Glen Burnie High School art teacher Allison Butler recalled once winning a Kindle during a teacher development session, and last year she secured a $500 grant to purchase cameras for her class.
That was the extent of her prize earnings before Wednesday, when she sat before students, faculty and Anne Arundel school officials to receive a $2,000 grant as part of a national Unsung Heroes Awards Competition sponsored by the company ING.
Actually, make that a $27,000 grant.
Butler sat stunned, then burst into tears when company officials announced that, in addition to the $2,000 grant, she also won the overall 2013 Unsung Heroes $25,000 first-place award, beating out 1,300 applicants nationwide.
The Glen Burnie resident plans to use both grants to fund a high school program she's implemented called "Art at the Speed of Light."
The interdisciplinary pilot course combines the school's drawing and painting curriculum with its honors physics curriculum for students in its BioMedical Allied Health Magnet. It explores physics concepts via such media as still and video photography, school officials said.
Students have employed photographic elements into their drawing and painting. Butler said with the grants, they will explore those concepts further, ultimately producing a video-animated series and attending the International Center for Photography in New York City as a field trip.
The combined award allows her to purchase such equipment as telephoto zoom lenses, tripods, claymation software and computer tablet devices.
"The money is going to enhance the program tremendously. Each project they do can have a serious photography and animation component to it that it didn't have before," said Butler, 29, moments after having been told she secured the first place award.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Butler is in her third year teaching full time at Glen Burnie High School. She applied for the ING grant last fall and was told in July that she had been awarded the $2,000 grant — the lowest award amount offered in the competition.
Butler said she scarcely conjured up the thought of winning anything past the $2,000 award.
"I had no idea that I had won the grand prize. None," said Butler. "This is huge."
ING, a retirement, investment and insurance company, said it has awarded grants to educators throughout the United States for teaching ideas and educational projects it regards as innovative and creative. Officials said the company has awarded more than $4 million to 1,800 educators since 1996.
Glen Burnie High magnet students assembled in the school's auditorium for the announcement and they, too, were unaware their teacher had won the competition's first prize. The students erupted in applause when the award was announced.
"Ms. Butler is a great teacher. She's very encouraging," said Ellinore Mann, 16, of Pasadena, a Chesapeake High School student who attends the Glen Burnie High magnet program. "She helps a lot of students in the passion of art."
"She is obviously an incredible teacher, but I think that one of the things that you'll see here in light of the grant is that she really brings an innovative way to educate children of the 21st century," said Glen Burnie High School Principal Vickie Plitt. "She keeps them interested and motivated by using the technologies available for her and also being creative in the day-to-day lessons she provides."
Asked where she hopes the program will be in the next five years, Butler said she hopes to see every student's drawing and painting project include a photography component, enabling the disciplines to mirror one another.
She added, "I am also going to deepen and strengthen the physics component to the point where kids are really working with physics equations, really bring a solid physics core concept to the table in each and every project … starting with the drawing and painting and evolving that to the physics equation."