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North Hills educator named teacher of year

August 8, 2018

For Joe Welch, an eighth grade social studies teacher at North Hills Middle School, history isn’t a dusty book on a library shelf, it’s a living thing.

“History has endless narratives and you can connect emotionally with the people that you are learning about,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what event, what group or what theme you are learning about, there is always an underlying metaphor or connection that is waiting to be made to better understand it or personalize it.”

Welch, 33, recently was selected as the 2018 Pennsylvania History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to K-12 American history education. With his state-level award, he will receive $1,000, an archive of books and historical resources for the school library, attendance at a 2019 Gilder Lehrman teacher seminar and recognition at a state ceremony.

He is now one of 53 finalists for the organization’s National History Teacher of the Year Award that will be announced in October.

“Mr. Welch employs creative and highly effective teaching strategies along with innovative uses of instructional technology in order to bring social studies ‘to life’ for his students,” says Dr. Jeff Taylor, assistant superintendent. “Designing his lessons with real world relevance through authentic learning experiences, Mr. Welch teaches students the importance of how history impacts our past, present and future.”

Education is a family affair for Welch, who is about to start his 12th year at North Hills.

His father was a teacher at the district’s Seville Elementary School, his brother heads a math class at Quaker Valley High School and his sister is a German instructor at Mellon Middle School in Mt. Lebanon.

Welch and his siblings grew up in South Fayette and got their first history lessons from their live-in grandmother, Sarah Whalen, now 97.

“She’s an amazing woman that oft shared stories about her time as a member of the WAAC and WAC and about the events she experienced,” he says of his grandmother’s military service. “She saved so many letters, pictures and artifacts, it was hard not to become interested.”

Inspired by a love of learning, Welch knew early on that he wanted to be at the front of the classroom. He modeled his off-beat teaching style off of many of his own instructors at South Fayette High School, particularly Don Sekelik, who taught world cultures, and Bill Parton, an AP U.S. history and AP economics teacher.

At North Hills Middle School, Welch has been known to wear costumes, talk with an accent, attempt to sing and tell a “bad” joke to keep his students engaged with the subject matter. Technology also is helping bring the past into the present.

His pupils create stop-motion animations, write scripts and produce short films to illustrate life in Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. Additionally, the eighth graders produce songs using GarageBand, integrate the use of augmented reality, illustrate their own children’s books to better comprehend complex primary resources, participate in escape room-themed games and produce videos using Apple’s iOS app, Clips.

Welch says that while technology doesn’t replace human interaction and the personal narratives that exist within history, it does amplify a student’s voice in obtaining resources, telling a story and sharing that story with the world.

His students were recognized in 2017 for their Building Bridges: Oral History to Connect Communities and Generations project, which Welch oversaw with middle school English teacher Vicki Truchan. Four volumes of community oral history narratives and student analysis are now available for free on iBooks. The project was recognized with the Association for the Middle Level Education National Community Engagement Award.

With the support of his wife, Sarah, Welch says he’ll continue his own education and strive to make history lessons fun for his students, as well as his children, Julia and Noah.

“History and educated dialogue around historical events teaches important communication skills and analytical skills of taking a great wealth of information, analyze its validity and bias, and to use that information to solve a problem or to amplify the voice of something that needs to be shared,” he says.

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