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Chestatee teacher earns Crystal Apple Award
Chestatee Middle School’s Debbie Clark works on sentence structure with her students during a language arts class Friday afternoon. Clark has been teaching in Hall County for 28 years and was awarded a top teacher award in April.

Debbie Clark has an affinity for memories.

She tells her eighth-grade students at Chestatee Academy of Inquiry and Talent Development to make as many as they can.

"Right now they're creating memory books, kind of like memoirs," said Clark, who teaches language arts classes. "It's about taking notice of the special things. When we're bogged down in the every day hustle bustle of life, it's important to write down good memories."

Clark started her 28th year as a teacher in Hall County Schools, and one of her own favorite memories happened last April. She was awarded the Crystal Apple Award through the University of Georgia College of Education. She attended a luncheon hosted by the WNBA Atlanta Dream team and became one of only 10 teachers ever recognized for the award.

"I was so humbled when I got the award. I just want to make a difference in students' lives," she said. "When I got the letter and opened it, I started to cry and took it to my mother. She asked why I was crying, thinking something happened with my job, and I told her to just read the letter."

The April luncheon was "one of those days that was just perfect," she said Although her mother and father couldn't make the reception, her mom surprised her by inviting her cousin - also her college roommate at UGA - to attend.

"My heart is there anyway, and I just want to help the kids," she said. "They are my children. I tell them that."

Clark brings her other favorite memories into the classroom. She collects autographs, and especially prizes, she's gotten from authors, including Stephen King, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks and Mary Higgins Clark.

"I also have one from Julie Andrews, and she's everything you would imagine," Clark said with a smile. "And Jeff Bridges is my favorite actor. I don't have his autograph, but one day I will. It's just a great thing to bring into the classroom and help students to relate to authors and reading."

Chestatee begins its charter program this year helping students to find their interests and sign up for a "career cluster." Each teacher leads a group of students who have similar career goals. Last year, under the pilot program, Clark's group was RALLYING to Read, which stands for Reading and Learning Language involving Youth In Neighborhood Groups, and they read to Challenged Children students and held a reading competition against the other middle schools.

This year, she's starting up Write 2 Read, which will help students to develop their writing skills and create their own books. The clusters will start after Labor Day.

"At the end of the year, we'll have an author's reception, and I'll help them copyright their work by mailing it to themselves," she said. "The kids love it because they're doing what they want to do. They're so engaged."

Clark's no stranger to engaging the students. She's teaching at Chestatee for a second year but spent 13 years as a high school teacher at Johnson High School and 13 years at the Lanier Career Academy when it was at first the evening school program. She found ways to bring Truett Cathy and Scottie Mayfield to the campus to share their memories and experiences of Chick-fil-A and Mayfield ice cream.

"Students who write about their memories in class sometimes include a relative or pet they lost," she said. "I tell them to make as many wonderful memories as they can and write them down. It's not that I have a diary, but I write down big conversations or the days when I meet authors at the book signings because I know I won't remember it like this 20 years down the road."


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