HELENA — Monday was Montana’s 132nd birthday and in Helena, leaders marked the occasion by recognizing a teacher for her work to share Montana’s story with her students.
April Wills, a fifth-grade teacher from Bainville, in northeastern Montana, received the Montana Statehood Centennial Bell Award, as the state’s history teacher of the year.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been really amazing,” she said.
Wills learned she had been selected on the last day of school this spring when she received a call from Norma Ashby Smith – the longtime broadcaster who has been coordinating the award since it began in 1990.
“I was out on recess duty, and I had a coworker yelling at me that there was an emergency and I needed to get into the building,” said Wills. “I had no idea; that was not on the top list of my thoughts. I got into my superintendent’s office and Norma was on the phone.”
Wills, her family, and 22 Bainville students came to the Montana State Capitol for Monday’s ceremony. At 10:40 a.m., they were given the honor of ringing the Centennial Bell for 30 seconds.
“The most exciting thing about sharing this with my students is I get to see their excitement and how they connect to their personal history,” she said.
State leaders were on hand for the celebration, including Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen – who himself is from Bainville.
History advocates and Wills’ coworkers praised her ability to bring history to life for her students.
“April is not only an inspiring teacher but is also an inspiring leader among history educators in Montana,” said Molly Kruckenberg, director of the Montana Historical Society.
Samantha Keefner, who also teaches in Bainville, said Wills does a great job not only getting kids interested, but helping other educators find better ways to teach history.
“Her passion and excitement for history is present in everything she does,” Keefner said. “I have been inspired by the way she blends technology, history and hands-on learning to lead Montana’s future leaders on their pathway to learning.”
Wills says she encourages “place-based learning.” In Bainville, she’s taken students on field trips to learn about the important local industries: agriculture and oil.
That learning continued on their trip to Helena. Wills and her students left Sunday morning for the journey – more than 500 miles.
“You guys got a pretty good experience of figuring out how big Montana really is yesterday,” said Charlene Porsild, president and CEO of the Montana History Foundation.
The students displayed one of their history projects – art showcasing Montana’s state symbols. They then toured the Capitol and the Montana Historical Society.
“They really get to see a space they can’t physically be in unless we’re here,” said Wills. “I want them to take it in and I want them to have all the oohs and aahs and understand just how big this is.”
Wills received $1,500 checks from each of the event’s three main sponsors: the Montana Television Network, the Montana History Foundation and the Sons and Daughters of Montana Pioneers.
Wills said she’s grateful for the recognition, but for her, teaching history is a labor of love.
“I would just encourage everybody – not just teachers, but parents, kids – to continue digging into your history and to find that thing that sparks the fire inside of you and make that your passion, because at the end of the day, those are the things that are important,” she said.