Remembering an Extraordinary Educator

Date Posted:  Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Harlem Academy mourns the loss of iconic middle school history teacher Sean Robertson, who died at his family home in Milford, Massachusetts last Thursday.

Sean brought two important traits to every class he taught at Harlem Academy: love for his students and a passion for history. It was a powerful combination that made learning incredibly interesting and relevant for our kids. That was Sean’s mission from the first moment he set foot in a classroom – a place he was destined to be.

Sean came to Harlem Academy 12 years ago and always viewed the study of history as a vehicle to change injustice. It was critical to him to teach about the civil rights movement, about disenfranchised people rising up to overcome obstacles and create a path to success for themselves and others. With classes of students coming from diverse backgrounds, Sean was very intentional about his approach. His deep love for and link to our community was palpable. You had to look no further than how he engaged his students to understand that.

Our guiding principles call for us to be “warm but demanding,” and Sean couldn’t have been a better role model for that fundamental value. He cared about our kids’ lives both inside and outside of school and developed meaningful connections with them. He held them to high standards and expected their best, and he did so with love. Sean understood that infallible recipe for children to thrive and executed on it at the highest level.

The love was reciprocal. Students often chose him to be their graduation dinner speaker, and alumni consistently tell me that no history class – even at some of the top secondary schools and colleges in the country – compares to his.

Sean’s parents must have done a lot of things right. From the moment I met him, he was always comfortable in his own skin. He had the ability to approach every challenge and opportunity with equal energy, openness, and engagement. Even as he tackled his cancer, he shared with his students a message about using adversity as a chance to develop and understand yourself. Living our school creed was just something he naturally did.

As our community mourns this extraordinary loss, we find solace in the many gifts Sean left us. His passion, his kindness, his curiosity, his love, and the immeasurable impact he has had on our students. Having gathered at the school before dawn, two buses filled with current students, parents, alumni, and colleagues are headed north to his hometown funeral in Massachusetts so that we may honor his legacy and say goodbye.

With warm regards,




Vincent A. Dotoli

Head of School

Tags:  staff history middle school

Understanding the Past, Giving Voice To the Future

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Thursday, March 29, 2018

“I hugged a legend!” exclaimed eighth grader Malik Middleton. He was talking about Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who met with our eighth-grade class earlier this month during their trip to Washington, D.C. “It was so humbling to meet someone who actually did what we read about in history books and still contributes to the world we live in now,” said Malik. The excitement on his face and enthusiasm in his voice as he recalled the visit illustrates the impact of Harlem Academy’s eighth-grade trip to our nation’s capital.

Speaking with John Lewis about his life-long fight for justice and civil rights.

The four-day sojourn is not just about meeting with members of Congress (though students also met with Congressman Adriano Espaillat and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand). The trip is designed to introduce students to young staffers, particularly staffers of color, who are the engine behind much of the work that gets done on Capitol Hill.

These meetings led some of our students to envision a place for themselves on the Hill – and to see the pathway to get there. “After talking to the staffers, I imagined what it would be like if I worked in government,” said eighth grader Matthew Centeno. “This is where our nation’s laws are made and big issues are tackled. I’d be able to impact people’s lives in a positive way.”

Students pose after meeting with young staffers from the offices of Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal.

Delali Lyons, also in eighth grade, agreed. “It was interesting to hear what the staffers do every day, such as answering calls from constituents and passing along people’s concerns to the senators,” she said. “They talked to us about diversity in government and the problems facing America right now. And because they were young – mainly in their 20s – we could really relate.” 

Whether or not Malik, Matthew, Delali, or our other eighth graders end up pursuing a career in government, one thing is clear: These students know that they have the power to affect real change in the world.

Lead history teacher Sean Robertson echoes that sentiment. “The trip gives our young leaders a tangible way to reflect on our nation’s past and present – and to consider their role in its future,” he said. “This is not simply a field trip. It is a chance for a life experience for our students – a significant moment for personal growth – because of the emphasis on leadership and civil rights.”

To see photos of our eighth graders’ trip to Washington, D.C., click here.

Tags:  trips history U.S. history

Robertson Honored as New York History Teacher of the Year

Date Posted:  Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Mr. Robertson developed a unique two-year curriculum on U.S. history.
Mr. Robertson researched and developed a unique two-year curriculum on U.S. history.

Harlem Academy’s middle school history teacher, Sean Robertson, was named New York State History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He was selected by a panel of teachers, administrators, and scholars for his use of primary documents in the classroom, the level of inspiration he provides to his students, and his career achievements in education. 

“It is an honor and truly humbling to be recognized by the Gilder Lehrman Institute. I want to share this honor with my students, whose curiosity, excitement for history, and thoughtful questions have pushed me to be a better student of history and a better teacher,” reflected Sean.

Teacher Sean Robertson researched and developed his unique two-year U.S. history curriculum.

Eighth-grade student, Kijani-Ali Gaulman, shared his motivation for submitting a nomination, “Mr. Robertson is so engaged in the subject, and that makes me want to be engaged as well. He writes his own books and develops his own materials. He has taught me so much - I know I will remember what I have learned from him.

Over the past five years, Sean has researched and developed Harlem Academy’s innovative, two-year U.S. history curriculum. The accompanying textbooks, called “Junior Historian Field Manuals,” position students as investigators of history, not passive recipients of information.  

The program explores six transformational events through the lens of primary sources, such as political cartoons, newspaper articles, journals and letters, music, and videos. As they grapple with different accounts, students learn the importance of questioning sources, reconciling different perspectives, contextualizing information, and identifying the author’s purpose and bias.

The timing and focus of the course around six turning points over two years challenges students to dive deeply into the big questions of the discipline - the arc of our nation’s history, the key drivers of change, and the causes and effects of the events that have shaped our country. It also allows time to explore our nation’s recent history so that students are able to understand current events and participate as informed and engaged citizens.

“Sean has a passion for history that is infectious and an understanding of the discipline that has led him to author an outstanding resource for sharing that passion more broadly,” added head of school Vinny Dotoli. “We are lucky to have him as part of such a committed and innovative team.”


Tags:  history middle school

A New Approach to U.S. History

Date Posted:  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. 

Tags:  middle school history

Harlem Academy Alumna and the 9/11 Museum Ambassador Program

Date Posted:  Thursday, May 21, 2015
Wassa Bagayoko '13 on the left. Photo courtesy of Jin Lee and the 9/11 Memorial.
Wassa Bagayoko '13 on the left.
Photo courtesy of Jin Lee and the 9/11 Memorial.

On Monday May 18, Harlem Academy alumna Wassa Bagayoko graduated from a special internship program for high school students at the 9/11 Museum.

The 9/11 Museum’s Ambassador Program provides 10th through 12th graders with an in depth, semester-long look into the events of 9/11 and their commemoration.

Students participate in seminars on what led up to the terrorist attacks, the aftermath, as well as the museum’s collection of artifacts. Program participants also spend Saturdays working with young children at the museum.

The goal is to prepare students who have no personal recollection of the 9/11 attacks to engage others in conversation about this difficult topic and emotional site. At the end of the program students participate in a graduation ceremony, which involves leading family and mentors on a guided tour of the 9/11 Museum.

Harlem Academy History Teacher Sean Robertson connected Wassa to this program through his extensive collaboration with the 9/11 Museum. Using the 9/11 Museum artifacts as resources, Sean has developed and led teacher trainings on how to present an account of the terrorist attacks to students.

Mr. Robertson attended Wassa’s tour on Monday. “Wassa showed us a dozen objects and was able to describe a human experience related to them. She was able to take these cold inanimate objects and breathe a story of human resiliency into them. This was such a powerful springboard to talking about that difficult day.”

Tags:  alumni history

A Trusted Adviser and Role Model

Date Posted:  Sunday, March 6, 2016
Clifford Alexander with Harlem Academy's eighth grade class.
Clifford Alexander with Harlem Academy eighth graders.

Clifford Alexander to speak at Harlem Academy's Spring Benefit on April 28

Mr. Alexander spent decades in public service as a counselor to U.S. Presidents and as a champion of civil rights. An attorney and businessman, he was born and raised in Harlem. He attended Fieldston School, then Harvard where he was president of the Student Council, and Yale where he received his law degree. 

In July 1963, he was called to serve on the staff of the National Security Council in the Kennedy administration. President Johnson appointed him Deputy Special Assistant to the President, and in 1967, Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1977, President Carter appointed him Secretary of the Army where he managed the transition to an all-volunteer force. For decades he has been president of Alexander & Associates, and continues to serve as a trusted adviser on civil rights and issues of equality.

“We are honored that Mr. Alexander is choosing to have an impact here,” said Vinny Dotoli, head of school. “He connects to our mission on many levels, including modeling intellectual rigor and serving as a resource for our curriculum.”

This spring, Mr. Alexander will visit Harlem Academy to meet students and lead a history seminar. The eighth graders just completed a full trimester exploring the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Era. 

“Our American History course is built entirely from primary sources,” says history teacher Sean Robertson. “Adding Mr. Alexander’s perspective lets our students see that era through his eyes, and talk with him about how it has evolved through to today.” 

Tags:  Spring Benefit history
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