Firefighting Teacher Helps Students Think About America's Story

December 24, 2020

Firefighting Teacher Helps Students Think About America's Story
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Jesse Roberts in the classroom.

Ashbrook’s Rediscovering America seminars, offered around the country in cooperation with local schools and school districts, give social studies teachers professional development opportunities they can find nowhere else. Unlike most professional development, Rediscovering America seminars focus on history and government, not on teaching technique. And unlike the few other content-based options, Rediscovering America seminars are not lectures. “They’re discussions,” says Jesse Roberts, who teaches US history and government at Spanish Fork High School (near Provo, Utah). They model a way of engaging students in the study of America that inspires Roberts to stay in the classroom.

A few years ago, Roberts had resigned himself to pursuing a Masters in Educational Administration. Moving into administration would provide a substantial pay bump, allowing him to retire from a second job he’s done since he began teaching fifteen years ago: fighting wildland fires during the dry Utah summers. Downplaying the pride he takes in protecting public lands, Roberts says simply that, as a father of five, he needs the supplement to his income.

Roberts now plans to pursue a Masters in his content area. Rediscovering America seminars have reminded him why he chose a teaching career in the first place. At Brigham Young University, he’d confessed to his freshman history teacher that he was miserable in the classes required for his planned business major. The professor advised him, “Look, if you do what you like to do, you won’t grow rich, but you will make enough.”

Roberts (middle) has spent the past 15 summers in between teaching fighting wildland fires in Utah.

Roberts took the advice, choosing work he enjoys and thinks worth doing. “We need more good teachers,” he says, and while “the female teachers I’ve worked with are awesome,” young people also need steady male role models. More important, Roberts wants to remedy a neglect of social studies occurring as more and more resources are funneled to STEM—education in science, technology, engineering and math. These subjects ready students for jobs that enhance human safety and comfort. Yet students should also “learn the lessons of the past,” Roberts says.

Roberts has attended Rediscovering America seminars on American political parties, the Civil Rights era, and the motives linking FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society to the early 20th century Progressive movement. The last seminar covered concepts he’d not studied much before. He gained valuable information—yet he valued the seminars’ focus on analyzing information more. Roberts sees it as his job to teach this skill.

All Rediscovering America seminars model the analysis of primary documents—the letters, speeches, transcripts of debates, and other records left by those who lived through the history they write about. Reading these firsthand accounts, students learn to analyze historical evidence. They gain analytical skills they’ll apply both in the workplace and in their civic lives, as they analyze candidate platforms or prepare for political caucuses.

Rediscovering America seminars also model the second skill Roberts teaches: “how to interact socially.” He is drawn to Rediscovering America seminars because of their conversational design. Participants, who are sent a packet of readings prior to the session, arrive prepared to discuss them. A professor specialist opens the seminar with brief remarks on the documents’ historical context. Then he poses a question about the first reading. From that point, “the conversation can go in so many directions. I don’t know that I’ve gone to a single one where we’ve gotten through all the readings,” Roberts says, since discussion on a single document can become intense. Nevertheless, “you learn more,” because you are testing your interpretations against those of others, while drawing unexpected connections to other readings. Roberts takes notes so he can carry all these ideas back to his students. “The more ideas you have, the more you can adapt to your students’ level of knowledge and learning style.”

Roberts pushes students to challenge his own pronouncements. “I try to get my them out of their comfort zones,” he says. Ambitious students have perverse incentives not to raise questions; many assume that memorizing historical facts and standard interpretations will ensure a good grade. Parents, hoping their children will be admitted to top schools or awarded scholarships, encourage such behavior. So Roberts makes use of “engagement activities” that teachers share with colleagues via the Internet.

For example, when teaching the Declaration of Independence, Roberts divides the class into small groups and assigns each a section of the document. Then he asks each group to summarize their excerpt in a “tweet”—a slogan or quip using no more than 140 characters—which he then projects on a screen for the entire class to critique. Working in a medium they use for fun outside of school, “students don’t realize that they are really practicing analysis and conversation.”

The exercise enlists students’ enthusiasm for social media in a project challenging this fixation. Roberts worries as he watches digital technology displacing conversation. Self-governing people must engage in debate and compromise. “To reach compromise, you have to openly discuss your differences. You have to confront each other face to face. It’s too hard to read another’s opinions in an email or text.”

Roberts teaches government without a textbook, relying instead on primary documents and background materials he prepares himself. Difficult concepts, such as the Constitutional balance between states’ rights and federal power, become clearer in the light of history. Roberts began using speeches of Abraham Lincoln after a Rediscovering America weekend colloquia in Springfield, Illinois. There he discussed Lincoln’s careful, Constitution-based responses both to those who thought federal power should be used to abolish slavery and those who thought respect for states’ rights meant allowing slavery to expand into the new territories.

Roberts (middle) with his fire crew.

Teachers who let go of textbooks and design their own primary document-based lessons must do extra preparation. To gain time for this, Roberts stepped down from one of the coaching duties that had brought him extra pay. Determined to find a way to fund summer studies in Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government, he’s decided that the summer of 2018 will be his last doing fire suppression work. In the meantime, he appreciates the opportunity to attend Rediscovering America seminars during the school year.

Roberts praises his colleagues at Spanish Fork High School as well those he’s met in Ashbrook seminars. “They work tirelessly to find ways to make social studies relevant—because they want students to like the subject.” While teachers in STEM subjects can rely on a wealth of pedagogical resources developed in recent years, “social studies teachers have to work harder to get the same results.” Yet this constant innovation keeps Roberts engaged. It keeps him in the classroom, helping students master the skills they need for citizenship.