Join us in conversation with the 2024 Georgia Teacher of the Year, Christy Todd, for our very special Season 4 finale! Tune in to hear her insights on the power of student creativity in the classroom!

Christy Todd in Classroom Conversations

Join us in conversation with Christy Todd, the 2024 Georgia Teacher of the Year for our very special Season 4 finale! Tune in to hear her insights on the power of student creativity in the classroom!



Ashley Mengwasser: Georgia Educators, hello again. Welcome back to Classroom Conversations where you've found yourself inside a special episode at the end of season four. I'm host Ashley Mengwasser. Can you believe we finished four full seasons of conversations? We're the new Four Seasons. Stay here anytime. The Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting co-present our teacher talk show, and that dream team is at it again, having curated one of the finest convos you've heard yet. We couldn't let this school year close without a full on fascinating guest. Who better to finalize a fabulous season than our famed 2024 Georgia Teacher of the Year. All the F alliteration is inspired by rhetorical analysis of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent," it starts. I find facts like these fascinating and feel this oration a favorable parallel to Georgia's most familiar educator of this time. Here to address us like Lincoln and commemorate something new in Fayetteville, Georgia and Fayette County Public Schools, Christy Todd. Mrs. Todd, as her students know her, teaches music technology at Rising Starr Middle School. Mrs. Todd is doing just that, raising rising star students based on her belief that every kid has a creative superpower. Christy went to school to be a music educator, that's her forte, and she's also nurturing students exploring other artistic avenues. We welcome the 2024 Georgia Teacher of the Year, Christy Todd. Hi Christy.

Christy Todd: Hi. What a fun intro you had there.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that you play along. I just knew that you would do that. Your time has been given so freely your whole career, but now it's being guarded fiercely as Teacher of the Year because there is an actual submission form, Christy, to request your presence at a speaking engagement like this. You are in the big leagues, madam. What has been the biggest transition to this role for you? It's a little different, right?

Christy Todd: It is totally different. I think the first couple of months, Ashley, it was really, you miss the relationships with your students and your colleagues, but then you're out on the road and you realize, whoa, I have an opportunity to be a voice for the 123,000 teachers we have across the state. And wherever I go, whatever room I'm in, I'm like, okay, who am I talking to today, and what do my colleagues want me to say on their behalf? And so it's that transition from working with students to really spending most of my year with adults. But knowing that by doing that, I'm helping my colleagues, which are in turn helping those students that I'm taking a year off from this year on sabbatical.

Ashley Mengwasser: I know you miss them. One of the funny things you said to me when this first came up was that now you walk into a room, people say your name and everyone starts clapping. And that was a little bit startling at first.

Christy Todd: Yes, it's definitely strange, but you have to realize at a certain point because at first, you're like, okay, I don't deserve this is, I'm just here at this one moment in time. I'm not the best teacher in my school or in the state. But what I've realized is I need to stand in that moment and accept that on behalf of my colleagues, because I'm just having a moment where I can represent them. And I wish every teacher had the opportunity to feel that adoration, and I'm trying to accept that on their behalf.

Ashley Mengwasser: I hope you will, because you do deserve it, and you are exactly the right person for 2024. Was being a career teacher always your plan from a young age, or did you happen upon it one day?

Christy Todd: My parents are huge supporters of education. My mother is a retired health occupations teacher, and my father, he actually built schools. And he built the school that I currently work in, that I've spent the last 15 years.

Ashley Mengwasser: Stop.

Christy Todd: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: The brick and mortar.

Christy Todd: The brick and mortar. I remember being 12 years old and standing on the job site and him saying, Christy, "See that pile of dirt? That's going to be the auditorium." And, "Where they're pouring concrete, that's the course room." And I've literally spent the last 15 years in that school my dad built.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is such a full circle moment.

Christy Todd: It really is. So I knew that education was important to my family, it was important to me. When I was in high school, I had a great teacher named Janice Folsom that really encouraged me to go into music education, and so it was one of those things that I always wanted to go into.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you found it when you say this, just like your dad, you're a builder, but you love to build connections so students can build their futures. Tell me what that means to you.

Christy Todd: I think that in all of us is this just innate desire to create. And if we're not allowing students to create order, they'll create disorder. And I think that's just what it means to be human, is our opportunity to build and to build our own futures, and that creativity in school shouldn't just be for a select few. It shouldn't be the dessert after you get all of this done. No, it needs to be the main course.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, it could be the entree.

Christy Todd: Because yeah, that's what we're trying to do as teachers is empower our students to create their own futures.

Ashley Mengwasser: We're going to talk so much about that today. I want to talk more though about your career before the career. So you had a brief stint as something else before you were a teacher. Tell us about that.

Christy Todd: Yeah, so when I was in college, I joined a national sorority called Phi Mu Fraternity. Their headquarters is here in Georgia. And when I was in college, they had the opportunity where they selected a few people that right after college you could travel as a consultant, travel the nation. And so I applied, and I couldn't believe I was selected. And so I got to travel all over the United States on somebody else's dime, visit college campuses, and it was just such an amazing opportunity. And from there I started overseeing their business development, opening new chapters on different campuses. But I just knew, okay, I want to be a teacher. My degree is in music education. I had gotten married at that time and I was a road warrior 100%, and that's not necessarily great for-

Ashley Mengwasser: A family, yes.

Christy Todd: Yeah, and so I was like, okay, it's time, it's time to go do what my calling is, to be a music educator. But it's amazing because this job that I'm in now, I don't know that I could have done it if I hadn't have had that experience, because so much of what I do in this role this year is public speaking, it's marketing, and I got those skills.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. And you are a road warrior once again.

Christy Todd: Once again, full circle. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Creative types are just my favorite. I have to ask you this. I know you won't be in your classroom that much, but are there any office supplies that you like to use in a quirky manner on your mission as a teacher? You've got some quirk.

Christy Todd: Yeah. I love index cards. And anybody who knows me is probably laughing right now. They're everywhere. They're in my car, they're stacks on my desk, they're in my house, just index cards. Because I use them to write notes, whether it be speeches, just things I want to remember. I use it when connecting with students. I might write their name, put it on their desk, shuffle them around, put them in different seating orders, ask them to write something on a card to tell me about themselves. When I talk with groups, a lot of times I take index cards, right now I am traveling across Georgia, one of the groups I've been working with is Page and their Future Georgia Educator conferences. And so wherever I go, I ask the students write down, who is that teacher that makes you feel seen?

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh wow.

Christy Todd: Write down their name. Tell me what they did for you. And so I've collected all of these, so I've got a thousand of them at this point. And I'm like, okay, we've got to do something with this later. I just feel like it's that moment where I can take what I'm hearing and what I'm feeling and what I'm seeing and make it concrete. And so I love index cards for that reason.

Ashley Mengwasser: I will never look at them the same way. I want to ask you the same question you're asking others. Maybe from your youth, did you have a teacher or collective group of teachers who made you feel seen in that way?

Christy Todd: I think as teachers, and I talked about this to a group of retired educators the other day. There were about 40 of them in the room and we did math, I had them add up how many students they had collectively taught. It was over 140,000-

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh my gosh.

Christy Todd: ... across their lifetime. And I asked them that very question and I said, "Okay, tell me about a teacher who, most of the time it's like, who impacted you? But who did you impact?" I flipped the question on them. And it was funny because they all talked about these big moments when they knew, "Okay, this kid went, I'm an English teacher and this kid became an author, and I know I made an impact." But I turned it around and talked about one of my teachers that was just-

Ashley Mengwasser: A small moment.

Christy Todd: And so that was, for me Ms. Teddy Martin in seventh grade, and I was the new kid in school, and I didn't know anyone. And then she saw that and she invited me into her classroom before school in the morning so I didn't have to go sit in the gym, the holding area where they keep everyone. And she gave me a place to belong, to pass out papers, and that's one reason I feel so comfortable in school now. And that's one reason I feel so comfortable in school now. And that small moment, she would probably not have ever known that impact that it could make. And so that's my message to those retired educators is, "You're looking for big moments. A lot of your impact has been in the small ones."

Ashley Mengwasser: The true power of the teacher is in those small moments. It's funny you say that. I have long enduring relationships with a small handful of teachers that I still go to dinner with and see from my K through 12 education, but there are several teachers who just these little things stuck with me and changed me. And I remember one would be Mrs. Day in high school. She has passed on to the ethereal realm, but she actually started every class by saying, "Hello, lovelies. Hello, lovelies." And her name was Ms. Day so we'd say, "It's going to be a lovely day with Ms. Day." So she imparted to us going into a room positively and I'm lovely. You're a lovely, we're all lovely. And it was just the best foundation for learning because we already started with this positivity. And so sometimes when I talk to my crews, I'll be like, "Hi, lovelies." I want them to know they're lovely. And that was just from a couple words she uttered when I was in high school. It really is powerful. Why do you think now is the perfect time to be an educator in the state of Georgia?

Christy Todd: So, I want to speak directly to people who may be considering entering the teaching profession, especially new teachers. And it's interesting, Ashley, because apparently through all this research study, Gen Z, the number one job, do you know what it is? What they want to be?

Ashley Mengwasser: Something with social media.

Christy Todd: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: They're obsessed.

Christy Todd: Yes, they're obsessed. Social media influencer.

Ashley Mengwasser: Influencer, yes.

Christy Todd: Influencer. So one in four want to be a social media influencer.

Ashley Mengwasser: One in four?

Christy Todd: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: 25%.

Christy Todd: Yeah. There was a research study nationwide by Censuswide that one in four want to be a social media influencer. And they cited different things like holidays and trips and the pay range and then also cited being a celebrity. And when I saw that list, only one thing came to my mind and it's, "If you want to be an influencer, be a teacher."

Ashley Mengwasser: Whoa.

Christy Todd: We get all sorts of trips and holidays. Like I have a yellow school bus. I can take it anywhere I want to go. And talk about free gifts, like homemade cookies-

Ashley Mengwasser: True.

Christy Todd: Starbucks cards, here we go. And I know we can laugh about these things, but really when we talk about... We have a generation looking for a job where they can make an impact, where they can be an influencer. And I can't think of any other job that does that. Teachers are the ultimate influencers.

Ashley Mengwasser: Influencers. That is powerful. That will change people's minds I'm telling you. That's beautiful. What is the message that you want all educators to hear right now in addition to that?

Christy Todd: I think that teachers are artists of the highest calling. And I see how you paint intentional spaces of care and I see how you compose melodies of high expectations. And it's all about being able to help a student and just creating that one moment where they feel seen or they feel heard. And I think sometimes as teachers, it's hard because our job is so passionate and when we feel like we don't have the resources that we need to be able to create those moments with our students, to have that time with our students, we get frustrated. But what I'm seeing right now as Georgia Teacher of the Year is just the sheer amount of people and organizations across the state who support public school education, who support teachers. And a lot of my job this year is just to be the voice and help them figure out how to build connections and make sure our teachers are feeling that support.

Ashley Mengwasser: That support.

Christy Todd: And so, my message to teachers is people know the amazing work you're doing. Everywhere I go, people just say, "Please tell them thank you. Tell them thank you." And Georgia knows that teachers need to be supported in other ways and people are working hard to try to get that to you. So stay in there, stay strong, and know that there are people fighting for you every day.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. And know... That is just a beautiful picture mentally too. Know that you are held tenderly in the hands of the community and you're cared for because it is such big work. It is such momentous work. You have had quite a few admirable feats in your arsenal outside of the classroom. So I want you to tell us a bit about your personal life and your endeavors with your family.

Christy Todd: So, my husband, Drew, my son, Carter, we're really big Braves fans, okay? We love-

Ashley Mengwasser: We like that here in Atlanta, yes.

Christy Todd: Yeah, we love the Atlanta Braves. I'm just going to throw this out there. If I could ever throw out a pitch of the Braves game as a Georgia teacher a year-

Ashley Mengwasser: Are you listening people?

Christy Todd: Okay. Anyway, so we're huge Braves fans, so that's something that we love to do. My husband and I are also really into historic preservation. We've both served as president of our local historical society and worked to save buildings that were facing demolition.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow. Did you ever have to lay down in front of one or anything like that?

Christy Todd: Not quite but got close. I've definitely had to scale buildings and hang, "Save this building," banners. And so from our local city hall, our historic city hall, and then also we have a Rosenwald School in the town where I live, which was one of the first schools for African American communities. It was built in partnership between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald. So we were able to work with the historical society to help that get on the state's Places in Peril list. And so that's really important work that we love to do as a family. I love anything that's historic, antique, vintage. I have a thing about vintage clothes, Ashley.

Ashley Mengwasser: A devout thrifter.

Christy Todd: I am a devout thrifter. I love it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Are you wearing anything today that you've thrifted?

Christy Todd: I am. Okay. So the jacket I have on-

Ashley Mengwasser: You are!

Christy Todd: Is from Poshmark, okay?

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay.

Christy Todd: All right. So I love vintage clothes, I love designer clothes, but I've got a teacher budget.

Ashley Mengwasser: Respect.

Christy Todd: I can't go out and buy a brand-new Dior suit, but I might be able to find a jacket on Poshmark from the '80s that works.

Ashley Mengwasser: A Dior jacket in the '80s.

Christy Todd: It's from the '80s.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is beautiful, Christine.

Christy Todd: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's this deep red. And I can tell from the lapels that it was high fashion. I wasn't sure from what era. Oh man.

Christy Todd: I love vintage designer clothes. It's so fun. And as Teacher of the Year, part of your prize package is you get a little money to buy clothes for speaking. I was like, "Yes. Challenge accepted. I'm on this."

Ashley Mengwasser: You're going to go thrifting.

Christy Todd: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wherever we might see you in the state, you might be wearing something thrifted?

Christy Todd: Yeah, probably.

Ashley Mengwasser: You should have an Instagram account for your outfits.

Christy Todd: For my outfits?

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. People would follow that.

Christy Todd: There we go.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's the Teacher of the Year wearing in Georgia?

Christy Todd: Yeah, there we go. That's something to think about.

Ashley Mengwasser: Something to think about for you if you wanted to be an influencer, except you already are, as you've laid that out for us. Let's dive into our topical discussion now, what your goal is as Teacher of the Year. Creativity is really the linchpin for you and nurturing that in students. There is a big impulse in this culture that we live in. It's the create versus consume impulse. It can be a fork in the road for a lot of people because over time, if we become too consumptive, that can breed idleness and dissatisfaction. I think it's because the creative urge that all of us have within us lies dormant in that environment. So on the other side of it, which you're on, what's been powerful about equipping young people in your classroom with the more active create path in their lives?

Christy Todd: I think a lot of times school is based on the consumption model. And when we switch and let kids see that they have the power to create in the different ways they can respond to content, then they start to think about the power they have to create in different scenarios throughout their life.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right.

Christy Todd: And when the pandemic hit and school shut down and it was really difficult to get students to maybe do work when they were at home doing virtual learning, the thing that I noticed... We were in a research study with Georgia State University with a small group of students that we had in a creativity initiative. Over 90% of those students were still doing their capstone projects on their own, not even for a grade at that point, because this was like May 2020. We still were able to release an album of original music in May 2020-

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Christy Todd: Because those students... It was more than a grade. It was more than class. It was who they were. It was their identity.

Ashley Mengwasser: It was a piece of them.

Christy Todd: It was a piece of them. And they're like, "We don't care about the pandemic. We're doing this." And so I think that's amazing, when classrooms have the ability to move from consumption to creation, and we build choice in that and that students can create new ideas and content that are reflective of their own ideas and passions, it becomes more than an assignment. It becomes a piece of who they are.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, and it becomes magic, which is truly beautiful to spectate if you're on the outside. What has been your biggest epiphany as an educator, whether before Teacher of the Year or now as you're in this role?

Christy Todd: I talked about this, and I think this goes along with the consumption and creation piece too. I talked about this with a group the other day. I think when you first walk into being a teacher, you feel like you have to know all the answers.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Christy Todd: I think we're conditioned to that, right?

Ashley Mengwasser: We've got to be experts on day one.

Christy Todd: We've got to be experts on day one, we've got to make a hundred on all of our tests, and we've got to make an A as a teacher. And I think that's one thing to know... As I've gone on throughout my career, where I find the most success is saying, "I don't know. And who can I find and surround me that knows more than me about this?" And for instance, the way I met you last year. So we have a podcast show at our school and one of my students named Sarah, she needed a mentor and she was running our podcast show. And I was like, "Okay, education podcast." And I'm online, I'm Googling, and I find your name. I find your name, and I just randomly send you an email because I knew that Sarah needed to meet somebody in the industry who could bring to the table pieces that I couldn't teach her. And so, I think there is power in knowing that you don't have to know all the answers.

Ashley Mengwasser: Reach out.

Christy Todd: Mm-hmm. Reach out.

Ashley Mengwasser: And that was a beautiful experience for me because I got a blind email from you with Sarah copied, "Would you be interested in being a guest on the podcast Sarah's working on here for our school district?" And I got to go to Rising Starr Middle School and see what you guys were doing that day, which, we're about to get into here. It was your actual Community for Creativity showcase at Rising Starr that day, which you coordinate, Christy. And that's where I first met you and it was wonderful. So talk about this initiative for Rising Starr's eighth graders. What is the Community for Creativity Showcase?

Christy Todd: Yeah, so this program started, it's about six years ago now, and it was a school-wide infrastructure to build opportunities for all kids to create. So it's really important, and I think I talked earlier about how creativity can't just be for a chosen few. We need to make sure that we're being thoughtful in school environments about where can we provide access so all students have an opportunity to shine. And one of those ways we've done that is with eighth grade capstone projects, where eighth grade students can opt in, and it's part of a literacy initiative that we have, where they're reading, writing, reflecting through products and projects that matter to them. So as a facilitator, I just walk them through the entire year, from developing their product, pitching it during a Shark Tank-like presentation, to partnering with different industry mentors, to giving them feedback. And at the end of the year, they give a showcase. So I think when you were there, let's see, some of the projects we had that year, we had a fashion show.

Ashley Mengwasser: I loved the fashion show. There were runway models in the school who were wearing the makings of one of the students. And was she a knitter or crocheter? I can't remember.

Christy Todd: Crochet, yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Crochet, yes.

Christy Todd: She was from Peru. She just moved to our school, and she was learning English, and crocheting on the side at home to keep her family's heritage alive for her in this new country. And she came in and said, "Hey, I want to do this project. I want to be a fashion designer." And it's like, "Let's do it." So she sold, I think she made over $1,000 in selling her products and doing her runway show. We had students who designed video games, original songs. Let's see. We also had ... Oh, we had the musical.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Christy Todd: The Johnny Mercer Foundation helped sponsor Lunch Ladies: The Musical that we had some students write.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's the plot of that one?

Christy Todd: Yeah. Yeah. So it's a lunch lady. She's an accidental lunch lady. She fell out of college, and then she ended up being a lunch lady. And through that, she found her love of baking.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, lovely.

Christy Todd: Yeah, so that was the plot of that. And the Johnny Mercer Foundation helped us hire musicians to come in and score the music for that and record it. You can listen to it on our YouTube channel. So it's just a fun way for kids to be able to create, but at the same time, have a public audience for that or a bigger purpose outside of the school.

Ashley Mengwasser: And the pride in the work, I witnessed this firsthand, just the way that they are radiating this confidence, this ownership that really just can't be taught. It has to be experienced and grown into. And it seems like the Community for Creativity is just the platform for them to do that. Now let's talk about your platform. If Teacher of the Year candidates were to run on one, I would say yours is the creative awakening of students along their educational journey. That's what I would say for you. And you've said that part of this is that teachers are actually waking up alongside them. And because you're passionate about building school infrastructures for creativity, not just students, you're seeing a positive impact for teachers as well. What is that impact?

Christy Todd: Yeah, I think that students aren't the only ones. Teachers have creative superpowers too. And we know them, we can see them, we can quantify them with our colleagues in the building. It might be that person who you know you can depend on that will always get something done. Or the person you can go to with a problem, and they'll always solve it. Or that person who can build a relationship with students who may be having a problem, and they're needing to find an adult in the building they can trust. Teachers have creative superpowers, and it may be subject related, it may be arts related, it may be problem-solving related. And one of the things I'm advocating for this year is the need for administrators, the need for school districts to build connections for our teachers, to create space and connections for them to use those creative superpowers. So I've had the opportunity to speak to our state board of education, to Georgia School Boards Association, and several of the things I'm talking about is, "Let's give our teachers space, let's give them time, let's creatively use staffing to give some flexibility, so we can find those superpowers in our teachers, and give them space to grow and nurture them just like we want to do with our students."

Ashley Mengwasser: This is a creative revival you are starting, Christy.

Christy Todd: Let's go.

Ashley Mengwasser: And I'm imagining this right now, actually, to take it one step further. If we have these educators actually pinpointing what is their creative superpower, brandishing it on their door, "My creative superpower is." He's the humorist, she's the marketer. And then, within the school, the students and the staff start to flock toward those gifts, and those talents and what beautiful productions and creations come from that synergy.

Christy Todd: Absolutely. I love that. I think so much of school, we get stuck in silos. But when we realize, again, we don't have to know all the answers, that we can go to people who know more than us, and we know what they know, then you're right. You can build those connections, and you can find those people.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is such a tipping point of change, and I think it's going to be a beautiful thing. Let's talk a little bit more about your school's infrastructure for creativity. Tell me about Hall Pass Entertainment, Between the Pages, other kind of musical and audio projects that your kids are working on.

Christy Todd: Absolutely. So when we started the Community for Creativity Initiative about six years ago, and we found all these kids who are creating products and really cool things, but we found a problem. And the problem was, Ashley, it was dying in a book bag or a Google Drive, and nobody saw it. Maybe grandma. Nobody saw it.

Ashley Mengwasser: But not to see the light.

Christy Todd: No. Or they'd post it on their own YouTube channel, and they'd get three views, because there's so much content in the world right now. And so, we decided that if we wanted kids to be part of the creative industry sector, then we need to launch an entertainment label.

Ashley Mengwasser: An entertainment label.

Christy Todd: An entertainment label. So Hall Pass Entertainment was formed.

Ashley Mengwasser: Love the name.

Christy Todd: And we're a full-functioning entertainment label. We have revenue, merchandise that comes back into support the program. And so, we help students create and refine and distribute their product across major streaming platforms. And now, it's cool because we've been doing this for six years. We actually have seniors who, through the career and technical education work-Based learning program, come back and work as our podcast producer like Sarah, who you met, music producers, social media directors, and they help run the label. So it's this full circle initiative that we have going on right now. And so we produce, we have our YouTube channel, and then we also produce at least two albums of original music. Between the Pages was our latest album that you referenced, and it's all music written by kids and for kids.

Ashley Mengwasser: They do vocals?

Christy Todd: Everything. They write the lyrics, they create the background music. Sometimes, we'll bring in guest producers to help with the music as well, so they get to meet industry professionals, like you, to take their music to the next level. And it's so fun, when kids go from having two views, to now, we post something, and they might have 500. And that's one thing that I think is super powerful that I think this is where the future of education could.

Ashley Mengwasser: Go on.

Christy Todd: Is that if schools could harness this potential, especially as we look at AI and the importance of students understanding their intellectual property at a young age, I think schools could start organizing around the concept of being entertainment labels, where we can help ... You have a built-in audience, right? That's the hardest thing. You guys know from here.

Ashley Mengwasser: Have to build it from the ground up, most cases.

Christy Todd: You have built the audience. Guess what? Schools have built-in audience-

Ashley Mengwasser: And its existing audience, yeah.

Christy Todd: ... that only grow year after year. So if we can build that infrastructure in our schools, then we build a platform for student voice, for teacher voice, for multidisciplinary learning. And that's one thing that we've been doing, that I think could be repeated at different schools as well, to be able to give students the opportunity for voice.

Ashley Mengwasser: And that's not all, folks, not just an entertainment label. You also have a really cool founding about an impressive, international now, collective called the Story Arts. Teachers Story Arts teaches storytelling in the classroom from K through 12, bringing the value of story in with ready-to-teach curriculum. The URL is, and the site says, "Story Arts is equipping educators to bring the value of story to every learning environment." Let's start first, Christy, with how Story Arts was born. Tell me about that board meeting.

Christy Todd: Okay. So that board meeting, it was December 2019, and I was walking down the hall of my school,, and the superintendent came and found me and he said, "Hey, Christy, I have this meeting I want you to come to with me, and only be about 10 people in that meeting. It's just a small group. And can you come? And we're going to talk about how to build connections between our local creative industry sector and our school system, and how we can build the creative workforce in Georgia." And so I said, "Sure, I'll try to make it." I wrote down the address, he left and I ran to the front office, and I said, "Hey, can I have a sub? Please, get me a sub. I want to go to this meeting." And so, then, I jump in my car, and I drive over, and I walk- And so then I jump in my car, and I drive over, and I walk in a boardroom and find that I have a seat at the table between a billionaire and the CEO of one of the world's largest film studios.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're kidding.

Christy Todd: It was a surreal moment. I'm looking around the room. Everybody has doctor in their title, or at least seven figures in their bank account.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, man.

Christy Todd: I don't have either. I'm like, "What am I doing in this room?"

Ashley Mengwasser: What was the film studio?

Christy Todd: Trilith Studios.

Ashley Mengwasser: Trilith. Wow, yes.

Christy Todd: Yeah. So it was an awesome moment where industry and education came together and we said, "How can we partner?" Because when we talk about partnerships, when we talk about building connections, it's got to be more than asking somebody to write a check to cover T-shirts. It's got to be mutually beneficial partnerships that enrich the surrounding community. And so, they were asking us that question and we were asking them that question, and came up with this concept of, how do you scale connections? And so already at our school we had been doing a lot of work just like where you came in and talked to Sarah. We're like, "Okay, how can we give everyone that experience that Sarah had?" And so we latched onto this concept as a masterclass series for kids.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's like a masterclass. That makes sense.

Christy Todd: Yeah. So StoryArts was born then. And the curriculum part that's been built out, we have free of charge partnership with the Department of Education that's on their Georgia Connects platform, as well as Classrooms can write song lyrics with a member of the Zac Brown Band.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that.

Christy Todd: They can create a short film with the CEO of Trilith Studios and write a weather report with a network meteorologist.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's just a few of the opportunities.

Christy Todd: Just a few. And so we're just getting started. We're still piloting some field trip, hopefully, type pop-up experiences. But I'd encourage everybody to check that out. If you're listening and you're like, "Wow. I would love for my kids in my classroom to start creating different types of content like podcasts or songs or videos but I don't know how to do it." Look at these lessons. And it has Georgia industry professionals giving feedback and inspiration to students.

Ashley Mengwasser: Please include us, meaning Georgia Public Broadcasting studios, and Georgia DOE in that. I would love to see some students come into our talk studio where we can have them see our setup here.

Christy Todd: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: All the microphones and the sound equipment. It'd be pretty powerful. Christy, our teachers have the goals of achieving several things in the classroom. Meeting standards, teaching the curriculum. Is infusing creativity into their instruction something that they can do pretty easily?

Christy Todd: Absolutely. I think a lot of times creativity is confused with artistry.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah.

Christy Todd: And I am a music educator. I have that artist part of it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Fair.

Christy Todd: Creativity is new and original ideas.

Ashley Mengwasser: Innovation.

Christy Todd: Innovations. And that's relative to the context that you're in. So an idea may be innovative to a child because it's the first time they've thought of it. Every project isn't about inventing something new like a Post-it note. That's not what creativity is. It's really in that small moment. So just building warm-ups, small moments in your classroom when you're asking students to think about the lesson in a different way. Maybe elaborate, come up with additional details, different ways they could solve that same problem. That's a moment of creativity. It doesn't always have to be these huge project-based learning units. The course that I teach lends itself naturally to that, but other teachers, other than building small moments through the day, maybe once or twice a year you do try to develop a project where kids can respond to content using a creative method or medium that speaks to them and their own interest. And that could be a larger project that they can work on a little bit throughout the year or at the end of a unit when you have a few extra days, because it's so important that we're definitely meeting those standards and those curriculum pacing so our students are learning everything they need to. But creativity is not one of these, again, things that's dessert.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right.

Christy Todd: If you do everything else, it's a way of thinking. It's a way of asking students, "What else? How else? What questions do you have about this?" It's them coming up with their own ideas and not just consuming content.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's following the spark that ignites in a lesson.

Christy Todd: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: Leave us with this, if you will, Christy. You are going to have an undeniable imprint on education in Georgia at the end of this term, what would you like to be different about schools and students in Georgia after you shine your spotlight on the value of creative inspiration?

Christy Todd: I would just like for people to be thoughtful about the connections they can build inside their building or wherever you are. Whether you sit at a board table, whether you're a classroom teacher, whether you're at the county office, think about the work that you're doing and who can connect to that work. And what space can you create for people to be involved in that work? Because when we give space for voice, when we give space for ownership... one thing I think about when I was a first-year teacher, Ashley, I had a student with special needs in my chorus. And I wasn't quite sure how to meet the needs of that student. And then I was able to connect with a colleague and that colleague, the student's special education teacher, taught me different skills and strategies. We formed a special music program that, 15 years later, has impacted almost 10,000 students in a special education setting. And that would've never happened if I hadn't first said, "I don't know all the answers. I need to find someone who knows more than me and I need to create space." And I think that's the key. That's really the message that I want people to hear this year,, is, you're not alone. You don't have to do this work by yourself, but you need to create space for others. And then when we do that, not only can our students shine but our teachers can shine too and use their creative superpowers.

Ashley Mengwasser: Christy Todd, you are a busy, high fashion, visionary woman, and we are so fortunate to have your flair and verve leading Georgia this year. Are you aware of the 2024 Chinese horoscope?

Christy Todd: No.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I've got to tell you about the 2024 Chinese horoscope. It's the year of the wood dragon. And the dragon itself signifies power, vigor, and charm, and it leads by inspiring others. But then the wood element piece added to the dragon is known to be nourishing. It brings evolution, improvement, foundations for lasting success. And this feels like the perfect energy in 2024, to carry your passion but nurturing creative revival into Georgia's schools. So I can't wait to see all that you'll do.

Christy Todd: Oh, I'm going to have to research more about this wood dragon.

Ashley Mengwasser: I know. And you and your fiery red jacket here. It's just so inspiring. Okay, audience, creativity, it is catching. Like Christy, with tools, with infrastructure, teachers can make students into makers. Thank you for every day you spend igniting the creativity of Georgia students. You're a great teacher. Thanks for streaming the special episode. What's next for Classroom Conversations? All I can say is it's going to be a deep dive, season five. You haven't heard our upcoming topics before, so listen in after summer break at the top of next school year. I'm Ashley Mengwasser. Goodbye for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.