At well over 6-feet tall, third-grade teacher Cameron Lehman towers over his students at Tempe’s Gethsemane Lutheran School. But the soft-spoken educator gets students’ attention this day by simply saying, “Snowball hands.”
All at once, the students who were moments before actively “buying” and “selling” goods from one another, pause, clap their hands together and stop their talking.
In a moment, “disaster” may strike, he tells them. So it’s time to roll the dice.
Lehman’s students are taking part in an economics exercise running their own stores. Using a budget and pretend money, they’ve set up their shops at desks (rented for $20 from Lehman), purchased their goods (candy) to sell, determined their taxes and church offering, and made decisions on whether or not to buy insurance. All but one student has insurance, Lehman explains. If the dice roll determines a hurricane or earthquake has struck, the student will lose 75 percent of his merchandise.
School administrator Wendell Robson is on-hand to throw the dice. The young man learns he is safe.
Innovative and active learning abounds at the Tempe school. Just outside the third-grade classroom’s door, kindergarten students study physics, in a way.
Using pumpkins of different sizes and shapes, they try to determine what type will roll the furthest. In the commercial kitchen inside the school’s multipurpose room, middle school students huddle for a lesson on how to make an omelet.
“In each of the classrooms, it’s all hands-on, outside, the book learning,” said Jodie Heisner, mom to two preschoolers, on what attracted her to the school.
The private school is in its 34th year, with 200 students in preschool through eighth grade. About 40 percent receive some type of tuition assistance or tax credit scholarship, Robson said.
Though the school is strongly tied to the adjacent church, anyone is welcome. Students come from Tempe and the surrounding East Valley communities of Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert, as well as further locations such as Scottsdale and Queen Creek.
Class size is kept to around 18 students per one teacher. Religious education is offered each morning. All students take part in service projects throughout the year.
There’s also a full-time music instructor who runs choral and band programs. Every grade takes a music class.
“The kids who come out of here have a strong understanding of the topics they study,” Robson said.
Just this year, the school abandoned its computer lab in favor of using iPads in the classrooms. While the younger students share the school’s set, older students are invited to bring their own technology from home. Robson said he hopes to set up a program where families can enter a lease-to-own agreement for an iPad from the school beginning in fifth grade.
Hands-on math and history lessons keep learning fun, Robson said, noting he is the middle school algebra teacher.
“I teach it, not because I have to, but because I want to stay in touch with students in the classroom,” he said.
The school uses phonics to teach reading and Saxon to teach math, but teachers are encouraged to create lessons that engage.
“It’s not our goal to be two to three years ahead” of grade-level material in the classroom, Robson said, “but our students excel. Because of the small class sizes, they’re also able to get more individualized education.”
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