Solar pizza teaches you more than you’d think, says Luther Burbank Middle School’s Alanna Grimaldi, who was recently named as a 2024 California Teacher of the Year finalist.
Leading a classroom activity to challenge students to think outside the pizza box, Grimaldi instructs her sixth grade science students to scavenge for scrap materials and build pizza box ovens powerful enough to cook food. A fun and educational activity, plus you get a snack at the end.
Grimaldi’s hands-on teaching style and caring attitude is what landed her the prestigious recognition this year. She placed above more than 300,000 California teachers to be named among five state finalists. Before that, she had already edged out thousands to be named one of 16 top teachers in Los Angeles County.
To Grimaldi, teaching goes beyond her classroom subject of science. Activities such as the solar pizza box experiment encourage autonomy and problem-solving skills, while reinforcing a student’s ability to write or calculate averages.
“A student could be failing their math class or struggling in writing, but all of a sudden here they are writing a competent claim-evidence reasoning and calculating averages, but they are doing it with something they experienced hands-on,” Grimaldi told the Leader.
Nominated by her peers, Grimaldi was called the joy of Luther Burbank, where she has taught for nine years.
“Alanna always brings a positive attitude and a kindness unmatched to the classroom. She tenaciously seeks to better her pedagogy and create a stimulating learning environment,” stated one of the anonymous, peer-submitted comments.
Tenacious, dynamic, exciting, talented, passionate, structured, caring, fun were other words used to describe Grimaldi and her classroom environment.
The statewide contest is managed by the California Department of Education and its mission is to honor outstanding teachers and encourage and inspire new teachers to enter the profession.
The DOE selection committee reviewed Grimaldi among a slate of applications, evaluated her rapport with students and her classroom environment, presentation skills and teaching techniques.
After a long process, which also required Grimaldi to produce a 23-page reflection on her pedagogy, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction then selected her and four other candidates as California Teachers of the Year.
“It changed me as an educator forever,” said Grimaldi. She described the rigorous self-reflection process as one that challenged her to re-analyze her teaching philosophy, her influence on students and her love for her craft.
She says that her passion for teaching science “bubbles over — finding the miraculous in the mundane, no matter how major or miniscule. I teach for my students, for the future, and for fun.”
Grimaldi graduated from Occidental College where she earned a bachelor’s in biology and a minor in studio art. She later went on to obtain master’s degrees in microbiology and marine biology from Occidental College before going on to do scientific research.
“Working as a research scientist, I had the distinct honor of naming and describing a new species of deep-sea clam, Pliocardia krylovata, and publishing the findings as primary author. It was dignified, but it was lonely. As I moved to a second career, I am receiving another honor while studying equally fascinating creatures, middle school students,” Grimaldi wrote in her Teacher of the Year letter.
To be sure, middle schoolers are as challenging as it gets for educators. But to Grimaldi, teaching that bunch is fascinating and rewarding.
“Teachers get a bad reputation and I think sometimes students do, too. But I really feel that there’s so much hope. I see shining examples in my classroom every day. I see teachers that are inspired and creative. I see students that respond so well, and I am so proud of what they do,” Grimaldi told the Leader. “The future looks bright.”
First published in the November 4 print issue of the Burbank Leader.