Teaching physical education and health is as simple as tossing out a few balls and telling the kids to run around and feel your heart pounding, right? Well, that couldn’t be any farther from the description of PE teacher Sara Coon. A teacher who exemplifies ways to raise the bar time and time again, both in and out of her gym.
Sara was hired by Mars Area School District in the Fall of 2018 to teach PE and health. She travels between the Primary Center and Centennial School to teach 1st, 5th, and 6th graders. Mrs. Coon started teaching in 1997, just out of college. She says, “I got lucky,” but I think it’s the other way around -- they were lucky to have found her! She taught K-5th grade PE for three years in Greensboro, NC. Then she moved to Sanford, NC and taught health and PE to 6th, 7th and 8th graders for two years. After taking a few years off to stay home with her own children, Mrs. Coon started back into teaching. She substitute taught for Seneca Valley, Mars, North Allegheny, Rochester, and Freedom, which soon led to her job offer from Mars.
From the day Mrs. Coon started teaching PE at the Primary Center, her passion was evident. The kids would enter the gym thrilled to see what exciting activities were set up and how they were going to interact with the equipment. She makes PE a safe space, even for the kids who are still developing their athletic skills, and she gives them something achievable to look forward to.
Sara chose to carry on the legacy of a former, beloved Mars PE teacher by continuing the yearly American Heart Association fundraiser. The AHA is a nationally recognized organization that gives back to the community, as well as to the school. Mrs. Coon said that, “AHA is near and dear to me, as I lost a close friend to heart disease.” She knows it's essential for children to understand why they must take care of their heart, starting at a young age. This message can be life changing! Mrs. Coon says, “If I can teach the kids the importance of exercise, eating healthy, and being drug free, I am happy!” Beyond that, the AHA provides great resources for teaching students how to care for their heart, starting at a young age.
Of course planning a fundraiser during a pandemic would set things back a little, but does that stop an optimistic, motivated PE teacher? No way! This year Mrs. Coon was amazed at the generosity of the Mars community and how they came together to support AHA. It was a major bummer not to have the big kick off assembly at the schools. However, Mrs. Coon managed with a virtual assembly. She also invited parents into the school for a jumping rope PE class with their child, a shared activity cherished by many in the past. Mrs. Coon made the best of it by allowing parents to logon and enjoy viewing their child jumping rope with friends in the gym. She knows how to go that extra mile!
Seeing Mrs. Coon in the gym, interacting with her students, makes it completely evident that she loves her job! Her favorite part of her job is watching her students achieve skills that they could not do before. The smile on their faces when they realize they are mastering something new just warms her heart. As Sara’s favorite motto goes, "If you don’t have health, you don’t have anything!”
Mrs. Coon grew up in Sweden, in a family that was very active! They skied in the winter, both cross country and downhill, and in the summer it was water skiing! She played basketball from second grade through high school. She started refereeing basketball before coming to the United States. Sara attended UNC-Greensboro, where she met her husband. Together they have three children who are all active in sports; baseball, soccer, volleyball, and horseback riding.
"Our goal right now is to do whatever we can so the kids have this experience. One of the things I told them is we are not guaranteed tomorrow, so savor every moment and every experience," said Kennedy.
For any theatrical production to occur, the rights, or royalty fees, for each show must be paid, and costumes and all materials for set design must be purchased. At Mars, these purchases are made by the directors using money earned from the previous year’s ticket sales. With no shows last school year, this is a unique challenge for the musical directors who have already spent their allotted budget preparing for Mamma Mia.
Normally the musical would have three shows with 1,000 tickets sold for each, but this year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the musical will host 6 shows with about 120 tickets sold for each. This means that even if all tickets are sold, the program will receive less than one-third of their typical proceeds. In other words, this may be the last year that the high school musical exists in the Mars Area School District.
Realizing this fact and knowing that without district support the musical is doomed to fall short of the funding needed to continue, I asked what drives these teachers. Why keep working with the students when you know the simple facts of math are aligned against this program?
Answering this question brought both teachers to tears in separate interviews, driving home the emotional investment they have made in our students. While the musical directors are doing their best to keep their focus on the here and now, they also expressed concern for the future of the program and how that will affect the students in the district.
“We do it for the kids – they are the most wonderful group of kids, and to see the impact the rehearsals and then the performance has on each and every one of them is what drives me. We are like a family,” said Kaminski.
While attempting to bring any proposal for additional spending to the fifth wealthiest district in the state under a perpetual state of austerity is certainly dead on arrival, these two teachers put in an admirable energy and passion into their roles. Kennedy and Kaminski estimate that they each clock over 900 hours of work on every production, and their biggest hope right now is that they will have the resources to continue to do so for many productions to come.
See how they pulled it off in this KDKA spotlight article! Mars Area High School Finds Way To Put On ‘Mamma Mia’ Musical
As the year progressed, and Mrs. Paolini got to know her students better, it became apparent that more equipment and materials were needed. Mrs. Paolini created a Donors Choose page named, Special Supports for Sensory Seekers. Her wish list included heavy-duty dividers, yoga mats, and a lot of unique equipment to support sensory and attention needs. Fortunately, her project was funded and she received everything her student’s needed.
Aside from the equipment, the students in Mrs. Paolini’s classroom have access to a variety of curriculum and programs to meet their individualized needs. If you were to walk into her classroom at any given time, you would see almost every student working on something different. Her students come in with all different skill sets and abilities, requiring a wide range of differentiation. Currently, Mrs. Paolini is utilizing four different curricula, on varying levels, for daily direct instruction.
Mrs. Paolini doesn’t just focus on academics. All of her students have access to an applied behavior analysis program, yoga sessions on individual mats, and social skills lessons. Overall, the programming, interventions, and delivery of instruction have allowed students within Mrs. Paolini’s classroom to thrive. She has created a space that supports, yet provides safe boundaries, for each student’s individualized needs. Sensory input needs are met, not just through the well-equipped sensory room, but within Mrs. Paolini’s classroom as well. She has designated spaces in the classroom for sensory breaks and sensory equipment. Students can spend a few minutes in the rocking chair with a weighted blanket, utilize a liquid timer, or bounce on the trampoline. The equipment and this specialty designated space allow Mrs. Paolini, and her team, to provide the students of Mars Primary Center with the instruction that they need.
Like all classrooms, teaching through the pandemic has presented some new hurtles for Mrs. Paolini with regards to keeping the classroom and the materials clean and safe. Mrs. Paolini said, “We always were very sanitary due to the nature of our environment, all the shared equipment, and just being more hands on overall. However, we really upped our game with cleaning this year.” This added to the daily duties of prepping the classroom. They also now keep a “Needs to Be Cleaned” bin, where items used by a student will remain until sanitized properly. They also keep each student’s individual workspace, bins, and materials clean and ready for use.
Mrs. Paolini loves her job and it shows through her interactions with her students. She said, “I feel as though everyday my support staff and myself are constantly celebrating. We love celebrating all victories with our students!” We as educators celebrate Mrs. Paolini too and all that she has brought to Mars Primary Center’s students!
A district wide initiative began three years ago called Rachel’s Challenge to promote a positive school climate. Click on this link for more info about this program. https://rachelschallenge.org/
Guidance counselors from a few buildings were delegated the task of implementing the Friends of Rachel Club (FOR Club) for the students in their building as a part of this district wide initiative. Students who participate in FOR Club brainstorm, plan, and lead activities at school to promote Rachel Scott’s 5 Challenges:
Look for the best in others. We strive to remove prejudices.
Dream big. We set high goals and are committed to those goals.
Choose positive influences. We surround ourselves with positive people.
Speak with kindness. Words can both hurt and heal.
Start your own chain reaction. How far can your positive influence go?
Tanis Rose (Middle School School Counselor) and Becky Monhemius (8th grade Language Arts teacher) are the advisors of the Middle School FOR Club. FOR club is a very popular club with over 75 members in 7th and 8th grade. Mrs. Rose explains that the kids know this is a no judgement zone and everyone is welcome. Each member has an opportunity to share their ideas and talents, to be fully accepted, and to build close friendships. The goal of each advisor and member is to better their school and community and promote positive relationships among peers.
The FOR club is extremely active at the middle school and in the Mars Community. Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Monhemius devote numerous hours outside of school time preparing for FOR Club events, advising after school club activities and organizing community service opportunities.
Some examples of FOR Club events include: the Police Officer Appreciation Luncheon and The American Heart Association Donation Drive, which includes events like “Stuck for a Buck” where students can tape their teachers to the wall, a photo booth and a table of prizes with all proceeds benefiting the heart association. In addition, this club hosts various in school theme weeks and special awareness days such as Children’s Grief Awareness day. Prior to the pandemic, FOR club would volunteer once a month to play bingo with the residents of St. Johns.
Thousands of dollars in donations for charities have been collected by this club. All activities including the police luncheon, prizes/raffle items for the various donation drives and supplies for events are funded by the advisors with the help of parents and staff members. Despite being denied twice for a supplemental activity stipend, these advisors are still going above and beyond the expectations the district has set when they created this program as a district initiative.
Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Monhemius say, “We see the excitement and joy the students get from helping each other and the community so we do what we can to make this a great experience for the students”.
In the fall of 2014, the superintendent, Matt Friedman, came to Mrs. Bridge requesting that she draft a curriculum for a middle school class that would promote STEAM and teach 21st-century problem-solving skills. During the 2014-2015 school year, Mrs. Bridge and the administration reached out to the community and parents in an effort to fund this endeavor, and the support of the community was overwhelming. They were able to raise $15,000 from parents and businesses in the community, so the school board signed off on a $5,000 budget to allow for a $20,000 budget for purchasing all equipment needed to get the Programming courses up and running. Nevertheless, a budget was not discussed or agreed upon for the future of this class.
Knowing that the programming class could not continue without proper funding, Mrs. Bridge continued to pursue grants and professional development opportunities that would provide her students engaging, hands-on activities. In 2016, a parent reached out to the middle school to share an opportunity for teachers to apply for funding through PPG Innovative Classroom Grants. After hearing of this grant opportunity, Mrs. Bridge began discussing ideas for cross-curricular collaboration with Mr. Benson, the Technology Education teacher. Mr. Benson had been meeting with science teachers to discuss a cross-curricular project called “Trout in the Classroom” and was seeking grant funding. Knowing of Mr. Benson’s affinity for project-based learning, Mrs. Bridge began discussing ideas for cross-curricular projects with Mr. Benson. Together, they began writing grants to support project-based learning.
Since 2016, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Benson have received $7,000 through the PPG Innovative Classroom Grants. Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Benson also sought additional funding to support collaborative STEAM projects in their classrooms through the Mars Planet Foundation and have been awarded over $15,000 since 2017. Mrs. Bridge also collaborated with Kara Eckert, who was the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Innovative Practices, to receive $35,000 from the PA Smart Grant. All in all, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Benson helped raise over $57,000 in 6 years to support the Programming and Technology Education courses that are being offered at Mars Area Middle School. Their passion for what they teach is evident in their desire to offer our students hands-on, real-world applications of technology that will prepare students for careers in the 21st century.
Mrs. Hock’s biggest concern is she does not really know how to use the software to edit and she doesn’t have the time to sit and learn how to use it. While she is learning together with the kids, she is aware that someone with a technology background could bring a lot more to the table.
“I have learned that at the end of the day, problem solving skills are life skills.” While she wishes she could do the course justice in terms of the technology component, she believes that by working together with students she can still create a meaningful learning opportunity for everyone taking Broadcast Media.