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Chantilly teacher brings past to life at Rocky Run Middle School

The students who study World War I in Jamie Sawatzky’s seventh-grade social studies class at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly build a trench, dress in uniform and take on the tenor of American soldiers in combat. The simulation even includes a remote-controlled rat, steered by Sawatzky, which rolls by as war sounds play on speakers in the background.

Sawatzky also teaches a lesson on the Prohibition era, when those seeking illegal liquor often drank in secret bars called speakeasies, which patrons might need a password to enter, and the authorities sought to shut down. In the re-created speakeasy in Sawatzky’s classroom, Harlem Renaissance-era jazz plays in the background as students mimic their rule-breaking, Roaring Twenties predecessors.

“The kids are given gum because that’s prohibited here” in school, said Sawatzky, who teaches U.S. history at Rocky Run. “The principal always comes by and knocks on the door. He’s got to give the password before the door is opened, and the kids kind of panic because they know gum is not allowed. You couldn’t do this in high school because they would think it’s dumb. That’s what I love about middle school. They’re young enough to have fun with it and old enough to take it seriously.”

Making history come to life is what Sawatzky is best known for at Rocky Run, where he has taught for 12 years. His methods have earned him accolades, including being named 2011 Teacher of the Year by Fairfax County public schools in March.

His efforts also recently gained him recognition as the 2012 Teacher of the Year for Virginia’s Region 4. The Virginia Department of Education divides the state into eight regions; state officials chose a teacher from each for the department’s 2012 honor.

About 50 candidates, who were nominated by fellow educators, submitted bids for Fairfax County’s nomination. Sawatzky went on to compete against about a dozen finalists from Region 4, which includes 18 jurisdictions.

As the regional winner, Sawatzky is a contender for the state’s 2012 Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Oct. 14 in Richmond.

“I visit Jamie’s classroom on almost a daily basis, and within those walls, every day is an adventure,” Principal Matthew Eline wrote in his letter recommending Sawatzky for teacher of the year. “He truly makes social studies come to life. It is a delight to watch his interactions with students as he engages them in the curriculum and changes their perspectives on history and, more importantly, on learning.”

For such reasons and more, fellow Rocky Run teacher Charlie Fontz said he recommended Sawatzky.

“I nominated Jamie because I felt that … he is without a doubt the finest teacher I have ever known,” Fontz said. “It is rare to find an individual who has not only the charisma but the ability to lead, inspire and motivate middle school students. He does that and so much more … involving the entire history team with his ideas.”

Other history teachers at Rocky Run are using Sawatzky’s methods, Fontz said. Students re-enact the Ellis Island immigration procession, sweatshops, wagons moving west on the frontier, World War I, the stock market crash, the Cuban Missile Crisis and more.

The program for which Sawatzky is best known is World War II Oral History Day, in which veterans of the war tell their stories to students, Fontz said. The annual event began 11 years ago.

“One of my kids came in and said, ‘Would it be all right if I brought my grandfather in to talk about World War II?’ ” Sawatzky said. “It started with one” veteran.

The next year, 15 World War II veterans visited the school. Now, about 100 veterans of the war visit the school each June to tell their stories.

Students study the war and bring their questions to veterans. The interviews are recorded by teachers. Forty video recordings of such interviews have been sent to the Library of Congress, Sawatzky said.

“The textbook … is boring,” he said. “That’s how I was taught history, and there’s a lot more to it.”

The process of being nominated and named the Region 4 Teacher of the Year was long, Sawatzky said.

“Charlie [Fontz] knocked on my door one day [last fall] and said, ‘I’ve got something for you to do,’ and then he handed me a bunch of paperwork,” Sawatzky said.

His nomination packet included a portfolio highlighting his accomplishments and awards and letters of recommendation from fellow educators and school division heads. The final eight region winners were selected from a pool of 63 candidates, said Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman Julie C. Grimes.

Sawatzky’s next step is to be interviewed by a panel of state education leaders next month, after which the statewide winner will be selected.

“I’m lucky to be honored because there are a lot of teachers doing great things,” Sawatzky said. “When I’m in my class, I’m alive. It’s like a buzz for me. … On days like today, where I was up late watching baseball and I come in tired, [the students] give me energy.”

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