Each morning, Wilkinson Elementary School teacher Jessica Gardner starts her day with her morning news crew, a team of fourth and fifth-graders who present the day’s announcements in a morning-show format.
On Friday, as Gardner looked on, fifth-grader Francesca Rojas, 11, served as the lead anchor.
Francesca wished happy birthdays, told a joke and transitioned seamlessly to Branden Martin, 10, who gave a detailed weather report that included the UV Index and the current moon phase (Waxing Gibbous).
It was a classic elementary school scene, with the students shooting their hands in the air when Gardner needed a helper to hold a microphone. Ten-year old Makayla Bilyou talked about how her favorite job on the show is reading the lunch menu because “sometimes the lunch is yummy.”
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While the morning news show isn’t unique to Wilkinson – lots of schools have them – school leaders say Gardner stands apart from her peers, particularly for her commitment to not letting COVID-19 get in the way of the memorable hands-on learning that takes place in the small studio each morning.
Last week, Gardner was one of five Sarasota County School District teachers honored with the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation’s “Ripple Effect” award.
The late philanthropist couple funded an array of programs within Sarasota Schools, and now, twice a year – once on Charles’ birthday and once on Marjory — the foundation will select five teachers who are likely to be the ones their students still remember 30 years later.
“These five awardees epitomize what Chuck and Margie always felt about teachers: their love and dedication to our children has a ripple effect that impacts all of us,” Sarasota Schools Assistant Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer Laura Kingsley said in a statement announcing the honorees.
Each honoree will each receive $5,000 toward professional development.
Five educators who stand apart
Along with Gardner, the foundation honored Darwin “Tony” Epps from Brookside Middle, Steve Lord from Atwater Elementary, Mary Pedro from Lamarque Elementary and Judi Robson from Sarasota Middle.
All five of the winners have spent hours and hours creating unique learning experiences for their students. During last Tuesday’s School Board meeting, each honoree’s principal tried to sum up the teacher’s impact in a brief speech.
Epps is the teacher that other teachers learn from, with his colleagues frequently poking their heads in his classroom to learn from his teaching style and classroom management. Robson has taught in Sarasota schools since 1981, teaching English-Language learners for decades and leading the rollout of new literacy programs.
Lord runs his school’s food pantry, leading students as they facilitate food distribution for families in need. And Pedro has become a mentor to countless first year teachers, along with helping her students publish their own books.
‘You remember somebody’s passion’
In a year when field trips have been canceled, new rules instituted and special visitors banned, one common theme of the five winners is working to ensure their students have memories of 2020-21 besides wearing a mask every day.
On Friday, after Gardner wrapped up the morning news show, she hustled down to the “Steam Station.”
It started as just a spare room in the elementary school, but Gardner transformed it into a museum-worthy learning lab, packed with hands-on activities, all centered around outer space.
There is a robotic arm station, replicating the type of equipment an astronaut would use to pick up rocks. Students work in tandem, with one controlling the arm using a remote control, while the other guides them. Students can learn about how power is generated by sitting on a mountain bike hooked up to a generator. As they pedal, fans and lights turn on and a ping pong ball in a clear plastic tube rises.
Despite all the COVID-19 limitations, this was actually the perfect year to open such a space. For much of the year, a trip to the science museum was impossible. Normal lab activities would require students to handle equipment that could be transmitting COVID-19.
“You take all that away, and just have reading textbooks about science?” Gardner said. “That doesn’t cut it for kids.”
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When students walk in, the 3D printer is likely running, and until a recent harvest, the hydroponics plant tower was teaming with lettuce and basil.
As a full time “STEAM Integration Coach” (STEAM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Math) Gardner is determined that the students at Wilkinson become “thinkers who tinker,” to paraphrase the tagline of the STEAM Station, so she tries to lead by example.
“You remember somebody’s passion,” she said.
There was the Monday after Spring Break when students returned to discover a meteor may have hit the school. A huge rock was lined with caution tape, as “scientists” in lab coats investigated the strike. That led to a week of “inquiry-based learning,” where students asking “what happened?” got the response, “Well what do you think happened?”
Gardner said she is going to put the money from the Ripple Effect award toward getting her masters.
She doesn’t have a specific game plan yet, but she would love to be in a position one day to help every school have a Steam Station. She remembers feeling guilty when she initially left her role as a classroom teacher to become the STEAM Integrator, but she has seen how her passion can be contagious.
She said the $5,000 award was the impetus toward taking that next step.
“This is it. You can finally do it. So get ‘er done,” Gardner said. “I just want to make an impact.”
Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at email@example.com or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.