Written by Don Ratzlaff Wednesday, 07 November 2007 10:02
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|In his 13 years at Hillsboro High, Jim Robb has taught history through story-telling: “My desire is to have them understand the human elements in the story, and that one thing leads to another.”|
Now the entire state knows what Hillsboro High School students and administrators have known for quite some time.
Jim Robb is one of the best social studies teachers around.
The distinction was reinforced Thursday when Robb received the Kansas Council for the Social Studies “Excellence in Teaching Award” for 2007.
The award was presented at the organization’s fall conference in Manhattan.
“It was sort of disbelief,” Robb said about learning of the award. “On the one hand, I had no idea how many were actually nominated, so did I win by default?”
For the record, there were many nominees. But Robb’s sense of humor and easygoing manner is one reason he has been a student favorite for years. In 2005, he earned that distinction hands down in an informal Free Press poll of HHS seniors.
“He has the essential balance of a good heart and a strong will, and he knows when to use each for the purpose of building solid relationships with students,” said HHS principal Dale Honeck, who nominated Robb for the award. “Mr. Robb is the type of teacher that all parents want for their child.”
Making it interesting
But Robb’s appeal with students is more than a sum of his personality. Robb manages to make social studies classes interesting.
At least he tries hard to.
“Typically, they’ve been taught in a noncreative manner,” said Robb, who came to HHS in fall 1994 after initial stints at Stanton County High School in Johnson, Lyons High School, Bethel College and Sedgwick High School.
Asking students to memorize a series of disconnected names and dates doesn’t cut it anymore, Robb said. The key to bringing life to otherwise mundane historical facts is to make them relevant to students’ lives and experiences.
“My desire is to have them understand the human elements in the story, and that one thing leads to another,” he said. “Everyone has to make choices along the way, and that’s why we are where we are today.”
There’s a greater purpose in Robb’s effort to connect the dots.
“From a standpoint of government, I for sure want students to have the background and basis to be active citizens—to understand that their involvement is important, and that they can make a difference,” he said.
“They need to know enough about what is going on so they can go out into the world and strive for what they think is the best course of action for themselves, their community and their country.”
Tools of the task
Robb sees himself as a story-teller as much as a teacher.
“That’s one of the most comfortable ways to convey (history),” he said. “It’s a way to create an emotional hook to get students involved.”
Once involved, Robb gives students considerable rein to follow their individual interests.
“More and more I use projects and simulations, where they have to decide what they’re going to learn,” Robb said. “They have the opportunity to decide if their going to opt for a B grade, C grade or an A grade.”
He said he hasn’t always been that kind of teacher.
“I’m old and have been around awhile, so I’m willing to let them have that freedom—it doesn’t scare me,” he said. “I think there would have been a time when giving them that much freedom would have scared the dickens out of me.
“But at this point I’m confident in terms of my background and basis that they’re not going to go out and run amok—that I can keep them directed to find out what they want to find out about, and it’s easier for me to fill in the gaps.”
Through the years, Robb’s students developed World War II notebooks that include interviews with local people who lived through the era, conducted mock congresses and delivered reports covering the administrations of former presidents.
On another occasion, to help students understand the dynamics of living in the 1950s and 1960s, Robb organized a pizza party that connected students with local residents who were HHS students during that era.
Social studies courses are required for graduation, so Robb knows not every student who enters his classroom is eager to absorb his knowledge and insights.
“I think a lot of people come into class thinking they don’t like history,” he said. “If you teach it as a story instead of isolated events, then they buy into it a little more.”
Tapping into technology
Robb also tries to engage student by incorporating the latest technologies. Students can create personal Web pages on a topic of interest, and entire classes have participated in interactive video conferences. Robb’s live interviews have included Congressman Jerry Moran in Washington, D.C., the educational director of the Civil Rights Museum in Topeka and the internationally renown teacher Jane Elliott, who may be best known for her Blue-Eyes/Brown-Eyes Exercise in discrimination.
“We don’t have to get into a bus and drive for hours to do that,” he said of the encounters. “We can still have those experiences.”
One of the newest frontiers for Robb is the use of computer games as a teaching tool.
“I experimented last year with ‘History Alive,’ a computerized game of ‘Risk’ set in a real-world setting—between World War I and World War II in Europe,” he said. “You see how the whole process leads to war. Students have to think in terms of economics, history and diplomacy.
“I have only scratched the surface of that,” he added.
Robb said incorporating current technology into the classroom is not merely an option.
“In the 21st century you have to use 21st-century kinds of methods in order to teach things,” he said. “Decision-making, quick thinking and figuring stuff out—and using the computer as the medium to do that—is something kids need to be exposed to.
“We’re going to have to do more of that if we want to continue to turn out kids who are prepared for college and prepared for life.”
A conducive environment
Robb said the learning environment at Hillsboro High School has been conducive for achieving that goal—and it’s one reason he’s found a professional home there.
“I think we’re in a unique situation here in Hillsboro because education is so important here,” he said. “Tabor College’s presence in the community is significant in terms of an educated populace. We do have this record of excellence and the faculty is outstanding.
“I know from talking to kids that come back, whether it’s KU or K-State or Tabor or Hesston College—wherever it is—they feel prepared,” he added. “In many cases they feel they are able to do things at a better rate than some of the kids they have contact with.
“That makes me feel good about what we do here.”