By Jenna Goff
While perusing Twitter one night in early May, Alex Bragg discovered a tweet inviting educators across the country to apply for a lunch at the White House. The deadline was the following day.
“I always tell my students that you never know if you don’t try,” said the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Middle School teacher, “so I stayed up late that night filling out the application, not expecting much to come of it.”
In the application, Bragg, a seventh-grade and eighth-grade Social Studies teacher, shared her goal to make history come alive in her classroom. “I want to make it more interesting and relevant to my students’ lives,” she said. “Rather than rote memorization, I try to tie what my students think as ancient history to present day.”
Bragg soon received a congratulatory email from the White House. Along with just 19 other teachers from across the country, she was selected to attend the Teacher Appreciation Social hosted by Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife. “Words could not express my excitement,” Bragg said.
On May 7, after hastily making travel plans, Bragg arrived at the White House. As a U.S. history teacher, the tour the teachers went on was special for Bragg, but it became truly remarkable when she was invited to step outside by a Secret Service agent. In a moment that Bragg describes as being “in the right place at the right time,” she was able to see President Obama leave the Oval Office and board Marine One.
“It’s probably the only time I’ll see a U.S. President in person,” she said, “and it was an incredible start to the day.”
It’s a moment she likely can use someday in the classroom. Chip Houston, Head of Middle School at Mount Vernon, said Bragg has remade the school’s Social Studies program by organizing around concepts students relate to. “She’s a dynamic teacher with innovative instructional methods,” he said. “She’s made an amazing impact.”
After the tour, the educators entered into the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. They sat around a large conference table and spoke to different education officials who were brought in every 20 to 30 minutes.
The first to speak was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He discussed the new Reach Higher initiative, which aims to prepare students for college and expand the future of education.
An official from the Office of Science and Innovation spoke about the White House Maker Faire, an event that strives to transform students into makers and doers.
A speaker from the Office of Military Families provided an eye-opening description of the initiative to help children with family members overseas, or at home struggling from PTSD.
Biden then came to speak to the teachers. “Above all,” said Bragg, “she really tried to get to know us.” Biden, a teacher at a D.C. area community college, asked for their opinions and questions on various educational initiatives and reforms. Upon reflecting on her conversation with Biden, Bragg said, “it was amazing that this woman in a position of such power gets us.”
Bragg’s experience has inspired her to become more involved in national education initiatives. She recently applied to be a teacher volunteer with the Teach to Lead initiative, a program that strives to get teachers involved in transforming education in the classroom and nationwide. “It’s all part of being an active, engaged citizen in a democracy,” she said.