Alumna Spotlight: Crystal Giannini

April 24, 2020

Crystal Giannini received her associate’s degree and took a 7-year break from school before returning to VCU to study English. While in school, Crystal worked full-time as an Instructional Assistant for Chesterfield County Public Schools and part-time at Legend Brewery. She received her B.A. in English in May of 2017. Crystal is currently teaching English 9, 10, and 11 at Dinwiddie High School where she loves being able to introduce texts to students in fun and engaging ways!

Crystal Giannini in her classroomYou’re now teaching at Dinwiddie High School and you were just recently named on the “Top 20 Teachers to Watch” in Dinwiddie county. First off, congratulations! What do you do to make your classes stand out? 

Thank you! I try to bring energy into my classroom! From printing pictures of the kids on spirit days, to the selfies we take, and even to soliciting donations for flexible seating options—I want my room to look and feel welcoming. I was hesitant about bringing in beanbag chairs, colorful fidgets, and hilarious memes...but until you witness a couple of 6’ seniors arguing over who gets the biggest beanbag, you cannot judge me!

Have you always wanted to be a teacher? What inspired you?

I have not always wanted to be a teacher—no way! I was not the best student in school—not academically speaking, and instead, it was my behavior issues that pulled me away from classroom time and began to impact my academics. Even though I graduated from high school two years later than I should have due to my decisions, I had one teacher I have never been able to forget: Mrs. Priscilla Bareford, from Meadowbrook High School. She was the coolest, most honest, and most hilarious human I have ever met. 

Did you always know you wanted to study English?

Honestly, I did not know I wanted to study English. I knew that I was not going to be a bartender forever and that I wanted to further my education. I decided that I was not-so-awful at writing and reading has always been an escape for me...basically, I decided that I would be least likely to fail if I pursued a degree in English!

Did your courses at VCU influence how you lead a classroom?

There is so much influence from my time at VCU that can be seen in my classroom leadership. Mainly, I am intentional with choosing a diverse set of texts to use in the classroom and I love initiating discussions about diversity and inclusion. Teenagers really do think deeply and they have a perspective that opens my eyes to thoughts and impressions that I would have otherwise been oblivious to. This learning exchange really helps me to create relationships with my students that reach beyond the hour and twenty minutes I see them.

Bookshelf with colorful books and a beanbag chair sitting in front. The room has lots of pictures and inspirational, positive quotes.Do you think your time at VCU as an English major helped prepare you for teaching high school? 

Absolutely! Because of my time at VCU, I have been able to moderate conversations on code-switching, I have been able to dissect Chaucer’s writing with some students who find it assuring that even back then, writers still had an appreciation for off-color humor! I have been able to better understand the intersections of race, gender, and socioeconomics, and how it impacts my students. 

How has the transition to remote instruction changed your teaching? How are you working with students who you would normally see face-to-face?

How has it not changed my teaching?! First, it has eliminated the personal aspect that really helps me to connect to my students—beyond the curriculum. We live in such a rural area, that access to wifi, finances aside, is not even an option for some. When a lack of access is paired with financial burdens and the general stress from this abrupt change in day-to-day life, everyone is struggling in his or her own way. I use Google Classroom to communicate with my students. I have used Google Hangouts for a video chat or a text message a few times, but many of my students have not reached back out. I made a video for them and posted on YouTube. I just want them to know I'm not stressed about their grades—just that they are okay and someone cares about them. 

Are there any unique tools or strategies you are trying to use to keep students engaged and learning?

I think that scheduling fun activities like a scavenger hunt in the house can lure them in, but the fact that not all of my students are able to participate in online activities from home makes me wary of doing too much and making others feel more secluded...trying my best to balance!

Has teaching remotely taught you anything unexpected about the students or curriculum?

It has shown me some of the flaws and inequities that exist in educational experiences and how my expectations are adjusted, simply for lack of access. It has taught me that these classrooms are full of teenagers who seemingly do not want to be there, but those same kids are missing the normalcy of our faces, they are missing the routines, they are missing hot meals and a chance to not be a primary caregiver to a sibling all day, they are missing being pushed to do more—simply because sometimes we as teachers are the only ones to push them past their level of comfort. I have learned the curriculum is not missed as much as the relationships that came to a halt.

Do you ever get any time for leisure reading? If so, what have you loved recently?

Books are an excellent tool to use when I decide to procrastinate on grading, cleaning, or lesson plans I should be making! Recently, I have LOVED Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, Solo by Kwame  Alexander, and Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Natham.

Thanks for catching up with us, Crystal!