Reap What You Sew
Recalling skills that her forebears used daily, Crozet Elementary second grade teacher Gay Baker taught herself to make a basic lap quilt over last year’s winter break. “My grandmother handed quilts down to me, and my mother could mend anything with a needle and thread,” said Baker, who first learned to sew in ninth grade. In the old days, sewing was a means to basic warmth and sustainability that’s now foreign to younger generations.
Baker wanted to share her rekindled enthusiasm for the lost art with her students, so she applied for and received a $600 Shannon Grant to help weave sewing-related concepts into a hands-on, project-based learning experience. “I’d love to get my students engaged with something that can be a lifelong skill,” she said. “Learning to sew can teach confidence, resourcefulness, creativity, and problem-solving, and can even save money.”
That was her pitch to the Shannon organization, which awards annual grants to Albemarle county teachers to enable innovative instructional projects that wouldn’t typically be covered by school funds. Sewing didn’t neatly fit into any of the suggested curricular categories on the application, so Baker labeled it a STEAM (science/technology/engineering/arts/math) project, as elements of all of those disciplines apply to creating a sewn piece.
Though her grant includes funding to buy two sewing machines, Baker plans to start with hand sewing. “We’ll make a simple stuffie by stitching two identically shaped pieces of fabric together, then turning it inside out and stuffing it,” she said. “It can be anything—a monster, an alien, a dog, a football, a doll.” Students will also learn about the history of sewing and quilting using books and online resources, and they will create an appliqué wall hanging, where one shape is sewn onto a larger square of fabric.
“Our final project will involve the students’ finding a need within the community and sewing something that will help, like small blankets for the SPCA or the senior center, or anything they can think of,” said Baker. “I really want it to be student-driven.” She’s been collecting excess fabric at yard sales, and a few equipment donations have begun trickling in. “The Green Olive Tree donated fabric for the project just the other day.”
The success of her first solo grant application was a thrill for Baker, who said the process was easier than she thought it would be. “I did a lot of research ahead of time,” she said, “and I tried to specifically address each aspect of the project that the application asked for.” Looking ahead, she hopes the project’s momentum will spread to the wider CRES community. “Once I get into a groove, I’d love to offer a sewing club as part of Eagle Time,” she said. “The kids are always so excited about something they get to plan and create.”
Alison Dwier-Selden takes the helm at Murray Elementary this year, replacing principal Mark Green, who has moved over to Stone-Robinson Elementary. Dwier-Selden has played important roles in Albemarle county schools for 32 years, beginning as a teacher at Rose Hill Elementary in 1987 and serving as an instructional coordinator at the division level as well as multiple principal positions over the course of her career.
“I was the principal at Walton Middle School for four years, and before that at Yancey Elementary for six years,” she said, “so the kindergarteners who started with me at Yancey went with me to Walton, which was fun. I learned a lot about the significance of relationships between children and their families and teachers and staff, and how important those are.” She found that “middle school children are hungry for some of the same things younger ones are—things like a really positive relationship with adults, and a peer group that they trust and respect.”
With a master’s degree in reading education, Dwier-Selden became a reading specialist and worked in that capacity in Scottsville as well as at the division level, serving as the instructional coordinator for ten years before taking the two principal positions, and then circling back recently as lead coach for language arts just before coming to Murray.
The scope of language arts instructional work has changed over time, she said. “Early on, the SOL’s were just coming into their own and schools were getting used to that level of accountability. The work of language arts is always how do we get children to be the most literate they can be, and how do we get the right books into their hands.”
The same is true now, says Dwier-Selden, and language arts teachers work to have students produce writing in many different genres so they feel competent and confident with their skills. “One big change now is that we are especially looking for books that represent the many children that are in our schools, so we can help all children find themselves in book characters,” she said, pointing to school librarians as wonderful collaborative partners in that endeavor. “You’re doing your best work when you’re collaborating—I always want to bring as many brains to the table as I can.”
Dwier-Selden is excited to be joining the Murray community for lots of reasons. “I have a real passion for small schools and the special community that builds in small schools,” she said. Surveying current Murray families on their most cherished school qualities, Dwier-Selden heard about the warmth from the staff as parents and students come into the school, the smiles, outreach, and trust that imbue the school’s atmosphere, as well as the rigorous curriculum that prepares students well for their next steps. “I can feel those things as well already,” she said, “and it’s my job to protect them.”
She’s also exhilarated by the variety of specialized work with students being done at Murray, including an autism-based classroom, an early childhood special education classroom, and a curriculum-based classroom that helps students with individualized education programs transition to regular classes throughout their day. Spanish will be taught to kindergarteners and first graders for the first time this year by a veteran FLES (foreign language in elementary school) teacher hired by Green, but known to Dwier-Selden as well. “One of the perks of being around a long time is that I’ve actually worked with her before,” she said with a laugh.
As the school year gets underway, Dwier-Selden hopes to blend in by watching and listening. “I’m really an all-in kind of person, very hands-on in that I like to be there in meetings and at events to listen and learn—that’s just me,” she said. “You don’t know what you might even recommend as next steps with the faculty until you get to know how they do what they do. It’s been such a welcoming community here. No principal could be any luckier.”
News Travels Fast
Each school day at 8 a.m., a half-dozen fifth graders at Crozet Elementary produce a live, 5-minute news show called “CRES News Now” in a small room off the school’s foyer. School counselor Mary Heppner serves as the faculty coordinator for the news crews, and said the job came with a steep learning curve.
“I started last August and didn’t even know how to turn anything on,” said Heppner, referring to the complex TriCaster system that controls two cameras and an elaborate sound board in the studio. “Thankfully, we had the crew from last year come in just before school started and train this year’s crew. They really took to the equipment easily, and most of the training involves the kids coaching each other.”
The show is broadcast to every classroom in the school and can be heard over the loudspeaker in the common areas. It runs on a tight schedule—Pledge of Allegiance and moment of silence, then the lunch menu, birthdays, weather, and announcements. Students may apply in fourth grade to fill positions on one of two six-person crews.
“The director is responsible for getting everyone on camera with the right background at the right time, while the assistant director gives the countdowns and makes sure the audio is right,” said Heppner. Add in a stage manager who handles all still images and GIF’s for the production, plus two anchors and a weatherperson, and the little studio is filled with energy and purpose.
For two mornings before the first day of school, last year’s veterans trained this year’s rookies, doling out lots of trade tips. “Slow down and speak clearly,” “The ‘1’ is silent, as in “3…2…—,” “Don’t say ‘Here are today’s announcements’ if there are no announcements because that’s just disappointing,” and “We need to stop all the side chatter in the room during the broadcast.” This last was from Heppner, who had been outside listening to the loudspeakers in the hall.
Rising sixth graders and former news directors Louisa Pesch and Allyson Rutherford were on hand to guide the new group, and they recalled a few chaotic mornings last year. “We’d have to be ready to go by 8, and there were definitely some bumps in the road,” said Allyson. “One camera was very much a troublemaker, and sometimes we’d have to just go through the intercom.”
Louisa agreed. “Every day it was something, but we’d just deal with it,” she said. “In the middle of the year we added Fun Fact Friday—a little trivia question—and that was very fun.” Did the experience spark an interest in the world of reporting? “I think working for news would be super cool,” she said.
Back in the studio, the stage manager scrambled to find appropriate visuals for the Pledge of Allegiance and moment of silence. The director tried out various news desk overlays on the TriCaster to frame the anchors, who in turn were checking the pronunciation of the birthday names. The assistant director kept her headphones on, ready to cue the next segment as soon as everyone quieted down.
“My job is riding herd, and making sure everything is plugged in,” said Heppner. “It’s been amazing. Coming in new I was so overwhelmed, but I got to know the 12 kids really well and we’ve all learned a lot.”
After a few run-throughs, the broadcast was smooth—a fun and lively start to the day, ending with a cheerful sign-off. “Be kind and make it a WOW Wednesday!”