By CHRIS DODGE
Special to the Messenger
At first glance, the Fletcher Elementary School library looked more like Santa’s bustling workshop than a quiet reading space Monday evening as several preschool families used shiny wrapping paper, colorful stickers, and a virtual treasure trove of arts and crafts supplies to transform ordinary cardboard boxes into personalized and portable student desks.
Eight preschool families attended the Fletcher School Preschool Program’s Literacy Night, facilitated by Preschool Teacher Nancy Hurt. The goal, according to Hurt, was to empower families to engage with their children in conversation and activities that promote a love of reading and writing.
Students and their families began by assembling a cardboard box, then cutting two of the corners to allow a side to drop and form a Secretary’s Desk, of sorts. A variety of small containers and folders, along with decorative materials, completed the look and functionality of the desks, which were then stocked with books and writing supplies.
“I’m always looking for multiple avenues to involve families in their child’s education,” Hurt said. “Events like this go beyond classroom conversations or written communication from me. They serve to strengthen the home and school partnership and act as a reminder that families are incredibly important teachers and that families can lead their children in experiences that are equally valuable to those provided by a trained educator.”
Materials for Preschool Literacy Night were funded through a grant from the Step Ahead Recognition System, or STARS, the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ accreditation program for childcare, preschool and after-school programs. For the fourth consecutive year, the Fletcher Elementary School Preschool Program has earned the highest possible ranking – 5 STARS – which is accompanied by grant funding that is used to support continued high-quality preschool programming at the school.
In addition to the preschool students, many older siblings and adult family members attended the event, with many creating their own desks.
“The project and the materials were intended to be ageless,” Hurt said. “The content and materials were open ended enough so that everyone could individualize and personalize their creation, regardless of what grade they are in. I wanted families to know that projects like this can impact every student’s learning, regardless of age or ability.”
The idea for the student-made desks was one Hurt learned about at a conference on the Vermont Early Learning Standards, part of which emphasize language and literacy development, as well as engaging families in their child’s education. First established in 2003, Vermont’s Early Learning Standards address what children should know and be able to do between birth and third grade.
“I wanted to remind families that typical everyday activities and conversations can become enriching opportunities that set the stage for early literacy,” Hurt said. “Those moments, whether you’re singing silly rhyming songs or looking at words in the environment, have a powerful impact on children and are stepping stones to becoming readers and writers.”
In addition to Preschool Literacy Night, Hurt also sends her students home with “classroom highlights” that become conversation starters for families each day. The brief, bulleted list encourages families to ask specific questions about what their child learned or did that day.
“Children’s faces just light up when someone asks them a detailed question about their learning,” Hurt said. “And, it keeps parents informed.”
“Mia loves her new portable desk,” preschool parent Jensen Welch said. “She and her sister, Josie, have already engaged with their desks at home before dinner, practicing writing, and this morning getting them organized. I think it is special for Mia that it’s just hers, and that she can do ‘adult-ish’ things she sees her older siblings and parents do, like writing, reading, using numbers and ‘working.’”
What benefits do you see in this type of “make-and-take” activitiy for families and students to do together at school?
“Our family really enjoyed this event,” preschool parent Jess Graff said. “This time of year the children often resort to screen time after dinner. This event was an opportunity for us to get out of the house and make something all together. It was great to see so many of my son’s classmates and peers and get to meet some other families that live in our community. Both children used their literacy desks as soon as they got home and when they woke up in the morning the next day. The literacy desk was definitely a motivation for my son to practice and develop those skills.”
“It was awesome to see the children smiling on their way out the door,” Hurt said. “They were taking home their creation, something they were incredibly proud of, which will spark their curiosity, support their creativity and will inspire them to read and write. That kind of experience is not limited to school and does not need to cost a lot of money. Such amazing learning can happen just from genuine time spent together.”
“Both of my daughters moved their desks up to their room and have been using them,” preschool parent Tucker Riggs said. “It was fun to help the kids create the desks and for them to see that even something as simple as a cardboard box and some tape can be transformed into a space where they can have fun writing, drawing, and exploring.”
Chris Dodge is the principal at Fletcher Elementary School.