If you want to understand a teacher’s effectiveness, ask one of her students.

Rocco, a former third-grader at California Area Elementary wrote, “Dear Mrs. Nicholson. Thank you for being my teacher. Thank you for teaching me division and multiplication. You always included me when I was in cyber school. You picked me when I raised my hand so I could say the answer. You gave me the stuff I needed when I came back from cyber school. You taught me everything I needed to know for the PSSAs. Thank you so much, Mrs. Nicholson.”

Thank you, Rocco. That’s all anyone needs to know about the teacher who was selected by the Washington County Community Foundation to receive its Dr. Howard Jack Outstanding Public Educator Award.

If a person was born to teach, it’s Heather Nicholson. Her father, Gary Gregg, was a school librarian who inspired her love of reading. He never lectured about what a teacher should be; instead, he showed her. He embodied the philosophy they both share: “Always put the students first. Do whatever you can to connect with them, to make a bond.”

Mrs. Nicholson can teach traditionally, but she’s known for thinking outside the box.

“She turned our ‘Fab Lab’ into an operating room,” said Principal Rachel Nagy, “and third-grade students into surgeons (equipped with gowns, gloves and masks) to dissect parts of speech.” Nagy describes Mrs. Nicholson’s style as “engaging, interesting and relevant.”

Now in her 24th year of teaching, Mrs. Nicholson is embarking upon a new adventure – the only teacher in a pilot program to test new strategies, allowing students to create their own studies for subjects in which they are most passionate.

It’s called the Moonshot Grant through the Remake Learning Network, and it’s a bit like the old one-room schoolhouse. Her 26 students, grades 1 to 10, all of whom were nominated by their parents, are assigned to a regular class, and they all do regular mathematics and reading. But during certain classes, they report to Mrs. Nicholson to engage in special projects, solo or in groups. One student is interested in the American Revolution, so she’s studying it several years before her peers will. Another student loves bees and will build a hive on school grounds. One boy was adopted from Russia, so he comes to classroom 101 to study Russian.

California Area School District Superintendent Dr. Laura Jacob is impressed with the tremendous positive relationship Mrs. Nicholson maintains with all her students. “Heather Nicholson maintains high expectations of all her students,” she wrote, “yet gives them the flexibility to experience challenge.”

California University of Pennsylvania will study the program, and if it shows significant benefit to the students, California Area School District will try to find additional funding to continue and possibly expand the program next year.

But what does Rocco think? He also sent in a mind map, with Mrs. Nicholson in the center, and drew lines radiating out in all directions indicating the things he had learned. Rocco wasn’t born knowing how to do a mind map. He learned it from Heather Nicholson. So, to quote Rocco again, “Thank you, Mrs. Nicholson.”

As part of the Dr. Howard Jack Outstanding Public Educator Award, the Foundation has approved a $1,000 grant to the California Area School District for the Moonshot program.

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