Editor's Note: This is the ninth article in a series on north Okaloosa County Teachers of the Year.
LAUREL HILL — It was reading time in Deborah Welsh's fifth-grade classroom at Laurel Hill School. Her students had grabbed an assortment of chairs and arranged them in cozy literature circles.
The kids drive book discussions in their respective groups, Welsh said. On sunny days, they sometimes sit outside to read and dissect their books.
"They read a chapter and discuss it, and develop questions and answers," Welsh said. "Their questions guide the discussions."
Her job is to keep discussions on topic and answer questions that can't be settled in the group as kids plunge further into Helen Keller's "The Story of My Life," Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague" and Lois Lowry's "Number of the Stars."
Finding interesting material for her class' language arts, social studies, grammar and reading studies is sometimes challenging, Welsh said.
For example, "our history book doesn't go up to World War II, so we're pulling it together ourselves," Welsh said.
"Number of the Stars," a fictional book about a Jewish family's escape from the Nazis during World War II, helps contribute to students' understanding of the Holocaust, she said.
Additionally, her kids found a collection of war-themed books in the school library and maintain a pile of them on a table, which some students not in reading groups peruse.
Welsh has been at Laurel Hill School for seven years, teaching third and fifth grade, but she prefers the latter.
"I like it because they're bigger kids and they can do more," she said. "You can give them more responsibility."
Recently, the class scheduled a trip to New Orleans that students helped plan themselves. They began fund-raising at the beginning of the year, Welsh said.
"They're at that age where they can work together on things," she said.
'Each day a new beginning'
Laurel Hill School Principal Susan Lowrey-Sexton said Welsh's innovation in the classroom is partially what led to her peers selecting her as the school's Teacher of the Year.
"She has the most cheerful and cooperative approach, with each day a new beginning for uncommon patience and understanding," Lowrey-Sexton said.
"She is a regular volunteer for service to others across the school, cooperating with other teachers in projects or planning for great things to happen in her class."
Fifth-grader Charley Beck put it more succinctly.
"She's great," he said. "We get to do a lot of different stuff with her."
However, Welsh gave credit to Charley and his classmates.
"We have good kids up here," she said. "Everybody knows everyone. Some of the kids have nothing but they come in every day. They're tougher than we are sometimes."
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.