ORLEANS — The atrium at the entrance of Orleans Elementary School will be full of books and displays when students return to classes this week. One giant “book” was opened to two blank pages.
“What will your story be this year?” literary specialist Martha Jenkins said students will be asked. “Children will be writing their own story of the school year.”
Adding their stories to the “book” celebrates individuality while underscoring membership in a community of learners.
“It's about empowering children,” said Principal Elaine Pender. “They control their outcomes. Everyone's got some ability.” Matching that with “a learning environment that's a safe place” allows youngsters to “build confidence in themselves and trust.”
Reading, Pender said, is the catalyst. It spurs inquiry and exploration. “There are real-world applications in both individual and group problem-solving,” Jenkins said.
Although “it's hard to compete with so many electronics,” Pender said, the school stresses parental involvement. Last year, she said, Jenkins and Librarian Kara Yuen “really engaged families in reading together” with the One Book One School choice, “Gooseberry Pond.” Jenkins noted that Snow Library bought the books for the school.
On a tour of the school last week, Pender said 15 new students enrolled this summer. There are 23 students in kindergarten—not a record number—and the other grades “are pretty full.” New this year is a technology integration specialist who will work with the computer teacher to help students find additional ways to express their knowledge and ideas.
Technology is part of school life, with all third, fourth, and fifth graders having individual iPads while the younger students share devices. Fifth graders get to teach students in lower grades how to write simple codes to make a robot follow a route.
With so much to learn and experience, school can appear challenging, but children are adaptable. “Come in October and November and watch a kindergarten class,” Pender said. “You'd be astounded how responsible, how self-sufficient the children are. I always tell parents, 'You're entrusting your precious little being to a big school. These teachers are wonderful. They're experts at your fingertips.'”
Some faculty members, such as Jenkins, have had long careers at OES. Pender also mentioned “our very seasoned math teacher” Judy Suchecki and music teacher Charles Hollander Essig, who's now teaching his original students' grandchildren.
This morning, first graders in Laura Wright's classroom were greeted with individual containers of Play-Doh. “As adults, we like to socialize a bit,” she said, before plunging into the day's work. The children will get to know each other and experience what Pender calls “a cognitive warm-up.”
Most rooms have small clusters of desks; the days of rank and file arrangements facing a battleship-sized teacher's desk are long gone. Teachers move from group to group. “I'm never really at my desk,” Wright said, “except when I'm eating lunch.”
Kate Bovino's second graders found a wide assortment of seating this morning, including a small picnic table and some tire seats (she and her family made the latter). There's plenty of space to move around. “We know that movement helps learning,” Pender said. “We encourage teachers to bring classes outside.”
Speaking of which, you might consider the school's well-tended garden yet another classroom. What was once an after-school elective now welcomes whole classes and their teachers.
“They do the planting, the harvesting,” longtime volunteer Helene Simon said. She started overseeing the garden “when my daughter was in second grade. I just dropped her at college for her freshman year.”
There are tasks for each grade, with the fifth graders collecting composting material from the cafeteria to use as fertilizer.
Meanwhile, fifth grade teacher Allan Peterson is making sure that the fifth graders' young minds are being fertilized by the ideals and realities of the American experience.
“The curriculum has changed for social studies,” he said last week. “It used to start with geography. Now we're right into the 13 colonies to the Civil Rights movement... There's a lot more time for civics.”
Assignments may include writing an imaginary narrative by a settler of Roanoke, Jamestown, or Plymouth. “Whatever gets them writing and reading,” Peterson said. He edits and comments on their work via their Google Drive accounts.
Glittering in sunlight outside art teacher Caitlin Dailey's classroom is a colorful wall mosaic students created in 2015. “I had kids draw pictures of what the school meant to them,” she said. “The little guys made fish.” Older students made “houses” that showcase an artist's brush and palette, a test tube, and a pencil and paper, among other items. “I love it because it's their work,” Dailey said.
Above it all resides the Nauset Public Schools motto: “Every child matters.”