Sarah Cooley, a first-grade teacher at Chelsea Park Elementary, was honored on December 6 by the Shelby County Board of Education and the Shelby County Schools Education Foundation as the 2022 Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
Cooley has been teaching for 17 years, the past 15 of which have been at Chelsea Park Elementary. In addition to her teaching duties, she also serves as the grade-level chair, the MODEL Math team leader, and as a math and science lead teacher. She also serves as a member of the school’s Continuous School Improvement team.
Each December, Cooley’s students board a plane on Christmas Airlines, which magically transports them to other countries to learn about Christmas traditions around the world. For two weeks, her students are immersed in this interactive unit where the class travels to new places to sample foods, visit famous landmarks, create traditional holiday crafts, read books, and collect small artifacts to remember that particular country and its traditions. Students document their learning in their Christmas Around the World scrapbooks and collect stamps in their passports from each county they visit.
Cooley said the activity is not only one of her favorites, but she has former students that tell her how much they loved it too.
“They use their imaginations and begin to discover that our world is filled with so many amazing people and places,” she said. “It has always been my goal as an educator that students leave my classroom with a love of learning and memorable experiences.”
Cooley said that from the day she decided she wanted to be an educator, childhood play has always been part of her educational philosophy. Despite the fact that studies have shown the importance of play in a child’s learning, the increased academic demands in the classroom have made it more difficult to incorporate it into the school day.
In January 2021, Cooley wrote a project proposal and applied for a City of Chelsea Nick Grant to transform an unused space in the school into a room called “The Imagination Lab.”
“I was over the moon excited to be awarded the grant in the spring, and immediately got to work on planning the space,” Cooley said. “The Imagination Lab needed to be a place for students to build, read, craft, make art, dress up, play kitchen, and engage in make-believe.”
The Imagination Lab is now a special class at Chelsea Park Elementary, like art and music, that classroom teachers (K-2) facilitate with their own students.
“Visiting the lab fosters creativity and problem-solving, and allows students time to socialize and imagine, and engage in purposeful play together,” Cooley shared. “Teachers are able to observe as their students choose activities that interest them and how students interact with one another. The Imagination Lab is a joyful, whimsical, busy space that reflects how essential play is in child development and learning.”
Cooley said one simple but effective way to connect students to their world is to facilitate and encourage curiosity and questioning. When starting a new unit, she likes to begin the lesson with a question so that students can make real-world connections.
“Getting students to think deeply about topics and connect their learning to ideas and/or problems in our world is another way to teach them that they can be world changers,” Cooley said. “Questioning, experimenting, and having time to explore in-depth units of study allows students time to make connections from their learning to the real world.”
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