Shannon Grants Awarded to Western District Educators

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Crozet Elementary students work with Play-Doh and Ozobots in the library as part of teacher Atlanta Hutchins’ “Building and Engaging Readers through STEM” Shannon Grant project. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Three western district teachers have been awarded Shannon Grants this year, which provide funding to local public school teachers for “projects that support original and innovative student activities.” 

Hope Caplan, art teacher at Crozet Elementary. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Hope Caplan

In her first submission for a Shannon Grant, Crozet Elementary [CRES] art teacher Hope Caplan was awarded $750 for a Kindness Rock Project, which will allow all of the school’s students to join in a combination artistic/cultural activity designing and painting rocks to share messages of kindness, hope, and community. Caplan plans to partner with the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, which will host the art installation for students and their families.

“I’ve been grateful to receive funding from other places in the past, such as the Arts in Western Education grant, which I’ve gotten a couple of times and was amazing,” said Caplan, now in her sixth year teaching at CRES. “I had been thinking about how to reach the greater Crozet and Charlottesville community with a grant and I hadn’t thought of what it should be until the pandemic. Then I thought, how can we get students and their families to be able to meet outside with their families—so that it would work in the event it had to be remote—and the Botanical Garden seemed like the perfect place to do it.”

The Kindness Rocks Project is a national phenomenon, started in 2015 by Megan Murphy on Cape Cod, with the simple idea of painting stones with inspiring messages and leaving them for others to find. “If you see a rock out and about, and I’ve seen several in Crozet and Charlottesville, you can pick one up if it looks really meaningful to you, and then you can make one and put it somewhere else with a different message,” said Caplan. “So, it’s kind of an interactive, always-evolving sort of art installation, which I like. There’s a map on the Kindness Rocks website, and they have different groups that you can register for all over the world, some as far away as Australia.”

Caplan’s grant request included funds for special flat white painting rocks that leave lots of room for an artistic message, plus a variety of waterproof paint pens. “I thought about what the perfect medium would be and settled on paint pens, which will allow the kids to use their fine motor skills and to add detail, and they are nice bright colors, even some metallic ones,” she said. She plans to read a book to her classes called Scribble Stones by Diane Alber about a stone whose mission is to bring joy to people.

“Every single kid is going to make one, and so they’ll have a part of themselves in those,” said Caplan. “We’re going to talk about what kind of message they would want to share with someone else who’s maybe having a hard time. I think we’ll begin in January and have them brainstorm and sketch out a plan for a couple of different ones, so there’s an element of craftsmanship to it.”

Caplan’s vision is to have the whole CRES community come out for the final step. “I’m hoping that I can send the message out to families that we can all just meet on a certain day at the Botanical Garden and I’ll bring all of the rocks,” she said, “and the kids can place their rock where they’d like, and look around at everyone else’s as well.”

Meghan Streit, English teacher at Western Albemarle High School. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Meghan Streit

Every day of Meghan Streit’s eleventh grade English class begins with quiet independent reading time, and she said that time is a huge priority for her. “I do feel the pressure to get them ready for their standardized tests, so in some ways there’s a little bit of tension in giving up 15 or 20 minutes for reading, but I really do protect it,” said Streit. “It’s our responsibility to give them one last shot to fall in love with books before they walk out of high school.”

Streit’s winning Shannon grant application is called The Great American Library, and it builds on prioritizing reading by giving students wide latitude to choose their own reading material. “Each quarter, they’re going to read and complete one book of their choice,” she said, “and then at the end of the course they’ll do a research paper on one of the books and explain to me why this particular text should be considered representative of American literature and be part of the Great American Library.”

The $750 in grant funding will then be used to buy a copy of each selected book for Streit’s classroom library, and each will have a book plate inside the jacket explaining who chose it and why. “So, I’ll be able to purchase 76 new books to add to our classroom library, and then that’s a powerful legacy for next year’s class, so they can take the recommendations of their peers,” she said. These four self-selected books will join five more classic choices assigned by Streit for a well-rounded experience.

So, what constitutes “American?” “The students asked, ‘does it have to be about America?’ and so we’ve been talking about what is the American experience in literature,” said Streit. “The goal is more contemporary voices, but the criteria are broad. For instance, we just finished up Native American literature and the word they decided upon was ‘resilient’ to describe the Native American experience. So, any story that exemplifies resilience could be a qualifier for this project.”

Streit and her fellow English teachers have had robust conversations about what the “American experience” means in the context of the project. “We’ve settled on three lenses we’ll use for our literature, which are American values, the American dream, and the American immigrant experience,” she said. “Within those, we can talk about the positive and negative connotations of each, and the goal of this class is to use American literature as a lens to look at our current landscape.”

Thus far, Streit has been intrigued by the results. “We have an amazing library and the librarians keep the shelves full of really different titles representative of a wide range of authors,” she said. “Some are reading fiction, but we’ve got lots of memoir and some nonfiction too. I ask that they at least have the hardcopy, though some listen to the audiobooks as well. Some students have discovered that the large print editions flipped a switch for them and made reading more interesting—it just kind of caught on as an on-ramp for them.”

Streit has set up a Padlet (a type of curated digital collection) where former students can post book recommendations in a colorful scrolling format for their peers. “They’re really developing a culture of readers, and it takes time, but it also takes credibility,” she said. She also does “book commercials” for her classes—quick, 30-second suggestions to put a variety of book choices in front of students.

Streit realizes that she’s making a commitment to seek funding in the future to be able to continue what she’s starting now, but it’s worth the effort. “This element in my curriculum matters so much to me, and I really believe it will pay dividends,” she said. “There’s something to be said for the proximity of books and being able to immediately put a book in a student’s hand. I think I have the best job in the world because I get to talk about books all day.”

Atlanta Hutchins, third grade teacher at Crozet Elementary. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Atlanta Hutchins

One of the three largest grants this year is going to Atlanta Hutchins, a Crozet Elementary third grade teacher who has received Shannon grants twice in the past several years. This one is titled Building and Engaging Readers Through STEM, and will fund $5,000 in supplies and equipment for students to “challenge their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills with STEM design challenges based on the books they read as a school community.” (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.) Hutchins acknowledges that she’s very lucky to have the support and participation of every other teacher in the building for her grant ideas. 

“We already have our Book of the Month Club, which is where every class reads the same book each month, and everybody is participating in that,” said Hutchins. “So, the goal here is to tie a STEM activity in with each book that the whole school can do. We thought, here’s a chance to differentiate a little bit because a fifth grader can do much more than a kindergartener with the same supplies, so the teachers will vary the activities.” Though she’d hoped to have a STEM Night with families invited, the school is not currently allowing visitors inside, so she and the school’s media specialist are cooking up a STEM Week in the library instead.

Hutchins gave an example of the concept with September/October’s featured book, My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero. “The theme for this one is relationships,” she said, “because the little girl, Daisy, talks about her relationship with her dad. He doesn’t say a lot, but she knows he loves her because of the things he does for her, like taking her riding with him through their community. We talk about how sometimes people love you not by what they say, but what they do.” 

The classes will use Ozobots, small coding robots, to create their version of a community, either their own or an imaginary one, however they envision it. “Each classroom will get a STEM kit with a whole bunch of other supplies like paper clips, straws, Play-Doh, and Legos,” said Hutchins, “which makes it much more likely that teachers will do the activities since they’ll have everything already. And we’re going to make little STEM kits to send home with every kid so they can create something at home on their own that has to do with the book.” 

To add a further dimension to the project, Hutchins and staff are trying to choose books that highlight a cultural element timed to parallel a larger celebration of that element—such as having students read My Papi Has a Motorcycle during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which spans September/October, to complement the heritage of the book’s main characters. She says the schoolwide nature of the activities has a catalytic effect across the population. 

“Our news crew did Hispanic Heritage month facts and little quizzes, our ESL teacher had some of her students teach us some words in Spanish and talk about famous Hispanic people, and the media specialist did a whole week of highlighting Hispanic authors in the library,” said Hutchins. “It’s kind of given the whole school a springboard since we know everybody’s going to be talking about [the same book].”

Congratulations to all of the Shannon grant winners!

Email Lisa Martin at [email protected]

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