Picture this: Just on the cusp of a brand-new school year, two extraordinary Mount Vernon educators, Amanda Exley Lower and Cari Barocas, embarked on a thrilling five-day journey of innovation. Their destination? The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. But this wasn’t a typical Mount Vernon expedition; it was a voyage of discovery, creativity, and celebration. Amanda and Cari, along with eight other exceptional teachers from across the nation, were crowned as the Grand Prize winners in the prestigious Henry Ford Innovation Nation 2023 Teacher Innovator Awards.

These awards don’t just celebrate the ordinary; they shine a spotlight on the extraordinary. They honor educators who dare to dream, who transform classrooms into vibrant hubs of innovation, and who leave an indelible mark on their students and communities. Amanda and Cari, two dynamic forces of education, exemplify the spirit of these awards.

If you have not yet met Amanda and Cari, prepare to be inspired. Their backgrounds are nothing short of impressive, and what they bring to Mount Vernon is nothing less than magical.

Amanda Exley Lower, a virtuoso in the realm of performing arts education, weaves the enchantment of dance, music, and theater into the fabric of her teaching. Her innovative approach isn’t just about imparting knowledge; it’s about creating immersive experiences that foster deep connections to learning. It’s about nurturing the voices of her students and their sense of belonging in the world. Amanda holds a BA in Drama and Literature from the prestigious Duke University and an MFA in Dance Performance and Choreography from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. With such a stellar background, Amanda inspires her students to embrace new perspectives and find fresh ways to understand the world around them.

Cari Barocas, a passionate third-grade classroom teacher, is on a mission to empower her students with a toolkit of hands-on, collaborative, project-based learning initiatives. Her teaching goes beyond textbooks; it’s about preparing her students for success that transcends the confines of the classroom walls. Cari earned her Bachelor’s in Education from the esteemed University of Georgia and further honed her craft with a Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Lesley University. Her innovative approach engages students, sparking critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

Today, we invite you to join us as we sit down with Amanda and Cari to learn more about their remarkable journey at The Henry Ford Museum.

Definition of Innovation – according to THF

Cari: The Henry Ford says innovation is the process by which we take something and make it better for mass use. It’s a fascinating perspective because innovation can take many forms; it’s not solely about conceiving new ideas.

This brought to mind a parallel definition, that of being ‘Impact Ready’ – agency to explore, discover and act on what is meaningful to self and consequential to others.

Amanda: Henry Ford’s philosophy closely aligns with our approach at Mount Vernon, emphasizing that you learn better by actually doing. The Museum exemplifies this by offering hands-on experiences; you can witness a functional steam engine and even ride in a convertible Model T car. These tangible encounters are nothing short of extraordinary. Imagine bringing students here; they not only get to experience these marvels but also have the opportunity to dissect and investigate them, sparking inquiries such as: What kind of invention was steam, and does it still hold relevance in our world today?” (Mantra Moment – Start with Questions)

Favorite Moments

Cari: The most enriching aspect of this journey was the incredible diversity of our fellow award winners. Every individual brought a unique perspective and expertise to the table, and that’s what made this experience truly exceptional. It was fascinating to observe that no two of us shared the same professional role. To my surprise, I discovered that I was the sole general education classroom teacher. We had a mix of specialists, including Performing Arts educators, Maker, Science, and Library Sciences Educators. (Mantra Moment – Lead from Where You Are)

Amanda: Among the many incredible experiences we had, one that stood out as a personal favorite was encountering one of Edison’s earliest phonographs. Exploring the mechanics of sound production was simply fascinating. Coincidentally, I had taught a unit on sound last year, so this encounter held a special significance for me. I, of course, took pictures and videos.

Amanda During the week we had a Maker Design Challenge. Cari and I were really proud that our team won!

Cari: Performing Arts and a Grade 3 teacher, and we beat the Engineers, Construction and Maker teachers. But I think it’s kind of like what we learned the other day: who’s going to build the higher spaghetti tower? The professional engineers or the kindergarteners? The kindergarteners are, because we know how to make it fun. (Mantra moment – Have Fun!)

Amanda: The pinnacle of our week was undoubtedly our immersion into the vastness of the museum’s offerings. Encompassing a staggering 250 acres, housing an astounding 26 million artifacts, and bearing witness to 300 years of history, it was a breathtaking experience. Not only did we explore the publicly showcased exhibits, but we were also treated to an exclusive tour that took us deep into the museum’s storage spaces, where we navigated through a treasure trove of hundreds of thousands of items. It was a revelation – with curators casually remarking, ‘Oh, yes, we have three of these,’ as we encountered artifacts like early 1800s corn coppers. The sheer magnitude of it all left us awestruck.

Liberty and Justice for All Exhibit

Amanda: We had the honor of being MVXperts. They are reimagining an exhibit they have called Liberty and Justice for All. I thought it was really vulnerable, beautiful and powerful that they said, “We don’t feel like we’ve gotten it quite right. So they’ve gone back to the drawing board.” And they invited us into their process. They gave us pictures of the art. And they said, “which one of these do you like the most?” “What do you respond most to?” “Is it the font?” “Is it the imagery?”

Cari: They used us like experts. The woman in charge of the exhibit, who’s taking big risks, is asking lots of tough questions about what the history of our country looks like, from many perspectives. She was taking copious notes, as we were speaking regarding their future exhibit and starring things because we had to say was valuable. It was a powerful thing. (Mantra Moment – Help Me See What You See)

Innovation sometimes means taking risks

Amanda: Part of what was such an honor to be acknowledged was the specific reasons for why they chose us as teacher innovators. It was people that took risks, that stayed curious, and learned from failure. Part of the application process was identifying something that didn’t go right, and what you did in that moment. (Mantra Moment – Be Brave to Try and Try Again)

What are you taking with you?

Amanda: I feel like I’m connected to so many resources. They have tons of videos, you just never know what unit you might need an extra little something for. And every single one of our teachers can sign up for free. I’m excited about that. (Mantra Moment – Grow and Give)


How incredible is it for our School of Inquiry, Innovation and Impact, that not one, but two of the ten winners from across the nation came from Mount Vernon? Through their experience, they are bringing back inspiring ideas and valuable resources to the entire Mount Vernon community. Amanda and Cari exemplify what so many of our faculty bring to our students everyday; they foster a passion for learning by developing authentic wonder and joy. Congratulations, Amanda and Cari!