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Oakcrest Teacher Receives Savino Grant to Teach Science and Natural History in Virginia

Science teacher Angela Fortunato is the recipient this year of Oakcrest's Phyllis A. Savino Grant for Interdisciplinary Education. 

The grant is awarded annually to support an outstanding opportunity to enrich the school's teaching curriculum through the integration of two or more disciplines. Established in 2016, the Phyllis A. Savino Grant is named in honor of one of Oakcrest's finest teachers, Phyllis A. Savino. Exceptional teaching skills, devotion to students, a sense of humor, endless patience, zeal for knowledge, effective methodology, and pursuit of excellence are the hallmarks of Phyllis's forty-seven-year teaching career—thirty-eight of those teaching Oakcrest students how to develop resilience and a growth mindset when facing challenges in learning math and science. 

Ms. Fortunato's grant-winning proposal is entitled "Middle School Girls Exploring the Natural History of Northern Virginia." Her goal is for students to experience a variety of opportunities to grow in their reflective abilities, as well as elaborate on topics already in their curricula such as earth science, life science, visual arts and American history. They would do this through trips to ecologically and historically important outdoor parks in the Northern Virginia area. "The process of unifying and connecting curriculum learning objectives through reflection and physical exploration of nature offers a much needed 'balm' for the stress and anxiety of this generation's day to day life," Ms. Fortunato says. 

Some of Ms. Fortunato's proposed projects include: 

  • Sixth Grade (Earth Science/Ecology): Visits to Meadowlark Park throughout various seasons; students would create a field journal of the Oakcrest campus, observing and recording what they see. In the past, sixth graders made such a field journal for the Oakcrest Board of Directors and presented it to Head of School Ms. Ortiz to show to the Board. 
  • Seventh Grade (Plants, Animals, Ecosystems): Each student would create a historical-style journal based on current and new field trips, to places such as Mt. Vernon, the Wolf Trap Loop Trail, and  Potomac Overlook Regional Park 
  • Eighth Grade (Chemistry/Physics): Students would plant a garden on campus and then serve a meal with the vegetables they grow 
A liberal arts curriculum teaches the tools of learning. Historically, this was referred to as the "trivium," composed of grammar, rhetoric and logic. Within the trivium, the skills of the grammar stage (learning information, observation, categorization and memorization) and the logic stage (evaluating information, thinking clearly and well) are intrinsically interdisciplinary. 

All of Ms. Fortunato's proposed projects are meant to foster the grammatical and logical stages of an Oakcrest education, which happen in Middle School. "I looked at our curriculum for grades 6-8 to find possible interdisciplinary connections that we aren't yet taking advantage of...for example, our existing field trip to Mt. Vernon was getting at history but missing the nature/science elements that are already part of that tour," Ms. Fortunato notes. "Another example is the books the girls read in English class that mention Native American populations. By adding a field trip to the nearby Potomac Overlook regional park, we could easily connect their Native American site to the English and history lessons the girls are getting. Creating field journals involves artwork (sketching) as well as research about flora and fauna." 

Ms. Fortunato sees this grant as an opportunity to serve Oakcrest in numerous ways. "The Middle School students need more time outdoors and exploring—this type of exploration is required for scientific inquiry, and I teach science," she says. "The last time I taught Science 6 the students created a field journal for our new campus and noted how little biodversity we currently have. We have a big, beautiful campus that's ready to be filled with more flora and fauna, but it will take years to improve." By introducing new students to new environments, she hopes that they will gain a better understanding of Northern Virginia's many amazing local resources, grow in their observation and critical thinking skills as they examine and process what they discover, and enrich the entire school community with their discoveries. 

Although COVID has prevented students from going on any field trips thus far, Ms. Fortunato is looking forward to putting this plan into action once it is safe and feasible to do so. "Being inspired myself by the beauty of the natural ecosystems around Oakcrest has led me to be even more eager for the girls to explore our nearby outdoors," she says. 

Past Savino grant recipients have included Oakcrest faculty members Christine Nussio, Lisa Kenna, Holly Salls,  and Elizabeth Black, who worked together on creating vision documents that reflected Oakcrest's liberal arts curriculum. The team developed a statement expressing the school's vision of "An Oakcrest Liberal Arts Education," as well as two documents: a "Middle School Vision" and an "Upper School Vision" to round out what was expressed in the Liberal Arts Vision by more specifically addressing the two wings of the Oakcrest education. The Upper and Middle School Vision Statements are currently used in Oakcrest's Course Curriculum. 
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    • Ms. Angela Fortunato