KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — Matthew Vriesman had big plans for Kentwood Public Schools, even while he was teaching thousands of miles away.

Before he joined the staff at East Kentwood High School, Vriesman spent time teaching in South Korea and Kuwait. No matter how far he was, the West Michigan native was always connected to the school district, thanks to his wife.

While working with Bethany Christian Services to help resettle refugees in the U.S., Vriesman’s wife found that Kentwood Public Schools were more than willing to take in the children as new students.

“She found that this was the place that was like, ‘Oh cool, welcome.’ And had at least a plan and didn’t look at kids like, ‘What am I supposed to do?'” Vriesman recalled. “She said Kentwood Public Schools, that’s the place.”

It’s been six years since Vriesman became a teacher at his “dream school” in the history department teaching three different AP classes and also serving as the director of the school’s Model United Nations program. He said his hard work has already paid off by getting to teach his students, but he was recently recognized for his teaching skills as well.

Last month, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History named Vriesman the National History Teacher of the Year. He is only the second Michigan teacher to win the award and the 20th recipient of the title.

Vriesman was honored at a ceremony in New York City and is still in shock that he was not only nominated but won the whole thing.

“When I found out, I mean, it’s obviously very exciting, a little bit shocking,” Vriesman said. “It’s a phenomenal title, and I’m obviously very proud and so happy to represent Kentwood Public Schools and all of the cool things that we’re doing here.” 

One of Vriesman’s colleagues was the one who nominated him just based on what they saw Vriesman doing in the classroom, including partnering with the Grand Rapids Public Museum. His students were tasked to write what it was like going to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those first-hand accounts now reside at the museum.

Vriesman centers a lot of his lessons around the use of first-hand accounts or primary sources. He first began focusing on them while he was in graduate school and noticed that there were a lot of discrepancies between what historians were saying and what the textbook standards were claiming.

“I think the best way I could describe that would be that our textbooks reflect state standards, which often have a purpose of retelling stories of American public memory which serve to justify America’s current status and our current society and the current distribution of resources. And historians aren’t really in the business of trying to justify the present,” Vriesman said.

That’s why Vriesman started a blog, Anti-Racist APush, which has quickly become its own lesson plan that is used by teachers all across the country. The website now features historical primary sources that cover a variety of historical moments in an effort to not justify the way things are but to question why they are. It’s what he hopes his students get out of his classes as well.

“If historians say, ‘That’s not true and here’s the proof,’ (why) is it in our history textbooks?” Vriesman said. “It’s not even a history textbook anymore, it’s like patriotic mythology or even sometimes just plain, racist mythology. That’s not OK. I’m not going to lie to these students.”

The lesson plan has been adopted by thousands of educators who agree with Vriesman on how history should be taught in schools. Vriesman said this was the best way for students to take the facts and think critically for themselves. The award, he said, just validates that it’s working.

“We’re having difficult conversations with people with different experiences, but we’re gaining complex understandings of the past for the purpose of a future, healthy democracy. What an amazing mission, what an incredible thing to be a part of,” he said.