Longtime history teacher, storyteller bids goodbye to El Roble

For El Roble history teacher Ken Kirkwood, a good story is the heart of history.

For well over three decades, he has taught US history to Claremont’s junior high kids, roping in their interest with tales of courage, intrigue, sacrifice and rebellion. Mr. Kirkwood doesn’t just tell stories to hook students, though. He tells them to keep the stories alive.

“I have always felt it is important to make sure that the people in American history who shouldn’t be forgotten are not forgotten,” he said.

Take Elizabeth Blackwell. You may not have heard of her, but she was a fearless pioneer. In 1849, in the face of enormous opposition, she became the first American woman to earn a medical degree.

By contrast, there is little doubt that you have heard of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. But did you know that the legendary speaker, author and humorist once helped out a dying president?

President Ulysses S. Grant, out of office and facing bankruptcy, made an agreement with a publisher to write his memoirs. When his good friend Mark Twain got wind of the deal and found out the paltry sum he would be paid, he offered to publish the book under his own imprint, with Grant receiving the majority of royalties.

Grant, who was dying of cancer, spent his last months putting down the story of his life. The result is considered the best presidential autobiography ever written. Of more immediate importance to Grant’s bereaved family, the book yielded his widow $400,000.

Mr. Kirkwood shared these stories with the COURIER on Wednesday, the day before the last day of school at El Roble, the conclusion of which would signify the start of his retirement.

The latter story was made more vivid by the fact that the teacher was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of Mark Twain. Mr. Kirkwood, who teaches US history from the Colonial period to 1914, has a different historical T-shirt for every day of the school year. He coordinates his wardrobe with his curriculum, selecting a shirt that coincides with whatever time period his class is currently studying.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with all these T-shirts. Maybe I’ll quilt a hot air balloon,” he joked.

With his salt-and-pepper beard and earnest but casual demeanor, it’s easy to see why students like him.

“He makes history fun—he makes it come alive in multiple ways,” 8th grader Mikayla Platt said. “On the first day of school, he dressed up as a monk and did some chanting. US history is already one of my favorite subjects, but he makes it even more enjoyable.” 

With their work for the year done, Mr. Kirkwood was showing his students a movie. During his COURIER interview, he popped back into the room intermittently to make sure that the kids weren’t up to any mischief. Each time, he found them quietly watching the film. “They’re so good,” he said.

Intermediate school kids have a reputation for being difficult.

“When I tell people I teach junior high, they recoil in horror,” he laughed. “But I love the age, because you can joke and laugh and they’re excited about things. You never know what you’re going to get, kind of like that box of chocolates. One moment, they can be so grown up. But they’re still kids.”

There is more than a bit of the kid in Mr. Kirkwood, who collects 1890s-era HO gauge model trains and creates historical scenes to complement them, complete with tiny people, the women carrying parasols and the men in straw boaters. He’s written a number of articles on his hobby, which have been printed in publications such as Model Railroader. Between the train tableaux and bookcases overflowing with books on history, his home will likely be a wonderland for his grandchildren, a 4-year-old grandson and one-year-old granddaughter, as they grow up.

Mr. Kirkwood, who was named the Claremont Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year in 2009, has known he wanted to be a history teacher since he was in 5th grade, and counts as his greatest influences a couple of history teachers whose classes he had the good fortune to attend.

“I had this one history teacher, she could have been reading the phone book and I would have been interested,” he said.

Mr. Kirkwood has likewise enjoyed making history interesting and even amusing.

“There’s no greater sound to me than a child laughing, and the sound of a child laughing when learning is amazing,” he said. “I’ve had more joy than anyone has a right to expect.”

His enthusiasm for his subject and his students has been evident since he began teaching. After getting a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Redlands as well as a master’s degree in early childhood development, Mr. Kirkwood, who grew up in Torrance, landed in the Claremont Unified School District.

He started in 1977 at the short-lived La Puerta Intermediate School, which closed after his first year there, followed by two years at Sumner Elementary School. He then moved on to El Roble Intermediate School and has been there since. In a serendipitous turn of affairs, Mr. Kirkwood also served as the school’s drama teacher for 30 years.

“I’m not really a theater person,” he confided. “But one day, the principal called me in and said, ‘You like kids. You’re the drama teacher.’”

Along with delving into the world of the stage, Mr. Kirkwood served for a time as the yearbook editor and as adviser for the journalism class. He has also taught a number of interesting electives, including a murder mystery class and another on simulation games. He has additionally served as the department chairs of the fine arts and social science departments at El Roble.

For the last several years, Mr. Kirkwood has team taught, sharing the same batch of 8th graders with English teacher Jenny McGourty-Riggs. The two teachers have integrated their respective lesson plans in a way that perfectly dovetails with the nation’s new Common Core curriculum and provided a powerful learning atmosphere for their students. While Mr. Kirkwood has covered the Civil War, Ms. McGourty-Riggs has taught the students vocabulary related to the era. The teaching team also has collaborated on projects relating to the Colonial period and the exploration of Lewis Clark, immersive experiences complete with costumes.

Mr. Kirkwood is proud of the impact he has had on the countless students he has taught. He was recently touched when school board member Nancy Treser Osgood shared that her son, who is at Oxford, is studying history because of Mr. Kirkwood’s class. He looks back on his career as being the proverbial E-ticket ride.

“Claremont, in some ways, is Disneyland,” he said. “Kids want to read books as opposed to only using electronic devices. I see what I have in my classroom. I see kids going places, kids that are going to write their own ticket. Claremont has been very good to me—the district, the community, Claremont’s children.”

The newly-retired Mr. Kirkwood plans to fill the extra time afforded by retirement by digging into his miles-deep book collection and writing more about model trains. Most of all, he is looking forward to spending time with his grandkids, who live just a couple of blocks away.

If the El Roble staff had any doubts as to where Mr. Kirkwood’s priorities lie, they were put to rest earlier this week during a tearful moment.

“The history department threw a party for me and were singing a ballad about me and my teaching. In the middle of it, my little granddaughter made her way to grandpa. I picked her up, and the whole department was demolished.”

—Sarah Torribio

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