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History teacher discovers America

Summer experiences will enrich classroom, instructor says

Posted: July 26, 2009 9:41 p.m.
Updated: July 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Robert Tilles visits Mount Rushmore in South Dakota during his trek across the United States with his family this summer. Tilles is a teacher at Hart High School.

 
For the last eight years Robert S. Tilles taught his social studies students all about America's historical dates, places and people.

But it wasn't until this summer that the William S. Hart Union High School District teacher could appreciate his own lessons in full.

On June 14, Tilles packed his three young children and wife into the family RV and headed across country for perhaps the greatest history lesson of all.

"My family and I decided to travel across the USA in our RV to discover America," said Tilles, 41. "And I'm going to be able to share this with my students and colleagues in the district."

History alive
As the Hart High School teacher relaxed in his RV Tuesday at a campsite in Middlebury, Ind., he considered the 38 days of learning - so far.

Jamestown and Williamsburg were highlights.

"There were people wearing historical costumes and we participated in some mock battles," he said.

Several reality checks were part of the curriculum.

"We went to the Vietnam (Veterans) Memorial and that was very emotional," Tilles said. "I got choked up by seeing the names written on the wall."

Other destinations held scenic, political or historic significance: the Grand Canyon, Abraham Lincoln's birthplace and childhood home, offices of California's senators, The Oklahoma City National Memorial, Graceland, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Civil War Antietam National Battlefield, Harpers Ferry and more.

Touring the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., was an overwhelming experience for the family.

"When you're standing at the exact site where Dr. King was assassinated, you're in his room moments before he stepped onto that balcony and got shot," he said. "You read about that, but if you're actually there - it's like history alive."

The most recent highlight: the White House tour.

"We actually saw the playgrounds from a window - the new playground the president bought for his daughters."

And the one phrase Tilles couldn't get out of his mind: "I'm actually in the White House."

In Lancaster, Penn., Tilles wanted to show his children another way of living.

"We did go to an Amish farm and home and learned all about the Amish lifestyle," he said. "We go to Walmart and they drive up in their horse and buggy and drive up in traditional Amish clothing."

"It's an interesting blend from what's in the past and what's in the present."

While his children are young - ages 3 and 6 - Tilles knows they're learning valuable lessons.

"When we've gone to these places we've purchased books for them, like the Civil War battlefield," he said. "They'll sit in the RV and read more about it."

The experience is enriching their young lives, Tilles said.

"To show my kids what they've already seen on television and what they've learned in kindergarten, it's just an amazing experience."

Get out and go
Traveling is nothing new to the Stevenson Ranch resident. He lived in several different countries, including Israel, and in Spain while studying Spanish in college.

"I just have the travel bug," he said.

But as much as he'd traveled around the world, Tilles came to realize an inconsistency with his teaching American history.

"I teach this historical material, and yet I never get around to going and seeing it," he said.

That was the case until a spontaneous decision to buy an RV.

"One day literally my wife and I woke up and bought a trailer," he said. "We never did any camping before, we just said ‘life is too short; we have to see this country.'"

Last summer the family traveled to Canada. This summer it was time to go across America.

Inspiring future students
Tilles said he's scheduled to teach Spanish this coming year, but when he takes the podium again as social studies instructor, his experiences will help textbook lessons come to life.

"I have a more in-depth perspective of some of the things I teach in history," he said. "The words out of the textbook can only convey to a certain degree what happened in the past."

With a personal experience of the sites comes the credibility to spark inspiration in his students.

"A lot of kids don't appreciate history - they think it's dry, stale and kind of hard to learn about," he said. "But the more I'm excited about it, the more I can bestow my appreciation on the students."

The Tilles family plans to be home by early August - just in time for the start of the school year.

Destinations on the way home include: Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the St. Louis Arch or the "Gateway to the West," Chicago, St. Joseph, Mo., Denver and Las Vegas.

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