An Auburn College of Education alumnus earned a nomination for national history teacher of the year for his innovative approach to teaching.
Blake Busbin, the advanced placement U.S. history teacher at Auburn High School, has used oral history projects as an intricate part of the students’ curriculum. The Project Based Learning earned Busbin the 2017 Alabama History Teacher of the Year by the History Channel, which also earned him a spot as one of the 10 finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award.
In 2007, while working on his master’s in education, Busbin filled an emergency position at Auburn High School. He had envisioned moving back home in Atlanta after school, but the position and the atmosphere of Auburn persuaded him to stay.
Busbin taught advanced placement U.S. government for five years at Auburn High School before teaching advanced placement U.S. history. In 2014, he began his oral history project.
Along with state and national appreciation, the projects allowed Busbin to create a relationship with his students that was conducive to learning.
“He was one of my favorite teachers in high school,” said Sierra Hardwick, a former oral history project participant. “I really am not a big fan of history, but he made me like history and really enjoy it.”
The students conducted recorded interviews with veterans of wars ranging from World War II to ongoing wars with a heavy focus on Vietnam veterans in order to get a personal account of what the war was like.
“The goal of the project was three-fold,” Busbin said. “One, to have the students learn more about military history from the individual level. The second goal was to provide a means of gratitude for the veterans by preserving their accounts. Opposed to having them just as a guest speaker, we wanted to provide them with an interview that they could pass on to their family. And third, to show students what historians do, which is produce research for the community.”
Many of the interviews have been housed in the Library of Congress. Busbin, with help from some of the students, also created a project website as part of the platform for sharing the content.
“Whenever we talk about the Vietnam War, we talk about how bad it was for the soldiers and how bad it was for the environment over there, but actually hearing about it from a veteran made you completely understand what they went through,” Hardwick said. “It made me come to a conclusion how I should view all these veterans. It made me want to thank every veteran for their service.”
The students worked in groups of two to three to create a set of questions to ask their interviewee along with a set of follow-up questions dealing with sensitive aspects of
“He always provided us with primary documents from a ton of different perspectives and tried to get us to think about why things happened,” said Andrew Bowling, a former student of Busbin. “The oral history project was an extension of this.”
Busbin goes through about a three-month recruiting process of veterans from east Alabama and west Georgia. He sets out to recruit as many veterans so the student-to-veteran ratio is small enough to ensure a personal setting for the interview.
“It is a different and, in my opinion, more direct way of making sure we remember the past,” Bowling said. “Being able to actually listen to some of these people’s answers about what life was like for them is going to change how history is remembered. I cannot sing the praises enough for [Busbin]. He deserves every award he gets.”
Busbin also sees the project as beneficial for the veterans as well.
“We’ve had several veterans every year who to come back and talk again,” he said. “Several of them were hesitant to do it in the first place. But now, they see that the students are interested and that they have an audience who wishes to hear their story when in many other cases, not many other people have cared.”
The project has been used as a tool for networking for the veterans. Busbin has worked with the Auburn Veteran’s Council for the city to help them reach out to new veterans.
In addition to the actual content retained, the students got the opportunity to develop real-life skills, especially showing compassion for the veterans during the interview.
“One of my favorite memories is a gentleman who was sharing a very tough experience and he was having to pause and start to cry,” Busbin said. “I watched one of my students reach her hand over and put her hand over the top of his hand, which is something you just can’t teach in a classroom.”
Another component of the project has the students use a piece of information from their interview to build further research upon. Some of this research has included veteran’s experiences with Veterans Affairs and communication between the home-front and the war theatre.
“I think it’s important to note that this isn’t my project. This isn’t the student’s project,” Busbin said. “This has just been a community project. I think it’s great to see public education being public — being something that everyone buys into for the sake of overall learning.”
Busbin is planning on transitioning into a new three-year theme for the project. The project recently received a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation to begin a new project called Land of Freedom focusing on the Civil Rights Movement in east Alabama.
The title is in reference to the Auburn Creed, “I believe in my country because it is a land of freedom.”
With the new form of the project, the project is planning on forging more relationships with the community. The students will create an exhibit in public areas and give a presentation at the Auburn library.
“With the amount of tension given to race in the news recently, I think students will be able to connect with what happened 50 years ago and see that these issues are still a part of who we are today,” Busbin said. “Even with the veteran interviews, the students were talking about a past war, but the end of the interview always talks about what lessons we can take away for today.”
The recognition that Busbin has received has provided a platform to share the concept behind this innovative approach through different workshops. According to Busbin, several other schools across the state are adopting the method, including a large program in Dothan.
Hardwick thought her experiences with the project came full circle when Auburn celebrated military appreciation day at the Ole Miss football game earlier this year.
“It really hit home,” she said. “I definitely shed a tear, I’m not going to lie.”