North Hills teacher makes history
Joe Welch not only teaches history, he makes it.
Last month, the eighth-grade social studies teacher from North Hills Middle School won the National History Teacher of the Year Award. He is the youngest person ever to do so. Welch is 33.
“The call came between class periods. My hands started to shake and my voice trembled as I picked up the phone,” Welch said. “When they told me I had won, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t wait to hang up and call my wife.”
The award is presented annually by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which is the nation’s leading organization dedicated to K-12 American history education. Welch was chosen by a panel of teachers, administrators and scholars from across the nation for his achievements in American history education. He was named Pennsylvania History Teacher of the Year by the organization this summer and announced as a Top 10 national finalist in August.
North Hills Middle School teachers Vicki Truchan and Larry Dorenkamp nominated him for the award.
“I’ve never seen a more dynamic and knowledgeable teacher than Joe,” said Truchan, an English teacher. “He works tirelessly to ensure that his students make a connection with American history. I nominated him because he is, honestly, the best teacher I know, and I certainly could not think of anyone more deserving of this prestigious award.”
Welch has spent his entire 12-year teaching career at North Hills Middle School.
His philosophy on teaching is simple: “It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with what you know,” he said. “If you can’t do anything with it, what’s the point?”
Welch brings history to life for his students through a variety of creative and innovative projects. His students produce animated videos and documentaries about life in colonial Jamestown. They write and illustrate graphic novels based on the journals of George Washington. They model 3D productions of civil war battles and remix songs to analyze specific eras of American history.
His goal is to make his students feel history, not just memorize it.
“They’re going to laugh, cry, smile, and run the whole gamut of emotions. I want them to be disgusted and angry and happy. If they are, they’re emotionally invested in the historical event we’re studying, and they’re going to remember it,” Welch explained. “In time, they’ll likely forget a list of names and they’ll probably forget particular dates. But they’ll never forget how they felt when they first learned about a specific event in history.”
His students appreciate his hands-on approach to learning.
“I like how he makes the class fun and very easy to understand,” said Emma Gottschalk, 13, of Ross. “I have never enjoyed a social studies class more.”
“He picks projects that teach us something and are fun. He shows us videos that are funny, send a message, and get stuck in our heads,” added Ryan Nolan, 13, of West View.
“Mr. Welch takes something that is normally boring and turns it into something memorable. I’ll always remember every amendment in the Bill of Rights because of how he taught the subject. He told us funny anecdotes that went along with each amendment. Mr. Welch is the best history teacher I’ve ever had,” said former student Morrigan Henry, 15, of West View.
In 2017, Welch teamed with Truchan for a project in which students published four volumes of community oral history narratives and student analysis, called “Building Bridges: Oral History to Connect Communities and Generations.” The publications are now available for free on iBooks, and the students were recognized with the Association for Middle Level Education National Community Engagement Award for the project.
More recently, Welch hosted a community Vietnam War event in partnership with WQED and PBS, sparking student interest in POW research and a special screening of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Vietnam War,” which premiered in September 2017.
Welch works with Apple technology in and out of the classroom as an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE). He advises the company on integrating technology, and serves as a content creator. He also was one of 16 local teachers honored with a Leaders in the Classroom award and grant from Chevron last year.
“Mr. Welch is a diligent educator who thoroughly realizes the difference that innovation and creativity in the classroom can bring to a child’s education and future. We are ecstatic that he has been recognized on the national stage and honored to have such a dedicated and forward-thinking teacher in our district,” said superintendent Patrick Mannarino.
James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, admits that picking a single winner from 10 outstanding finalists was a difficult task this year.
“But Mr. Welch’s all-consuming dedication to his students and teaching has been evident from the start of the judging process,” Basker said. “And we think he perfectly embodies the profession.”
Welch will be honored at a ceremony at the Yale Club in New York City on Oct. 10, where he will be presented with a plaque and a $10,000 prize.
Laurie Rees is a Tribune-Review contributor.