School Opening Update -- Faculty, Calendar, & Classes (7.24.20)

Hi again, all.

In this second installment of the five-part series previewing Free Union's 20-21 school year, tonight's message will give you an overview of the calendar and classes in the year ahead. To be sure, there is much we can't predict, and we expect there will probably be times when we'll have to adapt and adjust to circumstances beyond our control, but our preparations this summer are intended to put us in a position to be learning at school as much as possible for five full days a week on a typical week, starting September 1st. With such new and unusual conditions and the modified approach we'll take to meet them, we think it is important and to everyone's benefit that we build into the calendar a couple of extra opportunities for teachers to collaborate and prepare without the children at school; you'll see those sprinkled once into almost every month throughout the school year. However, in most other respects, the timing, rhythm, and routines of this year's calendar will look similar to most school years. Some of our traditional extracurricular and community gatherings, like the musical concert before Thanksgiving break, have been tentatively cancelled, while others, like Grandfriends' Day, we will simply try to institute in new and different ways, much as we did with the Spring Fair and May Day this past spring. For details about the current version of the 2020-'21 school year calendar, you may consult the file attached below, and as the school year approaches, we will make an electronic version of the calendar, updated in real time, available here for download into Google calendar.

As for the classes themselves, where each will meet when learning inside, where their dedicated bathrooms will be, how they'll be constituted, and who will be teaching each, here is how things seem to be shaping up so far:

  • Early Childhood 1: Our youngest pod of learners will have six or seven kiddos each morning, some of whom will head home around 12:30, and four of whom will stick around for an afternoon nap. Their teacher will be the intrepid and irrepressible Nicole Maclay, who joined us last year in the Pre-K classroom. Hailing from Idaho, Nicole earned a Bachelors in Elementary Education from Montana State University in 2006, and came to us last year loaded with experience teaching and nurturing young children. Prior to landing in Central Virginia, Nicole taught on the other side of the world, in Tauranga, New Zealand, after which she spent her first six years in Virginia working as an intervention specialist and a teacher of first, third, and fourth-graders in Albemarle Public Schools. Inspired in 2013 to create a nature-based preschool for her son Henry and other children, Nicole founded the highly regarded Round House Playschool in Crozet. Nicole currently is pursuing a Masters in Environmental-Based Learning from Mary Baldwin. When she is not at school, Nicole enjoys hiking, biking, camping with family, do-it-yourself projects, and vegetable and flower gardening.

  • Early Childhood 2: Our more seasoned cohort in the early childhood program will also be a group of six or seven, whose indoor headquarters will be the old Pre-K classroom, and whose bathroom will be the middle bathroom in the early childhood hallway. Their daily guide will be Stephanie Hunter, who joins us after a couple decades as a beloved Kindergarten teacher in the Albemarle County schools. Affectionately nicknamed “Mother Earth” by colleagues, Stephanie comes highly recommended by parents and colleagues alike. Said one parent whose two children were both students of Stephanie’s, “her calm and sweet personality immediately made my daughter feel at home and continued to guide her through the ups and downs of her first year of elementary school. She cheerfully and gently guided all the disparate personalities of a large classroom, and at pick-up, I often observed second, third, and fourth graders rushing over to give Stephanie a hug or say hi to her before they left. Stephanie made sure that the outdoors and nature walks happened on a regular basis and even led a very popular nature after school camp. She loved my son through all his worries and made an environment that he wanted to be in, gently supporting him when he had a hard time. Both children were on the younger side in kindergarten and neither were ready to read. Stephanie understood that and did not pressure them. She meets kids where they are and encourages their other interests. In Stephanie's classroom, her students truly become a family. She emphasizes taking care of each other and supporting your friends until it becomes second nature for her kindergarteners. Stephanie understands what it is to be little, how daunting it can seem to learn new things away from home, and most importantly, what a child needs.” Her colleagues rave about the community of caring she creates in her classroom, the loving support her students all feel from her, and the exuberant learning that then occurs with that rock-solid social-emotional foundation. We feel incredibly fortunate to be able to bring an educator of Stephanie’s caliber and disposition onto our team this year. Welcome, Stephanie!

  • Kindergarten: Our group of nine Kindergartners will once again be led by the creative, holistically minded, and steadying Jess Burns. For indoor learning, the Kindergartners will enter through the west-facing side porch door, and their dedicated bathroom will be directly adjacent to the kitchen. A lover of outdoor exploration, discovery, and experience, Jess has guided past Kindergarten classes to create mobile museums and complete and present independent research projects. Before coming to Free Union, Jess was involved for years in many capacities with the Pittsburgh Waldorf School. With an MSW from the University of Pittsburgh, she piloted a large-scale mentorship and work skills training project for the most underprivileged teens in the state. Her deepest interests lie in effective community interventions and community building, in response to the great economic disparities of our time. Her teaching style promotes a commitment to welfare of the larger group and the environment. She can often be found anywhere outdoors year-round, hunting for fossils and arrowheads, and loves cold-water swimming.

  • 1st Grade: Our 1st graders will again be led by Marguerite Brunner, whom many of them already know well from all of the mixed K/1st classroom experiences they enjoyed together last year. Marguerite has been an educator for over twenty years, in elementary schools, at the Boys' and Girls' Club, and leading pre-service for early career teachers. She teaches best practice in elementary reading, math, and gifted education for UVA's Curry School of Education, where she earned an educational specialist degree. Besides guiding and inspiring our new first graders this year, Marguerite will also help with parent coaching and liaising this coming year. Marguerite loves the outdoors and enjoys daily nature walks with her four dogs, hiking with her family, and traveling to new places.

  • 2nd/3rd Grade Mixed Cohort #1: Michael Schott takes over one of our mixed cohorts of 2nd and 3rd graders this year after a year of showcasing his versatility at Free Union by starting in the afterschool early childhood program, and ending the year capably captaining remote learning for our 4/5 classes through the final three months of the school year. He earned plaudits from parents in every role, and has consistently demonstrated an unflappable willingness to dive in with patient, supportive, good-humored confidence, balanced by thoughtful application of his first-rate training. Before coming to Free Union, Michael taught for eight years in Chicago as a primary grades teacher at a dual-language academy, and for one year in an Austin, TX middle school. He holds a Master's degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a focus on radical pedagogy, play-based research, and foreign-language acquisition. Always up for a game of tennis or chess, Michael loves to cook stews with a Blue Note jazz record spinning behind him. When indoors, Michael’s 2/3 group will spend their time in the old 2nd grade classroom downstairs near the gardens, and will have access to the closest bathroom in the Big Room corridor as their dedicated space.

  • 2nd/3rd Grade Mixed Cohort #1: Blair Amberley returns for another year in the middle grades at Free Union, where he’ll lead our other 2nd/3rd Grade cohort in the eponymously named Box O’ Blair, aka BOB. Known for his innovative learning projects like basketball math and Changemakers, and his commitment to helping his students stretch themselves, Blair will also help this year to spearhead and coordinate some of our new curriculum and instruction efforts this year. Blair is also an avid reader, an outdoor enthusiast, an eclectic audiophile, a skilled birdwatcher, and the proud parent of two kids and a new puppy.

  • 4/5 Cohort #1: Everyone’s friend John Fisher will return for another year in his familiar role working with the “4/5 ‘s,” but this year his indoor learning space will be in The Big Room, to take advantage of the high ceilings and larger space than the old 4/5 classroom. Fueled by his insatiable curiosity and zest for learning and thinking and trying, John will not only guide his group of ⅘’ers on far-ranging adventures of the mind, but will also help guide and support the school’s efforts in sustainability and community-building. Our resident curator, John makes his own yogurt, writes his own lyrics, hosts his own radio show, chooses his own adventures, and holds everyone in his heart.

  • 4/5 Cohort #2: New to the role but certainly not to the school, Sarah Donelson will bring to her work with Free Union’s other ⅘ group her intellectual scholarship, clever wit, and myriad insights from years of involvement with the school as both a teacher and parent. With her Ph.D. in early modern history, Sarah will offer new perspectives especially to the humanities side of the ⅘ experience, not to mention the kind of creativity that resulted in the Chicken Tales storytelling podcast that she created last year with and for our Preschoolers. Whenever learning indoors, her group’s dedicated space will be the Art Room, which also has a bathroom of its own. When not playing, reading books, and eliciting laughs at Free Union, Sarah can be found with her children, Eleanor and William, her husband, Jim, or reading, running, and knitting.

OK, we made it. Sometime this weekend, I'll send along the third installment in the series, providing a slightly more detailed picture of our approach to learning in the coming year.

Meanwhile, hope you all have a chance to enjoy what should be a pretty nice weekend.