When Heather Robinson was in school, she couldn’t stand history — reading about the subject in a textbook just didn’t make it come to life for her.
That’s why Robinson’s fifthgrade class at Desert Canyon Elementary in Scottsdale learns history through a more hands-on approach. They dress up as historical characters, examine antique newspapers and create their own personas to go along with many of the periods they study.
Robinson’s methods haven’t gone unnoticed — she was named Arizona History Teacher of the Year this week.
Robinson was selected for the award by a committee of Arizona Department of Education employees, said Adria Lugo, director of special projects and constituent services for the Arizona Department of Education. Robinson caught the committee’s attention because she found ways to bring historical documents into a fifth-grade classroom.
Robinson said she’s done a lot of research to make that possible.
For instance, she’s looked up historical figures — people who really existed but aren’t well-known — and gives each of her students a real name to make up a persona for different time periods.
The personalities are unique to each student, but they can also look up facts about their characters online, Robinson said.
Sally Norton, principal at Desert Canyon and the person who nominated Robinson for the award, said she’s been especially impressed with the way this exercise plays out in Robinson’s Civil War unit.
Students start to understand a lot of different viewpoints from the period — North and South, black and white — and also get a lesson about tolerance, Norton said.
“Looking at people with differences makes you more the same,” Norton said. “Through the unit, you identify those differences, but you’re still friends.”
Robinson said her lessons stem from the way she would have liked to have learned in school.
“It was very different then,” she said. “You didn’t do unique and exciting things in school — at least not what I experienced.”
Robinson’s outlook changed in fifth grade, when her teacher brought new activities into the classroom, including a genealogy project.
Now, Robinson has been a teacher for 14 years, nine of those in the Scottsdale Unified School District.
This is the first year Arizona has named a History Teacher of the Year, a program sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a group that encourages learning about American history, and Preserve America, a White House initiative that deals with American heritage, Lugo said.
Robinson will receive $1,000, history books for her school’s library and a shot at the National History Teacher of the Year award.