NEW ULM - If the kids in some of these photos appear "color-coded" in their blue, green, red and purple T-shirts, it's because, in one sense, they are - to identify them as belonging to four different kindergarten classrooms.
However, if you take a closer look at the photos, you'll see that the colors mix, match and flow together; the children are interacting!
The students have been involved in CRIC Club, an initiative spearheaded by their teachers - Julie Petersen and Holly Syverson in New Ulm, and Gwen Rossbach and Trent Weicherding in Sleepy Eye.
The Two Leos
This somewhat symbolic photo sums up parts of CRIC Club’s mission: enhancing community awareness of cultural diversity. Leo Waloch (from Julie Petersen’s New Ulm kindergarten class) and Leo Fernandez (from Trent Weicherding’s Sleepy Eye kindergarten class) enjoy CRIC Club Friendship Day on May 6 at Concordia Lanes in New Ulm.
In CRIC Club, each New Ulm classroom has been paired with a classroom of Sleepy Eye friends. Through social interaction while also working on various academic skills, the classroom partnerships work to increase awareness and inspire student learning.
CRIC stands for "Cottonwood River Integration Collaborative," a group that brings together districts with ethnically diverse students. The schools in CRIC are Cedar Mountain, Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop, New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Springfield and St. James.
The purpose of CRIC is to provide strategies to allow students to participate in educational programs that are multicultural, diverse, and racially integrated, states the organization.
The ultimate benefits are improving student achievement and enhancing community awareness of cultural diversity.
A classroom partnership such as CRIC Club has three components: face-to-face interaction, a shared website, and Skype video conferencing. A classroom partnership consists of a minimum of three face-to-face interactions and a minimum of four Skype video conferencing sessions. The interactions include activities that surround components of everyday curriculum - making this idea not simply a social occasion, but also an integral component of academic learning.
Under CRIC Club rules, each teacher receives a webcam, microphone, Skype account, and classroom manipulatives to use during the face-to-face interactions. Busing and all materials are paid for by CRIC.
Pairings are grade-level specific. For example, a fourth-grade class from Sleepy Eye may be paired up with a fourth-grade class from Cedar Mountain, but not a third-grade class. Classroom partnerships must include Sleepy Eye or St. James, the two districts that state regulations classify as "racially-isolated."
Beside the kindergarten partnership documented in these photos, a second partnership exists between the New Ulm and St. James School Age Care Programs.
Interviewed for this story, the New Ulm kindergarten teachers involved, Petersen and Syverson, explained the specific ways in which they and their Sleepy Eye counterparts conducted the program.
They came up with the ideas themselves, aligning them with curriculum goals.
The Skype interactions took place twice a month and were centered around specific themes.
The themes included: "At school, I like..." (sentence writing, picture drawing and sharing); "I am tankful for..." (sentence writing, picture drawing and sharing); "Holiday sing-along" (share your favorite holiday song); "Christmas bingo game;" "Build a snowfriend art activity;" "Graph your favorite winter activity;" "Uppercase/lower case alphabet matching game;" "Number bingo game;" "Color word bingo game;" and "High frequency word bingo game."
As evident in the themes, the interactions help increase students' academic performance.
Having "broken the ice" through the video sessions, the children also participated in three special "face-to-face" events.
The teachers grouped the children in ways that encouraged interaction.
In October, the children spent a day at Vogel Arena, engaged in gross motor games, arts and crafts activities and building and puzzle activities.
Among other things, the children built with blocks and recycled items, creating what the teachers called "amazing structures," reinforcing the idea that "no two of you are alike."
In April, they traveled to Hacker's Nursery and Tree Farm, enjoying a greenhouse tour, planting their own plants, a garden seed activity station and a game and /or story station.
In May, the kindergarten classes went bowling at Concordia Lanes in New Ulm, and also created with tangram pieces (a manipulative that teaches math concepts). They explored Schell's Garden, Hermann Heights and Harman parks.
Simply being "out and about" increased the children's familiarity with local landmarks, the teachers said.
The initiative reached out to families, as well. The teachers sent out invitations to parents to join in, and many did, helping build connections and trust in and between the communities, fostering friendships, expanding the circle of adults that children trust...
The teachers expect the friendships formed during the interactions to last into first grade and beyond.
The kindergartners often came to class during the year reporting that they saw their friends in the grocery store, or elsewhere. This fostered the feeling that another child has value and importance in their lives.
As a "side benefit," in a time of cutting school budgets, CRIC Club provided a creative way of adding to the technology and supplies (cameras, word-building blocks/Legos, tangrams, etc.) used in each classroom.
The teachers believe they've started "something amazing and wonderful," noted Petersen. It has been gratifying to see the "excitement and engagement" of students and families.
With CRIC funding for next year likely to be rescinded, the teachers are hoping to think up other creative possibilities to "keep it going."
Photos courtesy of Julie Petersen, Holly Syverson