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Sunrise Valley Elementary School students in teacher Katie Blomquist’s fourth-grade class deployed marshmallow peeps across a battle map of the United States.

Yellow ducks represented British troops. The French were represented by pink bunnies. And the Patriots, known by students as “Peep-triots,” were blue marshmallow bunnies, ducks or chicks; whatever’s handy. This yummy recreation of the battles of Yorktown and Great Bridge offers insight as to why Blomquist was chosen as the 2013 Virginia History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

“Any lesson I do that involves the kids putting their hands on something,” said Blomquist of her proactive, example-driven teaching style. “If that’s where the lesson starts, then I know they’ll love it and I’ll love it.”

Beyond recreating history, she said, hands-on learning “shows the kids the connection between geography and history. A lot of these battles happened along rivers or bodies of water… What makes me proud of those lessons is if you can make the lesson fun, that’s when learning can happen.”

Creativity in the classroom and a philosophy for hands-on learning helped earn Blomquist the distinction of being named the Virginia History Teacher of the Year, a title she was awarded earlier this month, beating out 15 other candidates. Her selection was made by a panel of educators and historians from the Library of Virginia, the University of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society and Virginia Union University.

Blomquist, who has taught at Sunrise Valley Elementary in Reston for six years, will now advance as a national nominee.

“The most exciting reaction [to the award] has been that an elementary teacher, who teaches everything, could get an award for a specific area. Everyone has been really excited about that,” Blomquist said. “It’s a huge validation. It’s also very humbling because Fairfax County has great teachers everywhere. It’s also a validation that I’m on the right track.”

The 2012-13 school year was an exciting one for Blomquist. In the fall, she was also named the Virginia History Teacher of the Year by the Virginia Council for Social Studies.

“[Blomquist] has collected artifacts, objects, documents and images that really help her tell the story and make history come to life,” said Susie Orr, Fairfax County Public Schools’ education specialist for elementary social studies. “She gives her students the opportunity to interact, engage in high-level conversations, investigate information and draw conclusions. She facilitates their learning rather than being the ‘sage on the stage.’… When I visit her classroom, there is so much student excitement with the learning process.”

Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman Julie Grimes said, “[T]he selection committee felt that she demonstrates a deep commitment to teaching American history through her creative and imaginative classroom activities and assignments that utilize primary source materials including artifacts, historic documents and exploration of historic sites.”

Educators say awards like the Lehrman Teacher of the Year help energize educators while also giving recognition to teachers who go above and beyond to make learning fun.

Among the recommendations by educators that helped to gain Blomquist her Teacher of the Year title was a letter from fourth-grade student Mia Sachs.

“History has become my strongest and favorite subject because Mrs. Blomquist makes learning fun with her games and activities,” Mia wrote. “She gave us scripts for plays about the Civil War and Jamestown 1607-1644. After we became familiar with our parts we performed them for the rest of the class. This was especially helpful because we were able to experience what it must have been like to live during these times. My younger sister heard me talk about the Civil War so much, that she created a Civil War collage in her art class at school.”

Along with her teacher of the year title, Blomquist received a $1,000 prize.

“I’ve been talking to my husband about a weekend getaway in Gettysburg or Richmond,” she said, adding that she is also enrolled in the Colonial Williamsburg Teaching Institute, a six-day immersion for teachers in colonial American life, which includes an opportunity for educators to pick up new tools for the classroom.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com