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A New Approach to U.S. History

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Mr. Robertson leading a discussion with the Class of 2015.
Mr. Robertson leading a discussion with the Class of 2015.

Harlem Academy’s U.S. History course begins with “The Boston Massacre,” the famous etching by Paul Revere. From the image students understand the story – the slaughter of citizens, the abuse of power, the massacre that triggered a revolution. But then they read the first-hand accounts from local leaders, the British commander, and other witnesses. Suddenly the story is less clear: soldiers accosted by the locals and a two-sided skirmish. They discuss propaganda, spin, and how the teller shapes the story. 

At most schools, teachers break history down into dates, names, and summaries. Students must memorize and recite facts to demonstrate knowledge. They never learn to explore primary sources, to reconcile competing accounts, to weigh context, or to question assumptions.

“History should resonate with students,” says Harlem Academy History Teacher Sean Robertson. “It should be a compelling narrative that enriches the way they understand and engage with their world.” Through five years of meticulous research, he has developed his own curriculum, textbook, and trademark approach. 

The two-year course on U.S. History focuses on six “snapshots” – singular events that catalyzed immense social and political changes. Each snapshot fills a trimester, allowing depth of exploration and discussion about what led to the moment and what the consequences were. The first unit in grade seven explores the Boston Massacre, and the last unit in grade eight finishes with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Using custom textbooks filled with primary sources, students engage with newspaper clippings, first-hand accounts, speech excerpts, and political fliers. When possible, classes include newsreels and videos. The end result is a curriculum that connects students to the moment, and that conveys the complexity of the challenges, debates, and decisions that have shaped our nation’s story. 

“I remember a lot from those classes,” says Kyle Broomes ’12. “Mr. Robertson showed us President Eisenhower’s address to the nation about the Little Rock Nine and the integration of Central High School, as well as news clips from that event. I remember that really helping me connect to that time. I felt like I was there and could better understand what a big deal those moments were.” 

This innovative approach has earned Mr. Robertson attention from outside organizations. He is a master teacher fellow and site coordinator for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and has led multiple summer seminars, teaching other educators how to use primary sources in their classrooms. He has also worked with the 9/11 Museum on ways to frame the museum’s artifacts and difficult topic for middle school students. The excitement around Mr. Robertson’s work has spilled over to two of our graduates (pictured next page), who have accessed meaningful enrichment opportunities through these partnerships.

Opportunities for Our Graduates

Wassa Bagayoko speaks at the 9/11 Museum
Wassa Bagayoko ’13 served as a
student ambassador to the 9/11 Museum.

“Wassa is insightful, curious, and an excellent communicator. She is very good with children when working Saturday programs. She is interested in how children behave in the Museum, and what they are learning on the tours and during drop-in programs. It has been a pleasure working with her,” said Noaa Stoler, youth and family programs coordinator at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. 

Javin Michael ’15 speaking at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History's Frederick Douglass Book Prize Awards held at the Yale Club this past January .
Javin Michael ’15 speaking at the Gilder Lehrman Instituteof American History's
Frederick Douglass Book Prize Awards held at the Yale Club this past January .

“Javin is an invaluable part of Gilder Lehrman’s Student Advisory Council. His enthusiastic participation and his insights are helping the Institute shape our offerings and connect students with our work," said Dr. James G. Basker, president of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.