Capturing the Imagination of K-5 Learners

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

When you think back to your elementary school years, chances are it is people who spring to mind. Every child remembers a handful of teachers that inspire a love of learning or uncover a new passion. In Palo Alto, Partners in Education (PiE) funds help expand that circle of influence beyond classroom teachers, adding dedicated professionals who become fixtures at school, and enriching curriculum with subjects ranging from science and theatre, to reading and life skills.

At Duveneck Elementary School, Principal Chris Grierson uses the word “celebrity” when describing Arad Kedar, the science specialist from the Junior Museum and Zoo who has been a constant presence at the school for six years, enhancing science lessons and co-teaching to support the curriculum delivered by the Duveneck staff.

Kids greet Arad on campus with high-fives and smiles as he maneuvers his pushcart across the blacktop. One day he might be carting squid for 4th grade squid dissection, another day bins of electrical components for a lesson on currents. As the resident scientist at Duveneck, Arad is a showman and magician who captivates kids with his contagious passion for zoology, oceanography and other scientific pursuits.

Stimulating learning on the other side of the brain is Piper LaGrelius, a teaching artist from TheatreWorks who leads kids in educational theater movement and dramatic games. By matching movements to words, kids learn terms related to math, science and other core subjects. How, for instance, would you “act out” what evaporation looks like? How about alliteration? Using concentration, critical thinking and risk-taking, kids attempt these feats, engaging in “Squiggle,” a vocabulary game that is based on brain research. All grades at Duveneck meet with Piper and learn content in new and exciting ways under her guidance. So successful have Piper’s programs been at Duveneck that the school is now expanding her “Playing with Poetry” offerings to include “Playing with Math.”

PiE-funded professionals also inspire students at Palo Verde Elementary School. Starting at the kindergarten level, Palo Verde offers additional reading instruction to students who need extra support from the dedicated reading teacher, Amy Sheward, and in 1st and 2nd grades from reading teacher, Natalie Bivas. These littlest learners can make great strides with just a small amount of extra attention. The Palo Alto staggered kinder schedule provides the perfect solution. Certain kinders stay late even on their “early” dismissal days, getting valuable literacy instruction from Sheward.

Principal Anne Brown is also quick to point out how PiE dollars have been invaluable in fostering another critical skill in Palo Verde students: resiliency. “Outside of family,” she explains, “the most positive role model in a child’s life is very often a teacher.” In order to support the social and emotional needs of students, Palo Verde offers “Project Resilience,” an innovative initiative offered through Cleo Eulau Center and taught by licensed mental health workers, Tracy Lyons and Terese Brennan-Marquez, in tandem with Palo Verde teachers.

In order to support fifth graders during what can be a challenging social transition to middle school, Project Resilience teaches nine life lessons, including “Developing empathy skills,” “Assertive communication,” and “Problem-solving.” The co-teaching structure lets teachers witness how certain students respond to the curriculum – allowing the teacher to relate to different students with renewed understanding throughout the year. This 12-week program intersperses in-classroom instruction with journal keeping where kids document their feelings and how they are using the strategies learned in real life.

After seeing the program in action, fifth-grade teachers weren’t the only ones convinced of its merit. Fourth-grade teachers believed their students could benefit, too, so “Project Resilience” was extended to their grade level, covering topics like “Making Good Decisions” and “Understanding Your Brain.” Perhaps most inspiring about this story is where it originated. A group of parents campaigned for it, funding it personally for two years before PiE took over. This “seed” money has resulted in a wonderful harvest.