Blake Busbin, Ph.D., the Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher at Auburn High School, just wrapped up a three-year oral history project during which his students interviewed scores of military veterans from East Alabama and West Georgia. In addition to being on the project website, many of the recordings are also housed in the Library of Congress. The interviews covered World War II to the present War on Terror, but primarily focused on Vietnam vets.
One of Busbin’s close collaborators was College of Education Professor Jim Witte, who served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
“The opportunity to participate in this project was extraordinary,” Witte said. “It is rare to learn historical perspectives from actual participants. One thing the students saw was the degree to which wartime experience is personalized. Each person there saw combat from a different perspective; therefore, combat experience is as varied as the individual participant. Finally, the complexity of the Vietnam War is also accelerated by the number of story tellers. Blake has shown the discipline of the historian and the skill of the artist is capturing the essence of the Vietnam experience.”
As the veteran’s project is winding down, Busbin is preparing to lead his students on a new three-year undertaking.
“With everything that’s going on in the country right now, we decided to focus our next oral history project on the Civil Rights Movement as it took place right here in East Alabama,” Busbin explained. “Because of the great emphasis placed on service learning in the Social Science Education program in the College of Education, I encourage my students to embrace the idea of ‘Doing History for the Public Good.’ Our veteran’s project certainly did that and I am excited about our new venture.”
For his innovative work in Project Based Learning (PBL), Busbin was recently named the 2017 Alabama History Teacher of the Year by the History Channel and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He is also one of ten finalists for National History Teacher of the Year.
All three of Busbin’s degrees came from the College of Education in the Social Science Education program. Following his undergraduate degree he won a Madison Fellowship which funded work on his Master’s. During this period he was recruited as an emergency substitute at AHS, and has been there ever since. He taught American Government before switching over to U.S. History, which he calls “America on a sprinter’s pace” since it covers so much material in a limited period of time.
“I knew I wanted to get into something more substantial and incorporate PBL, which led to the veteran’s project,” he said. “It has been very rewarding.”
So how did an Atlanta boy who dreamed of becoming a minister or lawyer end up at Auburn in the College of Education?
“Both of my parents are Auburn grads and they always had season tickets to football games so I kind of grew up here,” he said. “Once I was here I combined my two career tracks with the idea of social studies and a desire to serve and work with young people. So the College of Ed was just a natural choice. Also, my mom is a COE grad, as are my wife, her mother, and my sister. My wife is now a counselor at Richland Road Elementary. We’re just Auburn people.”
Busbin recently won a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation for the Civil Rights Project. He said it was the most rigorous writing he has undertaken since his dissertation, which focused on student collective decision-making about controversial issues in online and face-to-face settings.
“We’re going to kick off the three-year project with a road trip,” Busbin said. “We’ll head west to Montgomery and Selma, then north to Jackson, Mississippi and then on into Memphis. A real highlight will be a reserved dinner and lecture for us at the STAX Records Museum of Soul Music in Memphis. STAX had a groundbreaking sound that seamlessly blended black and white soul musicians in public for the first time. Steve Cropper, who was a key STAX alumnus and one of the all-time great guitarists and songwriters with people like Otis Redding and Booker T. and the MGs, was in the STAX studio when Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He later said that black and white never walked in the door at STAX until that day. What a place! I can’t wait for our students to experience that.”
The tour will make a final stop in Birmingham before returning to AHS.
“In our first year we’ll focus on education in East Alabama during the Civil Rights period. Year two will look at public spaces. Our final year we’ll examine how political power changed during that time in East Alabama. We’d love to hear from members of the community to help us identify people to interview.”
Busbin’s primary professors at Auburn were Jada Kohlmeier and John Saye, who inspired in him a desire to teach his students to “do history for the public good.”
“Blake was an exceptional student at every degree level,” said Kohlmeier. “He was committed to analyzing a complex topic from multiple perspectives, and has an ability to scaffold a student-focused lesson that requires students to investigate, debate, and decide the issue. In his career at AHS, he has mentored our pre-service teachers by hosting lab students and interns. We value his continued partnership with our teacher education program.”
Saye noted that in addition to his solid classroom work, Busbin continues to serve Auburn and the College of Education.
“Blake has been an invaluable colleague and partner to the Social Science Education program here at Auburn. In addition to mentoring our undergraduate and graduate students, he has joined us as a teacher leader in several outreach projects, sharing his expertise with teachers in other school districts in Alabama and Georgia.”
Busbin knows that being a great teacher is about more than mastering subject knowledge.
“Teachers must possess a servant’s heart for those placed under their direction,” Busbin concluded. “I really learned this in my studies in the College of Education, and am proud to be able to carry the flame forward. This sense of compassion for students is the foundation to success in the classroom.”