Kotasek was nominated for the honor by the Jane Long Chapter of the National Society of the DAR, and her application and essay will now be considered for the national award. She will be recognized at the March 22 meeting of the group in Houston.
Kotasek, a 2007 graduate of Clear Lake High School, was inspired to become a teacher by her mother, Laura Barker, also a social studies teacher at La Porte High School for the past 20 years.
“Her impact on students was a source of pride for me, and ultimately led me to the profession myself,” Kotasek said. “Additionally, my mother instilled in me a love for history by, at first, ‘dragging’ me to graveyards, historical sights and museums. Ultimately, she helped create the perfect travel companion, a willing teenager and young adult always looking for an interesting story or historical location when on family trips.”
Kotasek’s grandmother was also a teacher, and she was further motivated by her history professors at Sam Houston State University “to keep the study alive in our society.” After graduating from SHSU in 2011, she began her master’s coursework, also in history, at the University of Houston Clear Lake.
Kotasek loves teaching because it links her to her personal past, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, as well as connects her with the “amazing history of the nation I call home.”
“However, paradoxically, my absolute favorite part of being a history teacher is my connection to the future,” she said. “I teach about 120 to 150 students per year, and I contemplate the almost exponential impact I can have over the next generation, just by dedicating myself to my students and profession.”
Kotasek taught at Manvel High School in Alvin ISD for a year-and-a-half before coming to La Porte, where she teaches Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history to juniors. While teaching an AP class offers numerous challenges, such as training students to become proficient historical writers, she enjoys the benefit of being able to “dig deeper into history” with them. Students who pass the AP exam at the end of the year have the opportunity to receive college credit for two American history courses.
“Sarah is one of those teachers you come across once in a great while,” said Becky Nail, LPHS social studies department chair and pre-Advanced Placement world geography teacher, who added that Kotasek is popular with her students, their families and her colleagues. Students love her because she is kind, loving, fun, and cares about them.”
Kotasek enjoys getting to know her students and tries to attend sporting events, theater performances and concerts as often as she can to understand the interests her students have outside of the classroom.
“Sarah is able to see exactly what each child brings to the community, and her teaching approach involves finding and using students’ unique strengths to help them achieve success both academically and socially, while still challenging them to a rigorous curriculum,” Nail added. “(She) is my vision of the ultimate teacher.”
In February 2016, Kotasek was responsible for La Porte High School being recognized as a Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School. She explained that the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is a premier organization dedicated to providing lesson ideas for middle and high school students and hosting online archives full of primary source documents for classroom use. In January 2017, she sponsored a student trip to Washington, D.C., to witness to Presidential Inauguration.
“Ms. Kotasek’s students want to be in her class,” said Dr. Kade Griffin, former associate principal at La Porte High School who now serves as principal of Lomax Junior High. “Even on days when the topic may be a little ‘dry,’ you can count on Ms. Kotasek’s students to be engaged, and for Sarah to have devised a way to make that topic as interesting as possible. She truly loves American history and feels like it is her duty to impart that love on to her students.”
Griffin added that Kotasek is continually comes up with new ideas and enriching activities that lead to high levels of engagement in her students.
“No matter what I’m teaching, I try to find that spark that makes it interesting for my students,” Kotasek said.
Away from the classroom, she enjoys being with family and friends, playing computer games, reading and playing with her dog, a corgi named Nugget. Kotasek also enjoys traveling; born in Salem, Massachusetts, she frequently visits the Boston area. She said that spending time on the Freedom Trail and visiting sites such as the Plimoth Plantation and the Witch Trial memorial have helped to enrich her lessons and allow her to connect with the material she teaches each year.
This summer, she and mother embarked on a journey to visit sights in Berlin, Prague, Krakow and Warsaw. Visiting the prison and death camp at Auschwitz “had a profound and permanent impact on me,” Kotasek said. With this deeper understanding of the Holocaust and World War II, she hopes to communicate to students the importance of the tragedies the world has experienced in the hope that they remain vigilant against any mistreatment of human beings in their own lives.
In her classroom, she uses innovative techniques to help students take the lead in their own learning. One project, dubbed “Revolutionary Speed Dating,” allows students to choose to research a notable figure during the Revolutionary War area. After completing the research, students dress in costume and bring props to exchange short speeches about their character’s significance to that period.
Throughout the year, she also prepares them for seminars and debates, providing primary and secondary sources to analyze on a topic such as the annexation of the Philippines after the Spanish American War. Students then annotate the readings and prepare for a formal debate in class.
“It is amazing to watch pupils who are typically quiet become impassioned defenders of their perspective,” Kotasek said. “Not only does this teach argumentation backed by evidence, a necessary skill in history, but I also use it to stoke interest and analyze complex topics in depth. Above all, I want my classes to feel personally responsible for retaining this information and connecting the dots that allow them to understand the ‘story’ of history.”
By developing an outstanding rapport with students and passing on her excitement about her subject area to them, Kotasek not only prepares them for the exams they must take, but also for life.
“I can challenge students to seek deeper understanding and more sophisticated knowledge on the American Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, and the early Republic,” she said. “I truly believe this will make my students better citizens who understand the nuances of our past and the place of our country.”
Photo: Sarah Kotasek assists junior Jordan Morales with a question.