Schenectady County

Newell honored as state’s top middle school social studies teacher (with video)

Tracey Newell has been recognized as Middle School Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the New Yor

Tracey Newell likes to debate.

When she was younger, the Van Antwerp Middle School social studies teacher debated current events with her father. Not surprisingly, she turns her classroom into debate forums to discuss current issues in the context of history.

“They love to argue. I try to focus mostly on teaching the students how to think, but using the content to do that,” Newell said.

Newell added she makes sure the students can defend those opinions. “I think they have fun because they feel that they have a voice,” she said.

Her teaching methods have earned her recognition as Middle School Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the New York State Council for the Social Studies.

On Wednesday, she was having seventh-grade students debate whether the American Revolution really represented a revolution. Student Praise Cano said Americans derived practically every law they have from English laws.

“It would be a lot easier to try to work it out with England than to try to do a war,” she said.

Fellow student Christa Della Ratta was trying to make the case that it was a revolution.

“The king was too arrogant to listen to anything that they’re saying. The colonists wrote him letters, but he never changed anything,” she said.

Teaching is a second career for Newell, who grew up in Liverpool, N.Y., near Syracuse. She had been interested in the profession since she was 11, when her mother died from cancer. During that year, she had a teacher whom she described as an incredibly strong and confident woman who helped her through the grieving process.

“I just looked up to her so much. I don’t know if she knows what a difference she made in my life during a difficult year,” she said.

However, she was advised to go into a more practical career, such as law. After graduating from Siena College with a degree in political science, she ended up working for an Albany law firm as a legislative assistant.

However, the teaching dream never went away. She left the law firm and started her own day care business while going to school at night at Sage Graduate College to work toward a master’s degree in education.

After spending one year at Doyle Middle School in Troy, Newell has been with the Niskayuna district for the last nine.

“I love that every day is different,” she said. “The students help keep me open-minded and young. I learn something new every day — whether it’s from students or teachers.”

Newell said she likes storytelling and the human side of history. She tries to use a combination of approaches so it’s not just her lecturing or showing a video.

Seventh-grader Bijan Moore, 13, said he likes Newell’s approach. “She ties funny things in with what we learn, and every day is like a new joke about kids in our class,” he said.

Newell said it breaks her heart that civics and government are not receiving as much attention in the push toward math and science.

“If we don’t have informed citizens, we’re going to be in trouble,” she said.

She comes from a Marine Corps family, so what is going on in the world is all part of her background.

“Even though we need people who are fit and educated to take on jobs in the 21st century, they also need to understand why the United States truly is one of the greatest nations in the world,” she said. “I think that sometimes falls to the wayside.”

Newell said she worries about the economic climate and the fiscal challenges facing schools. Teachers don’t seem to be valued as much as they should be, she said. “In today’s climate, it almost seems like educators are becoming a scapegoat,” she said.

Newell said it is important to laugh at herself. Sometimes, students will call her out if she’s made a mistake in class or does something silly.

“The reason why you’re here is not to make sure my students can recite the Declaration of Independence, but to make sure my students are happy, healthy, they want to learn and they continue that passion for earning and help them problem solve,” she said.

Newell, who lives in Brunswick, spends what little free time she has with her family, which includes a son in the Marine Corps and another in 10th grade who plays football.

In 2008, she traveled to China and Mongolia to teach civics through a program called Civics Mosaic, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

Last fall, she became a National Board Certified Teacher. She had completed the process but came up a few points short in the evaluation. Yet, she persisted, which was admirable, according to Alfred Sive, social studies director for the Niskayuna school district.

While teachers often excel in a particular area, such as dealing with struggling students, Newell excels in all aspects of her profession, he said. “She’s got a lot of tools in the toolbox, and they’re all incredibly sharp,” Sive said.

Newell said it is easy to come to work because she loves what she does.

“I don’t think everyone can say that,” Newell said. “Even though it’s a very demanding job and I spend a lot of hours working at home, to love your job is worth every minute of those extra hours.”

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