20, No. 17, April 5, 2001
Flowchart this: AHA names Butler
nations top history teacher
Noah Isserman, Special
to Inside Illinois
Noah Isserman, a sophomore at Uni High, is a staff reporter for the
schools student newspaper, the Gargoyle. His story ran in the
Gargoyle, Feb. 16, 2001.
by Bill Wiegand
marks for the teacher The
American Historical Association recently awarded Uni High's
Chris Butler the Beveridge Family Teaching Award, the highest
honor a K-12 history teacher can receive.
Chris Butler looks
over his shoulder.
"Ill be right with you," says the Uni High history teacher.
"Just let me get this started."
Its the beginning of lunch hour on a Wednesday afternoon, and
Butler is starting "Stalingrad," a movie that Unis Historical
Simulation Society is watching during lunch. Butler selects the scene,
starts the DVD playing, walks over and sits down next to his interviewer,
all the while hurriedly eating a sandwich.
"Sorry about that. Im a little rushed today." This is
pure Butler. From films to simulations, hes always willing to
go the extra mile, to spend the extra hour to enrich the learning of
This enthusiasm and selflessness has made him one of the schools
most beloved and respected teachers throughout his Uni career, now entering
its 23rd year. The vast majority of the students he has taught consider
him to be one of the best history teachers they have ever had. Now its
On Jan. 5, Chris Butler walked across the stage of the Constitution
Ballroom in the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. He was applauded by some of
the most distinguished historians in the United States as the American
Historical Association presented him with the Beveridge Family Teaching
Award, the highest honor a K-12 history teacher can receive. "It
was stunning," Butler says. "This is the kind of recognition
that you cant really anticipate getting. The feeling was more
of shock than anything else."
The honor wasnt the result of a pursuit of glory on Butlers
part. He was nominated by Barbara Wysocki, head of the Uni history department.
After being selected as a finalist last April, Butler put together a
10-page packet outlining his thoughts on teaching and curriculum development,
including some sample flowcharts and letters of recommendation from
fellow Uni history teacher Bill Sutton and the Classes of 2000 and 2001.
In early November, Butler received a phone call (which the AHA asked
him to keep secret) notifying him that he had, indeed, won the most
prestigious award in his field. In addition to a $1,500 cash prize,
he received an expense-paid trip to the AHAs annual meeting in
Boston, where he attended workshops and lectures by many prominent historians.
So what is so innovative about the way Butler views and teaches history?
The answer, like most things about Butler, is more complex and unique
than one might expect.
"It may seem kind of strange, but the way the Grateful Dead performed
at live shows is similar to the way I view history," he says. "Everything
was connected. The Dead would start with a particular song. That song
would flow seamlessly into another song, and then seamlessly into another.
Eventually, sometimes after five or six songs, the flow would return
to the original."
Butler applies this view of history as an interrelated flow of events
into perhaps his single greatest educational tool: the flowchart. Flowcharting
is essentially outlining the course of history in terms of causes, effects
and various cycles along the way all of which relate and interact
to form a larger picture. He explains his method of teaching history
in terms of a journey through the past. "I put a lot of work into
creating, shall we say, the streamlined interstate approach in the form
of the flowcharts," he says. "But I would certainly hate if
that were all I was remembered for. It is the signposts and the billboards
along the way that make it interesting." Once again, pure Butler.
His classroom teaching is essentially historical storytelling structured
around the flowchart for the lesson. Impressive, considering that one
of Butlers first students told him he was the most painfully boring
teacher she ever had. Butler has constantly refined and improved his
teaching techniques throughout his career. He has no intention of letting
"The Dead never liked to just repeat the same old songs over and
over again," he says. "Im the same way. Sometimes when
Im talking about something in class, it will become related to
something else, which will remind me of yet another thing. I may go
off on a seemingly irrelevant tangent, but it always eventually comes
back to the original point, again reminiscent of the Grateful Dead."
And how exactly does this make his teaching more effective? "So
the point is addressed, but Ive taken the scenic route. If you
are always taking the side roads, its a different experience every
time. And many of those side roads, those scenic routes, I find to be
worthwhile in their own right."
The bell rings. Lunchtime is over. Mr. B, hurried as always, walks briskly
toward the door as he heads to his next class. Looking over his shoulder,