Lynnwood fifth-graders invent their own country to study range of subjects

  • Wed Feb 22nd, 2012 7:41pm
  • News

By Mina Williams For The Herald

LYNNWOOD — There are no tidy lines of desks in Steven VandeGriend’s fifth-grade classroom at Lynnwood Elementary School.

Instead there are distinct areas for gathering alongside work tables to accommodate several students. The room is filled with sights and sounds; a box is filled with hats and wigs, presidential portraits line a wall and colonial-era music wafts in the background. It is an unconventional space designed and dedicated to bringing our nation’s birth to life for 21st-century 10-year-olds.

“I teach from the walls,” VandeGriend says.

More than the walls, however, VandeGriend immerses students in history to help them explore their own role as citizens.

“Citizens need to be informed, think, speak and share,” VandeGriend said. “I want my kids to be able to have that.”

In the early days of the school year, the process begins with classmates simply sharing what their weekend was like.

That sharing blossoms through the year as students take on speeches aimed at persuading opinions.

This year’s class of 23 formed an imaginary country, with a president, a senate and a house of representatives. “Laws” are developed, written and enacted — just like in Washington, D.C. This is the ninth year a “country” has formed at Lynnwood Elementary.

Class presidents’ photos hang alongside U.S. presidents’ visages. The system of government in the classroom has spurred students to do great things, VandeGriend said.

One class president started a Praise Relay. The boy created a worksheet for his classmates to practice saying something friendly about each other and coordinated a structure so that each member would have a turn giving and receiving a compliment.

Each year VandeGriend’s class delves into the lives of U.S. presidents, looking at the traits that made them leaders.

“I hope to concretely show students that presidents were like them. They were once kids. They made mistakes. They had hopes, wishes and dreams,” he said.

Using social studies as a foundation, VandeGriend vaults into lessons in mathematics, music, science and literature. When developing the classroom’s house of representatives, for example, students must apply area and perimeter concepts along with population to equalize the number of representatives.

VandeGriend knew in high school he would teach.

“I’ve always loved the classroom,” he said. “I want kids to have a safe place with a joy of learning. School is a great place to go to.”

The youngest of six brothers, growing up in Iowa, he was always taking care of nieces and nephews.

Of all the VandeGriend boys, two are teachers.

“I trade secrets with my brother, a math teacher,” VandeGriend said. One of the largest lessons he learned was to be prepared, ready to go with all copies made, he said.

He also directs the school plays every year. This year’s production, March 28-30, will be “Sleeping Beauty,” an all-school effort presented as a ballet-comedy.