Children’s Author Teaches kids to Write Stories at Nesmith Library

by Lauren Danzi

Mark, age 6, shares his story to the group of home schoolers with the help of Children’s Author D’Agata.

Children’s author Tabatha Jean D’Agata visited the Nesmith Library in Windham and led a story-planning workshop for home schooled children age 6 to 12.  D’Agata shows her two newest books made for kids who are just learning how to read.  She showed the inside and explained that font is bold and large making it easy to read.  D’Agata explained that she uses a word bank with special words that are designed for kids who are beginning to read. 

Then she read her first published children’s story Silent Sam, which is her only book to be offered in both English and Spanish.  She got the kids to brain storm who the characters might be in the story and asked them questions after reading each page.  The story is about a young boy named Gus who tries to get his pet parrot to talk.  “What would you do to teach your parrot to talk?” D’Agata asks the kids after reading the first page.  They give her ideas like talking to the parrot and coming up with vocabulary words and then she reads the story to find out what happens in her story. 

Gus repeats his name over and over again and tries many things to get the parrot to talk including chanting and cheering his name for the parrot.  D’Agata got the kids involved in the story by helping Gus to cheer.  D’Agata asked them to get to their feet and she led them in a chant saying “Go Gus Go!”  Unfortunately when she flips the page they learn that even with all that cheering Sam still does not talk.  Only when Gus tries to blame Sam for making a mess does the parrot speak saying, “Gus Gus Gus” and tattling on Sam.  At the end Gus he wishes he could teach Sam be quiet.  The kids all laughed at this ending. 

After the story D’Agata gave the kids an Authors challenge and asked them to write their own stories.  She explained that she has to come up with a plan before she starts writing and must think of story problems.  “Every single problem through out your day is an opportunity for a story,” said D’Agata.  She provided them with paper separated with three boxes for them to write the beginning, middle and end.  Each sheet of paper had a picture of one of four different characters a baker, a clown, a bear, or a turtle.  She helps the kid’s brain storm as a group different places each character would be, what kinds of problems they might have, and how they might solve them.  As they work individually she goes around to each of the kids and sees how they are coming along.  D’Agata offers one boy a tip on how to hold his pencil so his arm does not hurt.  She says a good idea is to imagine the paper is a balloon and if he presses to hard it will pop and then his arm will not hurt. 

After all the kids had finished each of them read their stories to the group.  D’Agata asked each child to tell her their name and introduce them saying, “Please welcome the famous author,” and then said their name.  Megan, age 9, told a story about a snowman living in an igloo.  He got caught in a bad storm, his head blew off, and rolled into a polar bear cave.  A Penguin rescued the head and brought it back to the poor confused snowman.  Abby told a story about a turtle who got rolled on to his back and his rabbit friend helped him up.  D’Agata encouraged excitement about each of the stories by saying after they were done.  “How many of us need to buy that book?”  Hands always flew into the air.  

After the kids read their books to the group, D’Agata gave out prizes for a job well done including smile face key chains and rings.  She answered questions from both kids and parents.  She gave them all an opportunity to purchase her books and she would sign them for the kids.  One parent asked the author to explain what a publisher was to their kids and D’Agata explained the processes of how to get a story published.  She explained the challenges as well as the joys but felt that if it is something some one really wants to do then they will be patient and not give up.  “The job picked me, I didn’t pick the job,” said D’Agata.  She asked the kids if any of them wanted to become authors or illustrators and encourage those who did.  She told them about her own illustrator Ed Newmann who worked creating icons like the Keebler Elves had to go back and draw the Monster three times before he got the drawing just right.  “Never ever get frustrated,” said D’Agata.  She explained that even people who have been working on stories for over 30 years, like Newmann, do not always get it right the first time.  

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Parents’ Night Out Benefits Preschoolers

Parents from Pelham and Windham enjoy camaraderie at Night Out to benefit students of Merrimack Montessori School.

Parents from Salem, Windham Pelham, and other surrounding towns enjoyed a delicious and entertaining Night Out on Friday, November 9 at the Harris Pelham Inn.

The Parent Volunteer Organization from the Merrimack Valley Montessori School in Salem organized the event that included a silent auction and raffle, an all-you-can eat turkey dinner, slideshow of preschool children at work, and a dance show.

It was a tremendous effort putting it all together, but we had a great team of people organizing each part of the event, stated Night Out Coordinator and PVO board member Karen Plumley.  She said it took the team more than  two months to acquire 100 items for the raffle and auction.  Prizes included stays in area hotels and inns, tickets to sporting events, a grill, childrens bikes and an autographed picture of Red Sox MVP Mike Lowell.

The dance show was organized by Montessori School parent Rhoda Nunez-Donnelly. It showcased guest dancers from Dance Images Dance Center of Methuen, Movement Dance Studio of Wakefield, and Krystal Ballroom of Salem.  Included were national Latin dance champion Tanya Rozenberg and her partner.  Local recording artist Dan Sky of Bates Entertainment performed three songs with his duo of backup dancers.

After all these years, we are very aware of the enormous amount of work these events are. It constantly amazes me the amount of time and effort people put into our annual Night Out, and this was no exception, said MVMS Owner Christine Brown, who went on to comment that as fun as the evening was for the adults, the children are the ones who will truly benefit. 

All proceeds from the event will go back to the students for more educational opportunities such as monthly guests and activities.  For more about the Merrimack Valley Montessori School: 893-7310.

From Bates Entertainment, recording artist Dan Sky with backup dancers before the show.

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Athletic Consultant Says New High School Missing Key Components

by Barbara O'Brien

Joel Mitchell, the former athletic director at Hollis/Brookline High School and now a private consultant, has assessed the current approved athletic facilities for the new Windham High School, expected to open in just under two years, and found them lacking. 

Mitchell, who was asked to undertake the assessment by Windham School Superintendent Frank Bass, met with school officials during their board meeting on Tuesday, November 6 to discuss the results of his investigation.  Bass took on the job of superintendent for SAU #28 (Windham and Pelham) this past July, three months after voters approved the current high school plans.  

Last March the Windham School Board placed a number of warrant articles on the ballot.  One of them, warrant article 3, would have added a lecture hall and a small multi purpose gym and outdoor lighting and outdoor bleachers and a greenhouse and to convert one playing field to a turf sports field at the High School to those facilities already approved.  This warrant article required a 60 percent vote, but did not garner a majority vote from residents.  Since that time additional work has been done and is continuing to be done by the superintendent and school board.

According to Mitchell, in his opinion, the most important aspects that the new high school is missing are a track, a second gymnasium, which failed at the March 2007 ballot, and an extra soccer field.  Mitchell said these are things the future Windham High School needs when the doors are opened in September of 2009.

"You still wouldn't have a Cadillac," Mitchell said, even with the added track and field components, second gym and additional soccer field, but the facility "would be sufficient" with these aspects added.

Mitchell said the need for an additional soccer field is based on what he termed "very simplistic observations."  The new high school will need to field four soccer teams (two junior varsity and two varsity; including both girls' and boys' teams, he said.  By not having the extra field, the school would provide advantages to some teams, while disadvantaging others.  The same goes for not providing a facility for track and field, Mitchell said; a sport which generally has the highest level of participation.  "It's a bad way to start out," he said.

As for the need for a second gymnasium, Mitchell said having only one gym creates "a real squeeze" when it comes to scheduling practice times and events and the setting up of equipment.

Mitchell also said he feels certain teams will be disadvantaged if they don't have an artificial turf field on which to play.  The artificial turf field was also defeated at the March, 2007 ballot and the state’s No Means No Law prohibits spending money on items that were specifically defeated at the ballot.  Currently only grass fields are planned for the new high school. 

According to Glenn Davis, owners' representative for the high school project, the cost of installing an artificial turf soccer field would be about $618,000.  The cost for an artificial turf football field would be approximately $685,000.  Payback in savings on not having to maintain a grass football or soccer field would take about six and a half to seven years, Davis said.  Also, according to Davis, the grass fields currently being constructed at the new high school site can be converted to artificial turf at some future time.

To build all these extra components prior to the opening of the high school would be more cost-efficient than adding them piece-meal later, Mitchell said.

As for where to build some of these additional athletic facilities, Mitchell said he prefers a portion of the town-owned Gage property, which is currently being proposed by some school officials for a potential land swap between the school district and the town.  Mitchell said this particular piece of the Gage property (16 acres) is better suited topographically for development than certain outlying school property.  According to Mitchell, it would also be easier to fence any fields built on the Gage land; something he said is necessary to prevent vandalism, particularly from all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

As for having enough players to fill the rosters on all the proposed teams at Windham High School, Mitchell said he doesn't see that as being a problem.  Currently, there are 10 sports proposed for the fall, not including football.  There are also 12 sports proposed for the winter season and six for the spring.

According to high school athletic committee chairman Chris O'Neil, the lack of sufficient fields at the new high school is the greatest deterrent to offering additional teams, particularly football and certain junior varsity teams.  "Fields are a big issue, what with the wear and tear," they endure, O'Neil said.  A total of 17 athletic programs cannot be offered to students under the current circumstances, he said. 

As for the Spring, it's tough to offer track and field to students without a track.  This creates poor practice conditions and all track meets would need to be away from Windham High School, O'Neil said.

"I keep hearing, do it once and do it right," O'Neil said of the new high school construction.  "With what we have now, we cannot meet these expectations.  We need to have these extra facilities to function within the best interests of our students."

Near the end of the meeting, High School Building Committee member Dan Sheahan reiterated the question, "What do we really need to open the high school in two years?"  "I don't want to set the bar too high and get nothing,"  Sheahan said, adding that his priorities would be an artificial turf field and a track.

No matter what committee members think, School Board member Beverly Donovan reminded everyone, whichever proposal might be put forth, it will still need to go to the voters for a final decision.  

At this point voters, school board and superintendent will need to carefully review the state’s municipal budget law and ensure that decisions do not ignore the No Means No portion of that law.

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Conservation and Recreation Members Weigh in on Proposed Land Swap

by Barbara O'Brien

t was quite an extensive and eclectic gathering when members of the school board, selectmen, conservation commission, recreation committee and athletic committee got together to discuss the possibility of asking voters to swap a parcel of town-owned conservation/recreation land in exchange for acreage currently owned by the school district.

The purpose of the joint meeting, which took place on Thursday, November 15, was to gain input on the concept of swapping 16 acres of the town-owned Gage Property with the school district in order to provide sufficient area on which to build additional athletic facilities for the new Windham High School, scheduled to open in September of 2009.

Some involved in the construction of the new high school feel that the current approved plans for the high school are not sufficient in regard to athletic facilities. As a result, members of the high school athletic committee developed a "vision" which includes a multi-purpose athletic complex (previously labeled a stadium) with track and artificial turf field; a second gymnasium; and two additional fields, one for baseball, the other for softball.  The estimated cost of these additional facilities would total approximately $5.4 million.  Subsequent to its development, school board members voted to support the "vision," but did not set any cost or time frame for actual construction.

Shortly after the "vision" concept was adopted by school board members, plans for locating the additional facilities were drawn up by the engineering firm currently building Windham High School.  During the process of developing those drawings, it was discovered that the additional facilities might not fit on the property which has been set aside for the high school; a portion of which is also being considered as space for a future middle school.  It was at this point, that the idea of swapping land with the town came to light.  The reactions to the concept have been mixed, particularly among school board members.

During the November 15 joint meeting of the Conservation Commission and the Recreation Committee, School Board Chairman Al Letizio and Superintendent Frank Bass presented potential plans for the additional athletic facilities, as well as the concept of swapping town land for school district property in order to see the vision come to fruition.

Letizio told those who attended the meeting that he would "like to see a Master Plan that works for everybody in town."  Although no vote has yet been taken by school board members on the potential land swap, Letizio said he feels "a more than equitable trade would be offered to the town" in exchange for a portion of the Gage Property.

When Letizio first presented the land swap concept to school board members last month, he had originally said 8.2 acres of Gage Land would be needed.  The required acreage was subsequently increased to 16 acres, he said, due to safety and access factors.

The Gage Property, which includes in excess of 100 acres, was placed under the joint supervision of the Conservation Commission and Recreation Committee through a warrant article approved by voters in 1978.  At that time, it was earmarked for conservation and recreation purposes.

Conservation Commission member Bernie Rouillard said he wasn't enthusiastic about giving up conservation land, but also feels the proposed land swap "makes sense."  Rouillard said he is "not adverse to" the concept and is open to seeing what land could be traded.

Dr. Bass said that acquiring a section of the Gage Land would make the high school site more contiguous and would allow for a more compacted athletic complex, one that is easier to access and safer for students.

Dennis Senibaldi, who is a member of the Conservation Commission, as well as a Recreation Committee member and a Windham Selectman, said he feels it's a very tough decision to make in regard to swapping land.  "It could be a win/win situation," Senibaldi said, for both the school district and the town.  Any swap would definitely have to be a fair trade, though, he said.  Senibaldi also said he would hate to see the high school not have sufficient facilities. 

Recreation Committee member Ralph Valentine said he would agree with the land swap if it was more than a one-to-one trade in the town's favor.  Valentine said he feels it would be a benefit to students if everything was kept on site and they wouldn't have to be bused elsewhere for athletic events and practices.

Selectman Bruce Breton, also a member of the Conservation Commission, said he feels the athletic facility would be safer and a better fit if built on a portion of the Gage Land, rather than on the other side of London Bridge Road.  The facilities would take up a smaller footprint, he said, and therefore cause less disruption to the land, if the school district can acquire 16 acres of Gage property.  In addition to use by the high school, Breton also noted that the town is always short on athletic fields for its programs.  "This will solve the town's space problems for years to come," he said.

School Board member, as well as Conservation Commission member Bruce Anderson said he has concerns about what actually needs to built now and what can be built later.  He said he's not sure there will even be enough students to field all the teams currently being considered for when the high school initially opens in two years.  "This town takes its conservation land seriously," Anderson said, referring to the concept of swapping property with the school district.

Superintendent Bass said that, based on evidence from similar-sized high schools, he doesn't feel there will be any problem in having enough students to put together "field-based" teams, such as soccer, field hockey, football, baseball, softball or lacrosse.  Approximately 700 students are expected to attend Windham High School when it opens in 2009.

Recreation Committee member Beth Lippold said she believes a sufficient "pool" of players already exists in Windham.  It's not a matter of build it and they will come, she said.  They're already here.

Conservation Commission member Wayne Morris said he's trying to take "the middle ground" in regard to any land swap for the high school, but is not in favor of the entire 16 acres currently being cited.  He said he would look more favorably on the 8.2 acres originally mentioned.  Morris said he was concerned about the loss of hiking and nature trails.

Conservation Commission Chairman Jim Finn said, "I take conservation land very seriously."  Finn said he would prefer to see the current high school site fully utilized before the school district asks for any town land.  "I'm not comfortable supporting this (proposal) right now," Finn said, adding that he feels everything is too "hypothetical" at this time.  "There are too many ifs, too many variables," he said.  "I want to see everything chiseled in stone, first."

Senibaldi said, as a selectman, he would make sure that any proposed agreement for swapping land was definite, not hypothetical.

Finn said he does want to work together amicably with other town and school officials in an attempt to solve issues.  "It's a matter of checks and balances," he said.

State Representative Charlie MacMahon threw his support behind the land swap, saying it would result in the proposed construction of additional athletic facilities being more cost-efficient.  "We need to make the decision to move forward," MacMahon said.  "We promised that Windham High School would match Salem High School or better.  This plan will do it," he said.  Windham high school students are currently attending Salem High School under a tuition agreement.

After several hours of discussion, members of the Recreation Committee voted 5 to 0 to move forward with asking for 16 acres of the Gage property in exchange for a yet undetermined parcel of school property.  Voting on the issue were:  Mike Hadem, Ralph Valentine, Beth Lippold, Michelle Langlois and Barrie Goldman.  Selectman Dennis Senibaldi did not vote on the issue.

Following the Recreation Committee vote, members of the Conservation Commission voted 3 to 1 that they are open to the concept of the land swap and are willing to engage in further discussion on the issue, based on the swap being more than a 2-to-1 trade in the town's favor, as well as the re-establishment of any trail system that might be disrupted.  Voting in favor of the motion were Selectman Bruce Breton, Wayne Morris and Bernie Rouillard.  Chairman Jim Finn voted against the motion.  School Board member Bruce Anderson and Selectman Dennis Senibaldi both abstained from voting on the issue.

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