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Q&A: Annie Holyfield on Unlocking Kids’ Power to Change the World in the Primary Grades & Beyond

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    EL Education

Described as a ferocious dreamer who stops at nothing in pursuit of extraordinary learning opportunities for children, Annie Holyfield is the 2018 recipient of the Klingenstein Teacher Award and a 1st grade teacher at the Joe Shoemaker School in Denver, Colorado, a partner implementing our school model and our K–5 Language Arts curriculum. Join us in conversation with her to find out how she inspires a belief that anything is possible for students in the primary grades and beyond.

Q: What first inspired you about being an EL Education teacher?

Holyfield: My very first conference where I truly understood what EL Education was was a civil rights “slice of learning” with Ron Berger in Little Rock, Arkansas. We actually got to go to the school where the Little Rock Nine experienced the backlash against school integration. I got to interview Minnijean Brown-Trickey, who was one of the Little Rock Nine. It was so important; we felt like our work mattered. I thought, if he can do this for a group of adults, imagine what you could do for kids.

Q: EL Education schools are building students’ capacity to contribute to a better world with their learning. How are you “educating for a better world” in your classroom?

Holyfield: Recently, we completed our study of birds, one of the modules of the EL Education Language Arts curriculum, and my kids became authentically inspired to educate people about how local birds were eating trash and could die. That would have been enough, but because of the arts integration work we do, they petitioned the city council for help and wrote to the Urban Arts Fund so they could create an educational mural and engage the community in environmental cleanup. They did a whole proposal and succeeded in getting funds to create this mural and video to help make the world a better place through art, service, and education.

Annie Holyfield Klingenstein Teacher Award celebrate

Q: How do you see change in your students during the course of learning expeditions?

Holyfield: Through learning expeditions, they can grasp the idea that there is no impossible. It never occurs to them now that there’s something they can’t do because they’re so little and they believe in everything. They don't question whether they can take on a learning expedition, like the mural to help save bird species, and then when they see that they can, that's going to translate into lifelong confidence and enthusiasm for learning.

Q: Crew is a ritual, the creation of a close-knit student community, and an integral part of the EL Education Character Framework; each school in our network brings students together in a consistent and supportive group. What does Crew look like for your students? How do you know when it’s working?

Holyfield: Crew is my favorite thing. At Shoemaker, we spend a good 50 percent of our day on character instruction, so we do a lot of restorative justice and whole-child wellness. For me, it is about addressing the conflicts that we have with the kids and figuring out interesting ways to deal with them. I get so much satisfaction out of crew challenges that are really hard, where kids struggle and they’re frustrated and mad, and then they have to figure out together how to overcome those barriers by problem-solving with each other.

Annie Holyfield In Viking Hat

To hear kids say, “We have to celebrate each other,” and “No one's the boss; we have to take turns,” and, “We have to make a plan”—all of those things come from the practice of Crew. The ways that those habits of character translate to academics is, I think, the biggest piece of why I love Crew.

Q: Do you have an example of a time when Crew helped students handle a conflict?

Holyfield: We had one student who was having a really hard time sharing a leadership role and always wanted to be the boss—was always right about everything and very unforgiving of other people's ideas. We came up with a pretty simple team challenge where you had to take mats across the gym floor. You only had five mats, so you had to work together to get the whole crew across without touching the floor, or you’d be eaten by sharks—obviously. And this particular student was adamant that he knew the way, so fights were occurring and he was yelling, and it was mean and not what we were intending.

So we blindfolded him, and he became the person that they had to help. He had to let them help him. For him to have an experience where he couldn't be in charge was incredible. I remember our debrief. He said, “I learned a really big lesson today. I can rely on my crew. That's what Crew is. I think I'm a passenger, from time to time.” All that from a challenge across the gym floor?!

Q: What does the Klingenstein Award mean to you?

Holyfield: Teaching is often a thankless job, and we obviously don't do it for that, but being appreciated for the work that we're doing means everything to me. Teachers work especially hard in the EL Education network, so everybody is deserving of this recognition. •


Annie Holyfield is the 2018 recipient of the Klingenstein Teacher Award. The award is given to a teacher who best captures—and transmits—the essence of EL Education culture: building exemplary character, cultivating outstanding academic achievement, and instilling an ethic of “citizen scholarship.”

A kindergarten and 1st grade teacher at the Joe Shoemaker School in Denver, Colorado, Holyfield has spent a decade engaging students in purposeful, joyful learning. Her targeted instruction, as well as her masterful use of EL Education model and modules, has resulted in the tremendous academic growth of her students. She provides creative examples for colleagues and helps them develop meaningful instructional practices. With her infectious optimism, Holyfield inspires belief that anything is possible in the service of students.

Learn more about past winners here.