School Notes: February 2018

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MLS teacher Elizabeth Brann delights in her immersive French classroom. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Citizens of the World

Murray Elementary Principal Mark Green is taking the first steps toward bringing World Language instruction to the school, potentially by the 2019 academic year. Though languages such as French and Spanish are taught in middle school and even more options are available to high schoolers, elementary schools in the county have lagged behind city schools in setting up instructional programs for their youngest students.

“Ten years ago, World Language was taught with a videotape lesson for 30 minutes a week,” said Green. “It wasn’t interactive and the kids hated it.” Albemarle County renewed the effort in earnest six years ago, instituting a Spanish immersion “opt-in” curriculum at Cale Elementary where students can spend half their day receiving instruction in English and half entirely in Spanish. After seeing some success with that program, the County is encouraging other elementary schools to commit to adding a languages option.

Murray is currently in a “research year” (as is Crozet Elementary), during which administrators visit other schools to see how the curriculum works. Rather than immersion, Murray would likely use a FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) hybrid program that operates more like a Specials class with 120 minutes per week of instruction. Beginning with the K/1 class in the first year and adding on in each successive year, some sessions could be taught in stand-alone fashion during morning meeting time, while others could be incorporated into Language Arts rotations.

Principal Mark Green hopes to bring World Language instruction to Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The initiative is an expensive proposition for the county, with each full-time teacher costing about $75,000 (including benefits). Of the western district elementary schools, language instruction is currently offered only at Meriwether Lewis School, where Elizabeth Brann teaches Kindergarten, first, and second grade French classes. Murray’s Green says they will have to choose between French and Spanish to begin their program, and he is ambivalent between the two. “I’d rather focus on getting the best and most enthusiastic instructor we can find, no matter the language, because then it will be successful,” he said. As a prime example, he points to Brann.

“When you cross the threshold of my classroom, you are in a Francophone country!” said Brann with a big smile. A U.Va. Curry School grad who began learning French at age 4, Brann served on the board of the International School of Charlottesville, which her children attended, before joining the faculty at MLS. Though her classes are part of the FLES curriculum, she uses an immersion style of teaching and coordinates her curriculum tightly with the grade-level teachers.

“The dedicated time I’m able to spend over the summer to collaborate with colleagues makes the curriculum so rich for the students,” said Brann. “I really believe in having that interdisciplinary focus.” So, for instance, when the kindergarteners are working on their number skills, Brann does the same in French class, reiterating the lessons while also facilitating the language connections in their brains. She also loves to incorporate French culture into her classes, exposing the students to everything from French food to music to styles of play.

“It’s so cute to see their reactions to new things,” said Brann. “Some are not sure at first, and others jump in headlong, but the best part is when I see a peer teaching a peer. It’s so important that they feel they’re in a comfortable space, free to make mistakes and help each other, and that’s what we emphasize at this school.” Magnifique, Madame Brann!

A student in Anne Straume’s multiage class examines spoon measures during a Life Skills presentation by retired teacher Anne Geraty on recipe reading. Photo: Lisa Martin.

School of Life

After 39 years as a teacher, and now mostly retired, Meriwether Lewis School’s Anne Straume has recently added a short but enduring segment of her own to her multiage class’s day: Life Skills.

For twenty minutes on three mornings a week, the second and third graders learn (and practice) everyday skills such as how to change batteries in a flashlight, how to follow a recipe, and how to neatly fold their clothes. Sometimes Straume is the instructor, but often she recruits parents or other teachers to lead a session. “The assistant principal came in and taught them how to keep score in baseball, and brought score sheets so they could do it,” said Straume, “and the principal showed them how to tie a tie.”

This year the students have learned useful social/emotional skills such as how to make eye contact when speaking to others, how to make an introduction, and how to write a thank-you note, as well as practical safety skills like how to cross a street by reading traffic signals and how to keep themselves safe around a strange dog. Because she has both second and third graders in her class, Straume includes the lessons  only every other year so as not to repeat the content for students.

“We have such a packed curriculum of state-mandated stuff to do,” said Straume. “I think this is both helpful to the students and adds a different kind of hands-on lesson to their day.” Besides, learning a skill that results in a batch of cookies is one they’ll definitely remember.

Scott Williams inspires by example in PE class at Meriwether Lewis. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Health Hero

Meriwether Lewis School’s PE teacher Scott Williams knew what his career path should be early in life. “I love sports, and I love kids, so this was the job for me,” he said. Action for Healthy Kids, a national advocacy group fighting childhood obesity and physical inactivity, agreed, honoring Williams as one of a dozen 2017 “Healthy School Heroes” in the U.S. for his innovative school initiatives and volunteer work in the community.

Williams came to MLS in 2004 and quickly set about adding movement to as much of the school day as possible. “Research shows that the more kids are moving throughout the day the better,” he said. “After 15 or 20 minutes of sitting, their brains are turning off and their lower body is saying it’s time to go to sleep.” So he created a “Morning Movers” video series featuring kids dancing and exercising to fun pop music, broadcast in each classroom before morning announcements, and he made a YouTube channel, MLSPE, with more videos featuring MLS staff that teachers can play at other times of the day.

Along with PE co-teacher Coby Massie, Williams started a before-school PE program and a Family Dance Night, and he founded a Fitness and Nutrition Team at the school. Both teachers like to use dance as a fun fitness outlet, evident in a recent class session as they choreographed the fifth-grade boys’ energetic (and highly amusing) performance set to the classic song “It’s Raining Men” for an upcoming WAHS half-time show. “I think it’s important to show the students that we are two guys who aren’t afraid,” said Williams with a laugh. “We’re not the best dancers but we get out there.”

Scott Williams keeps fifth graders moving at Meriwether Lewis. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Williams’ favorite, and most popular, project to date is his summer camp, Camp4Real, staffed by teachers, coaches, and a nutritionist. A half-day camp offered at a half-dozen local schools and centered around lots of fun physical activity, it’s a setting where Williams can also share his love of healthy eating with the kids by offering plant-based foods and demonstrating alternatives to fast food. “We try to show them options by bringing in samples from places like Juice Laundry, Chipotle, and Mezeh,” he said. “Stix came in and brought veggie kabobs and hummus, and the kids loved it.” Williams’ knack for combining healthy choices with humor, music, and enthusiasm has made him a hometown hero to local families.

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