Elementary School Electives Teach Kids More Than Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

The Slice – January 2013: In Our High Schools | In Our Middle Schools | In Our Elementary Schools

You wouldn’t expect a first grader to know long division or a fifth grader to play show and tell, but electives can captivate learners at all levels as evidenced by unique programs at three elementary schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District.

At Juana Briones, each first through fifth grade classroom rotates through a Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE)-funded Science Lab, and performs hands-on experiments on life, earth and physical science topics. Under the watchful eye of Science Specialist Karen Kessler, kids learn how water cycles, cloud formation, and air pressure affect weather patterns. They study the habitats of our local Baylands. And, they build a battery to discover the effects of magnetism and electricity in everyday life.

The life science units are supplemented with raised garden beds, also the result of a grant from PiE, where students grow experiments and food for taste testing. So plentiful are the gardens, in fact, that Juana Briones has a surplus of fall tomatoes. Principal Lisa Hickey is excited to unveil the school’s answer to this enviable “problem:” a new outdoor portable pizza oven, soon to be a fixture on the school patio. Teacher Tom Culbertson who trained as a pastry chef, will help students bake real pies as part of a tasty new curriculum that teaches kids about nutrition and math, as they analyze meal nutrients and make recipe calculations.

Over at Nixon, the Computer Lab is humming with inspirational activities all day long. Sarah Patanroi, a former IT executive, oversees the programs and now makes the Nixon Computer Lab her full-time career thanks to PiE funds. The youngest learners begin with keyboarding classes in first grade, achieve proficiency around third grade, and maximize speed and accuracy in fourth and fifth grades.

Keyboarding is not merely knowing how to type, but learning a lifelong skill that improves students’ skills as a communicator. Principal Mary Pat O’Connell explains: “Learning to write is about being willing to edit your own work. Keyboarding makes it so much easier for kids to experiment with their own words, moving thoughts around on the page again and again until they get it just the way they want.”

Older grade students who have achieved keyboarding proficiency use the Computer Lab for a wide variety of learning activities, including the new digital citizenship curriculum, making iBooks and using Brainology, an online interactive program that helps students learn about how the brain “learns” and how to develop a “growth mindset,” where students understand that their intelligence can be developed through effort and practice.

At Walter Hays, The Perceptual Motor Program, funded by PiE and taught by Dr. Jane Benson, introduces all students K-5 to a kinesthetic approach that enhances the learning experience by adding physical expression to intellectual study. For younger students, Dr. Benson may instruct children to form the shapes of the alphabet with their bodies as they learn to read. With older students, she may incorporate historic children’s games into a classroom study of a particular period in history.
Since Dr. Benson is able to work with children over time, from kindergarten through fifth grade, she can tailor the activities to specifically meet students’ growing needs. Principal Mary Bussmann is proud that PiE helps her school deliver on the promise of developing multiple intelligences, tapping into the intellectual, social, emotional and physical potential of every child.