At the start of the 2023-24 school year, Lower School students fell in love with a new face in Pardue Hall: Echo the owl puppet. But don’t let his cute and cuddly appearance fool you – he joined classrooms to bring some serious learning through the Fundations® program, an educational system helping Lower School students learn phonics, spelling, and handwriting in a whole new way.
“The Fundations® program is designed to provide direct systematic sequence phonics instruction at a pace that’s accessible,” says learning specialist Mary Allen Edgerton ’87. “The children learn sound by sound in order to learn to build them into words, then build into sentences, then build into fluency.”
With their new curriculum, classroom teachers spend a 20- to 30-minute block each day explicitly teaching a phonics principle, explains Lower School librarian and literacy specialist Allison Bischoff. Students will learn the name of the letter, a keyword, and a sound. For example, in Emily Matus’ kindergarten classroom, one of the three letters they were learning at the start of the year was T. “T. Top. Tuh,” she articulated for her students. This is where Echo comes in.
“When Echo is facing the teacher, that’s her time to talk,” Bischoff says. “Then as soon as students see Echo facing them, that means it’s their turn to repeat her. It’s a visual cue for when it’s their turn to participate. It’s a lot of repetition, but repetition is what gets it from their short-term memory to their long-term memory, which is our goal.”
After learning as a group, each student picks up their own magnetic white board on which they practice letters and eventually build words. “What I love about this program is that it is more systematic and explicit,” Bischoff says. “It builds in a lot more vocabulary and really word study to teach kids the basic building blocks of language.”
This year, Fundations® is being used in kindergarten and first grade, then next year it’ll transfer to second and third. “The other thing that I love about this curriculum is that there’s only a small handful of activities and they never change from kindergarten to fourth grade,” Bischoff says. “The only thing that is changing is the actual phonic skill that is being taught. It’s the same character the whole way through to reinforce procedures and help our students learn.”
Research shows that if girls do not develop interests in science, technology, engineering, arts, or math (STEAM) before or during their middle school years, they will most likely avoid future classes and careers in these areas altogether. At Ashley Hall, STEAM activities are an integral part of the Lower School curriculum to give girls the chance to fall in love with STEAM–and they don’t just happen in the classroom.
Science and math start inside the classroom and are a large part of students’ core studies. But students get a secondary layer of learning outside of the classroom by attending weekly enrichment classes designed to apply their new math and science concepts. Once a week, students also come together as an entire grade for a special STEAM class. “We do hands-on science and hands-on math to enrich what they’re doing in class,” says Lower School STEAM and science teacher Meghan Ward. “It’s seeing those skills that students are practicing, and saying, ‘Now let’s put it in place in the lab.’ It’s actually really cool to see both disciplines.”
Last month, the School opened a brand-new beautifully renovated 2,100-square foot Lower School STEAM Lab designed to host these enrichment lessons. Inside are stations for experiments, moveable furniture, risers for presentations, a sound-proof room for break-out teacher instruction, and so much more. But the added space and state-of-the-art tools for hands-on experiments and collaboration is just the start of how the STEAM education is evolving at Ashley Hall.
More Space, More Collaboration
Research by UNICEF shows that studying STEAM helps girls develop skills in collaboration and self-development which gives girls tools with which to become informed citizens and effective leaders. The new Lower School STEAM Lab, which can support a whopping four classes at one time, was designed specifically to be able to support the opportunity for girls to work together.
“Why STEAM is so powerful is it is focused on giving the girls a challenge to try and solve a problem,” Ward says. “We always have them begin the process by sketching their own idea, then they collaborate with a group and come up with one design. They always have minimal materials, just a little bit of time, and they have to problem solve. They debate the best design and have to learn how to bring each other together and come up with one idea. But then on the other side, they support each other, too.”
“They’re learning to communicate and be respectful communicators,” adds Lower School Math Specialist Allison Jordan. “It’s hard for them. It’s such a hard skill for anyone to learn. But they are doing it every day.”
A New Perspective on Mistakes
According to the Goodman Research Group, girls’ school graduates are 6 times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology compared to girls who attended coeducational schools. Why?
“We’ve created a safe place to make mistakes so that young girls can learn,” Ward says. “We call them ‘oops-ortunities’ or oopsies that you can turn into opportunities. They happen all the time in STEAM. A student will say something is not working. Okay. So we go back and try again, try it differently.”
The confidence that comes with not being afraid to make mistakes is everything, explains Jordan. “All you need is confidence. We have a lot of tears in the lab. It’s sometimes due to frustration with your team, but a lot of the time it’s because students don’t have the faith in themselves. If they get a math answer wrong, it makes them feel bad. But if they have the confidence to say, oops, I made a mistake, and ask for help, then there goes all that intimidation. That’s my biggest goal in here with math at least is to make them feel safe to figure it out. This is your safe space to make mistakes.”
Integrating a Empathy
Science, technology, engineering, arts, and math are at the core of our STEAM education in Lower School. But as the program continues to grow, so do the pillars of Ashley Hall’s STEAM curriculum. “One of the things we’re adding is the idea of empathy,” Ward says. “Everything we’ve done in STEAM, we’ve encouraged them to think with empathy.”
For example, when Lower School students studied the body, they had to create a stethoscope out of basic materials like cups and paper towel rolls. Then Ward asked the girls a question: Who would use a stethoscope? “We talked about people who take care of us who use stethoscopes. Then I took it a step further and asked if they thought everybody in the world uses a stethoscope. We have great medical devices in our country, but does everyone have that? And what if you lived in a country where they didn’t have stethoscopes and these materials were all you had to work with to hear a baby’s heartbeat? Suddenly, we were talking about real people and real issues in the world.”
And again, research supports just how much of an impact STEAM education for young girls can have on global issues. According to research presented by UNICEF in a report entitled Towards an Equal Future: Reimagining Girls’ Education Through STEM:
“Learning to think and solve problems like scientists and engineers can equip girls with the knowledge, confidence and creativity to address major challenges in their communities, such as generating sufficient energy, preventing and treating diseases, maintaining supplies of clean water and food, and solving the problems of environmental change.”
By adding a focus on collaboration, confidence, and empathy throughout every level of STEAM education in the Lower School, Ashley Hall is creating not only future scientist and engineers, but girls equipped to be the best version of themselves.
Ashley Hall is thrilled to announce that it will host youth sports for the first time in the School’s history for the 2022-23 school year. The new CUBS program will expand the Athletic Department’s sports offerings to students in grades pre-kindergarten through fourth who would like to participate in practices after school, and its designed to teach fundamental skills and PQV spirit to future Panther athletes.
“It’s so important for kids to explore athletics at a young age,” says Ashley Hall Assistant Athletic Director Christian Alcantara. “I can think of no better way than to provide them the option to try new sports in a fun, supportive environment that mirrors our EEC and Lower School programs.”
The program will kick off with volleyball, tennis, and soccer. The spring semester will offer basketball, lacrosse, and golf. Each semester will offer two 6-week sessions, and programming will include one lesson each week organized by grade level. All practices will start 15 minutes after school dismissal and take place on Ashley Hall’s campus. Program fees vary based on the sport.
“Our coaches coming in are all professionals and everything for our Panther CUBS will be held on campus,” Alcantara says. “The ease of having the program right there for our students will hopefully also make it easier for our parents. It’s going to be a wonderful extension of our School and mission.”
The exciting addition of youth sports at Ashley Hall comes on the heels of a 2021-22 school year that saw State Championship wins, Johns Island Sports Complex facility upgrades, and Nike brand partnership news. “We’ve been busy elevating Ashley Hall’s athletic program offerings to the next level,” Alcantara says. “And the momentum continues.”
Stay tuned for how and when to register for the Spring Ashley Hall CUBS Program
A cherished, longstanding Ashley Hall tradition, The Christmas Play assumed a digital format for its 2020 production in response to pandemic safety concerns. Against the backdrop of new technology, creative staging, and the need for the cast to socially distance, one thing remained clear: the love for this shared generational experience runs deep.
“This year we reimagined The Christmas Play in order to adhere to public health and safety protocols, and the spirit of this Ashley Hall tradition came to life in an entirely new way. Filmed outdoors on campus, the play allowed us to take full advantage of our cherished Senior Lawn as well as the Bear Cave, which served as the perfect backdrop for the Holy Tableaux.” —Head of School Jill Muti
Ask any alumna to name her favorite Ashley Hall memories, and The Christmas Play makes the list more often than not. Now in its 97th year, the annual performance is nearly as old as the School itself and draws together generations of graduates who relish memories of assuming roles of angels, shepherds, and jesters, reciting time-worn lines, and singing a repertoire that embodies the holiday season.
“The fact that you can reconnect so well with your Ashley Hall experience through watching the play makes it so special,” said Assistant Head of School and Upper School Director Anne Weston ’73, who treasures many fond memories of watching and performing in the play. “This year we worked hard to preserve the tradition of The Christmas Play in the face of challenging conditions.”
Historically, the logistics of The Christmas Play have adapted through the years to allow for location changes and staging demands, and the digital version represents the latest of these transformations. While the medium of delivery may change, it is reassuring to know the essence of this beloved tradition remains very much the same.
View the 2020 Christmas Play
The Christmas Play Alumnae Telegrams
Another special Ashley Hall tradition is the sending of alumnae “telegrams.” Each year, alumnae cast members of The Christmas Play share warm wishes with members of the current cast. Filled with fun memories and loving support, these “telegrams” offer a glimpse into the special bond our alumnae have to their School and each other. Happy reading!
Read the Alumnae Christmas Play Telegrams
As leaders in Pardue Hall, fourth graders take their responsibilities seriously. In prior years they traditionally ran the weekly Lower School Assembly and took turns planning and presenting the content. However, with assemblies on campus suspended for safety precautions, a new medium of communication was needed. “We felt that it was important to find a way to continue this practice of leadership for our students,” said Lower School faculty member Kendall Lee, who teaches fourth grade along with Lower School faculty member Allie Jordan. “Having gotten used to using a lot of different media platforms, it was relatively easy to make the jump to filming a weekly news show that we could disseminate to the rest of the Lower School. Each week, two fourth grade girls interview an Ashley Hall staff member, report the weekend weather, make special announcements, acknowledge birthdays, report on pop tab collections, and note any other additions contributed from outside sources.”
The content is fun and engaging, and fourth graders are eager to help the Lower School stay connected. “It’s nice to be able to practice, rather than being live in front of the entire Lower School,” said Claire Khan ’29. Filming locations have included the Collab Lab and the Bear Cave, and Performing Arts faculty member Kristine Peters pitches in with formatting each week’s presentation. “I like the extras that Ms. Peters has added in, like the clapping and the singing in the background,” said Virginia Hagood ’29. For Sadie Winters ’29, the joke of the week is her favorite, “even though they’re kind of silly.” While fourth graders miss the big assemblies of the past, they still appreciate the chance to fulfill their important leadership roles and learn something new. “It’s disappointing that we can’t do it live in Davies Auditorium, but it’s fun getting to film, especially in different locations,” smiled Camille Marler ’29 and Pippa Taylor ’29. That sounds like the making of a good morning.
Experiential learning is a core part of Ashley Hall’s curriculum, and first graders tend a garden each year to enhance their study of a plant’s life cycle and what it needs to survive. While past efforts have yielded little because of shady growing conditions, this year Lower School faculty member Beth McCarty had a bright idea. For her students, success never tasted so sweet!
“This year we are trying rolling raised beds so we can move the plants to an optimal growing area with the right amount of sunlight,” noted McCarty. “A hands-on garden shows the students where their food comes from and how much time and energy goes into each bite of food they take! Now when students go to the grocery stores, they know how these fruits and vegetables got to the shelves. Hopefully it also encourages students to be less wasteful when eating meals.”
Having already planted strawberries, kale, broccoli, chives, lemon thyme, dill, basil, lima beans, and of course purple and white pansies, students eagerly anticipate eating from the garden year-round and changing the crops with the seasons. “They were all very excited about the strawberries,” emphasized McCarty. “One plant already has two strawberries and one flower about to become a strawberry. It is great for them to see the plant life cycle in action and then of course eat the end result!”