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Elementary specialists strengthening Pathways with Spark experiences

Elementary specialists strengthening Pathways with Spark experiences

Elementary students in District 191 are discovering new worlds and exploring career opportunities in specialist classrooms.

Sparking curiosity and wonder in each student.” That’s the driving force behind Pathways at the elementary level in District 191. It’s not about having young learners pick their future career, it’s about allowing students to discover a world of possibilities through rich learning experiences. Opportunities for this type of interaction are found throughout the school day, and one example is the district’s specialists coming together to provide amazing experiences for every student. 

Rachel Lucius has worked in the district for 20 years, recently moving into the position of K-8 Pathways and Advanced Learning Coordinator. She has been working hard to implement and improve the Elementary Pathways program with a passionate team from across the district. As a former elementary music teacher, she understands the value of increasing access to enrichment experiences in specialist areas like digital learning, music, physical education and visual art.

“Providing students with a wide variety of experiences gives them the opportunity to both expand their curiosity and be introspective,” said Lucius. “Pathways ensures that all students connect with various career fields and content areas through hands-on learning. They have a chance to see how adults apply the same skills the students are learning into their careers or hobbies.  We want students to make connections between their passions and the many career possibilities that are out there. If a student is passionate about drawing, we want to show them possibilities for how they might incorporate that into their future in a sustainable way. Likewise, if a student is passionate about coding, Pathways can help them understand the types of job they might like to pursue and even what courses they might like to take in middle and high school to help them on that journey.”

This work has come together in the form of Spark Experiences for elementary students. Spark Experiences might be a grade level field trip, a common art project, an artist-in-residence or discovering which instrument they might like to play in middle school. Specialists collaborate to create common units of study and unique learning opportunities with the goal of opening students up to a variety of perspectives, cultures and activities. Launching fully in the spring of 2023, here is a glimpse into just a few of the Spark Experiences, with plans to continue and grow this work even more in the coming years!

Sparking a Passion for Movement — The Return of Fifth Grade Track and Field Day

Physical education specialists didn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it came time to establish a Spark Experience. Harriet Bishop teacher Jake Loesch is in his 25th year of teaching and is thrilled to reinstate an old district tradition: The All-District Fifth Grade Track and Field Day. Fifth grade students from each elementary school will gather at the Burnsville High School track to participate in running events, throwing activities, jump rope challenges, and other fun games to get them moving. 

“We want our students to realize the value in movement and build excitement about team and individual sports and activities,” said Loesch. “We want to make health and movement part of the overall goal in life. Pathways helps to foster excitement for what is out there and allows us to connect what they are learning in physical education with career opportunities like personal training, sports management, and more!”

Sparking a Passion for Music — Instrumental Exploration

music teacher practicing with students

Music is a great way for students to express themselves, learn new concepts, and develop new skills. Music specialists developed a variety of experiences that will allow students to explore musical instruments over the course of multiple years. Fourth grade students will learn about the instruments of the orchestra in their music class and then have the opportunity to see a live orchestra perform at Orchestra Hall. Fifth graders get to dive even deeper into the world of music thanks to the incredible dedication from music teachers, especially Miles Kessler. 

Kessler’s schedule is intimidating. He will meet with every single student in fifth grade across the district this year and provide small group lessons with students on two instruments from each  musical family. The lessons are very introductory and are not focused on reading music, but instead how to hold different instruments, produce sound, and change the pitch of the sound. Through this Spark Experience, every fifth grade student will have the opportunity to try the violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute, bells and snare drum. 

“I really want kids to know early on that playing an instrument should be fun and should be another part of your heart and mind and not something that feels like a chore,” said Kessler. “Not every student will love playing an instrument, but they try their best and some really get into it. It’s amazing to see the quietest kid in class suddenly making a ton of noise on the trombone!”

Sparking a Passion for Creating and Technology — Innovative Designer

two students working on a project

Digital Learning Specialists are helping students experience new worlds in more ways than one. Fourth graders will be attending a field trip to the REM5 Virtual Reality Laboratory where they will learn about virtual reality, specifically how it is being used in careers and industries related to design while experimenting with design in virtual reality.

Prior to the trip, students will learn about the Liberatory Design Process and design 3D castles in an online tool called Tinkercad. Students will also be introduced to careers related to design and reflect on whether a career in design is something they might enjoy. Katie Salmela works with the digital learning team to facilitate the development of the Digital Learning curriculum as well as  coordinating and supporting the technology software and equipment used in the program.

“Spark Experiences push student learning further,” said Salmela. “Students don’t just get to learn about design in the digital learning classroom or how technology is being used in the design industry, they get to go be immersed in it and actually experience it.”

Sparking a Passion for Visual Art and Culture — Henna Hands

teacher working with a student on a project

Spark Experiences for art focus on giving the students the chance to experience different ways to create art, use a variety of tools and also connect to different cultures. The art teachers created two experiences that allow students to explore both art and culture.  Second grade students will learn about henna and the ways that it is used in various cultures.  They will then apply their learning by decorating ceramic hands using henna techniques. Third graders will take a trip to the Minnesota Institute of Art where they can contrast cultural uses of artwork from different times and places while exploring ceramic and painting techniques. 

Kelly Rae Vo, Art Specialist at William Byrne Elementary, shared that the multifaceted Henna Hand project is the result of a collaboration between the art specialists. Henna Hands combine art with culture and allow students to apply their learning using various art mediums and techniques to create their final product.  

“The henna hand experience will provide a mirror instead of a window for many of our students to see their own cultural background,” said Vo. “It will also help with engagement as many students will be able to relate personally to the lesson.”

The project is part of another goal for art specialists which is to have every single student have the chance to make something out of clay, literally getting their hands dirty during their learning. Hidden Valley Elementary Art Educator Sara Merkel is excited that the Pathways model provides opportunities for students who may not usually experience these activities, while shining a spotlight on the arts. 

“There are so many different career options and creative outlets out there and being able to connect what students are interested in to arts is a way to get them to look outside of the box,” said Merkel. “I tell students that the games they love to play or even the shoes they love to wear were designed by an artist. That gets their gears turning and allows us to create experiences that connect with them like designing game characters or shoes!”

Building Excitement and Sparking Wonder 

One thing that all Spark Experiences have in common is the desire to open students up to new experiences and get them excited about their interests. Elementary Pathways is about helping students see the world, make connections, and begin to dream about their future.

“Our job at the elementary level is to provide students with as many learning opportunities as we can,” said Lucius. “We want students to know that there are many pathways to a successful life. Our job is to take away barriers and ensure that we do everything in our power to give them the skills they need to pursue whatever path they choose. Ultimately, we want to help each student become who they are truly meant to be.”