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Charter school teacher earns national history award

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Leslie Lawner has been awarded as New Mexico History Teacher of the Year Award from Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The National History Teacher of the Year will be selected from all the states and will receive their award at a ceremony in New York City on Oct. 2. Lawner teaches language arts and social studies at Sidney Gutierrez Middle School at 69 Gail Harris St. (Alison Penn Photo)

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A teacher at Sidney Gutierrez Middle School (SGMS) has been selected as a recipient for the Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year Award.

Leslie Lawner has been teaching language arts and social studies at SGMS since 2003. Teaching six classes per day, she integrates both subjects, and by assigning relevant reading materials, from novels to poetry, she pairs them with “authentic activities” for her students.

Lawner said she was “honored to be nominated,” but “shocked and thrilled” when she found out she was the New Mexican recipient. Lawner was also awarded New Mexico Charter School Teacher of the Year Award in 2010.

According to a press release, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is an organization “dedicated to K-12 American history education” and “exceptional” teachers from the 50 states, District of Columbia and Department of Defense schools and U.S territories have been recognized with this award for the past 25 years. The national award will be given to a recipient in New York City on Oct. 2.

As a former lawyer for 25 years, Lawner explained that her career change at 50 came when she was volunteering at SGMS, which her husband, Robert “Bob” Carroll, helped start. While volunteering, Lawner said she realized she loved teaching more than she was loving law and she decided to take a few courses on education. Lawner has lived in Roswell for 26 years; before that, she lived in Houston, Washington D.C. and grew up in New York City.

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Lawner said her law background has helped “immensely” in teaching the Constitution and the role of government to her students. In the most recent legislative session, Lawner said her seventh-graders met with the governor’s senior policy advisor for a school trip to Santa Fe and lobbied to get funding for their school after researching how taking away funding would impact SGMS. A similar lobbying effort was presented to two legislators in her classroom.

“The idea is to let them know they have power,” Lawner said. “Let them do authentic activities that are meaningful to them and certainly saving funding for our school is a meaningful activity — and they were amazing. I was really proud of them … I don’t know if we are going to get our money back, but at least we’re trying. We’re doing something.”

For her best teaching practices, Lawner encourages teachers to “be passionate” about what they are teaching and offer their students meaningful activities to explore what they are learning. Beyond reading and writing, Lawner said her students curate a museum and renaissance fair, have debates and mock hearings, go to Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument and the state capital, and eighth-graders spend their year making a documentary on a constitutional or governmental issue for C-SPAN’s StudentCam.

Outside of SGMS, Lawner instructs other teachers how to teach the Holocaust, while addressing social justice issues, through The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Right Satellite Seminar (TOLI) in Albuquerque. This is her sixth year and she was at the five-day seminar with 25 educators when she received word of the award.

“I’m concerned about social justice and how we treat people,” Lawner said. “And I think, because the Holocaust is long enough ago that we can look at it with a historical lens — but recent enough that there are people who can talk about it — that it’s a perfect case study for what happens really if you don’t stop bullying. …”

Through the case study of the Holocaust, Lawner said the lessons involved can make students aware of a potential and similar event for them to recognize and “do whatever it is within their power to do to stop it.”

Ty Friend, a senior government teacher at Hobbs High School, nominated Lawner, who he has known for three years through TOLI. Friend was present at the seminar when Leslie received the news and was able to thank Friend in person.

“Leslie has a passion for the subject (the Holocaust) and has traveled throughout the world to further her expertise,” Friend wrote in an emailed statement. “She has made many teachers and students feel a heart tug through the literature, art and drama she uses to emphasize the human element of such a haunting tragedy that we don’t ever want to see happen again.

“I consider her to be a catalyst for conscience-based activism in our schools and society in general and she constantly reminds everyone she sees that bystanders in the face of oppression should be considered part of the problem.”

Nancy Fleming, visual arts teacher at SGMS, who has known Lawner in various capacities for 20 years, wrote in a letter to the award selection committee that she could “think of no one more deserving for this prestigious recognition.”

“In her role as teacher to hundreds of middle school students thus far in her career, she merges history with current events, language roots, hands-on projects, in-depth research, multimedia experiences, guest speakers, field trips … seamlessly weaving it all together so connections are made within each student,” Fleming wrote. “Cognizant thinking erupts, lively discussions ensue daily and learning happens within every student at every level.

“Her exceptional knowledge of the subject matter is bolstered by her continued thirst for information — by podcasts, books, research — and her articulate discourse and witty thoughtfulness helps students mine the huge field of history without being overwhelmed by its complexities.”

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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