Announcing the 2020 John Marshall Foundation Teacher Award Recipients

Before his school closed in March due to COVID-19, middle-school teacher Paul Xenakis asked his seventh- and eighth-grade students at Ghent School, a K-8 open classroom public school in Norfolk, to use the concept of the rule of law to examine the government’s response to the global health crisis, asking them to explore themes of safety, liberty, and governmental authority.

“The national events of this last year clearly highlight how John Marshall’s legacy and the principle of rule of law continue to impact our day-to-day lives,” he says.

Xenakis is one of two history teachers named recipients of the 2020 John Marshall Foundation Teacher Awards, co-sponsored by the law firms of Kaplan Voekler Cunningham & Frank and Miles & Stockbridge.

George Wythe High School Virginia/U.S. History and Government teacher Wayne Thomas is this year’s high-school recipient. Both teachers were awarded a $2500 prize, and on October 29, will be honored at the Richmond Bar Association’s Annual Award Luncheon. This year marks the Awards’ 31st year and more than $100,000 given to support innovative history, civics and government teachers.

Thomas is a graduate of Norfolk State University and Virginia Commonwealth University and is in his fifth year of teaching. Each year he asks students to think critically about media coverage and engages them in real world applications of the curriculum, such as the 2020 primaries. George Wythe High School History Department Head Kakim Fung says Thomas “empowers students to know that each of them has a purpose and a role to play to better the world each and every day.”

Thomas draws upon John Marshall’s career in public service, as well as his own, to help explain the governmental process. He takes students to the Virginia Supreme Court’s Rule of Law Day and invites government officials to his class, including an administrative law judge, the Mayor, a GWHS alumnus serving in the military, and school resource officers, to explain their roles in government. Thomas’s students gain an exceptional grounding in the Constitution and how the co-equal branches of government work. Many students go on to college majors in sociology and political science after taking his classes.

Xenakis graduated from Northwestern University, earned a National Board Certification in teaching social studies and history, and is in his 17th year of teaching. Xenakis observes that students are “innately interested in matters of justice” in their neighborhoods, communities, and in their relationship with their government, both their rights and their duties. His personal statement illustrates how the teaching of history and civics, including John Marshall’s legacy, helps his students see how governments attempt to ensure both liberty and safety, including during times of crisis.

Last year, Xenakis used the Japanese American internment Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. United States, the impeachment process, and the governmental response to COVID-19 to guide students’ exploration of the Constitution. Norfolk Public Schools Social Studies Coordinator Jennifer M. Lopez praises Xenakis’ integral role in district-wide development of civics and history curriculum, assessment of student performance, and resources for teachers. Xenakis asks “students to take command of their own learning, while inspiring the application of constitutional concepts of both historical and modern events.”

Xenakis says his district used the Justice in the Classroom (JIC) online resources in planning for the 2020-21 academic year. During the first half of 2020, he worked with the History/Social Studies Department and a team of other teachers to compile primary and secondary sources for each SOL substandard for use by educators in Norfolk Public Schools, relying heavily on JIC curriculum.

“The JIC resources are fantastic because they are closely aligned with the Virginia standards, and they are rooted in events and controversies that students can relate to and understand. The digital files are also very helpful, since much of our teaching and learning this year will take place online.  It is a perfect fit for what we are trying to accomplish.”

Each year, the John Marshall Foundation recognizes outstanding middle- and high-school teachers who demonstrate knowledge of and enthusiasm for the US Constitution as evidenced through activities inside and outside of the classroom. Nominees are selected from public and private schools and must have been teaching for a minimum of five years to be considered.

The John Marshall Foundation engages the public at the crossroads of our Constitution, our classrooms and our courts, educating students of all ages about constitutional history and civics. The annual Teacher Award is one of many JMF programs designed to advance the teaching of our Constitution and Marshall’s lasting contributions.

Wayne Thomas
George Wythe High School

Paul Xenakis
Ghent School