Lexington One District Teacher of the Year teaches social studies through storytelling
A typical day in Albert Robertson’s classroom at Meadow Glen Middle School might involve students rapping about the French Revolution or could have the Lexington One teacher wearing a period costume from the 1800s. It’s that innovation and ability to engage his sixth-graders and seventh-graders that won Robertson the Lexington One District Teacher of the Year for 2013-14.
Robertson was announced the winner on April 10 at the district’s annual celebration of educators. He was chosen from among five finalists.
“I was very surprised, but I am honored to have the opportunity to serve my school and my district,” he said.
Robertson is wrapping up his eighth year of teaching after initially planning to pursue a career in the performing arts. These days, he brings song, theater and more into the world of social studies.
“I am able to incorporate music, art, drama, creative writing, military history, dance, sports – virtually every other subject – into my class content,” he said. “Through the content, I can then help my kids become better historians, citizens and seekers of knowledge.”
Robertson has the opportunity to review the world’s history from early man to present day. He said the subject matter and his approach to teaching are an ideal pair.
“I feel like I am a storyteller at heart, and what better story to tell than our human story?” he added.
With so many historic events to cover, Robertson enlists unusual methods to keep his students engaged and interested in times long past.
“I dress up like characters from history … encourage them to make up songs, raps, and poems, (and) I find funny videos on the web to break up periods of history that are somewhat monotonous or really difficult to tackle,” he said.
The result is the middle schoolers retaining more information than they might realize, something Robertson said he likes to let happen accidentally.
“When learning is the sole purpose of your classroom, you ultimately lose kids — you end up plunging in and plowing through standards instead of building strong relationships with students,” he said. “If learning is the byproduct, kids are excited and want to know more every day — they don’t even realize that they are learning until they go home and share their excitement at the dinner table.”
Robertson added the stigma of middle school being a difficult level to teach did make him apprehensive at first about his placement. He quickly learned that the age group is actually eager to learn.
“They are the coolest, neatest kids to teach, and I love that they are still so excited, bright-eyed … bushy-tailed about learning while also being mature enough to take on traditionally high school-age content and projects,” he said.
One area of history Robertson focuses on is its social aspect. He asks his students to think critically about what led to tragedies like the Holocaust happening and what launched movements like the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.
“I love asking deep questions and allowing the kids to figure them out for themselves,” he said.
Pushing the students to do more than memorize facts is also part of Robertson preparing them for the working world. To instill career-readiness traits, he instructs them to not be afraid of hard work, to work well with others and to admit their mistakes.
“I teach students that perseverance is important – your first draft is never your last – there is always room for improvement,” he said. “The students that I have the honor to work with each day know that I expect them to put forth their best effort in any task that they take on regardless of what profession they are going to pursue.”
He also reminds them of wise words from one of his personal favorite authors.
“I ask students to be themselves. My kids know that Dr. Seuss … once said to ‘Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind’,” he said.
Advancements in personal technology have changed the job of teachers like Robertson. He recalled that they used to rely on overhead projectors and were blocked from YouTube.
Today, educators are encouraged to use all kinds of online and interactive resources to augment their lessons – and occasionally play videos like Robertson to bring a bit of silliness to the classroom. The students often are armed with iPads or laptops to practice their researching skills.
“The world is shrinking daily, and if we don’t continue to tap into the new technological innovations that are available, we’re going to be left in the dust,” Robertson said. “Our kids are ready to blaze trails, not follow the now well-worn path that many of us have become accustomed to.”
Debate between parents and lawmakers continues on the merit of Common Core State Standards and evidence-based learning and their role in the future of education. Robertson said he does see positive aspects, such as the focus on real-world problem solving and localized issues.
Looking ahead to the next school year, he is looking forward to finding new ways to challenge his students and place them on the road to short-term and long-term success.
“These are, after all, our future business leaders, doctors, historians and teachers,” he said.