Julia Wright photo/Telegraph Journal

Geek chic: History teacher proves being a nerd is cool for school Julia Wright

by Julia Wright - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

This article is courtesy of Telegraphy Journal

If, as singer Rufus Wainwright once said,"being uncool is being pretty much the coolest you can be,"they don't come much cooler than Maryanne Lewell.

"Nerd, nerd, nerd,"she says, when asked to describe her interests."Full nerd. I like to read. I'm very quiet. I get really excited about certain things. I have that desire to know everything that typifies what I think of as nerd culture: you find something you love, and you need to consume all of it."

Lewell's nerdiness is pretty extreme, by any measure. A history and social studies teacher at Saint John High School, she's also working part-time on a PhD in history, and wrapping up her term as chair of the Saint John Free Public Library Board. She recently attained local celebrity status by competing in both the Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament and the CBC show Canada's Smartest Person. In the classroom, she lets her geek flag fly with outfits inspired by vintage video games like Pac-Man, and nerd-canon shows and films like Dr. Who and Star Wars. "I once did a whole week of Star Wars outfits,"she brags."You know, just because I could."

"It gives you something to talk to the kids about - it's like wearing the shirt of your favourite sports team. It allows you to connect with their interests."

She traces her current doctoral project looking at Acadian experiences of the First World War back to her roots growing up in Milledgeville in an"assimilated Acadian"family. As a result, "French became very important for me, culturally,"she explains.

Her mother,"a strong advocate for anglophones learning French as a second language,"enrolled Lewell in French Immersion in Grade 1. Her bilingualism enabled her to move to France for a year in 1997 to work at the Vimy Ridge Historic Site, an experience which proved formative for her as an academic and teacher.

"It changed my life,"says Lewell, explaining that part of her fascination with Vimy has to do with"that romantic notion that we have of ordinary Canadians, from coast to coast, fighting a war that was for a long time considered to be just and for a good cause."

"I think Vimy, as a battle, punches above its weight in Canada because it's so culturally relevant: after all, 10,607 Canadians died there,"she explains, with Jeopardy!-worthy numerical precision.

Her firsthand knowledge of the historic site also provides inspiration for her research."The Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge has got this dream-like quality: it rises out of the landscape as this white beacon on the hill,"she says.

"When you're looking out over the ridge - what would have been this horrible landscape - and contrast that with the purity of the white stone, you feel that the Canadians were there. There's a pride there that's hard to describe. It sounds like the most trite sort of nationalism, but when you're standing there, you can't help but feel it.

"It's like Alden Nowlan wrote [in the poem Ypres: 1915]: 'It makes me feel good, knowing/ That in some obscure way/ They were connected with me/ And me with them.'"

Lewell hopes to share her sense of connection with the past via a new, social media-based project based on her research on Vimy. From now until April 9, 2017 - the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge

- Lewell plans to tweet about significant events and historical context related to the battle under the Twitter handle @ vimy.

"It's a populist way of getting people engaged with history. It's reaching a different audience and it has a different intent. I'm really excited to see how it turns out,"she says.

The Twitter project will also factor into her lessons on the First World War with her high school classes - fostering in students a personal engagement with history which she describes as her greatest satisfaction as a teacher.

"You're introducing a student to something that's maybe a little challenging, or making them think outside of their own experience, and you see the light go on in their eyes. You know in that second their world view has shifted. That's what's so fun about history at that age: it's the big questions. What is democracy? What is reason? Why do we choose to vote? How can we challenge the system, and is that always good? These are the questions I get to do every year. How is that not the best job ever?"

Above all, Lewell makes no apologies for her enthusiasms."It's good for kids to see that you can like different things. It normalizes self expression, and that it's OK to be yourself." She's seen firsthand how embracing nerdy pursuits can pay unexpected dividends: in 2017, she plans to marry fellow teacher Michael Townes, whom she met when they were contestants on Jeopardy!, at a ceremony in Saint Andrews ("We're inviting Alex Trebek, in case he's looking for something to do. The odds of him coming are somewhere between 'slim' and 'none'").

With her many interests, multiple degrees, and a PhD on the horizon, it would be natural for Lewell to think of a career change; however, she says, "I really love teaching high school. People who stick around teaching in high school want to make a difference - to connect with the kids in some way."

"You have to be aware that it's so much more than the curriculum, look at your students as people, and treat them with humanity.

"Teaching is full of idealists and optimists. If we weren't that way in our fundamental core, we wouldn't be in it."

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