Teacher honored for preserving past
Christine Turilli Bernardo has been an educator in the Jamestown school system for 12 years. This year her efforts as a history teacher have been recognized by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The institute named Bernardo as the Rhode Island winner in its annual search for the history teacher of the year.
Bernardo, who lives in Wakefield, spent several years residing in Jamestown while she was in her teens. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island in sociology, while minoring in Spanish. Years later she returned to school, eventually earning a master’s degree in teaching from Rhode Island College. After college she started a family and returned to Jamestown. Her children attended both island schools.
Bernardo said she always wanted to be an educator.
“Both of my parents are retired public school teachers,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.”
Bernardo worked as a long-term substitute teacher in Portsmouth and Jamestown until she was hired full time.
“Jamestown is a wonderful school system to work for because you can watch the kids grow,” she said.
These days Bernardo teaches fifth grade at Lawn School. Because her classroom is located in the middle-school building, even though fifth grade is often considered an elementary grade, Bernardo said she ends up teaching her students a combination of elementary and middle-school models. In addition to math and reading, Bernardo teaches social studies, including geography, history and current events.
“It’s challenging for the kids, that’s for sure,” she said.
Maureen McGuirl nominated Bernardo for the award. McGuirl teaches seventh- and eighth-grade history at Lawn School. Being nominated by McGuirl was particularly meaningful for Bernardo because she holds her colleague in such high esteem. Bernardo said she has learned a lot from McGuirl since the two have been working together.
“Just the fact that she nominated me is the honor,” Bernardo said. “I was kind of blown away.”
The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History was founded in 1994 by Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman. Its purpose is to develop programs for schools, teachers and students throughout the country. The nonprofit organization’s website currently hosts 60,000 unique historical documents. The institute has received recognition by the White House, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Organization of American Historians.
The institute names a teacher of the year to someone in every state, as well as a teacher from the District of Columbia, the American territories, and U.S. Defense Department schools. To be eligible, teachers must have three years of classroom education, a demonstrated commitment to teaching American history, and evidence of creativity and imagination in the classroom.
They must also make effective use of documents and other primary resources to engage students.
Once nominated, Bernardo was asked to submit a number of documents in support of her nomination. In addition to a current resume, a letter of support from a colleague, and samples of a lesson plan and student project, Bernardo had to submit a one-page statement on her philosophy on teaching.
The letter that Bernardo submitted focused on the word “authentic.” She pointed out that no matter what subject she is teaching, her lessons are authentic. Even when she is teaching history she makes every effort to apply it to the real world today. She requires an equally authentic audience for her teaching, and pointed out that educating students is a team effort. She praised her colleagues in the school as well as outside organizations like the Jamestown Historical Society, the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association and the Jamestown Press for helping her to do her job.
“That phrase ‘it takes a village’ really is true,” Bernardo said. “To bring out the best understanding and the best written work, it really does make all the difference to have a great team.”
The final part of the authentic theme for Bernardo is the sources. She firmly believes that having access to original documents is an important part of teaching history. As an example, she cited Roger Williams’ writings on his encounters with the Narragansett Indians. When it comes to original documents and artifacts, the Gilder Lehrman Institute has proven to be an important resource.
“Having a group like Gilder Lehrman to go to makes things so much easier,” Bernardo said.
Bernardo also stressed that education shouldn’t stop when the bell rings. At the end of each school day, she asks her students to name five things they learned in school that day and can share with their families. Bernardo said she often hears from parents who tell her they learned something from their children.
In addition to the $1,000 cash prize and certificate of recognition that each winner receives, Gilder Lehrman also presents a collection of classroom resources to the school library in the award winner’s name. Bernardo will receive her award at school on Monday.