Hub and spokes: Interconnectivity in the Lower School

Last year, the Lower School chose the theme “Every Drop Counts” to integrate into its curriculum in whatever way teachers thought would be meaningful for students.

Classes, in their look at the importance of water in Michigan, studied lighthouses, the Great Lakes, conservation, sea creatures, pollution and more in all grades and in all disciplines. The phrase “Every Drop Counts” was also used as a metaphor — every little bit helps, every vote counts — that was worked into other units of study.

The Lower School theme for this year is Hub and Spoke, and is playing out in many ways in the classroom.

The Lower School theme for this year is Hub and Spoke, and is playing out in many ways in the classroom.

It worked so well that this year, they are repeating the idea with a new theme “Hub and Spoke — Wheeling Around Detroit.”

Head of Lower School Sheila Chaps said the theme is about Detroit and its surrounding communities. The title stems from Augustus Woodward’s design for the city in a series of spokes fanning out from downtown Detroit.

“What it does, in part, is to unify a continuum of learning in the Lower School,” said Chaps. “It increases the connections in all classes.”

Students are studying the rich heritage and history the Detroit region offers with units on cultures, industry, economics, geography, environment, art, music, sports and more.

Students pose questions about their subject -- here it was farming -- and research through the lens of how these subjects shaped the Detroit area.

Students pose questions about their subject — here it was farming — and research through the lens of how these subjects shaped the Detroit area.

It’s playing out in the classrooms in various ways. Kindergarteners are learning about cities and urban areas and will be going to Eastern Market and studying buildings, including some of the iconic Detroit structures like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Renaissance Center. PK4 students created a cityscape on a large cardboard box as they learned what makes up a city. In the second grade, they studied barns and the history of Detroit as an agricultural center. The third grade is studying Michigan history and visited the Mariner’s Church and will be discussing world religions, including those prevalent in Detroit. First graders visited the Belle Isle Nature Zoo during a unit on Michigan turtles and took a riding tour of the city to see some of the better known buildings.

Even projects that have been part of the curriculum for years are being looked at through the lens of the Hub and Spoke theme. The fifth graders, during their unit on the French Canadian trappers known as Voyageurs, studied what Detroit looked like at the time the Voyageurs would have known it, and researched the history of the area’s ribbon farms. Later this year, they will tour the Ford Rouge plant and learn about the plant’s unique green roof and explore Detroit’s vital role in the Underground Railroad.

The lessons are still evolving and more projects are likely to arise, Chaps said.

“We want students to know the history and the importance of the place they call home,” Chaps said. “Because we’re all connected in so many different ways.”

By Ron Bernas

An attitude of gratitude

The Lower School doesn’t teach only reading, writing and arithmetic. Character education is woven into many different lessons throughout the year.

leaves of gratitude 2Every month, the students are introduced to a character quality of the month at an assembly. Fittingly, this month’s quality is gratitude. Helping students recognize four universal points of gratitude — blessings, learnings, mercies or forgiveness and protection — helps foster the ability to experience gratitude.

Students were asked to do more than simply think about what they are thankful for, they were asked to participate in an art project devoted to gratitude. They wrote what they are grateful for on paper leaves, decorated them then put them on a gratitude tree in one of the Lower School hallways. These Leaves of Gratitude make for heartwarming reading.

Today, in honor of Thanksgiving, we reprint some of the many things our Lower School students wrote.

leaves of gratitude 1“I am thankful for…

“…having a house and a loving family.”

“…for my parents for  letting me play hockey because I am good at it.”

“…being alive.”

“…all the friends I have.”

“…my mommy.”

“…having a big, healthy family.”

“…the food that is given to me.”

“…apples that grow in the fall.”

“…being able to go to Liggett.”

“…having a brother because it is awesome and it is fun.”

“…getting to see my grandparents every day.”

“…my pets.”

“…God, because he’s there for me when no one else is.”

Here’s to all you are grateful for this season.

By Ron Bernas

An introduction to Orff music

At the Halloween concert, students played drums, xylophones and other percussion instruments as they sang.

At the Halloween concert, students played drums, xylophones and other percussion instruments as they sang.

Parents who made it to Thursday’s Lower School Halloween concert  got a glimpse into our latest addition to the music program: Orff Schulwerk.

It’s a form of musical education developed in the 1920s and ’30s by German composer Carl Orff (best known for “Carmina Burana,” which is included in the soundtrack of any number of movies) and Gunild Keetman, a composer and educator.

“Since the beginning of time,” said Orff, “children have not liked to study. They would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play; they will find that what they have mastered is child’s play.”

Houk explores rhythms with our PreK students.

Houk explores rhythms with our PreK students.

And that’s the inspiration of the Orff system. It incorporates singing, rhythm, dance and play in a way that kids don’t even realize they’re learning. “Experience first,” Orff writes. “Then intellectualize.”

“The idea is that the students feel the music in their bodies,” says new Lower School music teacher Rachel Houk. “When we start, the students do percussion — snaps, claps,patting and stamping things like that — then we sing and move on to hand percussion instruments — sticks and drums — and finally to xylophones. The xylophones allow students to focus on melodic elements of music making.”

Movement help students understand music. Orff wrote music is "never music alone but forms a unity with movement dance and speech."

Movement help students understand music. Orff wrote music is “never music alone but forms a unity with movement dance and speech.”

Parents who attended the concert yesterday heard the students sing “The Ghost of John.” Houk said the instruction of that song started with her telling a ghost story, then the students hunted for ghosts in the classroom. They found rhythms in the words of the song and incorporated them into their performance. The students playing the xylophones created their own parts based on the rhythms and some guidelines from Houk. The result was entirely musical and enchanting.

It teaches students that music can be created by all — not just the musically inclined.

“There’s the play element, the movement and the rhythms,” Houk says. “It’s a playful way to engage all the students. And because the tasks being asked of them are carefully built upon, the success level is high.  Students are actively engaged in creating their own music so the material really becomes their own.  This high level of engagement and feeling of success is at the heart of the Orff philosophy.”

The skills students learn in Orff music instruction become skills they can draw on in other areas. For instance, it develops critical thinking and problem-solving tasks. It also builds skills of patience, support and tolerance used in group work. It helps them get in touch with their emotions and develop an aesthetic as to what “good” music is. And, of course, it will help them as they advance to other instruments. The strong rhythmic sensibilities, understanding of melodic elements, improvisational and ensemble skills of performing in a group (balance, staying together, feeling the beat together, ability to play independently within the ensemble) all build better musicians.

The idea is to awaken artistic potential in all students and to help them realize music is, as Orff says, “never music alone, but forms a unity with movement dance and speech.”

Parents who want to understand more about the Orff music program can click here or come to Monday’s Lower School Parents Association Meeting at 8:15 a.m. in Room B1 in the Lower School, when Houk will make a presentation on Orff.

By Ron Bernas

Meet Liggett’s New Faces (Part 2)

Earlier this week, Lower School parents met three new educators in their division, we think you will want to meet them, too.

Angela Amore, Lower School Learning Specialist

Angela Amore

Angela Amore

Lower School Learning Specialist Angela Amore has been in education since 1990. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Wayne State University and has worked in several districts across Michigan, but mostly in the Utica Community Schools. There, she ran a resource room  which focused on supporting the needs of special education students. Most recently, she worked for Oakland Schools as a contract employee in their Teacher Consultant division.

“What attracted me to this position at Liggett, in particular, was the Curriculum for Understanding,” she says. “I knew I could put my whole self into working for an institution that, as a community, believed in the value of learning through inquiry-based approaches and application of knowledge; that learning  critical thinking skills was at the core of not just learning, but owning concepts. After I read the C4U document, I said to myself, ‘I’ve found my tribe!’”

“I think I became a teacher because of my own love of learning. I enjoy sharing my passion for learning with children, and hope that I can ignite that same zeal in them.” Working in special education kindled in her a passion for helping struggling students. “I I truly believe all children can learn, but need to do so in their own way; we are wired differently and don’t march lock-step with our peers.”

Amore is married and has two daughters who attend Liggett. She loves to spend time with her family outdoors playing sports or in the kitchen cooking and baking. She enjoys reading, but also tries to catch as many episodes of NCIS as she can.

Donna Comstock-Herman, Lower School Librarian

Donna Comstock-Herman

Donna Comstock-Herman

Donna Comstock-Herman has always wanted to be a teacher. But when she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education from Northwestern University, teachers across the country were being pink-slipped so she ended up working at a hospital. She earned a master’s degree in library and information services and has taught kids from kindergarten to grade 12, most recently at the Farmington Public Schools where she had 1,600 students.

“The goal is teaching people how to learn: developing critical thinking skills, discovering how to communicate and collaborate with others, and growing in creativity,” Comstock-Herman says. “As an educator, I am a guide and I insist on a safe environment where it is acceptable to make mistakes and learn from them, and meet challenges. This includes constantly learning myself, working collaboratively with others (both staff and students), and encouraging others to do the same.”

Comstock-Herman lives in Flushing, in what she says is a semi-rural area and has been married for 30 years. She has four children – a 23 year old daughter and 21 year old triplets – two boys and a girl. As one might expect from a librarian, she loves to read all kinds of books and information. She also challenges herself “to find information and guide others to find information and evaluate it to make decisions.”

When she’s not reading, she enjoys making stained glass, needlework, scrapbooking, and playing computer games.

“I am excited to join the Liggett family,” she says. “This is the friendliest school that I have ever taught in!”

Rachel Houk, Lower School Music

Rachel Houk

Rachel Houk

Rachel Houk is something of a world traveler. Born in Dunstable, England, about 30 miles north of London, she comes to Liggett from California where she taught K-Grade 8 music. She has a bachelor’s degree in music in cello performance from the Trinity College of Music in London and a master’s in cello performance from Rutgers. She lived in Germany and performed in Germany for three years and received her training in Orff Schulwerk from the San Francisco School and the Eastman School of Music.

“My teaching philosophy is deeply rooted in the philosophy of the Orff Schulwerk,” Houk says. “This approach to learning, developed by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, builds musicianship through singing, playing instruments, speech and movement. Active music making is the core of this philosophy. My classes are full of playful, joyful musicians working together to create beautiful music. Nursery rhymes, Folk Songs from around the world, pieces from the Orff Schulwerk volumes and students’ own compositions are the core repertoire heard coming from my room.”

Houk has two children: Maggie who is loving life in PreK 4 and Thaddeus (aka T-Bone) who can be spotted in the PreK 3 class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In her spare time she enjoys playing cello, writing rock arrangements for string quartets and reading.

Shaping lives that shape lives, half a world away

Last year, the Lower School had a theme of Every Drop Counts. Teachers were asked to work water issues into their lessons. Students toured Coast Guard vessels, made movies about sea battles, studied waterbirds and the migration of the gray whales. In art, they made clay tables depicting underwater life that were auctioned at our fundraiser.

But the theme was intended to be about more than just water. Every person counts, too. Every good deed counts.

Vanessa Rivera, bottom right, with other teachers.

Vanessa Rivera, bottom right, with other teachers.

Lower School Spanish teacher Vanessa Rivera took the theme to heart and ended the year with a project that combined both elements of the Every Drop Counts theme: water and making a difference.

All year, Liggett students Skyped with students attending El Colegio Interamericano, a school much like Liggett in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Community service is an important part of the culture at El Colegio and Rivera heard about a poor mountain village El Colegio was helping. Rivera heard the village was in need of safe drinking water and that an new, inexpensive, all-natural product called the Ecofiltro could make that happen. She knew Liggett’s Lower School could make a difference.

Rivera got to know and help  the local children.

Rivera got to know and help the local children.

She purchased 2,000 bracelets made by a Guatemalan artisan and sold every one of them here for $1 each. She used that money to purchase 43 Ecofiltres for the village.

“These filters are life-changing for the people of that village,” she said.

But she didn’t stop there. Rivera used a Venture Grant to spend nine days in Guatemala over the summer overseeing distribution of the filters, getting to know the people of the village and, more important, teaching the teachers in the village’s school. She was part of a team that helped the Guatemalan teachers with new techniques on how to teach their children.

One of the 43 filters purchased through funds raised by Liggett Lower School students.

One of the 43 filters purchased through funds raised by Liggett Lower School students.

“I worked with the literacy aspect,” Rivera said. “Showing strategies on how to get students more involved in their education and encourage them to read more.” Vanessa received the training for this at the Think Tank for Global Education at Harvard.

This year, Rivera is telling the students about her summer vacation so they know that selling bracelets at the end of the last school year really had an impact on some families in another world.

This video will let you know a little bit more about Ecofiltro.

By Ron Bernas

Everything is just ducky in science class

liggett duck hatchingIt spread in the Lower School quicker than the flu bug, aided by a 24-hour webcam and some very excited kids: The ducks hatched.

It is the final science unit for the third graders this year — they study the life cycle of three different things. Usually it’s chickens, butterflies and plants, but this year, in keeping with the Every Drop Counts water theme, Lower School Science teacher Kristie Jones chose water animals — ducks and tadpoles, in addition to the plants.

The students kept journals about the stages they observed in the three different life forms. These journals include scientific observations, but also pictures and feelings. And, in the case of the tadpoles a bit of extrapolation, as they died before they made much change.

So all hopes were on the eggs. Students didn’t get to handle them much — though they weighed a couple times and came up with theories as to why the eggs were lighter at the second weighing than they were at the first. Then they went into the incubator and logged on from home to see the progress, but for weeks all they saw were eggs, doing nothing. Still, their journals say “the eggs can hear now” after a certain number of days under the lights and at the proper humidity.

Liggett students watch the incubator closely.

Liggett students watch the incubator closely.

That’s why students were abuzz Thursday with the news that the eggs were shaking, meaning something inside was trying to get out. The excitement of the first to hatch abated quickly when it was obvious something was wrong. The duckling had not absorbed all its yolk — the embryo’s food source, the students explain — and was weak. It died shortly after its birth. The students named it Miracle.

But news got around that another duckling had hatched (click there to watch the video, it’s pretty cool) just after school got out yesterday and everything looked good. In fact, it was very lively and students ran to the science lab to see the new life.

That was nothing compared to this morning before school when a line of students snaked through the room and down the hall. Parents came, too, to see the four more baby ducks that hatched overnight.

Because it was a third-grade project, they got to name them. There’s Hope, named because it survived after the sadness of Miracle. There’s Nip Nip and Pip and Mario (but oddly no Luigi). The class tied on the name of the last one, but there is still one wiggling egg so one may be named Flappy and the last one Buddy.

The ducklings are expected to be removed from the incubator today and put into a brooder. That’s a fancy name for a cardboard box, lined with a blanket, with a light for warmth and food and water. Next week, on the last day of school, some lucky volunteers will take the ducklings home.

By Ron Bernas 

Thank you for the music, Mrs. Fenton

Tonight marks the end of an era at University Liggett School: It is the last spring concert presided over by longtime music teacher Grace Fenton. For 24 years she’s presided over concerts like this and tonight beginning at 7 p.m. she will conduct the Lower School choir for the last time.

The combined after-school choir rehearses with Grace Fenton

The combined after-school choir rehearses with Grace Fenton

If you have even a passing knowledge of our performing arts curriculum, you know Grace Fenton, even if you became a member of the Liggett family in the Middle or Upper Schools. At the All-School Holiday Concert and at commencement, she’s the one conducting the combined choirs. At Homecoming she’s the one in the funny hats leading the parade and the school in the fight song. She’s been known to join student string groups in the role of cellist. Her conducting can be a show in itself: Her arms sweep in wide arcs, her body swaying to the beat, her face demonstrating all the excitement she wants her students to display when they are singing.

And if you were lucky enough to know Grace Fenton as a teacher of music, you know that there are few people more committed to helping kids understand, experiment with and enjoy music.

Mrs. Fenton spends a lot of time picking out the right songs with the right messages. The songs need to challenge the students, students need to like singing them, they need to support the curriculum and they need to have an uplifting message. Tonight’s concert list is no exception. They are singing songs that relate to the Lower School’s water theme — a song about whales is one example that encourages being smart about protecting our water and the creatures that live in it. She wrote another to support the Michigan history curriculum of the third grade.

The students will also sing “Moon River.” She said she’s been wanting to include this song in a concert for years and with the water theme, and her retiring, it’s the perfect time.

“The line is ‘waiting ’round the bend, my Huckleberry friend,’ and you have to think that at that time in his life Huckleberry had no job and no home, but be wasn’t scared about what he couldn’t see beyond the bend in the river,” she said. “I want that for these kids: I want them to be adventurers, to not be afraid of what’s coming.”

It’s an old song, and its one the students probably have never heard, but Mrs. Fenton is gratified with the students’ response. “They know instinctively when something is valuable, and the children all sing that song with such dignity. It’s really beautiful.”

Mrs. Fenton started at Liggett as the vocal music teacher for grades two through four and the accelerated reading teacher. Over the years she taught more grades vocal music, added keyboarding to the curriculum then replacing that with a strings program. Though there have been changes over the years, there are just two things that kept her content in her job: “The kids and the music. It is that simple. It’s the kids and the music. Children making music is unlike anyone else making music.”

Mrs. Fenton hopes that from her teaching, students “will be open to the whole palette that music has to offer. I want them to love music and to be good listeners of music and to be careful that the words in the music they love uphold the best of humanity.”

Why leave now? Well, she says, it’s just time.

“I believe you should go when you still love it and when it’s never gone better. As hard as that is to do, that’s what you’ve got to do,” she said. She will miss the children, of course: “But I have to not dwell on it.”

Her life outside of Liggett is filled with six grandchildren and a rewarding position as choirmaster at Knox Presbyterian Church where she oversees a large adult choir.

Tonight’s concert will end with Abba’s “Thank You For the Music,” a fitting end to a concert and Fenton’s time at Liggett.

This story will end with something Mrs. Fenton said that needs to stand alone: “If you’re going to add something beautiful to the world, add music.”

More than a generation of Liggett students have added beauty to the world through music under the baton of Grace Fenton. Thank you, Grace, for the music.

By Ron Bernas 

A writer explains her craft

Maria Dismondy, a Michigan-based author, received rave reviews from students, parents, and faculty after her visit to the Lower School on Monday.  Hosted by the Lower School Library and Lower School Parents Association, Maria presented during assembly, headed a writers workshop, and hosted the PreK and Kindergarten in the library. Themes central in her books – respect, empathy, responsibility, integrity, and forgiveness – were represented during each of her presentations.

Dismondy introduced students to the creative process.

Dismondy introduced students to the creative process.

A highlight of the morning was Maria’s fourth- and fifth-grade writer’s workshop. She began by sharing how she developed ideas from her own life into stories – for instance, the character Lucy, in her book “Spaghetti on a Hot Dog Bun,” was inspired by Maria’s experiences being teased as a child.

Maria then delved into the craft of writing, urging students to work on sentence fluency, word choice and voice, explaining that these give the reader

Dismondy discussed her themes of empathy and kindness.

Dismondy discussed her themes of empathy and kindness.

certain feelings. A student exclaimed that the word “said” was used too much – “It drives me nuts! It’s so boring!” declared Maria.  Students then brainstormed other words that could replace “said” to create a unique voice in their writings. Then, to demonstrate synthesizing, Maria invited the audience to read a Jack Prelusky poem aloud, while two volunteers drew what they were visualizing.

How should students know what to include in their writing pieces?  Maria shared a practical way to answer this conundrum by having a student come up on the stage, weed through her purse, and leave behind only items she MUST have (one pair of sunglasses? – okay; four pairs? – not necessary!)

Maria encouraged students to persevere by sharing the number of times (88!) her work was rejected  before she was finally published. She then wrapped up her encouraging presentation by discussing the publishing process – revising her work with editors and collaborating with different illustrators.

Maria Dismondy talked with the kindergarten and preK students

Maria Dismondy talked with the kindergarten and preK students

In closing, I’ll share what a fourth grade student, who had just participated in back-to-back sessions with Maria, gushed: “I love how she made everything so exciting and interesting!”

For more information about Maria Dismondy please visit her website.

By Sarah Diehl
Lower and Middle School Librarian


A little something for the moms

While there is a lot of stuff going on today at Liggett — Teacher Appreciation Day in the Lower School, Field Day in the Upper School, not the mention the usual Friday craziness — we thought we’d take this space on this Friday before Mother’s Day to tell you about a special event that started the day in the PreK 4.

Mrs. Janutol and Mrs. McLeod welcome the mothers and serve up the breakfast.

Mrs. Janutol and Mrs. McLeod welcome the mothers and serve up the breakfast.

The 4-year-olds have been honing their cooking skills in a special unit on chocolate (more on that in a later post) and they wanted to show off their talents, said Gail Janutol who teaches the class with Kristen McLeod. The last two days, the students have been preparing flowers for the tables, paper tablecloths that — and this was very exciting for the kids — could be drawn on, and making a yummy baked breakfast treat that set mouths watering all through the Lower School. They also prepared a little entertainment.

It was a special morning, even if some of the kids seemed to want to spend more time goofing around with their friends than waiting on their moms. And for those of you who still don’t know what to do for your mom, here’s the recipe for the today’s We Love Our Moms a Bunch Brunch. Hey, if a 4-year-old can make it, so can you. And mom will love it.

Baked French Toast

1 small loaf day-old French bread
3 eggs
3 T sugar
1 t vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup flour
6 T dark brown sugar
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
1 cup sliced strawberries

  1. Grease a 13×9-inch baking dish. Cut bread diagonally into 1″ slices and place in baking dish, set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs, sugar and vanilla. Stir in milk until well-blended. Pour mixture over bread in baking dish, durning slices to coat well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
  3. Heat oven to 375 degrees. In small bowl combine flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Cut butter in until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  4. Turn bread slices over in baking dish. Scatter blueberries over bread and sprinkle evenly with crumb mixture. Bake for about 40 minutes or until golden brown.
  5. Before serving top with strawberries.

Bon Appetit

By Ron Bernas

mom 16 mom 15 mom 14 mom 13 mom 12 mom 10 mom 3 mom 4 mom 5 mom 6 mom 7 mom 8 mom 2 mom 1 mom 18 mom 11 mom 17


The people of our village

To paraphrase the old saying, it takes a village to educate a child.

Today, we saw that in action as parents, grandparents, siblings, staff, faculty and students came together for the annual Kindergarten Fairy Tale Ball.

A prince and his magic wand.

A prince and his magic wand.

Every year kindergarten teachers Lisa Cornell and Caitlin Talan do a unit on fairy tales with their classes. They study fairy tales from around the world and look at different versions of the same stories. They examine the elements needed to make a fairy tale and draw pictures of their favorite characters. They even create their own stories.

Today, dressed as their favorite characters and aided by lots of volunteers, the students made magic wands and frogs, played Bingo using fairy tale words and built castles — or maybe they were candy houses like Hansel and Gretel found — out of graham crackers and decorated them with candies.

They sang a couple songs — including one they wrote themselves about fairy tales, then it was time for the big show.

Our cast of characters.

Our cast of characters.

A group of parents and grandparents, staff and faculty put on a pretty darn good performance of “A Wolf Tale,” the story about a wolf trying to find some food. Outsmarted by several fairy tale characters, he finally got the food he needed, thanks to Red Riding Hood’s generous grandma, who told him he only had to ask politely, because it’s always nice to share.

The parents were completely into their characters and the adults not in the play showed their support by singing along with the Wolf on his little signature tune.

Even Head of Lower School Mrs. Chaps got into the spirit.

Even Head of Lower School Mrs. Chaps got into the spirit.

These parents and grandparents and staff and faculty took time out of their days to put on a silly costume and make a goose of themselves for a group of appreciative children. They helped make crafts that encourage the child to use his or her imagination when they play. They helped the students celebrate their learning.

These volunteers are committed, supportive, caring and nurturing, and the children felt that. How can kids do anything but learn with people like this living in our Liggett village.

By Ron Bernas