the Lincoln fellowship in an educational magazine, she knew she had to attend.

News of her acceptance came last May after an application process that included essays and recommendations from LOHS administrators.

A fellowship stipend of $800 paid for her airfare to Springfield, hotel and meals while she studied the life and legacy of Lincoln in workshops, visiting historical sites (such as his home) and attending Lincoln-related events.

For Paxson, a self-described 'history geek,' the experience made her as giddy as a a kid in a candy store.

'It was such a shot in the arm,' said Paxson, who is in her 13th year of teaching. 'I could have kicked myself for not doing this sooner.'

Her only charge was to learn as much as she could and put together lesson plans for her students based on the material covered. Paxson chose to focus on her personal favorite, the election of 1860, an event that set the stage for the Civil War.

'(The fellowship) will have an impact on the students I teach, but, on a larger level, it also reflects a practice of life-long learning that many teachers in this district pursue,' Paxson said. 'Studying Lincoln was, by and large, the study of the power of stories and stories are critical to building an enthusiasm for history.'

One evening, she sat alone outside Lincoln's house along a two-block stretch of deserted dirt road, surrounded by 19th century houses lit only by candles.

An eerie feeling suddenly came over her.

'There were bats flying overhead and, I know it sounds corny, but you could just imagine the ghosts of those people walking down the street,' she said.

History, she soon found out, still lives - for those who believe and are willing to share.