LIVERMORE — Not every classroom has a language tree depicting the Latin and Greek roots of common words used every day.

Nor does it have a fifth-grade teacher who was named Maine History Teacher of the Year for 2013 by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of America.

That classroom and its teacher, Janet Ventrella, is a Livermore Falls High School and University of Maine at Farmington graduate who chose teaching as a second career.

Ventrella, 51, has been teaching for 10 years after having worked as a bookkeeper. And her classroom on the second floor of Livermore Elementary School is the same one in which she did her student teaching.

But what’s different is her approach to the subject she loves.

She reads lots of primary sources to youngsters, such as a letter from a woman who immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island. She ties those experiences to the immigration issues of today.

“We compare then and now. It’s good for kids to know that issues are recurring today,” she said.

She doesn’t just talk about women’s suffrage and the inequality that existed before American women got the right to vote. She organized an example of what that was like by allowing only boys to sign up for lunch, and by calling on only boys during class discussions.

One of her boys said such discrimination and unfairness “wasn’t very nice.”

As an elementary teacher, Ventrella teaches all subjects, but often she can incorporate some history into nearly every one. Many of the books available to youngsters involve the Holocaust, on the grade-appropriate level.

“They are really fascinated with this topic,” she said.

Along with teaching the history of this horrific subject, she teaches the theme of humanity and ties it in with bullying.

Whenever students are immersed in a topic, the entire class is part of it by creating a culminating project or story.

Getting children motivated sometimes takes some real creativity.

Youngsters became involved in such American history as the presidency and death of John F. Kennedy and the disappearance of the Lindburgh baby by Ventrella’s introduction of the subjects as mysteries.

“They become detectives,” she said.

Ventrella credits her mother’s passion for history for helping to develop her own.

“I find history so fascinating, and I love sharing how we got where we are now,” she said. “Kids need to know the issues that shape the world we live in.”

She is humbled by the award and believes many other teachers could have won.

Ventrella switched careers because of the time she spent in the classrooms of her children.

“I loved it,” she said.

And she still loves it.

“I enjoy the kids,” she said. “They are amazing people. They are fun and are like sponges. They want to learn. They are independent but have so many different personalities.”

One teacher from each of the 50 states is chosen as history teacher of the year. The award carries with it $1,000 to spend however the teacher wants, along with access to many resources for the classroom.

Ventrella and her husband, Mike, who works at the Verso paper mill in Jay, are the parents of three adult children: Rachel, who teaches third grade at Livermore Elementary School; Kathryn, who is studying elementary education; and Thomas, who is pursuing a pharmacy degree.


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