A Delightful Beginning
Crozet Elementary first grade teacher Ginny Slechta has a First Day of School tradition that builds bonds with her students and their families in a sweet way: she hosts an evening popsicle party at the school playground. “It was really a great day,” she said as she greeted the parents and siblings of her 18 students and distributed ice-pops from a cooler. “The day is a lot about calming their worries, so we take it easy.”
First grader Gracelynn paused for a photo with two of her classmates and reflected on the day. “My favorite part was going out to recess for three really long times,” she said, and her compatriots agreed.
Slechta says the popsicle party is great for the parents as well. “They like to debrief about the day, and they enjoy hanging out with each other.”
For the students, the serious schoolwork will begin soon enough, and the theme for the year is kindness. “Today we talked about how by the end of the year they’ll earn their superhero capes for all of the kindness activities they’ll do,” said Slechta with a smile. “Kindness will change the world!” And popsicles may bring it a little closer together, too.
Henley Strives for Connection
“There is so much energy in this building right now,” said Henley Middle School principal Beth Costa during the week before the doors opened for a new school year. Costa is particularly excited about a new curriculum aimed at helping students and their teachers enhance the social/emotional aspects of learning. “Developmental Designs,” created by a national nonprofit in 1979, is a program whose mission is “to promote an equitable and humane multicultural society through quality education for all,” and it establishes community-building classroom practices that educators hope will lead to higher engagement for every student.
“The motto of the program is ‘Assume nothing, teach everything,’” said Costa, “so if we want kids to learn how to self-manage and work together, we need to teach them.” At Henley, this meant an overhaul of the bell schedule to incorporate three advisory periods per week where students and advisors meet, share, and have fun with each other. “The strategy is for kids to connect with an adult, to teach them to be kinder to each other, and to make sure every kid feels connected to the school community,” said Costa.
Over the summer, 22 of Henley’s teachers participated in Developmental Designs training and shared what they learned with the entire Henley staff. Key practices include using empowering language, modeling social competence, and creating dignified pathways to self-control. During the first two weeks of school, the entire student body will create a school-wide “social contract,” in which the students will collaborate and decide on five priorities they expect of themselves and each other in their school environment in order to be successful in their goals.
As always, Costa is optimistic. “I believe that kids are doing exactly what we expect them to do at their age; it’s predictable,” she said. “So if they make mistakes, it’s our job to provide support, to teach them, to model the behavior we want, and to create an environment of respect for everyone.”
Grants for Great Ideas
The Shannon Foundation for Excellence in Public Education has awarded grants to local public school teachers in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area since 1990, and this year six teachers in western schools received nine grants to turn their innovative ideas into action. From coding to women’s studies, teachers at Crozet, Brownsville, Meriwether Lewis, and WAHS will be stimulating their students with hands-on learning experiences. Here, a few of the recipients talk about their plans:
Brian Squires, first grade teacher at Brownsville, received a grant for a product called “Makey Makey,” which allows students to make electrical connections to objects and then use coding to make those objects control something else, like a character on a screen or a sound. “It’s a wonderful tool to get kids thinking about electricity, conductivity, programming, and creativity,” said Squires.
Dawn Laine, P.E. teacher at Crozet Elementary, received two grants this year. One will purchase foam bricks for students to use in solving construction and logic problems in small groups, allowing P.E. to integrate with the STEAM (Science, Tech-nology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) curriculum. The second will purchase materials to help expose students to rhythmic activities from other cultures, such as jump bands, ribbon stick and hoops, and Chinese jump ropes.
Atlanta Hutchins, third grade teacher at Crozet, received a grant to purchase Ozobots for students to incorporate their use of coding with problem-solving and critical thinking skills, such as creating a map of an ancient civilization and using coding to virtually “tour” through the civilization. Hutchins has applied for a Shannon grant for the last three years, and for her, the third time was a charm.
Monica Laux, an English and Women’s Studies teacher at WAHS, will be using her grant in her brand new Women’s Studies course to purchase two sets of class books, prints of artwork by influential female artists, and two DVDs of films to study. She is enthused about the student-directed elements and major projects in the class. “It’s a great opportunity for students to supplement their curriculum with an analysis of influential women and the role of gender and oppression,” she said.