Neil Armstrong Middle School teaching duo grabs national prize on the heels of a state award

History comes alive each weekday for some very lucky eighth-graders in Forest Grove.

Imagine George Washington time-traveling to 2012 and weighing in on the duel between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Or, picture the nation's first commander-in-chief taking his quill pen in hand to write a persuasive essay about the merits of today's Occupy Wall Street movement.

In Sol Joye's classroom at Neil Armstrong Middle School, it happens all the time.

Employing a computer program he created (dubbed "What would George Washington do?"), pupils use a social media website to interact with each other, glean resources from the Internet and "critique, support and rate each other's work," said Joye, who has taught American history in town since 2007.

For Joye, who's set up a virtual laboratory for educational innovation at Neil Armstrong, all that hard work has resulted in some well-deserved recognition this year. In May, he was named Oregon History Teacher of the Year by the state department of education, putting him in the running for a national prize along those same lines.

An ODE official came to the school on Mountain View Lane last Thursday to hand Joye a $1,000 check during a morning assembly and present him with an archive of books and historical resources for the campus library.

Then, on Monday evening, Joye and colleague Malynda Wenzl learned they'd garnered a national award for teaching history, the Beveridge Family Teaching Prize from the American Historical Association.

It's an armload of accolades the two educators find gratifying, if a little overwhelming.

Curriculum collaboration

Wenzl, who has taught at NAMS for eight years and nominated Joye for the state award, was thrilled to join him on the prize podium.

"I've had the privilege of teaching with Sol for the last six years, and during that time I've seen my instructional approach grow," said Wenzl, a U.S. history and leadership teacher. "We have been able to collaborate and develop curriculum that enriches students' understanding of historical events."

Highlights of their teaching teamwork have included a Civil War economics simulation and a presidential election simulation, as well as "metaphor projects" and "photostories," Wenzl noted.

The historical association's 2012 awards will be presented in January 2013 during the group's 127th annual meeting in New Orleans. While Wenzl said her teaching schedule would likely preclude her from making the trip, Joye hopes to get to the Gulf Coast to accept the honor in person.

'An excellent teacher'

Neil Armstrong Principal Brandon Hundley reacted Tuesday to his staff's multiple awards.

"(This) is another example of the hard work and excellent strategies teachers in Neil Armstrong are using on a daily basis to engage our students and propel them to their next educational level," he said. "It's very exciting to work with such dedicated and innovative staff members."

And, Hundley had high individual praise for Joye, whose professional aspirations extend well beyond Forest Grove.

"Sol is an excellent teacher," he said. "When the time comes for him to move on, he will be sorely missed."

Joye is currently applying to doctoral programs around the country and said he'd eventually like to earn a Ph.D. in either curriculum and instruction or educational philosophy and teach at the college level.

The 35-year-old educator credited his teaching colleagues for buoying his own success.

"This is one little tip of the iceberg," Joye said of the state award. "My name is on the award, but this kind of thing doesn't happen in isolation."

Teachers at Neil Armstrong "a lot of times get overlooked" for "the really good work we do here," said Joye. "I would put our teaching staff up against any staff in the state," he noted.

An instructional entrepreneur at heart, Joye eschews textbooks for computerized game-based learning in his classroom.

"I'm constantly trying to bring in current events and social justice issues," he said. His students are currently studying the American Revolution and how that period in history parallels today's social concerns.

Teaching couple

Joye's wife, Lisa, is also a trained teacher. The couple moved to Oregon from the Sacramento area and are parents to two young boys. Lisa Joye, who previously taught high school English, now runs her own small business, Prestige Soccer, which trains young soccer players in game skills and technique.

A former social studies teacher in Sacramento, Sol Joye holds an undergraduate degree in political science and public administration, as well as a master's degree in education.

For now, though, he's happy to be reaching about 180 eighth-grade students at Neil Armstrong. "My goal is not to just prepare my students for high school, but to get them ready for college as well," Joye said.

Hundley enjoys having Joye on the team at NAMS.

"Sol is a great team collaborator and brings excellent ideas for connections in content and creative ways to engage students in their learning," he said. "He is a member of our leadership team and always has good ideas and input for building initiatives and directions."

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