Big Hollow Elementary Teacher Named Finalist for “Golden Apple” Award – Chicago Tribune

Walking into Andrea Woods’ classroom is an immediate surprise, a swirling mix of childish smiles and activity. What appears to be controlled chaos revolving around curriculum instruction is actually the genius of an educational environment: setting the goal while students take ownership and solve problems.

Of course there are short breaks to get up, physically dance and make moves in videos that teach about lines, whether they meet, cross, straight or curved. Then, back to their math or history groups, the topics are interchangeable because the kids are engaged and having fun. They are excited about the future.

Woods teaches reading, writing, language skills, math, science, social studies and 2nd step social-emotional curriculum at Big Hollow Elementary School in Ingleside. She has also been selected as a 2023 finalist for the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, one of only thirty nominees statewide.

“She is a teacher, without exception. She puts the kids first and they know she’s there for them,” said Dr. Vinni Biancalana, the principal of the school, who nominated Woods. “The kids often share their successes with me, and I ask how they did…they always say, ‘It’s my teacher,’ without asking.”

One of the projects, initiated by her students, was to place a solar panel installation for a renewable energy source south of the campus on Fish Lake Road. She received her National Board Certification in 2018 and is completing studies for an ESL (English as a Second Language) endorsement in preparation for the school’s growing population.

“The motto in our class is ‘Don’t Quit, Show Grit,’ and they work hard, especially with math and the Common Core standards,” Woods said. “Those standards can be challenging as we are post-COVID, and we see a few gaps in learning. Our goal is to help close that gap. To do that, you have to reach the kids where they are, understand who they are.

Providing individualized help with certain tasks in the curriculum builds relationships and helps students gain confidence in their own abilities.

“You have to build so they believe in themselves, and that’s when they can achieve and do things,” she said. “They come to me like family. Just being able to get on the floor, work with them, they start relying on themselves. Emotionally they learn empathy for each other, ways to solve problems as a soft skill needed in the world… being able to work together, talk and solve problems.

Woods also explained the phrase “Hitting the Dip”, a time when one feels stricken by the fact that lives are not running smoothly. The 2nd Step Social-Emotional Curriculum provides the skills to find your way out and be successful not only within school boundaries, but beyond the classroom as well.

“She said the class came to her like family and seeing her teach, I understand,” said Bob Gold, the district superintendent. “She has the ability to build those relationships with the kids and help build them with each other. The class really seems like a family, the kids are pretty close, and I think that’s its strength.

Woods’ dedication as an educator and person was best expressed when the pandemic hit several years ago. She teamed up with a student teacher to mentor her, while privately caring for her father, who eventually died of a cancer diagnosis.

Woods has been a teacher for 25 years, more than two decades in the Big Hollow Elementary District.

The Golden Apple Foundation is a non-profit organization that honors educators who advance educational opportunities. The award recipients in the grades 4 through 8 teachers category, including Woods, will be announced later this spring.

“She sets the bar for educational expectations very high and works to help her students achieve it,” says Biancalana. “She is the epitome of what a teacher should be.”

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