Gilroy High School history teacher Lauren Piraro has just been awarded the Outstanding Rookie Social Studies Teacher of the Year for 2021 from the California Council for the Social Studies (CCSS). As CCSS Awards Chair Rebecca Valbuena explained in her award letter, Piraro’s “exemplary skills, dedication and commitment to high quality social studies education” make her an exceptional recipient of this first-year teacher award.
UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project Program Coordinator Devin Hess nominated Piraro for the award. “Flowing from her passion for student voice and empowerment, Lauren inspires her students to act on their knowledge. In her Danger of Silence lesson she challenges her students to speak up in the face of injustice and shows how this can be done, including through the medium of art. By applying new strategies she helps develop through her participation in the Integrated Action Civics Project, Lauren takes the powerful additional step of providing her students with the tools of social activism and civic engagement. Rather than wait for a year-end ‘civic action project’, she weaves a variety of carefully scaffolded power and stakeholder analytical models throughout her course to help deepen her students' examination of historical events.” Olivia Santillan, Coordinator for History Social Science and Civic Engagement for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, explains that Piraro “... is a courageous teacher; she shares her lessons, struggles, and doubts to improve her current practices and when she is creating original lessons. She strives to challenge herself as a "rookie" as well as the students she works with every day. She is not afraid to take risks.”
Piraro never imagined that her first year in the classroom would be cut short because of a global pandemic. Thrilled to have landed her “dream job because Gilroy is where [she] completed [her] K-12 education,” Lauren started her year with enthusiasm and a goal of making learning relevant for her students. Piraro loved “infusing my content with contemporary relevance and modern connections so students can see just how incredibly meaningful learning can be!”
Last spring, soon after shelter in place orders shut down in-person school, Piraro quickly pivoted her teaching and her approach to education. She began designing lessons and activities that she felt her students would actually be interested in doing. One deceptively simple lesson asks students the question: To what extent is COVID-19 similar and different to the 1918 Flu Pandemic outbreak? With a couple of very brief yet powerful sources to digest – a film clip and a news source – students wrestled with much more complex historical thinking skills through engaging in her comparison. Asking students to search for evidence to establish points about continuity and change regarding the naming, spreading, and mitigating of the diseases, Piraro’s lesson asks students to draw conclusions about the impact of both pandemics upon daily life. Leveraging the lesson to build historical empathy, Piraro also asked students three questions: “What are your general thoughts and feelings about school closures and shelter in place orders? How can I better support you during this time? What are you most interested in learning more about?” Student responses varied, according to Piraro: “Some students expressed feelings of relief after reading about the 1918 influenza crises and some students primarily shared their challenges and worries with me.” Piraro’s lesson on COVID-19 and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic helped her consider, “how critical the study of history can be as a vessel for human connection and personal growth for both the student and the teacher.”
Rachel Reinhard, UC Berkeley’s History-Social Science Project’s (UCBHSSP) Site Director described meeting Piraro at a UCBHSSP summer institute when the award-winner was a pre-service teacher: “On the final day of the institute, a veteran teacher noted with surprise that she had just learned that the young woman she had been meaningfully collaborating with all week was yet to independently lead a classroom. She was astounded by Lauren's maturity, groundedness, and clear eyed vision.”
From that first institute, Piraro quickly established herself as a respected leader within the UCBHSSP family. Despite the stress of being a first-year teacher, Piraro joined the Integrated Action Civics Teacher Research Group led by the UCBHSSP in collaboration with the Santa Clara County Office of Education. As Coordinator Hess detailed, Piraro, “...shared many innovative adaptations of the models and strategies we have been exploring, always looking for creative ways to engage and empower her students.” It was within this research group that Piraro and her colleagues quickly shifted their scheduled pedagogical discussions to address the COVID-19 crisis.
Piraro continues to connect with her students through innovative lessons that make the present more meaningful by understanding the significance of the past. And in this time of such intense isolation and uncertainty, Piraro’s creativity, dedication to her students and her craft, as well as her fellow history educators, stands as a model for all educators - rookie and veteran.