Somerville High School’s Adda Santos was named Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year for her honest but optimistic approach to teaching what she calls “hard history.”
“I am a true believer in teaching the truth,” Santos told the Globe on a video call. In the background, her classroom walls were adorned with photos of students and posters of politician and activist John Lewis. “I feel like it’s a patriotic thing to do because only by knowing the facts and the truth you can try to fix it and to make a country that is good for all people.”
The honor is presented to one K-12 history teacher in each state, Washington, D.C., US territories, and Department of Defense schools by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Recipients are considered for National History Teacher of the Year, which will be announced next month.
Santos said American history is rich with stories of resilience, which she highlights in the classroom as a balance to heavier lessons. She said she aims to strip away the defensiveness that often comes with learning difficult history.
“The greatest part about American history is the people,” she said. “Because despite all the oppression, despite genocide, despite slavery and eugenics, there are people that are still here. And they’re still thriving.”
Alicia Kersten, social studies department chair and co-interim principal at Somerville High, said Santos “takes a lead” in the department, offering guidance to colleagues on how to broach challenging subjects.
“Adda is one of those teachers who can reach any student,” Kersten said. “It sets the tone for everything else. Because what she does with her curriculum is then work really hard to make sure students see themselves.... It’s just really powerful.”
Santos said she works to decentralize history from the most famous figures and movements, focusing instead on the stories of individuals’ contributions — volunteers behind civil rights-era voter registration campaigns, women during the American revolution, Black soldiers in segregated troops.
“Bring out the people who were on the ground,” Santos said. “I want to get [my students] to understand that history is done every day by the actions they take.”
Santos also advises Somerville High’s Local History Club, organizing events that celebrate the town’s legacy — including a student-curated exhibit at the Somerville Museum, now a recurring event.
She noted the high school’s diversity, emphasizing the value of students seeing themselves in history. Santos, who immigrated to the United States from Brazil, said she had always been interested in history but was at first intimidated by the idea of studying it in English.
Santos said she hopes to inspire students like her — “they’re immigrants or they have an accent” — to chase their passions in the face of adversity. “God knows I had to fight,” she said.
She said it can be hard to tell if teenagers are engaging with history in the moment, but the 24-year veteran of the district has been teaching long enough to see lessons resonate with students later in life. She said she sees former students around town, and they still bring up her lessons — even a decade after graduating.
“It may be a while until it kicks in,” Santos said. “But if they’re given those tools and they’re told that they are part of this too ... then at some point it’s going to kick in.”