Gillespie first-grade teacher wins Golden Apple

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Gillespie Elementary first-grade teacher Monica Prinz is hugged by some of her students after she receives a Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun Times

Monica Prinz’s first-grade students looked at the big, shiny thing the color of a bruise and asked, “You expect us to eat that?”

“They were enormous and strange and odd, but once we cut it up and sampled it, they really had a different experience that they might not otherwise have had,” said the Gillespie Elementary School teacher, explaining her students’ introduction to eggplant last year.

For opening her students’ eyes to the joys of learning — and the slightly slimy pleasures of eggplant — Prinz was awarded a 2015 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching on Monday. She is one of 10 Chicago-area teachers to be so honored.

Prinz, who has taught at Gillespie Elementary on the South Side since 2006, receives a $5,000 cash award and a tuition-free spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University.

Prinz also had the honor of a slightly embarrassing mid-morning invasion into her classroom, which included Mayor Rahm Emanuel, her principal, family, other well-wishers and a half dozen reporters.

“None of the rewards measure up to the reward you [give] to the children of the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said, handing Prinz a basket of gourmet candy apples.

“I’m so overwhelmed,” came Prinz’s predictable response.

Her principal, Michelle Willis, put it simply: “She’s fabulous.”

“She goes above and beyond at all times,” Willis said. “When we’re here on the weekend or we’re here late, Mrs. Prinz is one of the people who is with us. If it’s early morning boot camp . . . to help the students get prepared for a test, if it’s Saturday Academy, she puts together a back-to-school jam with a huge event every year.”

Prinz said she began her “learning garden” with small garden plots on school grounds to help her students understand where their food comes from and how it grows.

Asked what makes her such a good teacher, she said, modestly: “I don’t know that I’m really all that special. I just really enjoy the kids, and I try to do my best every day.”

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