Loudoun Co. teachers honored for bringing history to life in their classrooms

Dr. Laura Brown and James Erik Sassak are being recognized as Loudoun County Public School (LCPS) history teachers who distinguish themselves in teaching history.(Credit LCPS)

Before leaving Blue Ridge Middle School on Tuesday, eighth grade civics and economics teacher Erik Sassak created a Mario Party-themed review game.

The goal, he said, is to help his students prepare for an upcoming unit. It’s part of an effort to reach the students who are currently interested in Mario, “since the Mario Brothers (are) back.”

He also loves bringing primary sources into the classroom and is a member of the Ellis Island Statue of Liberty Foundation. Sassak put his family’s name on its Immigrant Wall of Honor and pulls it up in class during the citizenship unit.

Sassak, who said he’s from a family of teachers, is one of two Loudoun County Public School educators getting recognition from the Virginia Council for the Social Studies. He received the 2024 Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Excellence in Teaching Award for crafting lessons that keep students interested and inspiring them to take action in response to injustices.

Meanwhile, Laura Brown, who teaches history from 1865 to the present at Belmont Ridge Middle School, is receiving the 2024 Betsy Barton Teacher of the Year Award. She’s getting praised for similarly putting together engaging lessons and creating an inclusive learning environment.

Both will be recognized during a March 1 ceremony at the VCSS Conference in Farmville, Virginia.

“It is a lot of work to make classes engaging,” Brown said. “And to meet and see all the students where they are. … What might work with one class might not work with another, so you’re changing on the fly.”

Because Brown talks about things that happened before the students were born, she strives to find ways for them to connect to the material. Part of that is creating an environment in which they’re comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas out loud, even if the answer isn’t correct.

Brown uses political cartoons to help students analyze and understand historical concepts and tries to help students draw connections between historical cultures and their families.

She also works to incorporate positive stories into her lessons.

“Not just always, ‘Oh, this was bad, and this was bad,’ but trying to highlight successes and celebrations that we can do within the different topics we study that relate to the student,” Brown said.

Sassak takes a similar approach, using artifacts and other items to explain to students how primary objects can help tell their family’s story.

He also asks students to analyze current events, “so they can start to see that news is happening all around them, and not just here in Virginia, Loudoun County, Washington D.C., it’s happening in Russia, it’s happening in Japan and Singapore,” Sassak said.

Both Brown and Sassak are motivated by the “light bulb moment” students experience when they understand something clearly.

“I always tell them, ‘History may not be your favorite subject, but let’s try to find one thing or one skill that you really like, and you can see how it will help you later on in life,” Brown said.

Sassak sets similar goals.

“As long as, at the end of the year, my students take away something from the class, whether it is curriculum-related or a memorable experience that happened in the classroom, that they are helping to enrich themselves by just having that one moment is very beneficial to me,” Sassak said.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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