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Rhonda Watton ‘92 named top U.S. social studies teacher

  • Rhonda Watton '92 (M.Ed. '00) has been named Outstanding Middle Level Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the National C...
    Rhonda Watton '92 (M.Ed. '00) has been named Outstanding Middle Level Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies.
    National Council for the Social Studies
February 18, 2014

Still applying strategies she learned at Carthage, Rhonda Watton ’92 (M.Ed. ’00) has been honored as the nation’s top middle school social studies teacher.

Ms. Watton, an eighth-grade teacher at Templeton Middle School in Sussex, Wis., received the award from the National Council for the Social Studies. Impressed by her creativity and innovation, the selection committee made her a unanimous selection.

“She believes that education should not be a ‘sit and get’ situation, but one where students interact, question, challenge, problem solve, and draw conclusions from their learning,” the NCSS stated in a press release announcing Ms. Watton as the winner.

Teaching U.S. history from colonial times to the Civil War, she transports students to the time period they’re studying. That involves lots of primary sources: maps, letters, and other firsthand accounts. Simulations draw kids even deeper into the psyche of the Western pioneers.

To celebrate National History Day, she gave students the option to present their research topic in a documentary film, website, performance, or exhibit board — unless they preferred the traditional written paper.

“Every day, I try to make class a little different,” Ms. Watton said. “I try to provide choices when assigning projects or long-term assessments, so the students are able to direct their learning, making meanings and connections to the real world more relevant for them.”

The NCSS presented the award Nov. 22 during its annual conference in St. Louis. Each year, the association honors one teacher from each of the three major school age groups: elementary, middle, and high school.

Ms. Watton has devoted 22 years to teaching: six in the Milwaukee Public Schools and the past 16 at Templeton. There’s something about middle-schoolers that she finds especially rewarding.

“I really like their curiosity, their eagerness, their motivation,” she said. “Teaching what I love to teach, my enthusiasm kind of rubs off on them.”

In fact, occasionally a student reports back that he or she plans to check out a historic site in person on a family trip. A history minor at Carthage, Ms. Watton credits professors Thomas Noer and John W. Bailey (now a professor emeritus) for teaching her to think critically and to view history from multiple perspectives.

On the education side, she remains in regular contact with Professor Marilyn Ward. Ms. Watton took some timeless strategies from Prof. Ward’s classes, including ways to incorporate children’s literature into history.

“I use a lot of what she taught me, and that was 20-some years ago,” said Ms. Watton, who also teaches one period of reading.

The search for new and more relevant educational tools only heightens after graduation. The NCSS selection committee praised the veteran teacher’s use of technology in the classroom.

In a nomination letter, Templeton Principal Patricia Polczynski cited Ms. Watton’s “use of SMART and Web 2.0 technology to make the content come to life, the use of an interactive student notebook, and her emphasis on learning centers, simulations, and cooperative activities.”

A National Board-certified teacher, Ms. Watton participates in a variety of professional organizations. She serves as president of the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies, as well as on the steering committee for the Wisconsin Geographic Alliance.

“Rhonda Watton exudes excellence in and out of the social studies classroom, pushes herself to develop as an educator, and dedicates incredible time and effort as a leader in the social studies profession,” wrote nominator Chuck Taft, social studies chair and academic dean at the University School of Milwaukee.

In her hands, the study of the past has a sunny future.