The Block Island Times

Gifts left 'right on our doorstep'

By Gloria S. Redlich | May 15, 2012
Photo by: Gloria Redlich Special Education teacher Martha Velie-Gass shows off some of the playground equipment she got for the school through a funding site called

Special education teacher Martha Velie-Gass is elated about a recent acquisition at the Block Island School, a piece of equipment known as “the squeeze machine,” which offers benefits to the school’s entire student population, including those with special needs.
Velie-Gass was able to acquire it and other equipment through, an online charity that makes it easy for anyone to help students in need. Public school teachers from across the country post requests for classroom and school-wide projects on their website: Those interested in assisting schools with needed supplies or equipment can then make their donations directly.
Among the items requested on the the site are “pencils for a poetry project, a violin for a school concert and a microscope for a biology class.” In one week, “3,806 donors helped 134,199 students,” it says.
Velie-Gass says she learned about the online resource from her daughter, who is a kindergarten teacher in the Medford, Mass., school system. She discovered that the total cost of the equipment she desired — the squeeze machine and some playground items — would be $790. In the end, through matching funds, which DonorsChoose promotes, the project was totally funded and “within weeks the equipment was delivered — just like gifts — right to our doorstep,” says Velie-Gass with delight.
Long interested in adding to the school’s playground equipment, Velie-Gass wrote the proposal for a “Happy Playground,” including a request for the squeeze machine, which is sometimes called the “steam roller.” Developed by animal behavioral scientist Temple Grandin, the machine is “a deep pressure device,” which Grandin says can alleviate difficulties arising from “oversensitivity to touch,” and is often used for children with autism or ADHD.
Grandin’s research shows “that a very light touch alerts the nervous system, but deep pressure is relaxing and calming.” It can be effective with the general population of children as well.
The very colorful piece of gym-like equipment in the school’s focus room is made of an arrangement of rollers that “presses your whole body,” Velie-Gass says. She easily slips into and through the innovative contraption designed to comfort and soothe. “It’s a great feeling,” she says.
Velie-Gass points out the focus room is used for sensory breaks, a very quiet place where students can unwind and prepare for going back into a learning situation.
She is going to go back to the drawing board for a student who needs an iPad and to fund future field trips. “This is such a great way for people to be helpful. You get to see the kids and you get to see the project,” she says
Common Core Standards program
Superintendent Robert Hicks reported that the school will present a program entitled “Common Core State Standards are Coming: Should You Care?” on Monday, May 21, at 6:30 p.m. in the media center.
The new standards would ensure that all students from kindergarten through the 12th grade across the country follow the same educational program preparing them for college or a career.
Hicks points out that the new national standards “are coming to Block Island [and] will change what our students learn in September and what they’re tested on in 2014.” He adds that the standards are “harder, move faster and are based on the highest performing nations’ schools.”
Karen Kurzman: part of national project
Principal Karen Kurzman has been asked to be part of the group developing National Common Core Standards. She and approximately 20 educators from around the state will create a set of student writing exemplars or benchmarks by which national writing standards will be established.
“We will be setting the examples for the entire country,” she says with enthusiasm.
Post-tsunami exchanges
Shortly after the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011, English teacher Nancy Greenaway learned of a series of moving emails written by Anne Thomas, an American living and teaching in Japan for close to 20 years. A year ago this spring, her correspondence was made available to Greenaway and her class. They performed a dramatic reading of the emails — “Letters from Sendai” — as a way to make the island community aware of the severity of conditions in Japan.
Currently on the English faculty of Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai, Thomas has joined with Greenaway to foster an active correspondence between their students and the two teachers. It has been ongoing over an academic year and Greenaway says it has made her students much more aware of the life and culture within a Japanese city recovering from an overwhelming natural disaster.
Greenaway shares an article written by Thomas for a periodical published by the university, the English Department Journal. In it Thomas writes about the key-pal correspondence the two teachers set up between the students of two cultures.
Thomas wrote that she and Greenaway, “both thought the idea of an international key-pal exchange was excellent. It would give our students the opportunity to communicate directly with youngsters from a different culture and to learn firsthand about another country. In addition, it would allow my students to develop English skills.”
Quoting from Greenaway’s e-mails, she points to one written “at the mid-way point of this term.”
“I just want you to know that the level of enthusiasm for our project keeps rising. Although our students are writing brief and simple letters,” Greenaway writes, “they are learning so much. I, too, am learning more with each note. I find myself going to the globe and to maps, really looking at the islands of Japan for the first time.”
Thomas adds that not only is she pleased that her students are developing their English skills, but that “they are also becoming ‘teachers of Japanese culture.’ They do this by writing about their ordinary daily lives and … sending photos of typical things … shoes …futons [and] young folks’ fashion and karaoke.”
The exchange has met with so much enthusiasm from students in both cultures that the teachers will try to keep it going as a dimension of their English classrooms in future academic years.
Greenaway explains that Thomas has gathered her emails together into a book, “Letters from the Ground to the Heart: Beauty amid Destruction,” which was released in March of this year.
Sewing for the stage
For some five years, Health teacher Victoria Carson has advised a sewing club at the school. She says enthusiasm for the club has never been greater. This term the group has been focused on creating costumes for a production by the 911 Players, a student drama group. The play “I Hate Shakespeare” is scheduled to run from May 17-19 at the Harbor Church.
Carson credits the generosity of Jim and Stephanie Murphy, who live on island and Florida. Learning about the school sewing club, the Murphy family donated “boxes and boxes of material, notions and threads,” Carson adds. They also provided a few sewing machines.
As the group was in the process of identifying characters needing costumes, Carson laughs as she recalls, “One kid needed to be a cow, and we all thought, ‘How’re we going to do that?’ When we opened up the first box from Jim and Stephanie, there was some furry brown and white cow material!”
The students have made dresses, vests, ties and bags — some of them offered as gifts to teachers and parents. As Carson tells it, “One day a little girl (perhaps a second grader) observed English teacher Maureen Flaherty and declared, ‘She needs an apron.’” Sometime later she presented one to Flaherty.
Reminiscing about her own youth at the island school, Carson says there were always adults willing to work with her and her classmates—especially in putting on plays and productions. She says they helped with costumes, with lines, with moral support. Those memories for Carson are some of the most meaningful she recalls about her school years. It is that kind of connection she wishes to continue with her students.
When the students initially thought they could not squeeze sewing club into their day, Carson offered to meet them on her lunch hour, during recess or after school. Principal Kurzman says the program is wonderful and expresses gratitude for the time and energy Carson puts into it. “It’s all entirely on her own time,” Kurzman says, “and we want to acknowledge it.”

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