NCSS Member Interview
Sixth graders at Spoford Pond School in Boxford, Massachusetts, know their social studies teacher, Mary Ellen Sorensen, as the "Geo-Queen." Her passion for geography is revealed in an eclectic collection of small stuffed animals prominently featured in a corner of her classroom.
"They’re called Geo-Pets," Mary Ellen explains. "My students have taken them on their travels to every corner of the globe. I have pictures of pets at the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal, dangling over the canals of Venice, and shopping in a bazaar in Morocco. One unfortunately was lost in a crevasse in the Alps."
Over her fourteen-year teaching career, Mary Ellen has done some serious traveling herself, some of it via her role as a member of the board of directors of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the largest association in the country devoted solely to social studies education. She has twice been to Europe for conferences and recently spent a week in Ghana, West Africa, as a presenter. Such travel experiences provide not only important professional opportunities, but also exciting stories for her to share with her sixth graders.
TeacherVision (TV): How long have you been a member of the NCSS?
Mary Ellen: About ten years. I joined my local state organization first and became active there. Then I got involved at the national level. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that a sixth-grade teacher from Boxford got elected to the board of directors! Lots of people assume I’m a social studies professor. I really work to represent elementary school teachers so that they have a voice at the national level. The NCSS tries very hard to represent all levels of social studies teachers.
TV: What are the benefits of being a member?
Mary Ellen: It’s very enriching. As a member, you’re privy to what’s going on at the national, state, and local levels. Changes in social studies teaching are taking place very rapidly, and ordinary teachers don’t always have time to keep up with them, much less have a voice in influencing these changes. Your professional organization is that voice.
We also have a wonderful screening process for new curricula. There’s so much being printed and electronically produced in the area of social studies that you just can’t keep up with it all. It’s hard to know what is truly worthwhile to buy for your classroom. So we have a screening committee with readers and critics and professionals who use the materials and evaluate them. I am currently evaluating a curriculum on the Vietnam War, for example. The reviews can be found in all NCSS publications.
The NCSS publishes journals and newsletters for all levels of teachers: kindergarten through college. This was the first year we published a journal for middle-school teachers. Each publication has great lesson plans and teaching ideas, as well as reviews of literature and classroom materials.
The journals are also great for information about grants and fellowships, such as the Kezai Koho Center program, where fourteen U.S. and Canadian teachers go to Japan each summer for three weeks. And, of course, there is information about workshops and conferences in every issue.
TV: What are the NCSS conferences like?
Mary Ellen: They’re just fabulous. At the last conference in Washington DC, for instance, we hosted a huge naturalization ceremony. Two hundred people became new U.S. citizens right before our eyes. Even though we’re social studies teachers, few of us had ever witnessed this. It was very emotional and motivating.
We have literally hundreds of sessions and workshops for all levels and interests at the conferences. Most of the presenters are from our membership. The keynote speakers are always memorable. We’ve had Fred Rogers – as in Mr. Rogers – Alan Dershowitz, Gilbert Grosvenor. One that I remember very fondly is Craig Kielburger, who is the young founder of Free the Children, an organization dedicated to eradicating child labor. He was only sixteen when he spoke to us. We were all amazed by his passion and eloquence for such a young person.
TV: Do you use any of the resources on the NCSS web page?
Mary Ellen: I probably use it most often to communicate with other members. I also check on what’s happening in other states. The site gives me early information on upcoming conferences, and links such as those to legislative updates are very useful and make it easy to keep current. You can also join all sorts of different email listings from the website, depending on your interests.
TV: What would you tell another teacher who was considering becoming a member?
Mary Ellen: I would encourage them to attend a state or local level event first. Staying professionally current is essential – even mandatory in some states – in our field. Being a member of NCSS is an easy and inexpensive way to do this, and it’s a great way to stay in touch with your colleagues. Although I know that new teachers don’t have unlimited financial resources, being a member of NCSS is an excellent investment.
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