Lesley Thomson: Bringing History To Life
As the year comes to a close, Patch profiles a teacher who stands out
Patch sites around the country are using the last days of 2011 to honor community members who have made a difference this year. In Barnegat, we’re putting the spotlight on a high school history teacher who goes above and beyond to inspire her students.
Lesley Thomson caught the history bug early.
The Ocean County native and seven-year teacher grew up hearing her grandmother’s stories about her great uncles’ exploits in Britain’s Royal Air Force in World War II. Then came 10th grade at Toms River High School South, when a special teacher opened the door to the past a little wider.
“He really motivated me and made me love history,” Thomson said. By the time she entered college, she knew she wanted to share the same passion with students of her own.
And since arriving at Barnegat High School in 2005, just a year after the school opened, she’s helped develop a program that connects kids to the community while inspiring them to learn.
“She really makes history live for these kids,” said Dr. Joseph Saxton, the school’s principal. For Thomson’s students, “it’s not just stuff that’s in a book, it’s out of life.”
Early on, she reached out to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter to forge connections that would expose kids to people who lived the very history they were learning.
“From there, it really grew,” Thomson said. Now, students from the school are an integral part of the township’s annual Pearl Harbor Day memorial ceremony and other events throughout the year.
The number of students in her history club – more than 60 – and the popularity of her New Jersey history elective course are testaments to the success of her teaching style.
Each fall, her elective kids board a bus for a whirlwind scavenger hunt-style tour of little-known local historical sites, from the spot of the last confirmed land battle of the Revolutionary War to the place where a famous Mexican pilot crashed in the Pine Barrens while trying to achieve a long-distance flight record.
And the dozens of history club members readily give up weekends to go on her wide-ranging field trips to Valley Forge, Old City Philadelphia and beyond.
“I want kids to be able to experience everything and see everything, and not be locked under a bubble,” she said. “That’s kind of what keeps me going.”
And she does keep going. In addition to three full-year classes and two electives, she also teaches a virtual course online as part of the high school’s participation in a web-based education program that lets Barnegat kids learn alongside students from all over the world.
Besides that, she also teaches classes at Ocean County College – alongside the same teacher who inspired her as a student.
This year, she got major recognition for her efforts when she won the VFW’s National Citizenship Education Teacher of the Year Award, which honors instructors who foster civic involvement and connect students to veterans.
That’s just how Thomson interprets her role, said Saxton. “She creates that bridge so that teenagers look at seniors in a different way and seniors look at kids in a different way.”
For Thomson, it all comes down to helping students make a personal connection to history.
“My goal is that I want them to be able to say, ‘Oh, I heard about that,’ or ‘I read about that,’ or ‘I can empathize with them,’” she said. And sometimes, to get there, you have to get out of the classroom and into the world. “It’s just not the same as reading it in a textbook,” she said.