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Teacher of the Year Inspires Students in Harlem

 Sean Robertson, a history teacher at Harlem Academy, in his classroom at the East Harlem school.
Sean Robertson, a history teacher at Harlem Academy, in his classroom at the East Harlem school.
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Harlem Academy

HARLEM — Sean Robertson’s eighth-grade history class at Harlem Academy is something unique.

Instead of following a rubric from the standard history books, students debate historical events as Robertson moderates.

“It’s like a full-contact sport when I’m teaching,” said Robertson, who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade American History. 

Tuesday morning’s class was about the 9/11 terrorist attacks — an event that happened before any of his students were born. But with some precision, they dissected the pros and cons of displaying sensitive artifacts, shown on an overhead projector, that had been collected near Ground Zero and are now on display in the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

This is part of the curriculum Robertson has developed over the past five years to “help middle school kids find a love of history.”

And it’s worked.

Robertson, 34, was named 2016 New York State Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The Institute selects a winner from each state, as well as one nationally each year. Harlem Academy, located at 1330 5th Ave., is private and independent and teaches students from underserved communities.

For his eighth-graders, Robertson said, he begins with a modern historical event, such as 9/11 or the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and traces its roots to earlier events.

"These kids literally were not born when 9/11 happened," he said. "But their ability to make connections to it and have empathy is really powerful."

He said he’s thrown out traditional books and has written his own, exclusively for the school and his students to broaden their scope and show “cause and effect.”

The textbooks, called “Junior Historian Field Manuals,” cause students to investigate historical events, he said.

“The problem with the textbook is that it is about comprehension and too simplistic,” said Robertson, who has been teaching at Harlem Academy for nine years.

“Harlem Academy is a rigorous school.”

Three of Robertson’s students secretly nominated him for the teacher-of-the-year award earlier this year. Winners receive a $1,000 prize and history resources from the Institute.

Robertson got word of his win early last week.

"I didn't get into teaching for the accolades or for the money," he said. "What makes it more important was that it was students who nominated me.

"It was validation that what we do matters."