Robin Barker-James "a legend of a man"

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Leslie Waghorn - The Scientific Parent

(Leslie Waghorn is the founder of The Scientific Parent. During the day she’s a freelance health communication professional based in the Washington, DC area and has an MA in health communication. You can read more about her professional work at or connect with her on Twitter: @lawaghorn)

For the majority of my public school education I was not what you would call academically inclined.

To my mind, school was something you did, not a means to an end. This was all until the 10th or 11th grade when I learned that good grades could lead to a scholarship and further education that would lead to a life in the big city, a place I was convinced I belonged as I didn’t seem to fit in around my small town. I decided to do what teachers had been imploring me to do since elementary school: buckle down and apply myself.

Yet history was one of those subjects I loathed and struggled to adapt to. It was a seemingly disconnected series of dates and events. No narrative, no cause and effect, no trajectory. Just random wars, random names, random dates to memorize. Until I had Mr. Barker-James.

I’d heard of Mr. Barker-James before he became my teacher in the 11th grade. Some students loved him, others said he was just weird. I was one of the students that loved him. He threw out the text books – we were going to talk about history, he said, and talk we did. Classes were filled with his hand-drawn maps on the chalkboard, we debated how things could have been different, the roles of concepts such as imperialism, realism and idealism. We threw out the dates and memorization, but somehow I remembered more names dates and events from those long classes where everyone just talked than I did from any history class before.

Last week, April 21, 2015, Mr. Barker-James died. He was only 59. The news stopped me cold in my tracks, and I have spent the last two days talking with former classmates about this legend of a man, who made such a difference in my life and the lives of many other students. Here’s why.

The year after I had Mr. Barker-James, he was able to realize a project that had taken him years to see through to fruition. He lived on a large fallow farm and had petitioned (and petitioned, and petitioned) school officials to allow students to come on to his land to recreate and actually relive history. First up was a recreation of World War I. His idea was brilliantly creative and on the cutting edge of what education experts say is both an innovative and effective learning methodology: the art of engagement – knowing your subject, knowing your audience, and bringing them together strategically for a masterful outcome.

Mr. Barker-James had planned everything to be as accurate as possible. The students would dig the trenches over a series of months. We would sleep outside and we would only be allowed to take clothing and comforts with us that would have been allowed by our “side” at the time. We would eat what they ate, we would sleep on their schedules.

For two months, after school and during our spare periods, we went to Mr. Barker-James’ farm and hand dug trenches. I remember my hands being blistered and by mid-October being miserable with the choice to either wear gloves and not have a good enough grip on the shovel to break through the frost, or do it bare-handed. One day I remember throwing a 17-year-old’s hissy fit, which Mr. Barker-James stopped by reminding me that a mere 80 years before, boys my age had to do this in France, all day, without the luxury of gloves and wool hats, and snacks.

Point to Mr. Barker-James.

When the weekend of the trench warfare scenario came, I remember there were a handful of seniors on the Allied and Axis (my assignment) sides and we were over-run by sophomores who were ready for a weekend of camping. We were offered our first breakfast of a slice of bread, water and a cheese slice. Many decided not to eat it and instead marched the 8 kilometers to his farm on an empty stomach. By the time we arrived, the mood had gone from excitement to exhaustion.

We set up camp, laid out wooden weapons, and started our first patrols. At lunch we were offered what soldiers from our side would have eaten: Hard tack and bully beef. I remember cutting the roof of my mouth on the hard tack and dry heaving as I tried to swallow the fatty bully beef. I couldn’t get it down. I was very hungry, but I knew that was the point.

The first battle we recreated was the Somme. I remember being relieved because it was supposed to be easy for our side, the Germans. The Canadians would walk down the hill, in the trench at the base we would mow them down. At first our side was having fun, enjoying as the refs called their friends out as dead. The ‘dead’ students would then revive and move up to the top of the hill and come down again in the next wave, only to be killed by us again.

I remember a girl stopping at one point and saying, “this sucks.” I asked her why, this was the easy part for us. “We’re just killing them and killing them and killing them. It doesn’t stop. We have to do this for 45 more minutes. Just killing people. It’s depressing.” 'That’s the point,' I said. I saw the same light go off in her eyes as it did when Mr. Barker-James had pointed out that my sore hands were nothing to complain about. By giving us the opportunity to be outside of the classroom, and gain a first-hand reflective experience of the actual impact of war (however minor), Mr. Barker-James acted as an educational mediator – not a teacher, and yet, higher ranked than any teacher could be. His lessons instilled critical thinking, reflection, curiosity, and a drive for us to understand, which is considered some of the best sort of teaching around.

And it was evident that this cold, depressing, and exhausting scenario was sparking understanding among those students, including myself. No one slept that night. It was too cold and we had to rotate every two hours. Students that had been enthusiastic about the overnight trip soon became sullen, several cried. Parents came to visit, but none of them took their kids home.

At around 3 a.m. Mr. Barker-James had arranged for a local arm of the Canadian military to spring a sneak attack on the German side. We threw zip lock bags filled with flour as stand-ins for mustard gas at them. I remember the referees calling my fellow officers out as dead one by one. Then I was the only one left. I remember turning to one of the refs and saying, “what am I supposed to do?” He looked at me with a half grin and said, “well sweetie, they’re coming in, so you’d better make peace with God and be prepared to meet him.” I ducked as I was trampled on by several soldiers in military-grade steel toed boots, which combined with the freezing temperatures stung in addition to hurt.

Later that year Mr. Barker-James called on us again, to reenact the Nuremburg trials with his sophomores. What surprised me more than anything was how the sophomores had a better grasp on history than I did at their age. They saw WWI and WWII as extensions of the same conflict, they were able to reference names, dates and events that, at their age, I had doodled my way through in the text book. Mr. Barker-James understood what most students know intrinsically, which is that engaging in the material is so much more effective than memorization and teaching to the test.

Students have higher recall of information when they’re able to play with it. Recent studies have found that gameifying education (a form of what Mr. Barker-James was doing) results in much higher recall of information than those that learn in the traditional ways. Part of this has to do with experiential information. When we learn through hands-on experience, different parts of our brains are activated, including those that have to do with emotion, and humans recall emotional information much better than we do statistical information. Enhancing this recall is the fact that Mr. Barker-James’ exercises took days to execute, meaning students needed to recall and analyze the information in different real-life scenarios, heightening the recall.

I can’t tell you if Mr. Barker-James knew all of this before he petitioned to conduct that first trench warfare scenario. Maybe he was tired of seeing students like myself who could have excelled in a subject they hated had someone presented the information to them in the right frame. What I do know is what Mr. Barker-James did worked. I have made WWI history a bit of a personal interest, and of the dozens of books I’ve read on the subject, nothing has stuck like those two days in October 1998. I know that I wouldn’t have gone on to earn a double honors degree in political science and history had it not been for Mr. Barker-James.


A memorial service for Robin Barker-James will be held Saturday, May 30 in the Lions Auditorium at the Tillsonburg Community Centre, 10:30 a.m.


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