Rhonda Watton teaches at Templeton Middle School in Sussex
SUSSEX — Rhonda Watton has progressively gone away from relying on textbooks to teach her social studies students at Templeton Middle School, relying most on primary accounts of history to teach, a method that has earned her the accolade of Wisconsin's History Teacher of the Year.
Watton has been a teacher for 25 years, beginning in the Milwaukee Public Schools in 1992 and spending the past 20 years in the Hamilton School District.
Her love of history was sparked by college professors at Carthage College in Kenosha.
"They made history come alive for me; it really was interactive classes and they had different ways of presenting the material," Watton said. "Some of it was through literature, some was through film and plenty of discussion."
This teaching style struck Watton so much as a student that she made it her own as a teacher.
"The use of primary source documents in the classroom and not just teaching out of a history book, which is someone’s secondary source interpretation of what went on, is important," Watton said.
Instead, she uses letters written during various historical periods, maps, political cartoons and other images as tools in the classroom.
To her, teaching students the skill of taking a primary source and drawing their own conclusions of history is more important than totally relying on another historian's interpretation.
"It’s really a more inquiry-based approach," Watton said. "We have a textbook, but after almost 20 years, I only use it periodically. I try to bring so many other things into the classroom that hopefully make it interesting for the students.”
Through the 2017 Wisconsin History Teacher of the Year award, which is presented by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Watton will be presented with a $1,000 honorarium at a state award ceremony.
She will also receive an invitation to a 2018 Gilder Lehrman weeklong seminar that offers teachers daily discussions with eminent historians, visits to historic sites and, of course, hands-on work with primary sources.
For the past two decades, Watton has taught the same grade and the same topics in American history for the Hamilton School District, but she continually refines her knowledge of the content by attending out-of-state seminars during the summer.
One of her more recent trips included a weeklong stay at Mount Vernon, Virginia, where she attended lectures on the grounds by revered scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood.
She brings back what she learns to her students.
“I enjoy learning more and gaining more content knowledge and improving how I teach it," Watton said. “My wheels are always spinning as far as what new things I can bring to the classroom that would make history come alive for kids.”