Alexa McGonigal

Alexa McGonigal graduated from UVA in 2009 with majors in English and psychology, and she is now back in Charlottesville for her first year at the School of Law. She volunteers in a kindergarten classroom through Madison House’s “Cavs in the Classroom” program.

Posts from Alexa:

I didn’t know Friday (April 22, 2011) was Earth Day.  If it weren’t for this week’s kindergarten class, I probably wouldn’t have known until I saw Google’s earthy logo that day.   When I was in school, I remember briefly talking about Earth Day, and I think my class planted a tree in celebration.  But the kindergarteners are celebrating all week long, and began by learning about “going green.”


That being said, they already knew a fair amount about the eco-friendly way of life.  A few students pretty clearly articulated the purpose of “going green” was to reduce, reuse, and recycle.  Anne Marie explained how a compost pile worked.  Mynique described the recycling process (“you give them your old paper and they turn it into new paper again”).  Everyone could point to the recycling bin at the front of the classroom.  All in all, I was really impressed with how environmentally conscious all of the kids were.

Together we learned about other ways to protect the environment by reading Miss Fox’s Class Goes Green by Eileen Spinelli.  One idea that Miss Fox had that I thought was particularly clever was a “toy swap:” each of her students brought an old toy or game that he or she was tired of and switched it with a classmate so each student ended up with a new toy without actually buying a new toy.  When I was in kindergarten I think I would have loved that idea (my friends always seemed to have more exciting toys than I did).  Indeed, the kids let out a collective “ooooh” when we read the few pages about the toy swap.  Future class project, anyone?  I think it would be a huge hit.

Whether it’s because of their parents, their teachers, or just a general change in culture, I’m pretty glad these little kids are aware of simple things to help the environment.  I certainly wasn’t aware of all this stuff when I was 6.  From writing on both sides of paper to bringing re-usable bags to the grocery store, everyone seemed to know the basics of living green.

“But I’ve already seen this!”

This week I sat down with the class to hear the teacher read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  A few kids seemed excited, but their squeals were drowned out with the groans from the others who already knew what happened in the story because of the movie.


Throughout the semester, this has happened before.  When celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday a few weeks ago, almost all of the kids said they had seen The Cat in the Hat, so they did not want to read the book. Same for Where the Wild Things Are.

As much as I love movies (especially children’s movies), as an English major I must admit my dismay that these kids seem completely uninterested in a book if they have already seen the movie.  Books are a great source of entertainment and a way for young kids to expand their imaginations while learning at the same time.

For example, one of the (fantastic) illustrations in the book had an enormous pancake flopped on top of a house.  Laughter erupted when the teacher turned the page around so we could see the picture.  She asked, “What would you do if a pancake this big landed on your house?”

Immediately, without any hesitation, a girl raised her hand and boldly stated, “EAT IT!”  Everyone laughed.  She said she liked pancakes so much she could eat the whole thing herself.  A little boy said his dad’s truck could tow it off of the house.  Another girl said she would find a giant to eat the pancake.

This kind of interaction, discussion, and creativity is simply not possible if you’re watching a movie in a crowded, dark movie theatre.  The movie experience is more passive (although arguably more visually stimulating), while reading a book with a group of friends is a lot more stimulating.

In the end, even the kids who had “already seen it” enjoyed reading the story.  Everyone liked looking and talking about the details in the pictures.  After a few pages, everyone stopped saying they knew what was going to happen and listened in with full attention.  I’m glad that even with all the action a movie can provide, the students are still capable of being captivated by a good old-fashioned story reading.

One of my favorite things about six-year-olds is how easily you can see pride and joy on their faces.  This week, the most suave kindergartener I’ve ever met, David, came running up to me when he returned to the classroom from SmartZone.  The kids usually race towards their backpacks to get their snacks at this time, but David grabbed my hand and pulled me over to the corner of the classroom with all of the books.  “Can I read you a book?” he asked excitedly.  His teacher told me he had been waiting all week to show me how he can read the entire book by himself.

With each completed page and sentence, David’s smile grew bigger and bigger.  He stumbled over a few words (he seemed to mix up “here” and “with,” but he figured it out towards the end), but it was amazing to see his little finger run under each word on the page and hear him slowly sound out each letter on unfamiliar words.

At the end of the book, I asked him if he knew how many pages were in the book he just finished.  He proudly said, “fourteen pages” with a huge grin on his face.  He didn’t even have to look at the page number.  I was so happy for him to have reached this milestone, and you could just see on his face that he was too.

On a slightly unrelated note, a lot of the students were sick this week.  I think allergy season is starting, or maybe there was a cold going around the class.  Regardless, I was thrilled to see that each time after students blew their noses and threw away the tissues, they slabbed on a big gob of hand sanitizer that was strategically located next to the trash can.  They also sneeze into their elbows.  As a semi-neurotic germaphobe just recently recovered from a bad cold, it pleased me to no end to see this hygienic behavior coming from such young kids.

I can’t think of a much better way to ease back into the throes of law school after a stressful and work-filled Spring Break than playing snowball Bingo with some kindergartners.

Each week the students receive new “sight words;” basically just flash cards with new words and pictures so they can learn to spot the words and know the meaning. This week the kids were working on distinguishing among old sight words; recognizing that the addition or change of a single letter can make a difference on the pronunciation and meaning of a word (“in” versus “it,” “sad” versus “said,” etc.).

One of the great things about working in kindergarten on Mondays is that there are a couple of other helpers, so I get to work more closely with a smaller group of kids. This week I was with two or three students at a time, distinguishing sight words by playing Bingo.

Since each of the student’s Bingo board had all of the same words, everyone won at the same time.  None of them found it unusual that they all called out, “BINGO!” at the same time.  The kids had a blast trying to be the first to find the word on their boards, and I was really impressed with how quickly they can find words now.  I’ve been volunteering with the same class since September, so the progress they have made is really remarkable.

It actually took less time than I thought to finish a round, so we spent our remaining time building things out of the little Bingo markers and talking about St. Patrick’s Day.  One girl squealed, “Oh, St. Patrick’s Day!  If you don’t wear green, you get tickled!”  She proceeded to tell the rest of the table about the tradition, which in my experience consisted of pinches, not tickles, so I was happy about that change.

I can’t wait to get back to the classroom next week to hear about how everyone celebrated.  And to see what adorable construction paper creations I’m sure they made!

Valentine’s Day was in full swing when I arrived in Kindergarten.  Stacks of cupcakes and cookies covered the teachers’ desks, and the kids all wore various shades of red, pink, and purple.  As usual, I arrived as they were getting ready to leave the “Smart Zone,” where there are various stations that the kids play at, including blocks, a house, and an art station.  They began telling me at once how much they were looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party that day, and how much fun their “100th Day of School” party was last week.

We sat down and listened to the teacher read Love, Splat by Rob Scotten, a Valentine story about a cat named Splat who has a crush on his classmate Kitten.  In the story, Splat makes Kitten a Valentine’s Day card, so we talked about what important things to include in such a letter: the date, the person the card is for, why that person is special on Valentine’s Day, and a signature.

When we finished the story, I sat down with a group of three kids to help them write out their own Valentines.  They made cards for various people, including their friends in the class, their parents, or their teachers.  After a lot of spelling help (“I like you because you are friendly and share with me”), the cards were finished.  We cut out and glued together envelopes and put the letters inside, then clearly addressed the letters so they could be handed out.

Then came the really fun part: decorating bags to collect Valentines in.  Glue, sparkles, and stickers soon covered the table as the kids embellished their white paper bags.  The excitement in the air became much more pronounced as snack time approached and everyone’s bags were almost finished.  I was sad that I had to leave before the party began, but I’m sure they all had a fantastic time and I can’t wait to hear about it next week.

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