Tempest in a petri dish

KENNY – Many of the 8th graders in Ann Velander’s third-period science class dressed down as part of “comfy cozy day” at Anthony Middle School, one mid-December morning.

Some students were wearing flannel pants, T-shirts, sweat suits and other soft, fuzzy clothes. The rest of the week’s themes included retro, wacky, sports and a twins theme wherein students come to school dressed like look-alikes. The days are part of an initiative led by the school’s Student Council to celebrate school spirit.

The 1950s-era school in the Kenny neighborhood takes its name from women’s right activist Susan B. Anthony. Its community program attracts a diverse student body from surrounding areas.

Anthony supporters say the sense of community it fosters is a big draw for students at one of their most challenging times of adolescence.

Currently, the school is in the planning stages to become an American Studies magnet this fall. The school will emphasize history and other social studies related to American life, integrating these courses into the regular curriculum. Associate Principal Cheryl Pittman said the emphasis would prepare students for a similar program that started at Washburn High School.

Anthony will have a partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to offer students access to a wealth of information, she said. Additionally, becoming a magnet means more funding, training and other resources for the school, she said.

Principal Jackie Hanson, who’s served at Anthony for eight years and worked in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) for two decades, said the main task is to prepare children for high school by providing academic rigor.

That goes beyond the school day. “One thing we tell parents is that we’re really growing leaders. We put kids in leadership positions as much as we can. Kids run open houses, serve on the Student Council and work in peer mediation,” she said.

Hanson admitted, however, “It’s always challenging with middle school students. They’re trying to figure out who they are.”

Catastrophic events

Even though 8th-graders can be unruly at times, Velander confessed that she has a soft spot for the age group. She’s been teaching at Anthony for two years and three years all together in MPS. She praised Anthony for its supportive atmosphere and a unified staff.

The strength of the science curriculum is that students get to apply lab lessons to actual situations, rather than just hear about them, she said.

Providing hands-on exercises is a key part of educating 8th-graders who’ve settled into a regular routine at school by now, said Velander. They’re beginning to express their individuality that sometimes means tuning out subjects that they don’t feel they’re good at, she said.

Today, for example, her room smells like baby powder. The 33 students in her third-period class are seated at desks that are pushed together forming larger tables and lab groups. Graphs of catastrophic events such as volcanoes and tornadoes are mounted to ceiling panels while paper cutouts of planets and numbers dangle from the ceiling.

Students are studying the Earth’s forces, including weather patterns, volcanoes, earthquakes, chemistry, astronomy and environmental issues. Today. the class is investigating surface currents. Students blow gently into straws over water-filled petri dishes that they sprinkled with baby powder. The white specks act like clouds and other air currents as they make ripples across the tiny ocean (the sides of the petri dish represent land).

About the lab, Ivy Lalama penned in her notebook, “The water spread out in a circleŠWhen I blew on the straw, the water moved away from me. This is the same as the current because wind blows the current the same direction.”

The students examined maps that illustrated hot and cold surface currents with red and blue streaks. Velander explained that fog forms in the gulf’s stream when cold and warm air came together. “My challenge is to show them science is everyday stuff. They need to know the basics. It relates to everything they do,” she said.

But that’s part of the fun, too. “My philosophy is that if you’re not the kind of person who’s energized by [the students’] energy, if it drains you, then it’s not a good place. I love the energy, so it works well,” she said. “They’re a treat. No doubt, it’s a fun age.”

Building community

Students and teachers are “looped” together in core classes (English, math and science) through 7th and 8th grade to establish stronger bonds. Fine arts are also emphasized at the school, according to Hanson.

The middle school boasts an advanced program offering students opportunities to achieve beyond the regular curriculum. In some cases, that enables students to start at higher-level classes in high school.

Hanson boasted that many Anthony students get into their top-choice “small learning community” when they graduate from Anthony, including a sizable number of entrants into the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Southwest High School.

As a testimony to its vitality, community members greet students on Monday and Friday mornings. They staff the library in the mornings before school starts and help run numerous extracurricular classes. Students may choose beading, bread-making, Math Masters, spelling and geography bee, sports and knitting, among others.

Afterschool tutoring is available. There’s an active PTA and usually around 30 to 50 parents are pitching in at the school on any given day, said Hanson.

Parent Michelle DeVaughn, who lives close enough to the school so that she can hear the bell ring, recently moved to the area from Wisconsin. She has children in 6th grade and 7th grade at Anthony. DeVaughn volunteers in a 7th-grade science class.

DeVaughn said she was impressed with the school’s variety of programs and well-mixed population. Both of her children have been peer mediators and helped resolve conflicts between other students. She said it has provided valuable learning for pushing them out of their comfort zones.

“I just feel like, as the world gets smaller and more similar as you age, I prefer to have them have as many different experiences with lots of different people,” she said.

They’ve also participated in sports and jazz band. Initially, she was timid about the middle school model (at first glance, 8th graders appear intimidating). But, “There’s a nice sense of respect and clear responsibility,” she said.

Parent Andrea Iten, co-chair of the PTA, said her 7th-grade daughter feels safe and is challenged. Iten said parent-teacher conferences are well attended, as are many other events such as the school’s Winter Olympics.

“When people consider that school, they find a great place for kids to become independent. They’re trying to take on more responsibility. It forces kids to get organized,” she said. “My daughter loves to go to school, and I can’t ask for much more than that.”

Velander agreed, “It’s a really busy happy place. It’s so different to go from elementary to middle school because there’s definitely a different feel. Anthony is a great transition,” she said, adding, “It’s a fun place to work and a fun place to learn.”


Reach Anna Pratt at 436-4391 or [email protected].