When she began her career in 2011, one local teacher said she was not intentionally looking for a school that focused on project-based learning.

However, when Clarissa Cook discovered Columbus Signature Academy Lincoln campus — one of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s four project-based learning schools — she fell in love with the idea of a hands-on curriculum.

In her five years at CSA – Lincoln, Cook has become passionate about the school’s unique educational philosophy, and that passion has led to her becoming involved in various organizations that advocate for the school’s educational practices.

That involvement in her local school earned Cook the honor of becoming one of two 2016 winners of the William and Sally Hanley Excellence in Teaching Award. Recipients receive a $750 stipend.

“While Clarissa exceeds in all the criteria needed to be considered for this award, it has been her commitment to making sure CSA – Lincoln continues to be successful that stands out the most to me,” Principal Brett Findley wrote in his nomination of Cook for the Hanley Award.

Cook said she realized during in her first year at CSA – Lincoln — a year she spent working as a long-term substitute — that teaching students through hands-on lessons aligned perfectly with her own educational philosophy.

“The longer I worked there and learned about the school, I realized that it fit with my values,” Cook said. “Students should be interacting with things around them.”

As her passion for project-based learning grew, Cook, who became a full-time first-grade teacher in her second year at the school and later moved to fourth grade, said she wanted to get more involved in the school’s unique educational culture.

She began working with the student Math Bowl, as a literacy coach and with the district-wide STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — committee, all organizations that allowed her to find ways to apply the project-based learning principles she taught in school to other areas outside of the classroom.

Cook also began working as the school’s coach for Universal Design for Learning, the district-wide educational philosophy that focuses on meeting an individual student’s learning needs.

Like project-based learning, Cook said she knew early on that the UDL concept matched her own teaching style. Every student learns differently, she said, so using different teaching tactics in the classroom is a natural response to students’ individuality.

Even in math, a generally cut-and-dry subject, Findley said he has seen Cook employ a variety of teaching styles to help each student understand the math curriculum in their own way.

“They’re interacting with math in five or six different ways every class,” Findley said. “She’s able to reach all of her learners.”

Although she said she was surprised her instructional methods earned her the Hanley Award, Cook said she was excited by the honor and plans to use at least part of her $750 to improve her classroom.

This fall, she’ll move into a sixth-grade teaching position at CSA Lincoln, where she said she plans to continue in her philosophy of using hands-on educational approaches to help her students get the most out of their educations.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.