School Notes: July 2018

Sandy Keyser, Western's 2018 Golden Apple award winner. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Apple of My Eye

Six teachers from the western district were winners of the 17th annual Golden Apple Awards for teaching excellence. The awards go to one teacher at each public and private school in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and are sponsored each year by Better Living Building Supply and Cabinetry. The recipients, who can be nominated by students, parents, colleagues, or other community members, are chosen by a select panel of local educators and parents and demonstrate “excellence in the classroom, innovative instructional strategies and techniques, and involvement in their local community,” according to an Albemarle County press release.

Our 2018 western district award-winners are: Jennifer McCartney at Brownsville, Justin Stauffer at Crozet Elementary, Meg Franco at Meriwether Lewis, Jen Donaldson at Murray, Emily Blasé at Henley, and Sandy Keyser at WAHS.

This year, two of the local recipients are special education teachers who both take particular joy in finding innovative ways to serve their students. Arriving at WAHS in 1998 after a long stint at Albemarle High School, Sandy Keyser has taught functional English and math as well as life skills to students with intellectual disabilities for the last twenty years, and she made a difference right from the start. “I wanted to get my students out to electives more often, but I had only one assistant, so we developed the peer helper program,” she said.

Keyser first approached then-Principal Anne Coughlin to ask if she could recruit student peers—regular education students who could earn elective credit by accompanying the special education students to elective classes like art and music—and Coughlin immediately agreed. “It’s been going on for years and years now,” said Keyser. “We had ten or so [regular ed] students do it this past year, and a lot of them go on to work in special ed after college. And of course my kids just love it.”

Beyond academics, Keyser encourages her students to participate in community activities like the Special Olympics through a VHSL program called Champions Together, and to try whatever interests them at WAHS. “I’ve had several of my students become cheerleaders, work on the morning news broadcast, all kinds of things,” she said, and stressed the value of developing a sense of independence. “I love to see a shy student gain confidence, or to work on an academic skill with them until they suddenly get it, and retain it.”

Though she plans to retire after next year, Keyser won’t be idle. “I’ll have to do something part time, for sure,” she said. “Maybe I’ll work as a part-time teaching assistant, or in therapeutic parks and recreation, something to keep me busy.” She’ll miss the atmosphere at WAHS most of all. “The student body here is so amazing,” she said. “So accepting, so respectful—they do an incredible job of making my kids feel like they’re part of the school, which is kind of the point.”

At Henley Middle School, Emily Blasé has just completed her first year after graduating from U.Va., and leads an Albemarle County initiative at Henley called the Autism Base program, which serves students with autism within their regular classroom setting. “All of my students are able to access the general education curriculum with their peers, and we help by providing social support such as coping skills,” said Blasé. “I meet my kids where they are, in their classes, and it’s important that they are out there with their peers. That’s the social learning they need to do, being with other students their age.”

In addition to focusing on supporting students in their classes, Blasé says an important part of the program is working with the families of autistic kids. “We’re very committed to working with parents, who know their kids better than anybody,” she said. “So including families in that system of support is very helpful.” Henley already stresses a strong social/emotional element in its curriculum with an emphasis on friendship and on being part of the community, said Blasé, so the Autism Base program dovetails naturally with that work.

Blasé has been pleased with the program’s flexibility, which allows her to float during the day to keep up with her eight special needs students. “I can really get into the classes and help kids do things like access group projects with their friends,” she said. “Sometimes support may look like having another assistant in the classroom, and other times it may be giving teachers strategies for dealing with situations, or sitting down with the kids to help them solve a specific problem. It’s really a unique service model.”

Congratulations to all of this year’s Golden Apple winners!

Fourth graders Gabriele, Kai, Bella, and Sara celebrate Italy at Crozet Elementary’s World Market. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Marketplace of Ideas

The combined fourth grade classes at Crozet Elementary staged a vibrant World Market during the last week of school, displaying creative projects, writings, research, and technology as well as cultural food, clothing, and artifacts of their chosen country after a yearlong study of world geography. “This is self-directed, project-based learning and they’ve worked hard all year during their weekly Genius Hour to complete these projects,” said fourth grade teacher Barb Albertson.

Fourth graders Samara, Siri, and Savanna focused their research on India at Crozet Elementary’s World Market. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The colorful and raucous market was organized by groups of three or four students who selected a particular country on which to focus their study. Some students had a specific reason for their choice, like an ancestral heritage, while others picked countries that they were curious about.

“I’m Italian, actually half-Italian,” said Gabriele, whose team picked Italy, “and I wanted to learn more about the place.” The group prepared pasta and sauce for visitors to sample, and made a clay model of the Coliseum along with a computer presentation about the country. “I love Italy and really want to visit there someday,” said team member Bella.

Fourth-graders Miriam, Willa, and Dante present Greenland at Crozet Elementary’s World Market. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The team of Miriam, Willa, and Dante studied Greenland, partly because of its name. “It had an unusual history because it’s named Greenland but it’s really quite icy,” said Dante. “I believe the Vikings were battling someone and they named it Greenland to trick the other people into moving there, and then they lived in Iceland which was really green and lush.” The group’s display included small models made from foam and sugar cubes of structures called Inukshuk, large stone statues resembling humans and used by indigenous peoples as waypoints or to mark good hunting spots.

Fourth-graders Hayden, Farrah, and Liam show off their Peru project at Crozet Elementary’s World Market. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Hayden, Farrah, and Liam made a poster and a clay model of Machu Picchu, and said though they didn’t know much about Peru when they started (including that it’s a real country), they know a ton about it now. Casting farther east on the globe, Samara, Siri, and Savanna studied India, borrowing authentic Indian clothing from another student whose family is Indian. A highlight of World Market day came when the teachers finally gave the all-clear for the students to eat the cultural food they’d brought.

One of the most important learning elements of the project was the chance give and receive feedback from peers. “They presented what they’d done so far to each other often over the course of the year, and spent a lot of time doing self-reflection,” said Albertson. “They ask themselves, ‘Should we have done it this way instead of that way, or could we include something different?’ It’s really great prctice for them.” 

A bubble machine mimics snowfall at Murray Elementary Field Day. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Passing the Torch

The annual end-of-year Murray Elementary School Field Day took a new direction this year as PE teacher Katherine Tillar-Hughes put the students in charge of the entire event. “The fifth graders decided on the overall theme and organized the various stations,” said Tillar-Hughes. “They really did a great job.”

The students picked the Winter Olympics as their theme, an intriguing counterpoint to the hot June day of the all-school outdoor festival. Events included activities that resembled skiing, ice hockey, and luge, but were actually water-based, like a huge inflatable water slide and a long downhill slip-and-slide that ended in a spectacular puddle splash. Snow was re-imagined with a bubble machine manned by a parent volunteer who rained foam down on the students.

Murray Elementary students participate in “downhill” events at Field Day. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The ceremonial part of the Olympics played a role as well. “The students had a parade to kick off the day, and they carried small flags of all of the different countries,” said Tillar-Hughes. “It was very cool.” She said it was a bit nerve-wracking to have the students in charge of all the planning, and the unpredictable weather was an additional twist.

“When they called off school the day before Field Day [due to flooding caused by strong storms], I thought there was no way we’d be ready,” she said, “but we had a lot of the kids come in and help set everything up for several hours on that day off. It was impressive.” Even the two-hour delay on Field Day itself didn’t stop them.

The water slide ends with a big splash at Murray Elementary Field Day. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Fifth graders Ben Hostler and Ronan MacDonald were among the students who rotated in supervising the sporting events, and they were pleased with how their design was turning out. “We chose the Winter Olympics theme because they were just held [in February],” said Hostler. “There had been a Summer Olympics theme recently and we wanted to do something different.”

Western Arts in Education Grants

ArtFest in the West, the annual evening dedicated to arts and music held at WAHS in support of western district school arts programs, raised $13,600 during its March event, which will be distributed as grants by the nonprofit group Arts in Western Education (AWE) to local schools based on arts teachers’ requests. The following grants will be awarded: Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) Choir–concert dresses; WAHS Band–parade banner and sound system; WAHS Drama–speakers, transmitter/receivers, and microphone system; WAHS Creative Writing–Myriad publication printing costs; WAHS Fine Arts–Blue Trees Project and acrylic wall mount frame; Henley Middle School Choir–concert dresses; Brownsville Elementary–drying racks for art projects; Crozet Elementary–six Amazon Fire tablets and materials for costumes/props; Meriwether Lewis Elementary–sound system

Jim Lambert, president of the AWE Board of Directors, said in a press release, “We appreciate the support of everyone who joined us for this extraordinary evening and supported our efforts to provide quality arts programming for all students in the western part of our county.” Significant sponsors of the event included The Boar’s Head Inn & Spa, Craig Builders, Light House Studio, Raising Cane’s, Stanley Martin Homes, Savvy Rest, and WorldStrides. 


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