DRACUT — Standing in the halls of Lakeview Junior High School between classes, eighth-grade history teacher Rebecca Duda cannot go unnoticed.
Shouts of “Duda!” fill the halls as students pass by, giving her high-fives or pumping their fists in the air.
Last month, Duda, just in her second year at Lakeview Junior High, was awarded the William Spratt Award for Excellence in Teaching Social Studies at the Middle Level by the Massachusetts Council for Social Studies.
The award is given annually to the teacher that best demonstrates an exceptional ability in the social studies by developing and incorporating innovative and creative instructional strategies in teaching, instilling a strong spirit of inquiry in students, fostering the development of democratic beliefs, values and skills needed for active citizenship, as well as involvement in professional development opportunities.
“She brings an honesty and fairness,” said Lakeview Vice Principal Frank D’Addario, who nominated Duda for the award. “She knows her subject and how to teach it. Rebecca knows how to listen, has the confidence of the students and isn’t afraid to admit when she makes a mistake.”
Duda grew up in Beverly and attended Salem State College. She left school just one class short of filling her graduation requirements to take a job as a department manager at Stop & Shop.
“I did that for 10 years before realizing that it was not what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to teach, so I went back to school, finished my degree and got my master’s degree.”
After graduation, Duda posted her résumé online and applied for several jobs. Then she received a call from a school system to which, not only did she not apply, but had no idea where it was.
Theresa Rogers, who now serves as the principal of Lakeview Junior High, was the district’s coordinator of secondary curriculum and professional development at the time.
“She saw my résumé online and called me for an interview,” Duda recalled. “I thought, ‘great, but where is Dracut?'”
Duda certainly has no problem finding Dracut today. She spends a lot of time in town acting as the adviser to the photography club, the law club and the knowledge bowl. She also recently formed a history club.
The advent of the history club has brought with it a visit from the Essex Base Ball Club, a group of vintage baseball enthusiasts who play by 1861 rules and an American Revolution re-enactment from the staff of the Massachusetts Archives.
“It is important to make history real to them,” Duda said. “They especially love the Revolutionary War, which is fun because a lot of that happened right here is Massachusetts, so they can actually visit some of the sites.”
“I always said I would never teach junior high. I was prepared to be a high school history teacher,” she added. “Everyone told me horror stories about junior high, but for the most part they are not true.”
Every afternoon Duda can be found eating lunch in the cafeteria among the kids, a steady stream of students approaching her for lunch money, to say hello or just to chat.
She said the trick to teaching the hyper, short-attention-spanned species known as the junior-high student is to put yourself in their shoes.
“You have to be in tune with what they are going through,” Duda said. “You have to know people and vary your approach to get the most out of them and keep things interesting to them.”
Recently, her students put together PowerPoint presentations on the lives of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Davy Crockett, while others decided to work together to produce videos. One on them was on the Alamo, in which Duda managed to snag a small part.
Student-made game boards, bringing players on adventures with the Oregon Trail and the Alamo, decorate the back wall of Duda’s classroom. Some of the boards are so professional looking they could have been produced by Parker Brothers.
“With this kind of project, the kids can express their creativity while learning, and most of the time they do so much research in putting the game together they learn a lot more about the subject than they realize or that they would by reading a text book. It really sticks with them,” Duda said.
Duda may be the teacher, but like any good teacher she is also a student, continually learning more about both her profession and the subject she teaches.
This year, she decided to try to grow cotton plants on a windowsill at the junior high — not exactly cotton country.
“I teach about cotton so much every year and realized I had never seen a cotton plant, so I thought it would be fun to try this experiment,” she said, smiling as she checked on the tiny plants that have begun to sprout broad green leaves.
“It is as exciting for me to learn new things as it is too see the students’ faces light up when they get excited about a subject or a project,” Duda said. “That is what we are here for; it really is all about the kids.”
Have a story idea? Jennifer Amy Myers can be reached at 978-970-4649 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.