Choir director Amber Blakovich has made the most of her short two-and-a-half-year tenure at Henley Middle School, leading a blended middle school group of singers to receive highest honors at a national competition in Florida in late March.
Upon graduation from JMU in December of 2016 with a degree in music education with a vocal concentration, Blakovich began teaching at both Henley and WAHS and immediately brought her open and upbeat style to bear in both programs. “To me, singing is one of the most vulnerable things you can do, because you get on stage and share this thing that you have,” she said. “You can work to get better but your voice is your voice. You’re saying ‘this is how I sound, this is what I do.’”
Henley has two choirs that meet as elective classes during the week—a sixth-grade choir and a combined seventh/eighth grade “Hornet choir”—as well as an audition-only Jazz Singers group that meets before and after school. Participation in the national Festival Disney competition was open to all, and of the 65 choir students, 41 chose to attend. Blakovich began developing the repertoire for this year’s national competition last spring, choosing three songs that she thought would resonate with the students.
“The theme started as a ‘home’ kind of theme, and it morphed into a love of singing and home and togetherness theme,” she said. “For instance, ‘Sisi Ni Moja’ means ‘We Are One’ and ‘A Jubilant Song’ is about lifting up your voices and singing. I wanted to choose something the students could connect to, pieces that they would take ownership of.” The title Sisi Ni Moja is Swahili, and the lively and uplifting tune, written by popular contemporary composer Jacob Narverud, features an authentic djembe drum accompaniment.
After some additional preparation outside of school hours and an overnight bus ride down to Disney in Florida, the choir jumped off the bus and headed straight for the park to perform. The group’s goal was a Superior rating—a score of between 90 and 100—which they achieved with a 94, but there was another surprise to come. “I was just standing on stage with the other directors and I suddenly heard them say that the Gold Award for all middle schools goes to Henley, and we all said ‘What?’” said Blakovich, laughing. “It was insane, so great.”
Blakovich says the students worked steadily to learn their songs’ harmonies and dynamics, rehearsing small sections again and again. “We’re really lucky in that we have a very balanced choir,” she said. “We’ve worked hard on balancing our voices because the goal is to sound like one alto section and one soprano section, not like a soprano section with a few voices sticking out.”
Seventh-grader Ben Johnston has been in the choir for two years and attributes its success to Blakovich’s “human” nature. “She’s happy and cheerful, and she interacts really naturally with the students,” said Johnston. He described the iterative, though not stressful, process of learning a song. “We do a page or two at a time with each section, we practice them together, then maybe move to a different song, and then do another page or two in the next class,” he said. “It builds up that way.”
Unfortunately for Henley and WAHS, Blakovich will be moving to New Jersey this summer to be closer to her family, but she leaves both programs in strong shape. When she started, Henley’s program had 30 students and is now up to 65, and WAHS’ program has more than doubled as well—an unsurprising result, given that Blakovich stresses connecting with students above all else. “The human connection, that’s my biggest thing,” she said. “What I tell them is that I teach kids first, and music is just something we do together.”
Good as Gold
Each May brings the announcement of the Golden Apple awards for local teachers in an annual event sponsored by Better Living Building Supply & Cabinetry. The awards recognize one outstanding teacher from each area school from among those nominated by colleagues, students, or community members. Two of the award-winning teachers from the western district schools are Atlanta Hutchins of Crozet Elementary and Emilie Pastorfield of Murray Elementary.
“This is my seventh year at Crozet,” said Hutchins, who teaches third grade. Though she taught students from preschool to high school prior to her CES experience, she loves third graders because “they’re still sweet and like to come to school, but they already know how to tie their shoes.” At CES, third grade is the students’ first year “upstairs in the big kid hallway, like the middle school of elementary school,” she said.
Hutchins has been on the forefront of adopting classroom technology for her classes, receiving a Shannon grant in 2016 to purchase “Ozobots,” tiny programmable robots that kids can control using simple coding, as well as introducing interactive Minecraft modules to spice up studies of history and science. “Teaching is now much more hands-on with a lot of emphasis on STEM and building projects and real-life problem solving,” she said.
Though math is her favorite subject to teach, she also tries to share her love of reading with students. “Third grade is a good age for switching from ‘learning to read’ to ‘loving to read,’” she said. “The trick is to hook them into a good book series to keep it going and make reading a habit.” Another favorite of Hutchins’ is a series of beginning-of-year team-building challenges, which she says helps kids begin to adopt a “growth mindset.”
“In one challenge I give them fifteen sheets of paper, and they work in teams to see who can build the tallest tower,” she said. “At first they don’t think they can do it, and I write down what they’re saying as they work. Afterwards I show them what they were saying at two minutes in, five minutes in, ten minutes in, and it’s interesting to hear their perspectives change as they go, very eye-opening to them to see that they realize they can do it.”
CES principal Gwedette Crummie lauds Hutchins as a life-long learner and community builder, noting that “she seeks out opportunities to learn more about current technology and research-based instructional practices to engage all learners, and shares her ideas out to the school community!”
Encouraged by Crummie early on to contribute ideas, Hutchins developed the annual “Principal Challenge,” a fun reading event in which students in every class send book suggestions to Crummie, who also accepts a wacky challenge if students hit their own reading targets. In past years Crummie has spent the day hiding all over school grounds, has been “sent to the moon” with a rocket launch, and last year was taped to a wall by students. “I’ve been very lucky to have such an enthusiastic principal,” said Hutchins with a smile. “I’ve already got an idea for her for next year!”
Emilie Pastorfield is in her 17th year at Murray, currently teaching second graders after having also taught first and fourth grade. “I love all the grades but second is my favorite,” she said. “They’re sponges.” Pastorfield is a sponge, too, soaking up new approaches and methods and creatively adapting them to meet her students’ needs.
When the school division increased its goals for elementary reading and spelling levels, she implemented elements of the reading teacher text Developing Word Recognition by Latisha Hayes to give some of her struggling students a solid foundation in word patterns. “I’ve had to change it up a bit to get away from traditional word study, and I’ve had a lot of success this year,” she said. “Everything is cyclical eventually—we’re doing some things we emphasized a long time ago.”
Murray principal Mark Green praises Pastorfield’s initiative in teaching reading. “Ms. Pastorfield has worked tirelessly to help the young readers in her classroom make tremendous growth,” said Green. “The results of the past two years have been impressive.”
One relatively new area of instructional emphasis in county schools has made a huge difference in Pastorfield’s classroom environment. “Something that’s been amazing for me personally and for us as a school is ‘responsive classroom,’ where we are asking kids what they should look like and sound like during various activities throughout the day,” she said. “It’s a social/emotional process where you are building routine in your classroom but also modeling everything you do.”
For instance, during their reading workshop time, the class has discussed what the classroom should look like, sound like, and feel like, so that students can be aware of how their behavior contributes to their learning and working environment during that period. “We have flexible seating and lots of communication with the kids about their learning,” said Pastorfield. “They know what to do without my saying, and the day just flows with minimal behavior issues.”
As her career has advanced, Pastorfield feels that her teaching has become more flexible and creative. “I used to religiously do the same things each year, but I don’t do that at all anymore,” she said. “Every year I change the projects and find new outside resources to go with them.” One of her favorites is a “famous American” project for which she and two other teachers developed a framework for thinking about historical figures as superheroes.
“We ask what are the qualities of a superhero—courage, never giving up, not seeking outside praise—that these famous Americans [like Rosa Parks, for example] had?” she said. “The students make those connections and realize that their parents are superheroes, and that we have super students too.” Hopefully they notice that their teacher is a superhero as well.
The four other Golden Apple winners from western district schools are Trevor Bricker at Brownsville Elementary, Rachel Shamey at Meriwether Lewis Elementary, Lisa Boyce at Henley Middle, and Monica Laux at WAHS. Congratulations, teachers!
To celebrate Earth Week, Murray Elementary gifted resource teacher Laura Richardson encouraged a change that she hopes will catch on at school: waste-free lunches. “The goal is progress, not perfection,” said Richardson. “It’s about building a knowledge base around reduce, reuse, recycle—the three R’s—as we found that the younger students weren’t really familiar with those ideas.”
The project got its start when a fourth grader, who had watched a video about how plastic straws are difficult to recycle and a huge source of waste in the U.S., observed how many straws were being used in the cafeteria. “This student noticed that some kids would take handfuls and drink out of five straws at a time,” said Richardson. “So we moved the straws back so they are still available to children with motor issues but not to everybody, and now it’s no big deal.”
Richardson then applied some fact-gathering to the waste problem by leading a school project for volunteers from second through fifth grades who signed up to do a trash inventory one Friday. “They weighed the trash generated from lunch and did the math on how much waste does each child generate per year,” she said. “They used graphs to compare trash from packers versus buyers, and found that single-use plastics made up almost 80 percent of all the trash.”
The waste-free lunch day was advertised in mailings to parents and class discussions with students, and produced inventive lunch solutions such as metal utensils, cloth napkins, and plastic sandwich containers that were all washable and reusable, which the students proudly showed off. The cafeteria staff also got in on the act, packing muffins into paper bags and using GreenWare cups and lids—plant-based and compostable—for the diced fruit of the day.
Richardson plans to have the students do the trash inventory once more before the end of the year to see if increased waste awareness has made a difference. “If we’ve reduced our impact, then we can calculate how much that means we’d save over the whole school year, and that could be motivating for the students,” she said. She also hopes to engage with Black Bear composting service and to help kids learn how to recycle their lunch waste by putting it in separate bins. “It’s really about changing habits.”