Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Bret Harte High School history teacher Jennifer Truman has been named California Teacher of the Year at the high school level by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Truman earned the state title after being nominated by the VFW James D. Piper Post 12118 in Copperopolis and then chosen as the nominee for the VFW district that includes the Mother Lode.

Having been selected from the pool of hundreds of teachers named by other VFW posts throughout California, Truman is now a candidate for the organization's national high school teaching award.

"She's our teacher of the year, that's for sure," said Al Gilbert, commander of the Copperopolis VFW post. "We thought so much of her and what she's doing for the youth today."

Truman teaches U.S. history and advanced-placement U.S. history to about 160 juniors at Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp, in addition to coaching cheerleading.

In 1997, she launched what's become a tradition at the school, bringing in veterans from modern wars for conversations with students.

Last spring, about two dozen veterans sat at tables and told students their stories from World War II through Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They bring their medals and pictures and letters," Truman said. "It's very personal because across the table you can see (the students') eyes fill with emotion."

Many of the veterans return year after year. Some are former students of Truman's who heard veterans tell their stories while at Bret Harte.

Truman said students won't learn history without feeling an emotional connection to the past, and that's where firsthand accounts come in. She has been able to convince veterans who were initially reluctant that they're the best teachers of all.

"I tell them, if you don't tell your stories, who will?" she said. "Are you going to rely on a movie? Are you going to rely on a textbook?"

Truman, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, was drawn into teaching by her love of stories. Having earned her degree in journalism, she planned to work as a sports reporter. But she said the field was largely closed to women at that time.

After realizing that her interest in journalism was about telling stories, and that teaching history would give her that opportunity, she found her true calling.

Truman has taught at Bret Harte High School since 1996. Before that, she taught at Sonora High and Summerville High schools.

She and her husband, Scott Nanik, director of alternative education for the Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools, have two children who are now in college.

She said her Bret Harte High students often call her "Truman" or simply "T."

She said the most challenging part of her job is fitting the U.S. Constitution, and about 150 years of history from the Civil War through 2008, into 170 school days while meeting the obligations of standardized tests. But she sees class time as only the beginning, motivating students to learn on their own.

"The way I approach it is I'm going to give you just a little taste, and you can go back to the buffet table and get more," Truman said.

It's a practice she follows herself, taking part in several teacher seminars funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Gilder Lehrmen Institute of American History. Teachers must apply, and the selection process is competitive.

Last summer, she learned more about the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta and visited the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. She has also studied about Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, the 1960s at Georgetown University and World War II at Pearl Harbor.

Then there was the 2008 trip that Truman calls the "crown jewel": a Fulbright-funded program that brought her and several dozen other American teachers to Japan, where she learned about Japanese culture and history.

"She brings history alive for the kids, and Jennifer is truly the epitome of someone who's a lifetime learner," said Bret Harte High Principal and Superintendent Mike Chimente. "She takes advantage of every opportunity she can to increase her knowledge about her subject, and it shows."

Her teaching philosophy has benefited more than just Bret Harte High students.

The visits by veterans to Truman's classroom have resulted in several of them being "more talkative about their experiences than they've been in the last 40 to 50 years," Gilbert said.

"It was a good learning experience for all of us, even for the veterans," he said. "It helps in the healing process to talk about it … When it's in that situation talking to the youth, you kind of open up."

For earning the California Teacher of the Year award, Truman will be honored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Sacramento on Jan. 18. The Bret Harte High Board of Trustees will also recognize her at its Feb. 4 meeting.