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In addition to their academic classes, our elementary students attend “enrichment” classes that support and broaden the classroom curriculum—art, library, P.E., garden, and theater arts. This week’s focus is our library program.

Mari reads to second graders

All our kindergarten through fifth grade classes attend library class once a week, half a class at a time. Mari Pongkhamsing is our librarian and library teacher. She uses a curriculum called the Digital Citizenship Curriculum, which defines digital citizenship as “the responsible use of technology to learn, create, and participate.”

Mari begins library class for second through fifth graders by reading them a story, then teaches a lesson and gives them an assignment related to information literacy, digital citizenship, or literature. The students then have free time to browse for books to check out, do art work, play a weekly guessing game, or choose a workshop activity—building toys, like Legos and Magna-Tiles, or coding toys.

Class for first grade follows the same format but usually doesn’t include an assignment. She reads to kindergarteners and helps them select books to check out.

Building skills. “I want to help foster a love of books and reading by creating a positive experience for students in the library,” Mari says. “I try to find new books to read aloud that I think students will enjoy, and I try to plan assignments that will be fun for them while also helping to build skills like information literacy, digital citizenship, and critical thinking about literature.”

Skills students learn in library class generalize to other subjects and other areas of life, she notes—how to find and evaluate information, reading and reflecting on literature, and developing digital citizenship skills.

Graphic novels. The biggest change in our library since Mari became our librarian last year is an expansion of the graphic novel section for second through fifth graders. “Graphic novels are very popular among elementary-school aged readers,” she says. “Most libraries have graphic novel sections now.”

Graphic novels, she says, “help students develop a range of skills—literacy and visual literacy, understanding a sequence of events, a stronger vocabulary, and independent reading. The visual content helps to improve readers' comprehension and increases empathy for the characters in the book.” Graphic novels are especially helpful with struggling and reluctant readers, visual learners, English language learners, and advanced learners, she adds.

Well qualified. Mari has been a student and a parent and a teacher at The Meher Schools and has worked here on and off since high school. She has a master’s degree in library and information science and a special education credential. She also has an MA in folklore and interned for a summer at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Mari’s son, Ollie, graduated from our fifth grade two years ago. Her daughter, Anjali, is in our third grade.

“We must give the child an environment that he can utilize by himself. Free the child’s potential and it will transform the world.”

Maria Montessori

Children at our school are given rich opportunities to care for the campus environment both indoors and out, developing skills and feelings of self-sufficiency at every age. In the Seven Circles Garden, our amazing gardening teacher, Adrienne Wallace, equips elementary students to become capable and caring “stewards of the Earth.” Our youngest children also learn gardening skills in our preschool gardens.

Indoors, all of our students, preschool through fifth grade, learn to clean up after themselves and to keep their classrooms organized and free of clutter. One of our school values has always been that order and the careful handling of materials equals beauty and harmony, and visitors often comment on the palpable feeling of peace in all our classrooms.

Teaching children the hands-on skills to create order and handle things with care also enhances their development and stimulates self-confidence. Parents often say, “I wish they did that at home.”

Here are some ideas for getting children to care for their environment at home:

Teach skills that make children feel more mature

We want to introduce skills while they still feel challenging to a child. An eight-year-old may not be interested in learning to sweep, but a preschooler is. In the Seven Circles environment, Adrienne teaches children starting in kindergarten to care for everything in the garden—raking, digging, building raised beds, as well as harvesting, cutting, and cooking vegetables.

In preschool, we color-code different types of shelves. Try cutting out photos or making drawings with your child of shirts, pants, socks, etc., and mounting them on drawers or outdoors where clothing goes or tools are housed.

Speak about the loving care of objects

The Māori people of New Zealand believe that everything has a soul. We can teach the care of objects by speaking of them as having needs. “Tools need to stay dry.” “These toys need to live here so they don’t fall out on the floor.” Talk in terms of the object’s “home.” “Let’s put the Legos back in their home.” “Silver is happy when it is polished.”

Patience, patience, patience

It takes time for a preschooler to learn how to sweep up crumbs or clean a table, but accomplishing these tasks brings great pride. We need to encourage children when the bed they made doesn’t look just right or dishes are on the wrong shelf. The intent to maintain their environments must be praised and nurtured, and they will bring those sensibilities and skills out into the world.

In addition to their academic classes, our elementary students attend “enrichment” classes that support and broaden the classroom curriculum—art, library, PE, garden, and theater arts. This week’s focus is our art program.

Lara has been helping her fifth grade art students with their self-portrait busts since the beginning of the year.

“The practice of making visual art is a valuable way to process the huge amount of stimuli we encounter every day,” says Lara Cannon, our art teacher. “Children are naturally oriented toward exploration and play. This makes them incredible artists.”

First through fifth graders have art class once a week. The class meets in our art studio (Room 16) for 45 minutes. Half the class attends at a time, allowing Lara to work with smaller groups.

Students in the lower grades learn how to use different materials. They do painting, drawing, collage, clay, found-object sculpture, and printmaking. They learn how to mix colors, create space using overlapping and scale, and explore patterns, shapes, and symmetry. “They’re learning to slow down and create more elaborate work,” Lara says.

In the upper grades, students learn about light and shadow, perspective, proportions, and more advanced color mixing. Over the course of the year, they do printmaking, collage, clay and papier mâché, painting, and drawing.

Lara often uses themes the students are studying in their classes as subject matter for her projects. “In third grade, they study water in science, so I teach different watercolor techniques. We talk about watercolor paper and how it has a special coating to slow absorption, and we experiment with what you can do with the paint in different stages of absorption.”

She also uses art class as an opportunity for students to apply ideas they’ve learned in math or science. “If they’re learning to measure, I’ll make measuring a part of the project. If they’re learning about 3-D shapes or tessellations, we’ll learn to draw them.”

The most fulfilling part of her job, she says, “is seeing the fresh and unexpected images the children create.

“When I design a project for my students, I want the final product to come from their ideas, not from mine. I want them to see the techniques and concepts I’m teaching them as tools that will help them achieve their ideas. By allowing them to make decisions and work through problems themselves, I hope to provide them with the most rewarding experience.”

Lara has a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. She was an illustrator before she had children. As an artist, she focuses mainly on painting these days. She has work in two exhibits, “Today Is the Greatest,” at the NIAD Art Center in Richmond, and “Chromatic,” at Milano Arts in Crockett. You can see samples of her work on her website.

Lara has been teaching at Meher School for seven years. Her son, Percy, is in our fifth grade. Her daughter, Ines, graduated last year.

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