School Notes: May 2018

Students in Heather Solga’s class touch a sea snail at the Under the Sea program at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

School of Fish

Murray Elementary School students (yes, all of them!) got a chance to see, learn about, and actually touch a variety of sea creatures at a recent all-school presentation by Andrew Wilson, founder of Under the Sea, a traveling marine aquarium program based in Washington, D.C. Affiliated with the Glen Echo Park Aquarium on the Potomac River, the group brings sea creatures such as mollusks, sea stars, octopi, and even small sharks to schools to teach kids about the variety of life in the ocean. 

“We have several different programs, but the best learning experience is what we’re doing today,” said Wilson, a biologist whose prior work for the Virginia Marine Science Museum included rescuing stranded whales on Virginia Beach. “The students learn about the animals and then get to see them up close so they can ask more advanced questions, and touch them if they feel comfortable.”

Wilson used a camera to project a clear, close-up view of the creatures in his tanks onto a large screen for his audience, and he called for volunteers to come up and gently hold several of the animals. After the all-school session, each class was able to spend time with Wilson in the foyer to touch the artifacts and live sea creatures.  

Students in Emilie Pastorfield’s second grade class watch a demonstration at the Under the Sea aquarium program. Photo: Lisa Martin.

In Emilie Pastorfield’s class, second-grader Jayden pointed to the large conch shell that Wilson had blown through to make a sound like a horn. “That was my favorite,” he said. “This is the stuff I want to try to do when I get older.”

“I love the sharks,” said Hayden, Jayden’s classmate, “but I’m scared of them. Seeing them up close makes them less scary.”

The activity was organized by Murray’s PTO, which works to bring four different kinds of cultural enrichment programs to the school each year.  “We try to mix it up,” said Jennifer Winslow, PTO president. “We hope to have dancing, singing, theater, and a hands-on presentation. This is our first year with Under the Sea, which we heard about after they visited Hollymead.”

Wilson captivated the hundreds of children in the school gym with his lively, interactive style, infusing movement and humor into his talk.  He says the program generates lasting excitement in the students. “Teachers typically report that the students’ curiosity is on fire for the next week or so,” said Wilson. “It gives teachers the opportunity to cover things like math of the ocean and aquatic-related writing assignments and science projects.” For firing up young imaginations, it’s a cool day in school when the ocean comes for a visit.

Something New Under the Sun

Leo Connally, director of Field School in Crozet, gets lonely in the summers. “The whole school’s open, and I’m here, but the kids aren’t,” he said. That will soon change with the inception this year of a brand new program called Field School Summer. A co-ed enrichment opportunity open to students from ages 6 to 15 and taught by Field School faculty, the three, two-week sessions in June and July will offer a bounty of content. “The faculty will have a chance to try different courses they couldn’t teach in our current curriculum, and the classes will be very hands-on, experiential and creative,” said Connally.

Director Leo Connally (right) and English teacher Jen Buckett (left) enjoy a walk with students from Field School to the Crozet Library. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Instead of registering for a single type of summer experience—soccer camp, for example—kids at Field School Summer will be exposed to six or seven different areas of interest during each program session, from sports skills to creative writing, STEM design to natural history exploration, with lots of outdoor time and never a dull moment. Each session will be independent and unique, so participants who sign up for more than one session will not repeat content, but instead can build on what they’ve learned from one to the next.

“We want the classes to be flexible, so, for instance, the Spanish instruction can be taught at any level and will focus on conversational Spanish rather than on a rigid curriculum,” Connally said.  “Natural history class will study the wildlife and plant life in our area and teach basic outdoor skills like how to navigate when you don’t have a compass or phone with you.”  The STEM class will use Nintendo Switch’s new Labo program, along with a touch screen, motion sensors, and an infrared camera, to build and control devices in a 3D environment.  

Field School is a middle school for boys in 5th through 8th grades (though the camp is open to both girls and boys), and its eight-acre campus just north of downtown Crozet is crisscrossed with biking and hiking trails and room to run. “The summer program will be unique to this area,” said Connally, “and will really let kids explore.” He hopes the sessions will be both educational and full of self-discovery for the participants.  

“When something is challenging, that experience equates to better learning,” said Connally. “We want to set up an environment where kids feel supported even if they fail, so they’re free to try new things and have fun.” Check out field for info on classes, faculty bios, and pricing.

Brownsville third graders Laurel and Alice (along with Gabe, not pictured) built a “Cat Bathinator” for those always-tricky cat baths. Photo: Lisa Martin.

A Well-oiled Machine

Brownsville third graders have been putting the final touches on their annual STEM projects in which household junk is creatively repurposed into machines of all sorts. “We started with a workroom completely full of junk,” said Bethany Robinson, lead third grade teacher. “We ask parents to just empty out their garages for us. One year somebody even brought in an entire broken down trampoline.” That trash became a treasure trove for the students, who raided it for parts: PVC pipe, springs, pieces of wood, boxes, lengths of rope and wire, and more.

Brownsville third graders Alana, Bryan, and Clive designed a pet food “launcher” machine. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The idea behind the project is to solve a problem of the students’ choosing by creating a simple machine that does a job. Unlike more complex machines that employ engines, simple machines use leverage to multiply force, and the six classical examples—inclined planes, wheel  and axles, wedges, levers, pulleys, and screws—were evident in the kids’ creations.

Brownsville third graders Layton and Sara show off The Super Shiner, designed to buff up your shoes. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Working in three-person teams, the groups used the tools and techniques to build machines to do a variety of useful household jobs. Several projects involved pets, such as a machine to “launch” food or treats to a dog, a device to get a hamster back into its cage, and a “cat bathinator” to get that reluctant feline clean. Others focused on the artistic, like a paint machine that splattered paint onto a canvas to produce an artwork, or on the practical, such as a clever pizza cooker. Still others endeavored to move a ball through a Rube-Goldberg type maze, ending with a satisfying plop into a cup.

Brownsville third-graders Jesus, Hayden, and Daisy created a pizza cooker using pulleys and inclined planes. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The physics were only the half of it, however. “The hardest thing for all of them is the teamwork,” said Robinson. “The blending of ideas, making compromises, going through trial and error and coming up with solutions, all of that is challenging and valuable as well.” The final test was a “calibration” where each team’s machine had to work correctly five times in a row to pass muster.  “The best part is watching the ideas grow and change in so many ways,” said Robinson. “Across all of the third grade classes, no two are the same.”

Look Smart

The Western Albemarle High School faculty team of Jill Williams, Lani Hoza, and Dan Bledsoe captured the gold at this year’s Wordplay trivia competition in Charlottesville. The annual event is held at the Paramount Theater and raises funds for Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle (LVCA). After two fourth-place finishes in the last two contests, WAHS’s big-brained dream team “Best Western” beat out three-time champion “That’s What She Read” to win, dominating 36 other teams in the process.  

WAHS trivia champion team “Best Western,” made up of faculty members Lani Hoza, Dan Bledsoe, and Jill Williams at the Literacy Volunteers’ Wordplay fundraiser. Photo: Brian Lewis of Central Virginia Photography Service.

In the fiercely competitive game, it was a come-from-behind victory. “We were in third place headed into the finals, and then we had a perfect last round—didn’t lose a point,” said Hoza, who teaches AP psychology. “It felt really good, and even a little surprising, to win. I think we got a little lucky this year that the questions were right up our alley.”  

Did they prepare any differently this year? “We brushed up on our dead people for the Dead or Alive category,” said Williams, referring to a tricky segment where competitors must identify famous people as being currently one or the other. Williams teaches journalism and world history, and noted that “[p]art of the challenge is speed, and if you have a little more processing time, as we did in the final round, it helps.”

“The event is always great fun and it’s for a good cause,” said Hoza. “The win was the icing on the cake.” LVCA is always looking for additional volunteer tutors, and they have a training session coming up May 19. If interested, please contact 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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