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Let Grow group films promotional video at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School

Roanoke Avenue Elementary School third-graders found themselves in the spotlight last Tuesday after a nonprofit asked for their feedback on a nationwide movement.

The nonprofit Let Grow filmed an unscripted promotional video in the Roanoke Avenue cafeteria as six students were interviewed by fellow third-grader Maya Sadeli-Weidner. The organization trains kids to be “flexible, creative problem-solvers” through alternative learning programs, according to its website.

The filming coincided with the academic year-long Let Grow projects completed by students in Gary Karlson and Donna Verbeck’s third-grade classes. Once per week, students were encouraged to do something they never did before, principal Thomas Payton said.

“One day, instead of getting a math worksheet for homework, kids would have to go home and do something they’ve never done before or try something they’ve never tried before and get their families involved,” he said. “Then, kids memorialize that with pictures. There was a writing component to it the next day, reflecting on what they did.”

Posters created by each student, documenting their new experiences, were hung throughout the cafeteria. Student Bryan Garcia said his favorite new activity was baking a cake with his father. He also took out the trash, locked the front door, and helped put Halloween decorations on his house with his family.

When he first heard about the project from Mr. Karlson, he was “really excited.”

“I thought it was going to be fun,” he said. “He told us maybe we would have a party at the end of the school year about this and this is it.”

Let Grow co-founder Lenore Skenazy gave background on the program to the audience before the film crew recorded the students. She also interviewed Mr. Payton on camera for the video.

“Let Grow is an easy way to make it normal again to give our kids some freedom,” she said.

Mr. Payton said Mr. Karlson brought the Let Grow projects into the classrooms around September. Mr. Karlson said he discovered the program when his colleague shared information about it on social media.

“I explored the website and quickly adapted and translated the materials with the help of our bilingual secretary,” Mr. Karlson said in an email. “After that, really, the kids took it from there.”

He said the group of students did not rehearse, so everything picked up on camera was all natural. Other than the interviewer, Maya, the school did not know who was going to participate until they arrived at the event after school that day.

Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez attended the event with school board member Brian Connelly, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Christine Tona, director of professional personnel Brian Doelger and director of pupil personnel services Eileen Manitta. Dr. Henriquez said the program advances the district’s goal of tackling the “whole-child approach.”

“As a mother of two young children and an educational leader, it is really important that we continue to find ways to increase our children’s confidence, life skills, bravery, social skills and kindness,” she said. “It’s never going to be just about the academics.” 

Mr. Payton said he plans to expand the program to the entire third grade next year, which will be unique to each classroom. Second- and fourth-grade teachers have also expressed interest in picking up the program, he said.

“We’re hopeful that other teachers in Riverhead will look at this, too,” Mr. Payton said. “Even Mr. Karlson will tell you, he does not necessarily want this to be Riverhead’s way of doing it. This was just how the children in rooms 307 and 309 did it, this is their interpretation of Let Grow.”

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Photo caption: Third-grader Maya Sadeli-Weidner (standing) asks fellow student Sari Thompson a question about the Let Grow program last Tuesday at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School. (Kate Nalepinski photo)