Pandemic Doesn’t Interfere With Teacher Creativity; Proposals for Innovative Learning Activities Earn 17 Shannon Foundation Grants at 11 Schools

While the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting how teachers will deliver instruction as the new school year begins today, it has not dampened the creativity that teachers will bring into virtual classrooms to deepen the interests of students at home. A quick look at the 17 grants recently awarded to Albemarle County Public Schools teachers by the Edgar and Eleanor Shannon Foundation for Excellence in Public Education demonstrates how teachers are designing projects to engage students, serve community needs, and leverage the benefits of greater technology use.

Teachers from 11 elementary, middle and high schools across the division were awarded a total of $14,369 in Shannon grants this year. Overall, the Foundation is providing $20,438 for teacher-designed projects in both the Albemarle County and Charlottesville City school divisions.

Among the individual grants was a $5,000 award to Albemarle High School’s Erin Wise-Ackenbom for the creation of a Pollinator Habitat Garden. “There is an alarming decline worldwide in pollinator populations, and without them, we will have far fewer food choices,” she wrote in her proposal.

Her project will bring together the school’s science, technology, math and art departments with students to design and build garden beds; homes for birds, bats and bees; benches; and garden pathways. The goal is to support the local population of pollinators and to address another issue—what has been termed, “nature deficit disorder.”

In her proposal, Wise-Ackenbom referred to research showing that the average person spends up to 90 percent of their time indoors. “We want to become good stewards of our environment by becoming a butterfly and pollinator sanctuary and by providing more incentives for our school community to spend more time outdoors,” she added.

Spending more time outside also was the focus of a grant submitted by Hollins Mills, a kindergarten teacher at Murray Elementary School. “We designed and built an outdoor classroom that is part meadow and part forest,” she wrote. “It enables children at a young age to begin developing deep connections with nature. We’ve also have aligned our outdoor curriculum to state learning standards and to reflect the research on how time outside contributes to the development and mental health of our kindergarten students,” she said.

Mills’ proposal will fund the purchase of outdoor clothing for students that would enable the consistent use of the outdoor classroom in a wide variety of weather conditions. “With the new constraints of social distancing during COVID,” she wrote, “Outside time will be more important than ever, especially since public health experts tell us that transmission of the virus is greatly reduced outdoors. With protective clothing, we can safely create rich learning experiences that foster a love and curiosity for the outside world,” she added.

Woodbrook’s Susan Pollack received two grants. One, Everybody Eats!, will bring students and families together to prepare, serve and share in monthly meals that represent the diverse traditions of their families. Students will design menus, collect recipes, create shopping lists, and serve meals. “The quality and strengths of our community relationships will grow as well,” Pollack wrote in her proposal.

“In the current environment, I am planning virtual dinner parties with families. We will have families join us via Zoom for dinner and spotlight one or more families to share recipes and family traditions. It is important to connect and form relationships with our students and families in this virtual world we are currently living, working and learning in,” she said.

Pollack’s other grant will help first-graders improve their math skills through such techniques as math activity bags that contain hands-on learning activities.

At Jouett Middle School, teachers Abbey Plein and Steve Whitaker titled their project, Building Community Connections in the Digital Age. In their proposal, they noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced physical separation among people. “Many of us realize more than ever the value of community and social connections we long have taken for granted,” they wrote.

Their project will reimagine how technology can be used to nurture a sense of community. Students will create interactive tools and maps, video documentaries, recorded histories and podcasts, artwork, and digital movies about their communities and neighborhoods. Their work will be presented in a culminating experience open to the public.

Once again, teachers from Baker-Butler Elementary School received the most grants of any school in the division, with four proposals funded.

Lisa Baker’s plan is to have second-graders use engineering ideas to solve the challenges faced by characters in well-known fairy tales. Lisa Harman’s second-graders will enhance their study of matter using six different science stations and a science show. In Tonya Klimas’ class, second-graders will use a popular mathematical puzzle game to improve their teamwork and empathy, and Nancy Williams’ students will write about, design and build a marionette to represent stories that they write.

Other grant recipients include Mary Morales at Mountain View Elementary School, who will use Spanish language books to bolster Spanish instruction for her fourth-graders; Kate Kogge at the Charter School, whose middle school students will use artwork to study cell theory and geometry; Jaylen Crist from Crozet Elementary School, who will use grant funding to support the design and play of games that promote STEM education; and Betsy Agee, also from Crozet, who will bring her fifth-graders together with their book buddy kindergarten students to read and study books on improving racial relationships.

Also having proposals funded were Leslie Anderson from Hollymead Elementary School, for a project for first-graders who will create their own musical instruments as both a science and English lesson and use the instruments to add music to story-telling; Anne Straume from Meriwether Lewis, whose third-graders will sharpen their coding skills through the use of Ozobots; Beth Kavounas, whose kindergarten and first-grade students at Red Hill Elementary School will use hands-on experiences at a play-based science centers to learn about natural resources; and Brian Squires from Murray Elementary School, who will work with students on the use of coding and maker kits to design, build and demonstrate simple machines, interactive maps, and wearable learning tools.
The Shannon Foundation was established in 1990 to provide funds to public school teachers in the city and county for innovative programming. This year, the Foundation awarded 20 grants totaling $20,438 to Albemarle County and Charlottesville City school division teachers.

The Foundation is named for University of Virginia (UVA) President Emeritus Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., and his wife, Eleanor, in honor of their contributions to public education over many years. In addition to being an English professor at UVA, Mr. Shannon was the university’s president from 1959 to 1974. Ms. Shannon served as a member of the Board of Trustees for Sweet Briar College and Rhodes College.

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