MIDDLETOWN — Kindergarten teacher Gretchen McInvale is a progressive when it comes to making sure all her students have full expression of their ideas and talents in the classroom.
For the past 15 years, this 35-year Spencer Elementary School instructor has used an inventive, out-of-the-box method of giving her young charges an educational foundation for the years ahead.
Her philosophy is to make sure kindergartners are engaged during every step of the learning process, using a multisensory approach.
“You’ll find us out hugging a tree. That’s what we do. They’re our breathing buddies. Let’s learn about that,” McInvale said, describing a unit on nature.
“If we’re studying the Arctic, we’re bringing the snow inside into the sandbox. That’s the Arctic: Let’s feel it, let’s know it — and touch and feel it — get to be it.”
Early on, she realized one of her students, 6-year-old Logan Murphy, needed some extracurricular work once he finished his lessons to keep him engaged. It’s her practice with all high-achieving children.
“We try to challenge everybody to the level that they’re at. For him, this is an extension of where his mind is and where his thought process is,” McInvale said.
She takes on these challenges enthusiastically and with aplomb.
“When I first met Logan, I thought how do we center all that energy? I knew we needed to center his thoughts, his movement, into something intellectual and still restful.”
McInvale, who incorporates meditation and yoga poses into her daily lessons, realized labyrinths have the power to calm and center children who are feeling distracted, upset or bursting with energy.
She calls it “chill time.”
“I like mazes, so I said, ‘How about Miss McInvale and me make our own labyrinth?” Logan said on the blacktop Tuesday morning as he walked the twisty, multi-patterned and complex path of his own creation: based on a drawing sprung from his “brilliant” mind.
And so, led by Logan, she and building superintendent Jerry Flynn set about mapping out a way to bring his vision to life — for him and all the students.
Flynn came to Spencer in February after working at Moody Elementary School. This is his return to Spencer, a promotion he was elated to get. The project has been a labor of love for the three ever since.
Flynn had just met Logan and was shown his blueprints for the design, but didn’t know the 6-year-old had designed it.
“When I saw this one, I kept looking at it. This is genius. ‘Oh my Lord, this is amazing,’” he recalled thinking.
As he spoke, Logan held up his pencil rendering, then held the blueprint in front of him, not realizing it was upside down. Flynn and McInvale got a big chuckle out of the moment.
Logan explained his design details, and what appeals to him most about them.
“I like all the detail, all the lines: straight, wiggly and spiky patterns. I like all of these. When you get trapped, you go back. Even if you get trapped, you don’t have to go all the way. You can walk different paths to calm you down,” Logan said, moving along the maze, with its square, looping and circular “dead ends.”
Every walk is a different experience and challenges children and adults alike.
Mom Melissa Murphy recognized her son was special early on. “He’s artistic and creative in his own way. He’s special.”
About a year and a half ago, Logan started focusing on mazes.
“We don’t push it. It’s just what he’s into,” said Murphy, who incorporates reading and math at home, as well as discussing what she and her three children have learned.
McInvale, who considers Flynn, Logan and all her students family, makes sure each of her 18 students feels special.
“That’s our job. We meet them where they’re at. We can’t just do children with special needs and forget the ones who are going to make huge changes in this world.”
Each child hits milestones at different times. Knowing that, McInvale has devised alternate seating, such as balls, and wobbly chairs, which help the tinier kids develop muscle control.
“If I need them to strengthen their back muscles, sitting up straighter, I might use this. If a kid is constantly falling off their chair, the chair will fall with them and hurt them.”
To start the project, she and Flynn used yarn to lay all the lines. “He was directing us: ‘Put a wiggly over here.’
“I wanted him out every step of the way with me. I wanted it to be exactly how he envisioned it. I wanted it to be with all the curves, twists and perfect squaring,” Flynn said. “I wanted to make sure his vision came to life — every turn, every square; start to finish.”
“He was a part of sketching, he was a part of painting. He was a part of all of it,” McInvale said.
“It has to be squiggly,” McInvale remembered Logan telling her. “‘Sometimes we have those days: We have wiggly days,’ he told her.
“He had a reason for everything,” McInvale said.
She also created a maze along with Logan that sits next to his yellow labyrinth. He’s thrilled to work on joint projects. Her giant blue heart maze is a feminine contrast to his right angles and spikes.
“I said, ‘I want mine to be out of love, and people know that they’re good and they’re treasured,’” she said.
Even at his young age, Logan is already doing multiplication tables and square roots.
“How do you challenge somebody like that? He’s like my little Einstein,” his teacher said.
“He can barely keep his pants up, but then he knows the square root of 81. That’s Logan. It doesn’t matter about his pants. How do you not embrace that?”
When Logan was ready to go back indoors and join his classmates, McInvale led them in a mediation exercise to counter their rambunctiousness.
She put on gentle music and encouraged the children to close their eyes.
Flynn jumped in taking a seat as they were wrapping up. As McInvale spoke softly to the students, ending the session, she encouraged her students to gather around him in a big group hug.
They were overjoyed to oblige. At the center, with all the kids surrounding him showing their affection, Flynn’s face beamed with happiness.