BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Woodruff Elementary School teacher Andrea Masri has been honored by the Union County District VFW as Teacher of the Year for her work involving her district Gifted and Talented [QUEST] students in raising awareness to the Township's veterans. through "Operation: We Remember."
Gerry Barter, a former Lieutenant platoon leader in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and Quartermaster of Berkeley Heights VFW Post 6259, nominated Masri as Teacher of the Year at the Post level and she was unanimously approved as the Post nominee. "She was then presented to the District representing our Post where she was again selected to represent the District (Union county) at the State level competition," said Barter. The State award will be announced mid June.
Masri was tasked with educating young citizens of the sacrifices made by veterans of the United States Military and share the importance of the mission behind "Operation: We Remember" and the newly renovated Veterans Memorial Park, which was recently renovated thanks to the efforts of Ted Romankow and the Berkeley Heights Veterans Memorial Restoration committee.
Committee member Gay Hollowell reached out to Woodruff Principal Patty Gasparini and Masri to involve students in their educational mission -- "Operation: We Remember."
Masri and Gasparini discussed a few ideas and decided to have the Gifted and Talented Program-QUEST reach out to local veterans. First, it was necessary to teach the students about the different branches of our armed forces, said Masri. "They needed to learn how we recognize our soldiers and why monuments and other structures are built to honor them for their service to our country."
They went on a virtual tour of the monuments and memorials in Washington DC and learned the significance of each: how their designs reflected the group being honored, the importance of Arlington National Cemetery and the vigilant watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the meaning behind the flag and medal of each branch of service.
The students were then taught interview skills in preparation for their most important endeavor of meeting with the 16 local veterans and service members from WWII to current conflicts in the Middle East to ask them to share their stories.
"The students sat down with each veteran and asked them questions about their childhood, why they joined the service and significant stories they were willing to share about their service," said Masri. The students then wrote a biography based on the interview. Then, each biography was brought together and put into book form, that captured in words each veteran's life story. Finally, the book was sent off to a publisher, [made possible through a grant funded by the Berkeley Heights Education Foundation.
"I was amazed by the questions that were asked," said Barter, "evidence of great preparation by the students and Mrs. Masri. The students showed great interest in us and our time in the service.
"After the interviews, I received a package with thank you notes from each of the five students who interviewed me," said Barter. "I thought that was great and was very proud of the experience. As you know, Vietnam vets have not received much recognition. I was so proud that Andrea would take a topic like veterans to instill patriotism in her students."
The year long planning culminated into an assembly on February 25, 2016 that was "truly a celebration of appreciation and gratitude for our veterans," said Masri.
The veterans featured were invited to attend the assembly where a slide show was presented. The program grew to include all grades at Woodruff Elementary School with the Art and Music teachers working with the students on scenery and banners and musical performances. Each grade sang a patriotic song,
The assembly was attended by students, teachers, parents and other residents including Mayor Bob Woodruff and past mayors and town council members.
Each veterans' story was presented to the assembly in detail. "Many of us had tears in our eyes of being recognized in this manner," said Barter.
These students not only learned the importance of Veterans Day, but now understand the importance of recognizing those who served the country. "The students gained a sense of community and pride for our veterans," said Masri.
"The commemorative books that were created have touched not just the veterans who were a part of the project but their families and the community as a whole," said Masri.
Each veteran received a copy of the book, as well as a framed certificate of appreciation. The illustrated book entitled 'Operation We Remember," an overview of the Quest program and three pages dedicated to each of the sixteen interviewed veterans can be found in each of the Berkeley Heights School District libraries as well as the township's public library.
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