Lower School Matters

Why Are Specials So Important?
Lauren Roberts

The month's post aims to give you some insight into what we call "specials" at the Lower School: PE, art, music/drama, library, computer lab and science lab, and Spanish. At St. Thomas Aquinas School we consider these to be essential elements of the overall curriculum as they help us fulfill the "balanced pursuit of knowledge" part of our mission and help us honor our commitment to teach and help develop the whole child. Thank you to the "specials" teachers for their contributions to the information below.

Parents frequently ask how much exposure their children have to these classes. The chart below identifies, by grade level, the frequency and duration of students' visits to specials.

LS Specials 2017-18Why are these classes important?

One of the best explanations I have encountered for the value of arts education comes from a book called Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, Second Edition (Hetland, Winner, Veenemaand Sheridan, 2015). Regarding the public’s understanding of what is learned in the arts, the authors describe,

"Just ask someone what students learn in our classes, and you are likely to hear that they learn how to paint, or draw, or throw a pot. That's true, but it only tells what they do, not how they learn to think. This reply is analogous to saying that students learn writing skills in writing class. Of course students learn artistic crafts in arts classes. But we must ask what else they learn. Does experience in the arts change students' minds so that they can approach the world as an artist would? Students must be given the opportunity to think like artists, just as they should also be given the opportunity to approach the world mathematically, scientifically, historically, and linguistically. The arts are another way of knowing the world - as important as the other disciplines to our societal health."

At St. Thomas Aquinas School, we believe that the same mind-expanding opportunities are created by students' exposure to each of the specials classes. 


There is no one like Chris Abbott to teach technique to young children. She introduces the children to the styles of art masters. She is also masterful at teaching art across the curriculum, often combining art with literature, science, and social studies. A walk around the Lower School is like a beautiful gallery walk. Here are samples of some exhibits that have graced the Lower School halls, past and present. If you have an opportunity to volunteer in the art room, you will gain a deep appreciation for the exceptional quality of the art lessons your children receive.


If you interview K-2 students about their favorite thing about the Lower School, many will tell you, "science lab!" Volunteer during science lab and you will understand why! The Upper and Lower School collaborate to ensure vertical alignment across campuses. Lower School students participate in both natural science and computer science labs weekly. Science is taught in the classrooms by homeroom teachers and the practical application of what they are studying comes to life in the lab each week through hands-on engaging experiments! Linda Freis, who teaches both computer and science lab classes, continually promotes higher-level thinking by stretching students to hypothesize, perpetually asking them, "why?" St. Thomas Aquinas School is so fortunate to have dedicated science lab instructors on both campuses to bring the highest quality approach to teaching science, including both conceptual and experiential instruction - facilitating deep understanding.

The overarching philosophy is "Think Like a Scientist." Much of the content is integrated between the two disciplines in this early introduction to our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) (or STEAM, add art) curriculum. Concepts are introduced in kindergarten and built upon in 1st and 2nd grade in the Lower School labs. The computer lab classes ensure that students are proficient technology users, able to effectively use technology to support their learning. From early keyboarding and mouse skills in PK4, to applications that support other academic content, St. Thomas Aquinas students are instructed in ways that meet their needs as 21st-century learners.

What we do: We use our senses and technology as tools to gather, evaluate, build and display knowledge about the world around us. Students learn that the sciences and the world around them are interdependent. We address and reflect on social, emotional and ethical issues in the process of understanding that we are also interdependent on each other.

How we do it: We focus on the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) as we make observations, ask questions, explore and solve problems using these tools in a guided, interactive environment.

Why we do it: Students who are actively engaged in learning, retain and own the knowledge for a lifetime. We strive to stimulate every student’s potential for creativity and enable them to express and communicate ideas effectively. This enhances and fosters a challenging academic environment and provides a foundation for interdisciplinary learning.


Classes in pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade engage students using singing, puppets, instruments, drama, dancing, American Sign Language, and poetry. Our students enjoy a hands-on approach to music and are taught how to perform as well as how to listen and watch respectfully as others perform. Not only do we increase their knowledge of and appreciation for key concepts of music and drama, but also increase students' confidence in a way that transcends the curriculum.

We recognize the privilege we have as a Catholic school to be able to incorporate songs of praise and worship, so we certainly take advantage of that opportunity. Judi Thomas brings many years of elementary music and drama experience to St. Thomas Aquinas School. Her love of tchildren and joy for what she is teaching is evident. Mrs. Thomas is finalizing the performance schedule for the year. The schedule will be shared with you as soon as it is finalized.


You won't find an early-childhood librarian more passionate about what they do than Mary Packard! During their weekly visits to the library, Mrs. Packard teaches lessons about our Catholic saints as well as lessons about library skills; she loves to read to the children. One of the primary goals of our library program is to instill a love of reading. All Lower School students attend library once per week. Beginning in kindergarten, students select and check out books from our library. Mrs. Packard arranges visits from award-winning children's authors who present valuable and inspiring assemblies that reveal behind-the-scenes glimpses into how books are authored and illustrated. Pictured above is New York Times best-selling children's author, Chris Barton, during our last author visit. Mrs. Packard also directs the Lower School Scholastic Book Fair, which provides funding for our library programs, helps implement our Accelerated Reader computer program for first and second grade, promotes reading incentive programs, and much more! Mrs. Packard also sponsors our "Young Authors Festival" in May where our students are showcased as authors and their original works are displayed in the main hallway. We are still welcoming extra help for Mrs. Packard processing books to get them on shelves and in little hands. Please e-mail her at mpackard@staschool.org if you can help with this much-needed volunteer opportunity.


PEPhysical education is nothing like I experienced as a child when class consisted of a dodgeball game only! Allison Jorgenson meticulously and thoughtfully plans PE lessons to work on specific skills identified in the Diocesan curriculum. Her classes are structured to include a warm-up, followed by instruction in the skills of the day and opportunities to practice those skills through highly engaging games that the children LOVE. Each day the skills and games are posted on the board in the gym. In the photo above, you can see what's happening today in PE. If you've volunteered for field day, you have seen some of the many games and activities that students play throughout the year. PE also affords many opportunities to practice good sportsmanship, a major focus among PK4 through second-grade students. I love to observe PE as the level of joy in that gym is heartwarming.


At the Lower School, the students are enjoying their time with Alex Mata. New to the St. Thomas Aquinas School community, she is very busy teaching Spanish to all students in grades PK4-5th. Miss Mata is using immersion as much as possible and is also engaging students with a multi-sensory approach using a variety of strategies. You will hear students singing and see them using hand gestures to accompany the vocabulary they are learning. The Lower School focus is on common phrases, conversation, and essential vocabulary rather than written language. When Miss Mata is at the Lower School, many students start their day by exchanging greetings with her the moment she opens their car doors at morning carpool. Empirical evidence suggests that they are really absorbing what they are learning! I am hearing more and more students speaking in complete Spanish phrases and it delights me!

Get ready for a great year!