A Virginia Woman in History
By Jan Gillis ('07)
When fourth-graders honored child advocate Joann Grayson they received a unique lesson in the value of protective parenthood.
When an elementary school class embarked on an Internet search for the name of a Virginia woman who made a difference in the lives of children, one name came up over and over again, Joann H. Grayson, JMU professor of psychology.
Virginia Women in History
Amy Garrett was teaching Virginia history to her fourth-graders at Island Creek Elementary School in Alexandria and decided to use the Library of Virginia’s “Virginia Women in History” project as an instructional tool. Each year, the project seeks nominations to honor eight women, past and present, who have made important contributions to Virginia, the nation and the world. “I am always looking for ways to challenge my students,” says Garrett, “and this nomination project was a great opportunity to give them a hands-on task.”
Garrett’s class examined the achievements of past honorees and learned that altruistic endeavors and “breaking glass ceilings” were the general themes. The children narrowed their focus. “The class decided they wanted to nominate someone who made a difference in the lives of children,” Garrett says. “At that point, Google took over.”
As the children searched multiple terms — women, Virginia, child welfare — Grayson’s name was repeatedly in the search results.
Champion of child abuse prevention and treatment
It’s no surprise. Grayson, a 30-year veteran of JMU’s psychology faculty, is a champion of child abuse prevention and treatment. Her list of accolades includes the 2006 Virginia Professor of the Year awarded for “extraordinary dedication to undergraduate teaching” by two national organizations, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. And she has taken her advocacy for children to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on Education.
As the class read about Grayson’s briefings on Capitol Hill, her work at JMU and in the community, and saw the leading role she has taken in advocating for children, they knew she was exactly the nominee they were looking for. Not only did Garrett’s class nominate Grayson, but they also invited her for a visit.
Grayson, of course, is no stranger to the classroom. At JMU she teaches in the areas of child abuse and neglect, child clinical psychology, clinical psychology and field placement. Each year, she supervises scores of students in service-learning work.
Nonetheless, educating a class of fourth-graders on the history of child protection presented a challenge for Grayson. “I talk to my JMU class about child protection history for 45 minutes, and I wondered what in the world I was going to say to fourth graders for two hours,” she says. It didn’t take long for the educational and child expert to come up with a solution.
Demonstrating the value of a protective parent
She found the answer in the family farm’s chicken house. Grayson observed one of the hens, Henrietta, sheltering a brood of chicks under her wings. “You’ll notice that baby chicks are quite content when with their mother hen. They feel safe. Chicks that you buy, who have been separated from their mothers, are quite different. Their loud and constant peeping can drive you crazy,” she says. “I decided to take chicks with no mother as well as Henrietta and her chicks to the class, so the children could see the difference.” Grayson knew that Henrietta would provide the students an excellent example of the value of a protective parent.
Grayson’s classroom visit was a hit. The kids learned the history of child protection, got acquainted with Henrietta, named the chicks, and received an introduction to JMU — Grayson showed the class a video from the university’s admissions office.
Several weeks later, her mailbox was flooded with letters from the students thanking her for her visit. "Now I want to go to JMU for college. I showed my parents the pamphlet, and they agree with me! Also, do you think that maybe I could be part of that Virginia Child Protection group?" wrote Megan Miller. The letters also contained plenty of well wishes for the success of Grayson's nomination. “I cross my fingers that you win," wrote one student.
The positive thinking worked. Grayson was recognized as a 2009 Virginia Woman in History and was honored at a reception at the Library of Virginia on March 26.
Follow the links below to read some of the children's letters.