ENGLEWOOD — Sharon Ponder-Ballard made a promise to a student.
She pledged if she received the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, a prize honoring exemplary teachers statewide, she’d do the Griddy — a smooth dance where the dancer slides on the floor like each step is slick with butter.
Ponder-Ballard fulfilled that promise Wednesday before dozens of Englewood STEM High School students. Decked out in a shimmery gold top, gold eyeshadow and gold lashes — she was dressed up for an anniversary dinner with her husband later that night — she transformed into a golden, bedazzled blur as she glided across the gym floor.
Ponder-Ballard joins a group of 10 teachers who received the prestigious award from the Golden Apple Foundation this year.
“This is my Oscar moment,” she said to the crowd.
Ponder-Ballard has taught Chicago students for more than 20 years and began teaching 9th grade English at Englewood STEM, 6835 S. Normal St., when the school was founded three years ago.
She said she tries to connect with students academically and personally by going beyond the page and finding real-world lessons within the fictional texts. She lets students know she’s just another person like them, she said. The only difference is she stands in front of the classroom.
“I try to provide real-world activities, discussions and readings,” Ponder-Ballard said. “I try to infuse it with culturally relevant materials, and students tend to gravitate toward it. I also let them see that I’m human, that I’ve experienced mistakes, and it’s OK. They’re here to grow, and we’re here to help them and nurture them.”
In her “old school days” of teaching, students needed to read classic texts like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Ponder-Ballard said.
After years of lessons, she realized she needed to revamp her library to appeal to today’s students. She said she “upgraded and updated” her book pile to include contemporary authors who resonate with students, like “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. A unit on Tupac Shakur required students to tie the late rapper’s music to today’s Chicago artists and find literary devices in the lyrics.
“I’ve been trying to make it so that the material isn’t so distant from their time period,” Ponder-Ballard said. “I feel like students are receptive to my teaching style. That’s what matters.”
After she was named a finalist for the award in February, Ponder-Ballard attended school assemblies for weeks with a speech she wrote a year ago, just in case that was the day she’d receive the Golden Apple Award, she said.
Ponder-Ballard was sitting in the stands watching an awards ceremony for students when Golden Apple Foundation officials entered the gym to announce her as the winner. She stood and ran to the floor as students and dancers with golden pompoms cheered her on.
Despite her stay-ready-so-you-don’t-have-to-get-ready energy, Ponder-Ballard said she had no idea she was getting the award; her husband did, though.
“Everyone got me really good,” Ponder-Ballard said. “Now I know we’re going off to celebrate this award at dinner, as well. I feel great.”
Golden Apple winners received $5,000 and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University for free.
Ponder-Ballard said her award is an ode to a group of Black teachers who took her under their wings when she started teaching. They didn’t receive the recognition they deserved during their time, but she’s thankful the Golden Apple Foundation is leading the way for today’s educators, she said.
“I think that the Golden Apple Foundation raises the bar on recognizing a profession that is so undervalued and underlooked,” Ponder-Ballard said. “Sometimes, we tend to downplay our efforts or diminish the work that we do because we don’t want people to think we’re arrogant, but our work is so powerful. This award means so much more than just me.”
The decline in Black teachers she’s witnessed is daunting, Ponder-Ballard said. She hopes as she carries the “Golden Apple torch,” other teachers are revitalized and continue forward with the knowledge that “they can do it, too.”
“In a community like Englewood, violence is always associated with the community,” she said. “Now we get to say ‘Golden Apple’ and ‘Englewood’ in the same sentence. What a blessing. It’s refreshing.”
Ponder-Ballard isn’t going anywhere, she said. She hopes to continue inspiring and guiding students for years to come.
“I’m appreciative that I have administrators that are open to my teaching style and flexibility,” Ponder-Ballard said. “I hope that we will continue to serve as a beacon of hope for our students in the area, not just in words, but in continuous resources. I hope we will continue to make students feel comfortable, proud and like they’re growing.”
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