Graphic with picture of Donnie Wilkerson reading: 2024 Elementary School Teacher of the Year, Jamestown Elementary School (Russell County)

Donnie Wilkerson, a 5th-grade social studies teacher at Jamestown Elementary School (Russell County), loves to make learning history immersive and fun for his students.

For instance, to make learning more exciting for his students, he focuses on the food of the time period they’re studying. When his students learn about the extermination of the Taino by Columbus, they try casava root and pineapple juice. When learning about the first Thanksgiving, which took place in Florida, they sample alligator jerky. For the Colonial era, they eat dried apples, which were in Paul Revere’s saddle bags, and Mary Janes, a molasses-based candy made by a company that once used Revere’s house to make their candy.

Wilkerson uses what he calls “immersive learning” to teach his students about history. His students engage with foods, artifacts, songs, flags and more primary sources from each time period they learn about. To make his classroom come alive, Wilkerson has five projectors to engulf the students into a part home, part museum, part library classroom.

“Students have fun, but they learn too,” said Wilkerson.

“Kentucky Adventures” is one way that Wilkerson also takes learning outside of the classroom. On Saturdays, five students and an additional chaperone travel with Wilkerson around the state to visit museums, historic sites and plays. Some of the students’ favorite places to visit include hiking to the Cumberland Gap Tri-state Peak, visiting the Mary Todd Lincoln House and walking to Indiana over the Ohio River.

“The relationships built here, both with me and among students, is priceless,” Wilkerson said.

On the following Monday, the students become virtual tour guides for their classmates, showing them videos and pictures that they took along the way. They describe the sites and tales unique to their adventure for the class.

Kentucky Adventures creates excitement for younger students who see pictures in the hallway and for siblings who hear the stories. Wilkerson still encounters former students who fondly recount the tales of their own adventures and memories from his 5th-grade class. Wilkerson said he also makes sure to incorporate empathetic diversity awareness when training teachers, as well as in all professional learning presentations.

“We post in our classroom three simple rules: Be Kind, Think Freely and Inquire Often,” he said.

Wilkerson said teachers should hold their heads high when asked about their profession. “Ours is an honorable profession and truly a labor of love,” he said.

Wilkerson’s care for his students earned him the title of 2024 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year. He received the award at a ceremony on Sept. 13, 2023, at the Kentucky state Capitol building in Frankfort.