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News and Events

Holding the Moon in Your Hands

by Laurie Callahan

Toni Soliday, M.Ed. ’09, explains different types of moon rock to fifth graders at Dogwood Elementary School.
Dressed in white lab coats, the budding scientists were discussing the activities of a two-week intersession program called “Preparing for Lift-Off,” which used hands-on experiments to help them learn about the solar system and especially the moon. To demonstrate the Earth’s rotation and revolution, the children formed a large circle, spinning and revolving around another student, who stood in place as the sun. Moon phases were explored with the aid of Oreo cookies. Marbles and small rocks created “craters” in pans of “moon soil” made of cocoa powder, flour, baking soda, cornmeal, and glitter. Pop rockets made from film canisters blasted off, thanks to the interaction of a bit of Alka Seltzer and water. Best of all, the students were able to hold real moon rocks (encased in plastic and provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) in their hands and compare them with Earth rocks.

Four Marymount University Master of Education students who are interning at Dogwood Elementary School – Courtney Douglas, Kelly McDermott, Ian Kidder, and Toni Soliday – planned and implemented the “Lift-off” program, each taking the leadership for certain days and activities. Earlier in the academic year, they and fellow M.Ed. candidates who are interning in Fairfax County and Arlington County schools through Marymount’s Professional Development School (PDS) program, attended NASA workshops led by Rick Varner, an aerospace education specialist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The workshops were arranged by Dr. Usha Rajdev, Marymount associate professor of Education, who teaches the graduate course Elementary Science Methodology. Ian Kidder says, “The NASA workshops were an excellent professional development opportunity. Not only did we become Lunar Certified – meaning now we can borrow moon rocks from NASA for use in our classrooms – but we also came away from the training with ready-to-go supplies and lessons on the solar system.”

Carolyn Kazemi, PDS coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools, attended one of the workshops, held at Marymount’s Reston Center. She explains, “Dr. Rajdev extended this opportunity beyond her own students to include PDS mentor teachers and intern supervisors from both Arlington and Fairfax counties. It was great for our teachers to be able to get a preview of the NASA-inspired lessons that their interns would be teaching.”

In the workshops, Mr. Varner advised the Marymount interns, “Watch for teachable moments. When a child asks a question, he takes ownership and really wants to know. Encourage your students to experiment to discover answers for themselves.” When the interns exclaimed over the heights their “rockets” achieved, Mr. Varner laughed and said, “If you’re this excited, just imagine how your students will react!”

He was right. The interns and their mentors were thrilled to bring what they had learned to their students and watch the wonder of discovery light up young faces. “The kids had a blast during the rocket activity,” Ian Kidder recounts. “They didn’t believe that the rockets were really going to launch. I had them make predictions of how high they thought their rockets would go. They guessed four or five feet and were amazed when they soared 12 to 15 feet.”

The children quickly saw that scientific observation does not
have to be a chore. “I was surprised by how much fun it was!”
Essence Chambers said in amazement. PDS intern Toni Soliday observed, “My students are getting excited about this and,
maybe for the first time, considering science a ‘fun’ subject. Instead of just reading a textbook or watching a film, they are building, experimenting, and researching.” Ian Kidder was
equally delighted to see the students observing and measuring results. He noted, “They used the techniques of real scientists, taking into account how high a rocket traveled, given a particular amount of water. Based on those observations, they were able
to use a bit more or less to try to improve upon the previous launch.”

Robyn Cochran, principal of Dogwood Elementary, was delighted, too. She explains,“This intersession program was all the interns’ idea; we just tried to find a way to make it work. At Dogwood, we’re working on building the knowledge base. Because these activities are so hands-on and interactive, they are a great way to build knowledge.”

Dr. Rajdev couldn’t be happier with her graduate students’ work. She explains, “My goal is to give them resources that enable them to teach ‘outside the box.’” She says that she provides her students with “a beginning tool kit” then advises them, “Each year, you should add on to the ideas and materials you started with. Modifying and adding, always looking for teachable moments and creative ways to convey information – that is how you will become excellent, hands-on teachers.”

A firm believer in the power of doing, Dr. Rajdev emphasizes, “When children do experiments, they connect to the real world.” That connection was clear as the young scholars from Dogwood Elementary intently examined the moon rocks and talked about
all the fun they had with their experiments. They were proud to demonstrate their new knowledge; for example, they spoke with authority about the distance between the planets, something
they could visualize and understand after doing a solar-system
-on-a-string activity.
Throughout the program, the Marymount interns made a point
of relating science facts to the children’s lives. For example,
Toni Soliday told them, “By the time you graduate from high school, the moon will be about a foot farther away from the Earth than it is now!” And in an activity on the revolution and rotation
of the Earth, Courtney Douglas asked the children, “In your life
so far, how many times have you made the trip around the sun?”
A fifth grader at Dogwood Elementary School shows off the moon rock samples and her NASA certificate.

Marymount PDS students at other area schools are bringing these NASA-inspired activities into their classrooms, as well. At Buzz Aldrin Elementary School in Reston, Natalie Ward’s third grade class learned about the moon’s relationship to the Earth. The children stood in a circle, holding paper plates cut to demonstrate the phases of the moon. Mrs. Ward and her Marymount intern, Sara Duckworth, had both completed the NASA workshops at MU’s Reston Center. Sara is a firm believer in hands-on activities; she says, “The more students can hold and see something, the more they will understand and retain the information.”

During the moon-phases lesson, Mrs. Ward asked her class, “Why can’t we see the new moon?” Jason Remus quickly replied, “The sun is shining on the back of the moon, so the side facing the Earth is dark!” Clearly, these children are preparing to follow their school’s namesake as explorers of the wonders of the universe.

The Professional Development School

The Professional Development School is a partnership between Marymount University and the Fairfax County and Arlington County Public School Systems. The program pairs Marymount Master of Education candidates with teacher mentors and immerses them in the life of their assigned schools for a full academic year. Mondays through Thursdays, the interns function as full-time school staff members, assisting in the classroom, filling in as substitute teachers, creating lesson plans, and attending staff meetings. On Fridays and in the evenings, they complete their Marymount coursework.

Sean O’Day, fifth-grade teacher at Buzz Aldrin Elementary School and mentor to PDS intern Lindsay Bothwell
In both counties, PDS interns spend part of the year in a Title I school (a school with a significant percentage of students who live at or below the poverty level) and part of the year in another school. They also gain experience in both lower and higher elementary grades. M.Ed. candidates specializing in Learning Disabilities can also enroll in the PDS program; their experience includes interning at the middle- or high-school level.

In the space of a single, intensive year, the graduate students in Marymount’s PDS program earn their Master of Education degree and gain significant teaching experience. Intern Meghan Roman embraced the program wholeheartedly. She notes, “I truly feel that the best way to learn something is to dive right in and get hands-on. And I’ve been blessed with two fantastic mentor teachers!”

“The key to success,” Ian Kidder notes, “is maintaining a balance between the work in the schools and our classwork for Marymount.” He adds, “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we would rather spend all of our time with the children, for that’s our true passion. But the courses offered by Marymount give us the necessary theory and philosophy to enhance our practice in the classroom.”

Toni Soliday agrees, noting, “We’re learning so many new methodologies in our grad coursework, and then we have the opportunity to go right back into the schools and apply these best practices and share them with our mentors.” She adds, “The PDS program is great for us, but it also helps the mentor teachers and partner schools. Having an intern in the classroom means extra help with lesson planning and more individualized attention for the students.”

Teacher Natalie Ward at Buzz Aldrin Elementary School has mentored several Marymount PDS interns and is enthusiastic about the program. She affirms, “It’s nice to have a second pair of hands, and it’s especially helpful for the children who have extra needs.” Her intern, Sara Duckworth, adds, “A year in the classroom is priceless! The mentors teach us more than a textbook ever could. I like to think of the PDS program as teaching with training wheels: You start slowly and gain more and more confidence as you go on.”

Jean Massie, one of the PDS coordinators for Fairfax County, points out that the program’s graduates are quickly snapped up once they’ve earned their degrees. She notes, “After PDS, they’re viewed as second-year teachers. They are already groomed in the ways of our school system and are ready to step right in.”

A Passion For Teaching

Marymount Master of Education student Meghan Roman has known that she wanted to be a teacher since the fourth grade. She explains, “That year, I had the teacher – the most charismatic, energetic, and motivational teacher, Mrs. Pat Skibinski. She kept me intrigued and engaged throughout the year in every single subject.” Meghan adds, “My goal is to be that kind of teacher – one who helps kids grow and learn about so much more than what’s ‘on the test.’ I want to be somebody’s Mrs. Skibinski!”

Ian Kidder is equally passionate about “both learning and leading.” For him, there are special moments that stand out and strengthen his commitment to teaching. He recounts, “One of the most touching and powerful moments of this year was when I received letters of recommendation from my third and fourth grade students at Sunrise Valley Elementary School. On my final day there, my mentor presented me with a binder full of formal letters that she and the students had composed. The children’s letters were neatly written and decorated with beautiful borders. Reading those reinforced for me the kind of impact a teacher can have on students’ lives, and how rewarding it can be to make that difference.”

Toni Soliday had a similarly gratifying experience when her second graders at Sunrise Valley Elementary surprised her with a special gift at the end of her internship. She explains, “They had done additional research on American Indians and built me a Powhatan Village, including a longhouse made out of popsicle sticks with 3D pop-ups! It was amazing how much work they did and how much they learned in the process. It made me realize that by making Social Studies fun and engaging, I had inspired them to explore a topic even further.” Now working with sixth grade students at Dogwood Elementary School, she says, “My heart has been stolen again – by 24 remarkable 11 and 12 year olds!”

All of the PDS interns agree that the best teachers are energized by the young people they teach. Meghan Roman laughingly notes that she is “inspired by controlled chaos.” She says, “Having 10 balls in the air and not letting any of them drop is a perfect analogy for teaching in an elementary school! It’s so exciting and could never be boring. Each day presents new challenges and opportunities for both the students and the teacher. Whether we’re studying moon rocks, American Indians, or something else, we are all learning and growing together!”