Category Archives: Lower School

Meet Our Teachers: Erin McDuffie

Kindergarten teacher Erin McDuffie joins Morgan Park Academy this fall after teaching in public schools in both Chicago and Boston and working as an ESL teacher in a public charter school for refugee and immigrant children in Columbus, Ohio.

In 2011, she received the Rochelle Lee Boundless Readers Individual Award, and the following year, she participated in the Fulbright Japan-U.S. Teacher Exchange Program for Sustainable Development.

She holds a B.A. in sociology and political science from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Education degree in elementary education from Boston College.


Why did you choose to work at Morgan Park Academy?

Initially I came to MPA as a prospective parent. I fell in love with the small class sizes, the student body diversity, the child-centered, developmentally appropriate curriculum, and the strong sense of community. During my admissions tour, I kept thinking, “What a wonderful place to learn!” When I saw the job posting for what became my position, I thought, “What an even better place to teach!” I feel so lucky to be joining the MPA community as both a parent and a teacher.

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Meet Our Teachers: Aileen Halvorsen

Second-grade teacher Aileen Halvorsen joins Morgan Park Academy this fall after 17 years teaching in Urbana, Evanston, Burbank, and Chicago, most recently at Annie Keller Regional Gifted Center in Mount Greenwood. She has taught kindergarten through fourth grade, including multi-age classes.

Along with teaching second grade at Keller last year, Mrs. Halvorsen was selected as a Learning Leader through the CPS Office of Early Childhood Education and also served on their Instructional Leadership Team.

She holds a B.S. in Elementary Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at National Louis University.


How do you inspire students to enjoy learning?

If you walk by my classroom, you might hear a lot of singing and wonder what is going on in there. You might see students all over the room instead of sitting at their desks.

I use music and movement to enhance our lessons and to help with transitions. Children retain new information better by singing or acting it out.

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Growth Mindset: Development Through Dedication

I often begin my year teaching second grade by reading students the book The Little Engine that Could. Many current and former second graders remember me telling them to be “the little engine that could” or whispering the chant, “I think I can, I think I can.” As a parent, I frequently told my children, “positive attitude, positive experience.” Whether the child was tackling a challenging math concept or practicing a new ballet combination, I found encouragement and praise throughout the process often led to the breakthrough. A belief in themselves, fueled by effort and encouragement, resulted in growth.

lizPsychologist Carol Dweck is considered a guru in the concept of growth mindset, a belief that intelligence and ability improve through hard work and challenges. She explains, “in a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Dweck further argues that “students who embrace growth mindsets—the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere—may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.” As educators and parents, adults must teach children how to navigate through challenges and find success within their failures.

Throughout their elementary years, both in and out of school, students will be faced with challenges. As teachers, we must allow children to maneuver through these challenges, learn to problem-solve, and even encounter failure. Learning must take place in a warm and nurturing environment; when students feel they are a part of a supportive community, they feel comfortable and confident to take risks. Rather than a mere acquisition of facts, elementary teachers provide students opportunities to learn by doing and to become problem-solvers. Teachers help give students the ability to make sense of a problem and then work through solving the problem. As a result, when students encounter challenges, they embrace these and become excited. Rather than shy away from an issue, they think about the strategies they can implement and then tackle the problem. Students articulate their thinking, share strategies, and often exceed our expectations.

Parents can support a growth mindset at home, too. Rather than asking, “what grade did you get on your test?”, instead ask questions like, “what mistake did you make that taught you something?” or “what strategy are you going to try next?” Be more specific in your questions than, “how was your day?” Expect more specific answers than, “good,” or “bad.” Ask your child what they did today that challenged him or made her think hard. Help your children change their dialogue and thinking by modeling phrases such as, “this is tough now, but try again.” When they say, “it’s too hard, I don’t get it,” remind your children that at one time simple things, such as recognizing letters, used to be tough but are now automatic. Here is a link for two posters by Sarah Gardner for parents to help cultivate a growth mindset in your home.

By fostering a growth mindset both in school and at home, soon “I can’t” will no longer be in students’ vocabulary – rather they will become the Little Engines that Could.


By Liz Raser

Mrs. Raser teaches second grade and is our Assistant Lower School Principal and the Curriculum Leader for the Elementary Team.

Is my child ready for Kindergarten?

Most parents begin asking this question as their child approaches the age of 5. This is one of the first questions that parents ask at admission events and it can cause unwarranted anxiety and worry. Due to the focus (or over-focus) on common core standards and standardized testing in many schools, parents often think children need to enter Kindergarten knowing how to read and write. You may have even heard that “Kindergarten is the new First Grade.” While it may be true that the Kindergarten curriculum has become more academic, educators still recognize that students enter Kindergarten from a wide variety of experiences and settings. Therefore, expecting them to know and to be able to do the same things as one another doesn’t make sense.

KariAt Morgan Park Academy, we do not believe in a rote, strictly skills process for admittance into Kindergarten. Instead, we conduct an assessment screening that determines if a child is developmentally and emotionally ready for school. In addition, we offer a play date experience to further observe a child’s social interactions with same-age peers. So, what does Kindergarten readiness look like?

Here is a basic checklist with a few questions within developmental areas that help determine a child’s success in school:

  1. Social/Emotional Skills: Does your child…
    • Share and take turns?
    • Get along with peers?
    • Initiate social interactions with peers and adults?
    • Separate from adults without anxiety?
    • Handle emotions and possess coping strategies?
    • Participate in group activities?
  2. Intellectual Skills: Does your child…
    • Think logically?
    • Sit still and listen to a story or group activity?
    • Follow simple directions?
    • Possess a solid oral vocabulary and the ability to express themselves?
    • Express creativity in thought and play?
  3. Self-sufficiency: Is your child able to…
    • Put own coat and shoes on?
    • Use the restroom independently?
    • Hang up and pack/unpack belongings?
    • Ask for help if needed?
    • Express the desire to be independent?
  4. Interest in learning: Is your child…
    • Curious about the surrounding environment?
    • Inquisitive?
    • Able to persevere when faced with difficulty?
    • Excited about learning and school? 
  5. Physical Development: Does your child…
    • Exhibit sufficient stamina for a full-day program with many transitions?
    • Walk up/down stairs?
    • Enjoy playing at the playground?
    • Participate in gross motor activities such as jumping, throwing a ball, hopping, running, etc.?
    • Have experience with basic cutting, drawing, and other fine motor skills?

You may see your child as having strengths in some areas of development, but challenges in others. This is not uncommon. A good Kindergarten curriculum provides support in all developmental areas based on the individual needs of each student.

So, what is your role as a parent in preparing your child for Kindergarten? Read, read, read with your child for pleasure! Play games together. Spend time outdoors. Enroll your child in group activities with same-age peers. And lastly, don’t stress!

By Kari Misulonas

Ms. Misulonas is our Early Childhood Curriculum Leader & 
Director of Student Support Services.

Teaching Kindness

As the social emotional counselor, part of my role includes teaching character education to K-5 students. These classes meet once a week to learn how to follow the MPA way of being “kind” and doing their “best”. Doing your best is an umbrella for a few topics, including academics, goal setting, celebrating individuality, being proactive, and practicing mindfulness. The umbrella of kindness, however, is a bit more complex, as one cannot simply direct a child to ‘be nice’. Emotional intelligence and empathy are very much intertwined with understanding how to be kind, along with learning to acknowledge and appreciate peers’ unique strengths and ideas. Kindness includes encouraging students to walk in someone else’s shoes, being open to diversity, and tapping into another person’s feelings.

StecblogresizedTeaching kindness in early elementary involves helping students identify their intricate emotions, while giving them skills to control those emotions. Classes learn about personal space, how to read body language, polite listening skills, knowing when to self regulate, and understanding when to reach out to a teacher when they have maxed out their personal resources.

In upper elementary, classes address treating others kindly, but there are new avenues to which students are introduced. For this age group, I discuss social media etiquette, showcase stories of resilience and courage that embrace kindness, present conflict resolution techniques, and brainstorm ways to stand up for others if students witness unkind behavior.

Showing consideration to one another is something we want for all of our children to experience from their classmates and MPA community. Below are some resources that you can use at home to encourage kindness with your children.


Some recent elementary-level books relating to kindness that I’ve enjoyed:

Memoirs of a Goldfish, by Devin Scillian

Hey, Little Ant by Phillip Hoos

Don’t Laugh at Me by Steve Seskin

Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Idea by Emily Pearson

Have you Filled a Bucket Today: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham


Other resources on empathy and kindness

Animation of empathy vs sympathy:


Harvard Business Review: Do you lead with Emotional Intelligence quiz.


How to encourage empathy at home


Are you raising nice kids?

By Jennifer Stec

Ms. Stec is our school counselor.

Cultivating Kindness

Kindness is not only embedded in our children as they live the MPA Way – “Be Kind and Do Your Best,” it is rooted in our curriculum. Because of our emphasis on teaching the whole child, as educators we believe that fostering social and emotional development is just as important as the academics. From the very first moments students enter through our doors, to our recent celebration of Random Acts of Kindness Week, teachers implant concepts of kindness and friendship on a regular basis.

lizIn addition to weekly Character Education classes taught by Jennifer Stec, our Wellness Counselor, classroom teachers instill messages of kindness and humanity. Our three-year-old preschoolers are recognized daily for their kind acts with heart stamps or stickers from Miss Bridget. They proudly add a heart to their Kindness Tree for good deeds. Students in Miss Betsey’s room and Ms. Misulonas’ room dub themselves as “Bucket Fillers,” adding pompoms to a container for each kind act or display of friendship. In Ms. Davis’ room you will find a “Warm and Fuzzy” jar from which students earn a fuzzy puff ball every time they do something that makes their hearts feel warm and fuzzy. All Early Childhood classrooms coordinate holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas with notions of giving thanks for family and friends. First grade classroom libraries hold countless picture books with themes of kindness and good character, such as the Berenstain Bear collection emphasizing manners, respect, and telling the truth. The children love reading and journaling about experiences they have had similar to the characters’ trials and tribulations.

This year, second grade began with a reading unit on kindness and a social studies unit on citizenship. Stories provided wonderful cross-curricular connections and students quickly internalized messages such as kindness is contagious; actions of one person can make a difference; kindness is a two-way street; and, the importance of becoming contributing members of a community. Students in Mrs. Arnold’s room make time for positive tattling sessions where students “tell on their classmates” for being kind, helpful, or supportive. My second graders create “Happy-grams” for each other. During a third grade reading unit on kindness, Mrs. Schmidt’s students discussed what qualities they look for in friends and to treat others how they wish to be treated. Characters in the novel Charlotte’s Web helped illustrate empathy, and showed how true friends take care of one another and stand up for each other, even when it may not be the popular choice. Themes of kindness, friendship, and compassion in many fourth grade novels, including The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Bridge to Terabithia, and Maniac McGee, prompted thought-provoking discussions. Novels read in fourth and fifth grade parallel social studies courses in Regions of the United States and World Geography triggered discussions of global friendships, tolerance, and acceptance. The fifth graders’ summer read, Wonder, set the tone and themes for the school year: friendship, family, kindness, acceptance, and courage. Students learned about the craniofacial abnormality that the main character, Auggie, has in the book. They discussed and defined the difference between sympathy and empathy. The students wrote a precept, reflected on its meaning, and use it as an internal guide.

Even though we model and teach our students to follow The MPA Way every day, as a Lower School we initiated Random Acts of Kindness during our January Service Day to add to our daily teachings. A random act of kindness is a simple act which brightens someone’s day. It can be something significant, like donating items to a charity, something smaller such as holding a door open for someone, or simply saying thank you. It can be planned in advance or happen spontaneously. Our goal was to re-energize our daily efforts with messages from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and inspire the children to follow Dr. King’s dream, today and every day.

The second week in February is Random Acts of Kindness Week and the Lower School student body celebrated with daily activities, quotes, and good deeds. During Manners Monday, students were encouraged and praised to use their best manners. Hundreds of notes poured from classroom writing centers and Appreciation Stations on Thankful Tuesday, as students thanked adults in their lives. Helping hands were in abundance both at home and in school on Wednesday’s focus, “What Can I Do To Help?” Throughout Thoughtful Thursday, students found countless ways to lift someone’s spirits. Friendship Friday fostered new friendships as students sat at tables in the dining hall by their birthday month rather than assigned tables.

Many classrooms have various positive incentives or rewards for good character. As students accumulate tallies for cooperative tables, marbles for positive actions, and tickets or “Caught Being Kind Cards,” they earn good citizen celebrations or prizes during Marble Parties, Prize Day or a trip to “The Store.” Posters and other visual displays of good deeds, such as trees with paper hearts, buckets, paper chains, or paper dolls adorn classroom walls. However, the greatest testament to our efforts is witnessing the culture of kindness we see in our student body. The evidence of our year-long emphasis on fostering a positive school environment and promoting the MPA Way is in the character of our students.

By Liz Raser

Mrs. Raser teaches second grade and is our Assistant Lower School Principal and the Curriculum Leader for the Elementary Team.

Do Kindergartners Have Homework?

As an early childhood educator for many years, this is one of the first questions posed by prospective and current kindergarten parents during open house events, classroom tours, and back-to-school nights. Why is this such a popular query? Well, adults have very busy lives and, understandably, they want to know the homework expectations and how these may possibly alter their evening schedules.  Parents familiar with some public school demands have shared horror stories of children having packets of worksheets that need to be completed after a full day of school.  Other parents, however, welcome homework and are looking for ways to keep their children challenged or busy while older siblings complete their homework. All of these reasons are legitimate.Kari

However, do pencil and paper tasks (worksheets, workbooks, etc.) truly challenge our children? Do these tasks actively engage them? Do they promote critical thinking and creativity? Do kids truly enjoy them? Many years ago, at an early childhood conference, one of the presenters noted that any concept or skill-based worksheet can be transformed into a game or hands-on activity. That statement has stuck with me for many years and has helped shape our kindergarten curriculum.

For example: Which activities provide more opportunities for learning? Using a ruler to measure line segments of differing lengths on a worksheet, or using rulers, tape measures, and yardsticks to measure a variety of objects in your home or in the classroom? A worksheet in which students cut and paste pictures that rhyme, or reading a story together and having your child fill in the rhyming words? It’s fairly obvious both latter choices are better and the list of examples could go on and on. In kindergarten, we strive to provide these types of hands-on, engaging activities within the classroom and encourage parents to do the same at home.

Yes, we do occasionally have homework, but the goal is for it to reinforce what is being learned at school and have meaning for the children. Keeping this goal in mind, my colleague, Kate Davis, created an activity calendar. This calendar is sent home on a monthly basis and it is a great opportunity to bridge each student’s learning between home and school. The activities can be completed on each family’s timetable and parents can choose those that will be most engaging for their child. A few of the October offerings include:

  • Draw a picture of your favorite thing to do in autumn!
  • Find things around your home that are taller than you. Then, find things that are shorter than you.
  • What is your favorite color? Take a walk and see how many things you can find of that color.

And, no, it is not required to turn the “work” in to the teacher unless your child really wants a sticker!