Teacher Appreciation Week: The Dawn of Geo-Literacy

By Jennifer Burgin

Most of the staff and learners at Oakridge are asleep when the sun rises, yet we benefit from Dawn’s light daily!

Photograph by Ronan Donovan, National Geographic

Dawn Amin-Arsala runs Mosaic, a special program at Oakridge Elementary in Arlington, Virginia. Mosaic is, according to Dawn, “a cross-curricular exemplary project that celebrates diversity, values equity, and promotes deeper learning of Virginia’s curriculum content standards while fostering a sense of community throughout Oakridge. We use mentor texts reflective of our highly diverse student population as a framework, coordinate assemblies and workshops featuring local and global experts, and integrate hands-on activities to create meaningful experiences for all members of our community.” (Whew! -ed.)

The program evolves annually as our population and communities change and grow. Oakridge’s diversity means we nurture and support learners from more than 50 countries, mostly due to our proximity to Washington, D.C. Some of our learners will join us for a year while their parents attend school or have a local military assignment. Others have immigrated to our county from other parts of Virginia, the United States, and the globe. We honor and celebrate what makes us all unique and what unifies us. Dawn takes the pulse of our school community and uses geo-literacy to engage all learners in bi-annual deep dive projects.

While some professionals may shy away from a project because of the cost of time and resources, Dawn pushes in. She invites families and staff into the journey and leads young learners to actualize their vision.

This past year, one of the Mosaic texts came from our librarian, who knew that Dawn had her sights set on lessons that integrated beekeeping. Dawn read The Best BeeKeeper of Lalibela, by Cristina Kessler, and knew this book would take her sight into reality.

“We happen to have many families from Ethiopia, where the book is set, who speak Amharic, so a father volunteered to read. Others brought in artifacts from their country for a display. In the story the main character is told that she can’t be a beekeeper because she is a girl. She builds her own hives, but encounters a problem with ants. At this point students worked in collaborative teams to discuss, design, and build models of solutions. We then had a presentation on local beekeeping. Parents love to be involved, so when asked to donate recycled materials for the building of models they happily responded. Bee items just started appearing in my office. Everyone wanted to connect. Afterwards three students were chosen to help the superintendent of our district, who is a beekeeper, move bees into his hives. The event was made into a Snapshot movie and shared with the entire district in hopes of cultivating young beekeepers. Lessons learned in one place, do apply to other places with adaptations.”

Dawn is a paragon of cross-curricular connections, infusing geography and exploration in every lesson. This past year, Mosaic was awarded the Virginia Governor’s Award for Innovation in Education, an award she attributed to the joyful sharing and bravery expressed by our diverse student body, their families, and our community. The proof of the depth of her work has grown as the program expands.

“When students design and/or build solutions, I have performance-based assessments, and I know that students can solve problems in many different ways. In truth, the most important benefits are when I see students making connections between what they have learned with me and their own lives and when they take action.”

Mosaic has inspired spin-off activities created by young learners, including student-narrated segments of the school news show and a grass-roots recycling effort to keep our playground clean.

Dawn says it best: “Mosaic is geo-literacy in action!”


Photo by Nadia Lutz for APS

Author Jennifer Burgin, NBCT, is a kindergarten educator at Oakridge Elementary and 2017 National Geographic & Lindblad Expeditions Grosvenor Teacher Fellow to the Galapagos. She and Dawn have taught, laughed, and grown alongside each other for a whole decade and look forward to many more. They also both love cheese.

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