As AP U.S. History teacher Blake Busbin celebrates his 10-year anniversary of teaching at Auburn High School, he finds himself humbled by recent praise.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History selected Busbin to be the 2017 Alabama History Teacher of the Year — an award presented annually to teachers in each state making achievements in American history education.
"I'm just honored, humbled ... I immediately texted my wife," Busbin said. "She has been such a huge part of this, being patient with me during the times I spend up here working and being just very supportive of my ideas ... I've been able to work with a lot of teachers across the state, so to be chosen among the amazing teachers I've met, it's just an incredible honor."
Busbin taught Government and AP Government his first five years at AHS, and as he was finishing up his doctorate with a focus on civic education, he was asked if he would consider switching to AP U.S. History.
"I kind of cautiously said, 'Sure,' " he said. "I was finishing my doctorate at the time with a focus on civic education, so I was like, 'Oh, U.S. history education is not necessarily what I've been focusing on, but I looked forward to the change. I always feel it keeps you fresh and ready in the classroom. Since then, I've loved seeing the kids."
During his time teaching AP History, the program grew — from 88 students about five years ago to 150 registered to take the course this upcoming school year, Busbin said.
When teaching, he works hard to encourage critical thinking and conducts activities that allow the students to really dive into history, like having the students play members of Congress and historical figures in a mock Congressional Hearing on the cause of the Civil War or having the students put on a mock trial about the American Revolution, either defending its revolutionary status or accusing it of being less than revolutionary.
In being nominated for Alabama History Teacher of the Year, Busbin had to write a one-page essay on this philosophy he uses in his classroom.
"It's really hard to narrow it down to one page," he said. "I recognize these kids aren't taking my class to become historians. Really, what I want them to get out of it is a level of critical thinking that they can then employ as citizens in both their community, the U.S. and the global community — that they can actively participate and do good. I want them to take that level of thinking from my class and apply it in their everyday lives."
For the past two years, Busbin has teamed up with AHS AP English teacher Holly Robinson to give the students "argumentative writing" projects. In this area, Busbin has seen students excel.
"We have them express arguments, grounding them in evidence and rational thoughts, and I see that (skill) tremendously grow," he said. "We've really worked on building that writing as well as the critical reading of primary sources and accounts."
The argumentative writing projects tie into a program that Busbin created in 2014 — the Auburn High School Veterans Project. The Veterans Project involves students researching a war, interviewing local veterans about their time serving during that war and recording and archiving the interviews not only for the veterans who participated, but also for future generations. For the past two years, the Veterans Project has concentrated on the Vietnam War, and students will use their writing skills to propose a research question relating to the war and answer it in a research paper.
"The students have taken the Veterans Project and done an in-depth intro-to-college, freshman-level research paper on a topic dealing with the Vietnam War," Busbin said.
He said he loves the Veterans Project because it is a chance for the students to not only learn, but to become historians. He submitted information about the Veterans Project to the panel selecting the teachers of the year, and said that being named the 2017 Alabama History Teacher of the Year is only something he was able to do because of all those who participated in the project.
"It's a community award," he said. "I could certainly not have won this on my own. This is something that the support of Auburn City Schools, Dr. (Shannon) Pignato, Holly Robinson, Elizabeth Lundy with the media center — I couldn't have done a Veterans Project without them. And the students were the ones doing the work, and the veteran community participated. To receive this recognition, it's really about the community and what the community has done to preserve the story of our veterans."
Busbin is already working on the next topic for the Veterans Project, thinking the students will spend a few years exploring the Civil Rights Movement in Lee County. He has submitted a grant to the Alabama Humanities Foundation to help fund the project.
Busbin's name has been entered to win on a national level, and if he does so, he will win $10,000 for his classroom.