The Rest Is History
A world history teacher at Western Albemarle High School has ignited a passion for the study of history among her students, and in the process has gained a measure of acclaim herself. Elizabeth Mulcahy requires her sophomores to participate in the annual National History Day competition each year, in which they develop a thesis statement, do in-depth research on their subject, and make a creative presentation of their work to judges at the state and national levels. “Think science fair, but with much more depth and variety,” said Mulcahy.
A broad theme guides the projects—this year’s is “breaking barriers in history”—and students spend three to four months refining and researching their question and creating a final product. “There are five choices for the projects,” said Mulcahy. “A historical paper, a website, a documentary, an exhibit, or a live performance. The competition rules really press the students to use the primary source voices of history rather than their own summaries. It’s a tough skill to develop, but a useful one.”
Shepherding 30 to 45 projects along each year from November to February while also teaching her regular class content is a tall order, and Mulcahy recruits outside help to give the students some variety. “I bring in instructional coaches, principals, teachers from U.Va.’s Curry School, and student teachers to be an audience for the student presentations and to give them feedback before they ‘go live,’” she said.
The top two winners in each category at the regional level can move on to the state competition in Richmond in April. “We take 15 to 25 students annually to the state level, and last year we won the high school Virginia state cup,” said Mulcahy. “Then every year two to five of our projects compete at the national level in June, held at the University of Maryland, and it’s a great experience for the students as there are people from all across the country there.” Mulcahy’s teams have placed as high as 11th and 12th in the nation.
All of this effort has garnered attention for Mulcahy herself, who won the Virginia History Day Brenton S. Halsey Teaching Excellence Award at the 2019 state competition, and was a top five finalist for the national teaching award, a tribute to her long and strong support of her students’ academic development. “Being a finalist put on my radar a graduate course called ‘Legacies of World War I,’ offered through the University of San Diego and for which I received a scholarship, and I’m taking that online course now,” she said.
One of 114 educators enrolled in the class, Mulcahy is doing what she loves—primary source analysis, secondary source readings, preparing digital responses, and attending webinars with college professors who are experts in the various topics. “The final project for the course is to describe how we would create lessons for our classroom on this subject, and these will be published so others can use them.” Her enhanced skills and access to “amazing” resources have allowed her, in turn, to improve WAHS student learning, such as by arranging a recent webinar between the social studies honor society students and the World War II Museum in New Orleans about the experiences of Latinos and Hispanics during that period.
Mulcahy is inspired by the National History Day program and is always eager for more opportunities to teach creatively. “It’s a program that does what we want for students—help them find a passion, produce something around that passion, present it for an audience, and receive feedback,” she said. Having just completed her own gifted education certification, she encourages her colleagues to keep learning. “I believe teachers need to take classes, too,” she said with a smile.
Mix it Up
Crozet Elementary students spent time thinking of others, both people and places, during recent Community Week activities designed to encourage caring and respect for all. “Community Week is replacing Anti-Bullying Week for us this year,” said CES principal Gwedette Crummie. “We are taking a positive approach in celebrating being kind and inclusive.”
The kindergarten classes hosted local community helpers, including a pharmacist, a dentist, and a biomedical research scientist, to talk about what they do every day to help people. As well, a special “Mix It Up Day” gave students a chance to try sitting with students they don’t usually sit with during their lunch period and learning more about each other.
Mix It Up Day was spearheaded by third grade teacher Atlanta Hutchins and school counselor Mary Heppner as part of a PTO-funded project that allows the entire school to read one book in common each month. Dubbed the School-wide Book Club, the project gives every teacher a new copy of a book intended to spur inclusivity. “A group met during the summer to brainstorm ways to get more diverse books into the classrooms,” said Hutchins. “We want diverse kids to be able to see themselves in the books they’re reading.”
This month’s book is All Are Welcome, by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman. One scene in the book refers to the different types of bread that people around the world like to eat, so Hutchins and Heppner devised special “passports” directing students to (mixed-up) lunch tables with signs for various breads—fry bread, pretzel, bao bun, scone, etc.—where they could learn about that bread’s origin. During lunch, Crummie served as master of ceremonies, strolling with a microphone to ask students to discuss with their table-mates points of similarity or difference such as how they celebrate birthdays in their families and what is a favorite family meal.
The CES teachers all sported matching (though variously colored) T-shirts that read, “Llama tell you about a book I love,” and the office staff, custodian, and bus drivers will all be reading the common book as well. “We went with more picture books than older books, so they would be accessible to everyone,” said Hutchins. “We’ll have the older kids read to the younger ones, as when the fifth graders have book club with the kindergarteners, so they’ll have that in common, too.”
Claim to Fame
As one of Virginia’s highest-rated public high schools for the quality of its athletic programming, Western Albemarle High School is establishing an Athletics Hall of Fame to recognize athletes, coaches, administrators and teams who have excelled throughout the school’s storied history.
Western Albemarle boys’ and girls’ teams have earned 60 state championships for the school over the years, including eight this past year. Niche, the national education assessment organization that evaluates high school academic and athletic programs throughout the state and nation, ranked WAHS the second-best high school for athletes in Virginia out of 541 schools.
The inaugural class of Hall of Fame inductees includes student athletes, an athletic director, a coach, and an entire team—the 1996 boys soccer team, the first Western Albemarle team to earn a state title. The team’s remarkable performance included outscoring all opponents by a score of 86-9.
Other inductees include:
Marie Whitten, who joined the school in 1979. She has coached the girls indoor and outdoor track and field teams for 35 years, has been coach of the year three times, and her teams have earned five state titles and 16 district and 13 regional championships.
The school’s first director of athletics, Joe Bingler. During his tenure from 1978 until 1986, he hired many of the school’s most successful athletic coaches.
Professional football player, Billy Baber. Baber was all-state in football, basketball and baseball at Western Albemarle. He played football for the University of Virginia and professionally for the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Also all-state in multiple sports was Missy Dudley, who earned her honors in basketball and track and field. She had an outstanding collegiate basketball career at James Madison and was a member of the Colonial Conference’s 1985-1995 All-Decade team.
Tasmin Fanning ran cross country and track and field for Western and was all-state for all four years she attended the school. She went on to compete for Virginia Tech and finished third in the 2008 NCAA Cross Country Championships, for which she was named an All-American.
Another all-state performer in cross country and track and field was Tyler Stutzman, named a Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year in 2009 as a senior at Western. He went on to earn All-American honors at Stanford.
A football and lacrosse all-state athlete, Kent Henry, earned a place in the Virginia High School League record book for top 10 performances during his career at Western, for the yardage he gained as a quarterback and the number of touchdown passes he threw. Later, at Hampden-Sydney College, he was a 2018 Scholar All-American in lacrosse.