Overland Park & Leawood

From plays to pop culture, Indian Hills social studies teacher puts everything to use

If your notion of a middle school social studies class is of thick textbooks and long, boring lectures, than you’ve never been inside Judith Schieszer’s classroom at Indian Hills Middle School.

The Shawnee Mission School District educator teaches seventh-grade social studies with an emphasis on geography, government, economics and history from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. And she does so with creative flair.

“I really believe in incorporating arts into teaching,” Schieszer said. “Students tend to remember things longer and are more interested.”

It’s this creativity that has earned Schieszer two recent teaching awards. This week she will be presented at school with the 2013 National Teacher of the Year award by the National Society of Daughters of Colonial Wars. The group is for individuals who have had ancestors that participated in any of the colonial wars. She was also recently named the National Outstanding Teacher by the Oregon California Trails Association.

Jane Hursh of Shawnee is the past national historian for the National Society of Daughters of Colonial Wars. She says it’s important for the group to honor a dedicated teacher like Schieszer.

“We think that children need to know the history of our country,” Hursh said. “They need to know about their ancestors and what life was like in those days and how we have fought for our freedom.”

Schieszer uses a variety of creative ways to teach her students about history. For an economics lesson, she had her students draw cartoons to illustrate the economic systems of the world.

She often uses plays to help her students understand history. When she can’t find a suitable one to share with the class, she’s even gone so far as to write her own. It was a seven-act play she wrote about a family that traveled from the Shawnee Indian Mission in Kansas to Oregon that earned her the award from the Oregon California Trails Association.

“I incorporated economic reasons why the family went there, historical reasons too and the difference between the Oregon and Santa Fe Trail,” Schieszer said.

Even pop culture has been known to make an appearance in one of Schieszer’s lessons. She somehow managed to include the characters from the popular “Twilight” movie series into an economics lesson about opportunity costs and trade-offs.

During her 30-year education career, Schieszer has taught elementary, middle school and even for a few years at the college level. But she says that the place where she finds the most joy is middle school.

“It is a job that every morning I wake up and I am happy to go to,” Schieszer said.

Schieszer considers herself fortunate to have been recognized for her teaching.

“Teachers often go on for years and years and we know we are doing a good job, but we often feel that no one else feels we are doing a good job,” Schieszer said.

For now, it seems Schieszer is doing a good job of teaching kids not just to memorize historical facts but to analyze them, too.

“I am teaching kids how to think about history and not just going by what they see on TV, but analyzing it and having independent thoughts,” Schieszer said.