CLASSROOM OF THE WEEK | Students become part of the (word) problems in Morris Elementary class

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LENOX — In Sarah Gerney's third-grade class at Morris Elementary School, students often find themselves to be part of a problem — a word problem, that is.

Gerney, who loves to incorporate creative writing and a few fun mysteries into her class assignments, is know for working her students' names and favorite things into math worksheet prompts, as in:

There were 188 pages in Brooklyn's "Nature Girl" chapter book. Her friend Rose read 159 of them over the weekend. How many more pages does Rose have left to read?

The correct answer, by the way, is that Rose — as in class member Rose Dupuis — has 29 more pages to go. And the book is a based on a title student Brooklyn Rodriguez has given to her own fictional work.

It's little touches like this that makes their classroom a friendly and productive place, say the students.

"It's good," said Rodriguez. "It's fun."

Katherine O'Neil's son joined the classroom this year, and she nominated the class and teacher for their efforts.

O'Neil writes of her son's experience, "From the beginning, he's offered nothing but rave reviews of his teacher; he describes her as "really nice, funny, and she helps me focus.""

Gerney is also described as someone who "is attuned to her students' needs, strengths, and challenges, and works with each individual to create his or her best learning environment. She wants her students to succeed, but also to be comfortable and happy."

During a visit to the classroom prior to the holiday recess, this reporter met some festively-dressed third graders eager to share their work. Much of their writing adorns the classroom's hand-decorated bulletin boards.

Emery Lipton was eager to share her "Snowman Story," which features their "elaborative detail" practice of using vivid words to describe a scene. She began, "I was walking on an icy path when I saw something ahead. I squinted. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was a snow girl. Around her was the smell of [daisies]. One was on her head with fluffy rainbow earmuffs."

Each day in December, students would sit in a circle and share their Snowman Story, and offer some thoughts and critiques after. Students were also challenged to listen to the story and draw the writer's snow person as they had detailed it, emphasizing the need for thoughtful creative writing.

Gerney herself also does a fair share of writing, beyond the personalized word problems. O'Neil says that each week, the teacher sends home a page to each student's families detailing what the children have been working on during the week, and what is coming up for them.

"As a parent, I feel informed and engaged with what's happening in the classroom, and she is responsive and accommodating when I have had questions," O'Neil said.

Gerney works to create an environment where students are responsive to one another. They have an "Acts of Kindness" bulletin board created with paper hearts on which students write about good behaviors they've seen or experienced in one another, like helping with class work or comforting an upset classmate.

Beyond their own classroom, Gerney's class also wrote nice things about instructors in the school who don't have their own classroom, like the art, computer and gym teachers. They assembled the notes onto garlands and secretly hung them up for those teachers and others to see.

"I want my students to notice each other being kind," Gerney said.

The third graders this year have also learned to express that kindness, patience and care with their first-grade reading buddies, whom they meet with on a regular basis.

Rodriguez said that's taught her how to work with people with different kinds of personalities, from "quiet and really good" to "giggly and talking all the time."

Another favorite aspect of the class, said the students, is a counter by the window sill on which they will find a changing assemblage of objects. Recently it included a small safe, a baseball card and a toy dog. The only thing in common the grouping has is that they pertain to details in the next book the class will be reading.

"I love it when we get to do creative things together," said Gerney of her class, "and how we solve mysteries in our classroom and in our writing. Sometimes the standards we have to teach can be challenging, but we're in charge of making it interesting for ourselves."


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