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Sequoia Elementary School teacher Mona Lisa Ricard is photographed in her classroom in the Pleasant Hill, Calif. school on Friday, May 4, 2012. Ricard is the Mt. Diablo School District's Teacher of the Year. (Dan Honda/Staff)

Mona Lisa Ricard's manner is admittedly boisterous and replete with humor when she teaches.

She greets each of her 34 fifth-graders who come through her door each morning.

And, her students must offer up something new they have learned when they exit the classroom at the end of the instructional day.

The teacher at Sequoia Elementary School in Pleasant Hill has created a classroom recipe for success, where good manners are emphasized, and where her students feel affirmed, respected and safe.

Her creating a classroom culture that is conducive to learning with its focus on collaboration has gotten some notice.

Ricard received the top recognition as the Mt. Diablo Unified School District's Teacher of the Year.

Ricard has age-old practices in place, from assigning a job to each student, to having each child pass out cards with a personal complement written on it for each of their classmates on Valentine's Day.

"There's that sense of belonging," says Ricard, recalling how one girl sat up in her chair and "started beaming," upon reading the remarks.

Each of her students is a star student for the week, during which they are interviewed by their peers and featured in the classroom's one-page newspaper.

There's an atmosphere of patience and acceptance that comes from Ricard's experience being a mom, says her colleague Jennifer Risken.


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"She recognizes it's all about the kids. You have to keep a sense of humor and an open frame of mind," Risken says. "She brings a lot of empathy. She knows exactly what it takes to be successful and she'll teach it, model it and help them achieve it."

And, Ricard melds those traditional practices with the latest innovations.

She is part of Teaching American History for All, a collaboration between the Mt. Diablo district and UC Berkeley that offers ideas for integrating history into the language arts curriculum, such as through live recordings and analysis of primary documents.

And, Ricard is the "unofficial" go-to person for all things technological. She set up and supervises the Mouse Squad, a fifth-grade student-run help desk that assists teachers in setting up computer equipment and troubleshooting any machine malfunctions or user errors.

"I'm a big problem-solver. I can fix all the equipment. I'm the technology queen," says Ricard. "You have to always plan twice, if the technology works or if it doesn't."

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