By Matthew Tungate
South Oldham Middle School’s Ron Adkisson may be the 2012 Kentucky History Teacher of the Year, but he credits his wife with inspiring him to be a better teacher. Before you think Adkisson is just trying to score brownie points with his spouse, realize that he means it literally.
Cheryl Adkisson works at South Oldham as a gifted and talented coordinator, and it was she who encouraged the 8th-grade American history teacher to start a “living history” program in his classroom similar to what they saw on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg about 10 years ago. The program involves him and his wife dressing as historical figures three or four times a year and asking the students to do the same.
“I don’t want to just teach history – I want the kids to do history,” Ron Adkisson said. “So any time I can get a group of kids dressed up and role playing, acting our parts of history and doing an interpretation of a character, I want them doing it. We bring history to life by teaching it this way.”
Adkisson was chosen from 33 nominees for the award, which is co-sponsored by the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS), the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, HISTORY and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on behalf of its Preserve America program. Adkisson will receive $1,000 and is in the running to be named the 2012 National History Teacher of the Year this fall. South Oldham Middle School’s library will receive history books and other educational materials, and Adkisson will be invited to a 2013 Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar.
The initial trip to Colonial Williamsburg was proof that the study of history is more than a collection of dates and people who have no relevancy to our lives today, Adkisson said.
“It’s about the people and the characters of the past that we don’t get to meet because we’re so caught up having to cover 18 chapters in a textbook,” he said. “I haven’t even passed out books this year. We have not cracked a textbook yet.”
He may not need to, either, Adkisson said, and that is a change for him. Adkisson said he has always loved history. “I was the nerd that wanted to read the book,” he said.
Yet he got his degree in elementary education and spent seven years teaching other subjects before spending the last 20 years at South Oldham Middle teaching American history. He still looks back and wonders why he didn’t major in history.
“It’s almost an obsession with me, to read and study,” Adkisson said. “The more I study now, the more I can’t stop.”
He spends hours looking for primary source documents, like historical letters and advertisements for slaves, he said.
“I haven’t read a book cover to cover in two years, but I bet I’ve read 2,000 primary documents,” Adkisson said. “I’m letting the documents do a whole lot more of the teaching as opposed to me doing the talking in my classroom.
“When I read primary sources, it’s like I can hear Thomas Jefferson speaking. I can hear one of these slaves speaking through some of these letters. It’s fascinating for me to read and experience.”
Jeremy Anderson, social studies lead teacher at South Oldham Middle, said he has been amazed at Adkisson’s work ethic in the seven years they’ve worked together. He said Adkisson gets so excited when he finds a new primary source or a new book that might be intriguing to the students.
“Even as hard as I work, when I leave the building, my mind tends to wander to other things in my life,” Anderson said. “He leaves the building and continues thinking and processing and reading about how he can improve what he is doing in his classroom.”
Anderson said Adkisson is an inspiration to his co-workers.
“For me personally, I can attribute my success as a leader in this building, advancing my career to being National Board Certified, being able to develop relationships with students, and basically how great my professional career has evolved in almost every way to Ron,” Anderson said.
Winn Wheeler, literacy coach at South Oldham Middle School, nominated Adkisson for the award by highlighting his relationship with students, passion for the subject and his professional growth.
Ultimately, she said in an interview, Adkisson makes a difference in student’s lives and is remembered long after students leave the school.
“They learn important skills for life – being responsible, being respectful, being friendly and amicable. It is amazing the barriers that are broken by such skills,” Wheeler said. “In terms of content, students develop a real appreciation for U.S. history and a sense of pride and patriotism. I think they come to realize that our privileges and rights have come at a cost and that they bring with them the responsibility to learn from past wrongs and work from a place of justice.”
Adkisson acknowledged that he achieves this in sometimes controversial ways, like putting Christopher Columbus on trial for the genocide of the Taino people.
“I don’t always try to be controversial. But we’ve got to look at multiple perspectives to truly understand how remarkable our country and our past is,” he said. “As amazing as Columbus was, or Jefferson or Washington, there’s another whole side of the story that we can’t just gloss over. I don’t want to break down our heroes, but they all have a humanity to them that I think we need to examine.”
In his application for the award, Adkisson wrote, “It is my greatest desire to create a classroom environment that is so awe-inspiring and engaging that the students will absolutely refuse to be absent for fear of missing something. The story of the United States is incredible and fascinating and, with some hard work and creativity, on behalf of the teacher, the students can learn to appreciate it as such. If we really want the kids to learn about our past and grow up to love and respect our country then we must allow them to experience it and not just read about it out of a textbook.”
So teaching history goes beyond the dates and figures for him, he said, into issues like citizenship and patriotism.
“Each generation is responsible for the life of this republic, and if you’re not involved, then it’s going to end,” Adkisson said.
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