February 19, 2020

Teacher gets LFCU grant to foster innovative learning

By Selina Foreman

Correspondent

Learning through play is emphasized in kindergartens and preschools everywhere. Educational experts talk about how children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally and gain self-confidence simply by playing. Books about the power of play abound for young students.

However, at some point, play is abandoned for more traditional teaching techniques, and building forts turns into completing worksheets.

Tabb Middle School teacher Erin Watson, however, feels that her older students also benefit from having fun while learning.

“I brought the techniques I learned teaching elementary school with me to middle school, because middle schoolers are still children, too,” she said. Watson taught elementary school for seven years with Newport News Public Schools, and has been teaching middle school for the past four years. This is her first year with York County Public Schools, and she was recently awarded a $500 grant from Langley Federal Credit Union in order to foster innovative learning programs.

“They like toys,” she said of her middle school students. “They’re just bigger kids.”

LFCU’s Langley for Families Foundation awarded $15,000 in grants to local Hampton Roads teachers to support new or existing classroom projects, and 30 winners were selected from 74 applicants. Watson is always on the lookout for unique projects, but a lack of resources can sometimes hinder plans.

“I haven’t used some things in the classroom setting before, because I haven’t had the quantity of materials I’ve needed to get all 140 of my students involved,” she said.

Watson’s chosen project incorporates a concept regarding heat transfer. She learned about it through Jefferson Labs’ Science Activities for Teachers program. It involves Shrinky Dinks.

“Oftentimes these kids don’t even know what those things are,” laughs Watson.

Shrinky dinks, popular in the ’80s, are sheets of polystyrene, often pre-printed with popular children’s characters. The sheets can be cut with household scissors and even colored before being heated. Once heated, they shrink to about one-third their original size and become about nine times thicker.

Watson is creating Shrinky Dinks out of a diagram that is often found on the eighth-grade science Standards of Learning test. The project will continue throughout the year, and students will end up with a charm bracelet or keychain study guide for the SOLs about a variety of topics.

“It just gives them a more novel way to review information,” said Watson.

The eighth-grade SOL is widely regarded as one of the more challenging, because it encompasses information from all of the years in middle school, not just eighth-grade material. This is especially true for a community with a high military population, since many kids haven’t been exposed to the same information during their middle school careers. Watson is up for the challenge, combining experiences with the lessons in order to create a deeper knowledge base.

“Giving them this push so that the kids are actively learning the material helps them better remember it,” she said.

Another benefit to utilizing old-school toys like Shrinky Dinks, Lite-Brites and Jiffy Pop — other favorite learning tools of Watson’s — is how it engages parents. The nostalgia creates a shared point of discussion with their 13-year-olds.

“It usually gets the parents talking,” says Watson. “It gives [the kids] a way to relate to their parents.”

Finding fresh ways to engage students is what Watson loves about teaching. Her early years teaching elementary school children provided a foundation for her current position teaching middle school, and she doesn’t think she’ll ever go back to elementary school, because her middle schoolers are so much fun.

“I like to remind them that, ‘hey, even though you have these responsibilities, in my class you’re still allowed to be a kid every once in a while and just play,’” she said.