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Leading essential conversations

Master of Arts in Teaching graduate James Michael Sapp named UNC School of Education’s Student Teacher of the Year
James Michael Sapp, UNC Student Teacher of the Year

James Michael Sapp, a 2021 Master of Arts in Teaching graduate, spent the past year interning in Chatham County Schools, engaging his seventh graders in difficult conversations. For his outstanding work, he was named the UNC School of Education’s Student Teacher of the Year.

“What is a just war?”

That’s the essential question James Michael Sapp (’21 M.A.T.) posed to his seventh-grade social studies students at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School in Chatham County this past spring during his student-teaching internship.

“I’ve never been asked that question,” said Sapp, a 2021 Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program graduate who encountered the question in faculty member Brian Gibbs’s “Social Studies Methods Course” class. “But I thought, ‘I can develop this for seventh graders studying world history and engage them in a really cool conversation over six weeks.'”

Over those six weeks, daily individual lessons included their own focus questions such as “Is war just if it requires people in our hometown to change their lives?,” incorporated local and regional history in the context of world history, and enabled students to engage through multiple forms of discourse.

“It was a big shakeup for the students,” Sapp said. “But incredible conversations came out of these lessons. I was impressed by the students every day.”

For his student teaching and dedication to students, Sapp is the UNC School of Education’s Student Teacher of the Year for 2021. He goes on to compete for the North Carolina Association for Colleges of Teacher Educators’ statewide Student Teacher of the Year award.

Engaging in a challenge

For Sapp, a career in education seemed like a natural path. He grew up in schools in Swannanoa, N.C., a small Buncombe County town just outside of Asheville. His mother taught at the local middle school; his father at the high school. He lived within walking distance to the elementary school.

When he arrived at Carolina in 2015, he joined the marching band and considered majoring in music education. But his history classes — the readings and subsequent discussions — challenged him. He switched his major but held onto a potential career in education.

That same sense of challenge that drew Sapp to major in history drove him to challenge himself and his students in the classroom.

At the point in the year in which Sapp would take over as the full-time teacher, the class — which had been taught chronologically —  was approaching the 20th century. Sapp saw an opportunity to try a different, thematic approach.

World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War provided an opportunity for students to explore a question about history that couldn’t be answered in a class period or that even had a definitive answer. What is a just war?

“I would take an idea from each war and alternate it throughout the week,” Sapp said. “The students started to run with it and were able to connect themes across these different wars.”

Sapp engaged in multiple modes of assessment — audio recordings, writing, Socratic seminars, and art. One assessment focused on war opposition figures and required students to create life-like representations, in detail and size, on paper of figures including Bella Abzug, Daniel Ellsberg, and Martin Luther King Jr. Students “X-rayed” those figures, created metaphors of body parts to connect to the figure’s perspectives or actions. An X-ray of the heart might describe how the person might have felt about the war; an X-ray of the eyes enabled students to talk about things the figure might have seen.

Sapp created clear expectations, and his students knew that art could be rigorous and that they must treat their art with attention to detail.

Students — and Sapp — proudly displayed their art outside of the classroom once finished.

Dedicated to each of his students

In addition to pursuing 6-12 grade social studies licensure through the MAT program, Sapp also pursued special education add-on coursework, which provided him with tools to best address each student’s needs.

In a nomination letter for Sapp, his clinical educator, Michael Charles, wrote:

“I would like to take a moment to specifically praise Mr. Sapp for his dutiful adherence to the accommodations provided for all of the special-needs students he taught. Mr. Sapp differentiated everything he produced as a student teacher. He collaborated directly with our school’s seventh-grade [exceptional children] teacher in order to ensure these students’ needs were provided for. To my mind, that thoroughness is indicative of a teacher well into their teaching career, let alone one just starting out on the career path.”

His attention and care for every student and the building of intentional relationships ultimately created a strong community and a thriving classroom culture.

Taylor Schmidt, a School doctoral student and university supervisor, wrote of Sapp:

“James Michael took concepts of experiential education, intentional classroom culture, place-based education, racial and economic justice, multicultural education, differentiation, and 21st-century learning skills and integrated them into his planning for student teaching, allowing for creative interplay between concepts, unique planning, and extraordinary student experiences in virtual, hybrid, and in-person teaching. … He invested deeply in his students, whether they were online or in-person, constantly adapting his plans to best serve his students according to their needs and situations. And he invested trust in his seventh graders, believing them to be capable of challenging projects and concepts like justice and war, labor and identity, imperialism and community, race and self-determination. This investment produced extraordinary discussions and growth amongst his students, evident in the unique discourse that can be found amongst the students in his classroom.”

Sapp will return to his hometown in the mountains of North Carolina this fall to lead his first classroom, prepared to help his middle schoolers navigate difficult questions and to challenge them to look closely at history so they take pride in their community.

“I want to let students engage in these cool conversations,” he said. “I want them to be proud of where they come from and to like feel like they can make positive change where they grow up.”