August 27, 2010
Air Academy High School might seem a world away from the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., but they do have something in common: teacher Rob Christopher.
Christopher teaches AP government and U.S. history, and honors U.S. history in a classroom covered with history and elections posters and ephemera. He’s been teaching at the high school on the grounds of the Air Force Academy for 10 of his 18 years in teaching.
Recently, he was tapped to be the education consultant to the Naval Historical Foundation programs director for a Cold War Gallery under development. His role — as a volunteer — is to create materials for teachers and students for use at the museum and online.
Christopher’s interest in military history and the navy in particular was piqued when he stumbled upon a mention of the first USS Arizona, a Civil War gunboat that sank in the Mississippi River, in the library at Arizona State University. Information about it was spare, so he decided to do some research and then set out to find the wreckage, an undertaking that included the creation of a foundation.
The gunboat had been used by the Confederacy and the Union during the Civil War and was lost in the Mississippi River in 1865 — supposedly in an accidental fire. He found the sunken remains in 2001.
“That got the ball rolling on all the Navy stuff,” Christopher said.
In the years after the discovery, he spoke at many conferences and history gatherings.
Months ago, he submitted paperwork and a resume to the Naval Historical Foundation to speak at the ninth annual Maritime Heritage Conference in September.
So when he received a call from Dave Winkler, the foundation’s program director, he thought it was about a speaking engagement.
But Christopher was surprised: Winkler was looking for someone to help develop education materials for the Cold War Gallery.
A 2012 opening is planned for the gallery, housed in a 19th century building once was used to test the hull integrity of ships.
Each year, more than 300,000 people visit the U.S. Navy Museum complex in Washington, D.C. With recent development along the Anacostia River, the area has become a destination for tourists as well as school groups, Christopher said.
Museums are trying to catch up, however.
“With history, as time moves forward we keep creating more of it,” Winkler said. The U.S. Navy Museum covers naval history through World War II. The Cold War Gallery will continue the history, but it’s an intense period, with sophisticated topics for middle and high school students.
“You walk into this museum and you learn about our capabilities in the Cold War,” said Christopher, who toured the developing facility in July.
But younger students have never lived in a world where Russia and the United States weren’t allies. That’s why pre-visit education materials are important, Christopher said.
“They have to understand what perspective this museum is coming from, he said. “We’re looking through a whole different prism.”
Kids have different learning styles, and they tend to absorb and learn more with touch, Christopher said, who is hoping for a very tactile museum, with information panels that respond to touch and at least some exhibits that can be handled.
The gallery will have a lecture and class space in a carrier ready room — with chairs from the decommissioned USS John F. Kennedy. Christopher said one approach is to give kids visiting the museum a scenario, where they work through a situation from history.
“The idea is to keep them engaged and interested,” he said.
Christopher plans to work on materials for teachers and students for before, during and after a visit to the Cold War Gallery. He also hopes to get students involved in the process, helping to develop the curriculum.
“We’ve got all these artifacts, these great exhibits, now let’s build with it,” he said.
Winkler said the goal is to eventually turn exhibits into tools teachers can use — whether or not that are actually visiting the physical museum.
For Christopher, naval history isn’t simply a hobby.
“It’s part of another career that I have,” he said.
He earned his master’s degree in military history from Norwich University in Vermont. While teaching at Air Academy and at Metropolitan State College of Denver, he’s working on his doctorate from Exeter University in England, focusing on clandestine Confederate operations against Union ships.
“I don’t know everything,” Christopher said, “I learn and I progress with my learning.”
Contact the writer at 636-0162.