2015-05-13 / Front Page

We the Students

After years of debate-minded lessons, Cosby’s Renee Serrao up for national award
By Jim McConnell

Cosby High government teacher Renee Serrao is Virginia’s nominee for the 2015 National Education Association Award for Teaching Excellence. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Cosby High government teacher Renee Serrao is Virginia’s nominee for the 2015 National Education Association Award for Teaching Excellence. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer As she closes in on the end of her 22nd year as a high school government teacher, Renee Serrao remains invigorated by the challenge of producing “informed citizens.”

“It’s still incredibly rewarding,” Serrao said, sitting near a bulletin board jammed with political candidate bumper stickers in her classroom at Cosby High School.

“The workload for teachers is much harder than it used to be. We spend a lot of time compiling data and documenting it, but the time I spend in the classroom is the best time of my day. The kids always make it worth it.”

Serrao, who is in her eighth year at Cosby following eight years at Manchester and six at Clover Hill, requires that the 130 seniors in her five sections take a hands-on approach to learning about their local, state and federal governments.

Rather than sitting passively and listening to lectures about democracy, Serrao’s students regularly engage in spirited debates on the public policy implications of various current events.

While they do occasionally write traditional research papers, they spend far more time writing letters to the editor, creating and analyzing campaign advertisements, contacting legislators and tracking bills through the General Assembly.

Since most of her students don’t get to vote for the first time until after they’ve graduated from high school, they also spend a lot of time talking about the responsibility Americans have to go to the polls and participate in the political process.

“She always encouraged us to engage and make our voices heard – I don’t think I ever had another teacher who did that,” said Marissa Miller, a 2013 Cosby graduate who recently completed her sophomore year at the University of Virginia. “She pushes you to think about things that are bigger than just what’s going on at school.”

The Virginia Education Association recognized Serrao’s innovative teaching style last month when it named her the winner of its prestigious 2015 Award for Teaching Excellence.

She’s also the commonwealth’s nominee for the National Education Association award. The field of nominees will be whittled down to five semifinalists, who will receive $10,000 apiece. The winner receives another $25,000, as well as a teaching fellowship that includes a trip to Peru.

“The nice thing about winning the award is some of the kids I taught 20 years ago reached out and said how proud they were,” Serrao said. “It’s incredibly addictive; once you hear somebody say, ‘You’ve made a difference in my life,’ you want to hear it again.”

Serrao has kept in touch with several of her former students over the years. David Twiford, a 1995 Manchester graduate who is now a master chief in the U.S. Navy, considers her like a “big sister.”

Twiford credited Serrao for emphasizing the use of intelligence over emotion in debating issues of the day and never “dumbing down” the material for a teenage audience.

To thank her, Twiford presented Serrao with a piece of wood from the original hull of the USS Constitution, a triple-masted Navy frigate named by George Washington.

“I struggled in school my junior and senior years except for government. It was my favorite class and Renee always made it fun,” he added. “She’s extremely passionate about what she teaches and how she teaches it.”

Serrao had a similar experience during her senior year at Manchester. She planned to major in English in college until she took Mike Wildasin’s government class.

“He changed my life,” she said of Wildasin, who is now retired from teaching. “He gave me passion that led to my life’s work. Imagine if I could make to my students even a fraction of the difference he made to me.”

As a new teacher, Serrao relied heavily on a more traditional combination of textbooks and scholarly research. She quickly realized that the quality of the material didn’t mean much if the presentation didn’t inspire teens to want to learn.

Several years ago, she decided to start inviting political candidates to visit after school hours and take questions from students.

Initially, she had to convince school administrators that such interactions would be “more about civics than politics.” She also assured them that she’d show no preference toward candidates from a particular party; her philosophy is to invite them all and see who’s willing to come.

“Teachers are all very aware that parents are concerned about [indoctrination],” Serrao said. “We make sure to remind all candidates it’s about learning, not grandstanding.”

The high point for those campus visits came during the 2008 presidential campaign, when current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe participated in a Cosby candidate forum as a surrogate for Democratic nominee Barack Obama and former Sen. George Allen spoke on behalf of Republican John McCain.

Since then, she’s welcomed candidates from across the political spectrum, an eclectic mix that includes conservative former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and libertarian Robert Sarvis.

“One of the great things about teaching government is that you never have to struggle for relevance,” Serrao added. “There’s always something going on.”

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