Teaching Democracy

What is the best way to study American constitutional history?  How do we make our students passionate about documents that are almost 250 years old?

Peter Gunn, a member of the Williston faculty since 1986, teaches the spectrum of American history and economics classes.  An inspiring and enthusiastic teacher, Peter’s lectures teach students to question something that is much too often taken for granted: the democracy that is our nation’s foundation.  In his classes, students question, debate, and strengthen their opinions about the American constitution.

One of the strategies he uses is the We the People program.  A national competition in which students debate, argue, and defend aspects of the Constitution to judges, according to their website, We the People, “promotes civic competence and responsibility.”  Williston first entered the competition in January 1998 and, under Peter’s guidance, has participated for the past fifteen years.

“Producing, presenting, and defending scholarship of this kind requires students to apply their understanding of American history,” said Peter.  “The more analytically capable and constitutionally literate a person is the stronger our democracy becomes.”

Brendan Hellweg ’14, a member of Peter’s AP U.S. history class said being part of Mr. Gunn’s class has, “taught me to view participation in democracy as a right, a privilege, and a responsibility all rolled up into one.”

In addition to teaching, coaching, and advising two clubs, Peter is also an adjunct faculty member at nearby Smith College.  This summer he will be the resident high school teacher for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer seminar focused on the history of Native Americans in New England.

“NEH programs offer tremendous support for high school and university educators to collaborate on new scholarship and methods of learning that will enhance history education across the country,” said Peter.

A resident of Easthampton, Peter also serves on the school committee.  It is the kind of public service he hopes will inspire his students.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Democracy”

  1. Congratulations to you and your students for strong performance today at the We The People competition. Good luck at the nationals in April.


    Terry Yoffie
    Education Chair
    League of Women Voters

    1. Thank you very much, Terry! The students did a terrific job and we’re very proud of their second place finish.

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