School Notes: July 2020

Oliver Coleman, Crozet Elementary fifth grader, designed the winning artwork for t-shirts celebrating a class effort toward building a well for clean water in Sudan. Submitted photo.

Apple of My Eye

Even as schools remained closed this spring, the 19th annual Golden Apple Awards for teaching excellence were given out (virtually) to deserving teachers on May 21. Sponsored by Better Living Building Supply and Cabinetry, the awards go to one teacher at each public and most private schools in the city and county. Honorees are selected based on demonstrated excellence in the classroom, innovative instructional strategies and techniques, and their involvement in the local community.

Bethany Robinson, Brownsville Elementary third grade teacher and 2020 Golden Apple winner. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Bethany Robinson, third grade teacher at Brownsville Elementary, received a Golden Apple this year after 28 years of teaching at schools throughout the area, including Venable, Free Union, and Crozet Elementary. Robinson taught first grade, pre-K, and fourth grade before settling in at Brownsville for the past ten years, eight of which have been in third grade. “I feel strongly that every place I’ve been and all the children I’ve taught are part of the journey and part of who I am as a teacher now,” she said.

Absorbing both culture and technique from each of her posts, Robinson incorporates everything she learns into her teaching. “I was introduced to experiential learning and responsive classroom ideas at Free Union before the county had heard of them, and those really changed my teaching,” she said. The responsive classroom approach integrates both academic and social/emotional observations into creating an environment where a teacher can nimbly respond to cues from students. 

“Responsive classroom really brought families into a new light for me,” said Robinson. “We used to just have an open house at the start of the year, but I might not get to see everyone there, so now I initiate an early parent conference with each family. I say to them, ‘Tell me everything you want me to know about your child,’ and it makes a huge connection for me, gives me great insight that I can apply when I’m with that student in the classroom.”

The more recent advent of culturally responsive teacher training has further altered Robinson’s approach to teaching. “I have so much to learn,” she said, “but one thing I do now is to invite each family in to present something about themselves—their history or interests or whatever. One family described their student’s grandfather’s childhood experiences at the Berlin wall, while another who loved to camp came in and set up an entire campsite in the classroom. It gives the kids a chance to make connections with each other and develop an appreciation for all families.”

Robinson loves to pick up on the small clues that students convey about their passions. “They might tell me directly—’I want to be a teacher when I grow up’—or it might be a small note they hide in my lunch box or something I happen to notice about them.” She uses differentiated instruction to steer her students toward opportunities to follow those passions, while also helping them understand the rules of behavior and responsibility. “It’s really about paying attention to what the child knows intuitively that they’re good at,” she said.

Another of this year’s Golden Apple winners, Rod Vaughn has taught social studies at Henley Middle School for the last two years and at Walton Middle School for the eight years prior, and he taught at a Henley-sized middle school near Roanoke before that. Vaughn says he’s wanted to be a teacher since the third grade, and, ironically, a few bad experiences in middle and high school social studies classes drove him further toward the subject matter.

Rod Vaughn, Henley Middle School social studies teacher and 2020 Golden Apple winner. Submitted photo.

“I had teachers just assign chapters in the history book to read and that was it,” Vaughn said, “so early on I knew that there was more to the social sciences,” and he was determined to bring it all to life for his students. “My overall philosophy in teaching is fostering a positive, trusting, and safe environment for all students to learn, be creative, and freely express their thoughts, opinions, and feelings. I’ve learned throughout my career that students read into the energy of their teachers, so teachers have to go into the classroom with a positive vibe.”

Vaughn’s style combines humor, empathy, energy, and seriousness, and he approaches his job “from the lens of teaching children to become empathic of the historical struggles and achievements of all groups of people while linking those struggles in our history with today’s climate.” He teaches history “not by dates or to remember meaningless facts,” but as it relates to people today. “Every story has two sides,” he said. “If taught correctly, history is the hard truth—it is the good, the bad, and the ugly, but we tell the story of our past in order to make things better for our future.”

The COVID-19 school closures have been difficult for teachers and students alike, and Vaughn is looking forward to getting back to in-person learning. “There is a magic that takes place in our classrooms that just cannot be replicated [in distance learning],” he said, and he believes reinvention and reflection are key to bringing his best to the classroom. “To be an effective teacher one must reinvent one’s teaching methods and classroom management practices every year, as with every change in student groups you must change along with them. We are all learning from one another.”

From the western district, our other Golden Apple award winners this year are: Sarah Jackson (Meriwether Lewis), Taylor Holder (WAHS), Cindy Payne (Murray Elementary), and Tracy Brown (Crozet Elementary). Congratulations, teachers!

Growing a Movement

Crozet Elementary’s fifth grade class has capped the school year with a t-shirt designed to highlight a project near and dear to their hearts: a quest to help the children of the Sudan region of Africa get clean drinking water to their villages. Fifth grade teacher Brandy Garbaccio described how the class’s fundraising plans were thwarted by COVID-19.

“We’d read books like A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park and were aware that the need to find and carry water long distances means that most young girls never get to go to school,” said Garbaccio, “and that young boys have to drive the cattle herds to find water as well. Two of our students who were doing research on water in different countries inspired me to contact the Chris Long Foundation, and we’ve partnered with them and their Waterboys project to try to raise $10,000 toward building a well.”

Landon Blakey, Crozet Elementary fifth grader, wears a class-designed shirt highlighting the school’s clean water initiatives. Submitted photo.

The class had several plans to fundraise this spring, including an arrangement with Chiles Peach Orchard in April to host a “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” contest pitting students against family members during one of the orchard’s pancake breakfasts. They also planned to promote the project during Crozet Community Night at school by creating a virtual long walk to water. 

“We were working to reserve Virtual Reality headsets and the students used actual aerial photographs of eastern Africa to create the walk, from both a boy’s and girl’s perspective,” said Garbaccio. Unfortunately, the pandemic halted those plans in mid-March, but one class activity the students had completed just before the shutdown was still viable to go forward.

“In our first Zoom meeting after the schools closed, the very first question the students asked was, “What about the well project in Africa, can we still do that?” said Garbaccio. “I was proud to see them showing empathy and thinking about global concerns bigger than themselves.” Shortly before the shutdown the class had participated in a design task where they each created a logo that represented their purpose with the water project. Many designs featured drawings such as drops of water, rainbows connecting North America and Africa, and images of the planet Earth.

Students shared and collaborated on all of the designs and then voted for their favorite, and Oliver Coleman’s design was selected to go on a class t-shirt. Coleman’s image features an equation where Africa plus fresh water equals a lush green tree shaped like the state of Virginia. “The kids liked the equation because it combined all of their ideas,” said Garbaccio. “When I called Oliver’s parents to let him know his design was the winner, he was at home editing and polishing the final image. That’s how much these kids care about this.”

Garbaccio worked with Blue Ridge Graphics to have blue shirts printed with the logo on the front and a list of the fifth grade graduating class on the back, and she was able to send them out to students in the mail with their graduation certificates. “We’re hoping this might restart the conversation about the well project in our community, and we’ll continue our fundraising into next year for sure,” she said. “The kids really are the best spokespersons for what they’re trying to accomplish, and I’m so proud of them.”

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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