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At Seward Middle School, a teacher opens windows to the world

For more than 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska's exceptional teachers — like Myla Liljemark — through the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, the company has honored nearly 700 educators for their dedication to teaching and inspiring students.  Nominations for this year's awards are open until Feb. 1; the program is also accepting submissions for the new Educational Allies Award, which celebrates the unsung heroes in Alaska's schools, such as principals, teaching assistants and other staff members.

As a girl growing up in Germany in the 1980s, Myla Liljemark watched history unfold before her eyes — an experience that helped spark a deep curiosity about the world around her. More than 15 years later, in a harbor town on the Kenai Peninsula, she works to ignite that same curiosity in local students.

"It's opening up those windows and doors to kids in the world," said Liljemark, a social studies teacher at Seward Middle School. "That's what has inspired me from day one."

In her classroom, Liljemark employs technology to virtually transport students to far-off places, and she highlights current events to illuminate ancient history. She uses individual connections to bring daily lessons to life, which is why she was recognized as a BP Teacher of Excellence in 2013 — an award bestowed upon outstanding educators around the state.

Liljemark — who holds a bachelor's degree in history, a master's degree in teaching, and an international baccalaureate graduate certificate — has been teaching in Seward for more than 10 years. After first working at Seward High School, she moved to the local middle school, where her students have studied everything from ancient history to the early years of the United States. Nearly 100 kids come through her classroom doors every week, learning about the Great Wall of China, Ancient Mesopotamia and the big, wide world beyond the Kenai Peninsula.

"I have found that if you can make whatever it is we're learning about somehow relevant and real and happening in real time, they're hooked," Liljemark said. "If you pull those things that seem so dead, that seem so long ago, and you make it real … then I find that kids catch it a little bit more."

There's no such thing as an average day in her classroom. Some days are filled with physical movement or involve students teaching each other; other days are focused on creating something or learning through technology. Some classes can get loud, like the time they used inflated balloons to study latitude and longitude; other classes are more contemplative. Not every student learns the same way, and Liljemark keeps that in mind every day.

"The idea is, throughout the course of the week, that I'm meeting everyone's needs," she said.

With the help of technology, Liljemark takes her students far away from Seward — at least virtually. Skype enables her class to hear from people around the world, such as the former United Nations general who spoke about rehabilitating child soldiers in Uganda. Another time, her class participated in a video conference with schools in Canada.

Using Google Earth, Liljemark helps her classes explore the world's many mysteries, both natural and manmade. With a special KMZ file mapping out the London tube system, her students plan a virtual trip to England, learning all about the country along the way.

It's a social studies lesson with a real-life application. Living at the far end of one of the few highways in Alaska, her students don't have the opportunity to navigate a subway system, and London is a very different place than Seward. Liljemark hopes her lessons will prepare her students to take on the globe one day.

"And that's really along the lines of what drives me — that practical knowledge," she said. "Let's provide them with the skills and provide them with the understanding that the world outside is really different from the world here."

To Liljemark, there's something wonderful within every student. Success as a teacher means finding ways to nurture them, encourage them and foster a sense of connection —- with each lesson and the broader world around them.

Liljemark feels successful when a student tells her about the center pivot irrigation system she spotted on vacation after recognizing it from school. She feels successful when a student can explain the electoral system to their parents, or when a shy, quiet student is motivated to bring their own family artifacts to share with the class.

Her quest is to show her students the world is ongoing. While technology opens doors, Liljemark said she's spent the past few years brainstorming ways to do more. She wanted to put her students in physical contact with all the things they were learning about.

"In this attempt to get my students that physical contact, I've found it's actually taken us outside the classroom," she said.

This year Liljemark is planning to participate in a teaching exchange that will take her to New South Wales. Bronwyn Hull, an Australian educator, will temporarily take Liljemark's place at Seward Middle School, bringing her own husband and children to Alaska with her. Liljemark hopes the exchange program will be an educational experience in itself. Not only will her students have the opportunity to learn from a new teacher, they'll live for a year alongside a family from an opposite hemisphere.

And even though it's a year away, Liljemark is already making plans for her return to Seward: She wants to take her students on a trip to Washington, D.C. The quest for knowledge is never ending.

"If we can just pull these kids along and get them into the world, however we do it, it makes me feel good," she said.

This story is sponsored by BP, celebrating the teachers who bring a world of possibilities into the classroom. 

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with BP. Contact the creative services editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.