I am starting this column with a review of our recent sign messages because they capture wonderful snapshots of the positive energy at the St. Johnsbury School.

As our preschoolers were doing their unit about animals in winter, they posted this message, "Pre-K: We are feeding the animals on our Wildlife Tree." The message from kindergarten and first grade both reflected students' progress: "Kindergardeners are blooming readers" and "1st Grade gains independence in 2012." Then along came "2nd Graders are soaring to the moon," and "3rd Grade is digesting knowledge." Math and science themes emerged with messages from fourth and fifth grade. "4th Graders are getting positively charged for science," and "5th graders wield math power."

Two other messages celebrated art and reading. One of these messages was, "Every day is an art show at St. J. School," and the other message was "The library says: Readers are lucky. They never get bored." The physical education department chose to emphasize spirit in its message, "If you had fun, you won." What a great collection of students' and staff's energy!

This week's column centers on the school partnership with the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. Each grade attends monthly science workshops during which students learn about the wonders of the natural world. For example, one of February's workshops for fifth and sixth graders was "Putting the Pop in Population." This class addresses population and population trends, and how these trends connect with environmental concerns, including resources, pollution, and habitat, focusing on the Northern Forest.

Another February workshop for first and second graders was "Winter Birds of Vermont." This class focuses on avian survival strategies for our climate, species that remain due to the possession of such strategies, and identification of such species using song/call recordings. Students also explore ways to support birds during the winter.

Third and fourth graders attend a workshop called, "Native Bees, Please" about promoting and protecting our local native bees. Students discover native bee names and how to identify them by variations in color, size, and ways they build their nests. They even build artificial bee homes and use recycled newspaper to make seed pots for growing pollinator-friendly flowers at home.

Another workshop for several grades is, "Dig it: Soil." As one might guess, this workshop has to do with dirt. Students get their hands dirty, literally, as they explore the properties of soil: what it is made of, how it retains water, and how it sustains life.

"World of Webs' is a workshop for younger students in which students learn what makes a spider a spider and how they use that thin, translucent fiber of webs for hunting, flying, shelter, and tricking their prey. Students have the opportunity to engineer they own webs and see how talented spiders really are.

"Fabulous Fungi" is a workshop for older students about mushrooms. Students examine the different forms that mushrooms can take, their process of growth and reproduction, the role they play within an ecosystem, and different ways to identify various local genera. Students go hands-on with practice in making spore prints and using mushrooms as a dye.

Just as this column started with some of our sign messages, I will end with the current sign message from the sixth grade, "6th grade collects data for UNH forest watch." Each year, the sixth graders engage in a Northern Forest research project with the University of New Hampshire, giving students experience in scientific observation, data collection, and documentation. Investigation and inquiry, posing questions and examining issues, problem solving and critical thinking: all these skills and dispositions are important elements of 21st century learning, essential elements of learning and teaching, and key elements in visionary curriculum and instruction at the St. Johnsbury School.

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