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It’s Hands-On at Wakefield

Wakefield Forest stands out as one of few county elementary schools to offer electives.

For fifth- and sixth-grade students at Wakefield Forest Elementary, it’s never too early to begin planning for the future.

Wakefield Forest began offering elective courses to students in its two uppermost grade levels more than 10 years ago, said Sheri D’Amato, the school’s principal. The courses help assess what the students "have an appetite for," she said, which helps them anticipate what electives they will choose in middle school.

From dance and team sports, to chorus and Hands-On Equations, the children have a variety of options. Fairfax County elementary schools may include electives in the curriculum if the principals at the schools desire to, but it isn't common, said Mary Shaw, a Fairfax County schools spokeswoman. D'Amato said she thinks Wakefield might be the only school in the county to offer the classes, but the county does not keep records of it.

"I like electives because you get to choose what you want," said fifth-grader Shelby Wetherell. "I like learning things that I’m going to have to learn in other grades."

Since children get the chance to choose what they’re interested in for the first time in their education, it really helps them determine the electives they want to continue taking at the middle and high school levels, said D’Amato.

HANDS-ON EQUATIONS, a new elective this year, is one of the more academic electives at Wakefield, but that hasn’t deterred the children from enjoying it. The patented teaching technique, created by Dr. Henry Borenson, a New York City teacher and entrepreneur, uses manipulatives to show children how to solve algebraic equations. The manipulatives, or game pieces, allow the children to mentally and physically solve math problems.

"I like that it makes you use your brain more than in regular math," said fifth-grader Tommy Williams. "It’s more fun than regular math."

Rhonda Shoemaker teaches Hands-On Equations at Wakefield Forest, and she said so far the children are enjoying it. Like all electives at the school, the class is offered quarterly, so it lasts anywhere from seven to nine weeks. Initially, Shoemaker said she correctly suspected that most of the students who chose Hands-On Equations did so at their parents’ orders. As the course went on though, and the students began learning, she polled the class again and asked if they were happy they took the course. Everyone raised his or her hand, she said.

"It’s fun for the kids to learn, and it’s fun to teach," said Shoemaker.

The technique of the course uses game pieces to help children logically solve the equations by isolating the variable, which is always X. Blue game pieces, or pawns, represent the X variable in each equation, and red cubes represent the numbers in each equation.

"I’ve learned how to figure more complicated X’s out," said Tommy.

The visual aid really helps in figuring out the equation, said Shoemaker, and it keeps the children actively engaged and interested.

"They start solving equations that even impress them," she said.

THE HANDS-ON Equations curriculum consists solely of algebra, a high school level program of study, so students get a head start on their mathematics education. Several of the students in Shoemaker’s class are aware of that too.

"I like it because we know that middle and high school are going to be tough, so this will help," said fifth-grader Jacob Eisner.

"I like math, and I know it will get harder," said sixth-grader Joe Rolen.

Since Wakefield’s electives are offered quarterly, students can get a tiny sampling of something they might not otherwise want to take an entire year of, said D’Amato. All fifth and sixth graders must choose an elective, setting Wakefield Forest apart from the rest of the county’s elementary schools, she said.

"It really enriches their curriculum," said D’Amato. "It’s exposure to a variety of kids’ passions; [the electives] are the things that excite kids."

The classes aren’t taught by fifth- and sixth-grade teachers, though, so it gives those teachers more quality planning time, said D’Amato. Community members, parents, department leaders and other faculty come in to teach the courses, which is also an exciting aspect of the electives, she said.

"It’s been really successful; we’ve had a lot of good feedback from the kids," said D’Amato. "It is a privilege."