Caledonia — In Tammy Rowley’s kindergarten classroom at Kettle Lake Elementary, students learn to spell words through song.
“The seal at the zoo sings ‘are are’,” sang Rowley’s class, to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
Songs also work for counting by fives and tens. Adding in jumping-jack movements, Rowley’s students sang “10, 20, 30…” all the way to 100.
“Incorporating rhythm and movement is the ticket,” Rowley explained. “Some of the songs I use come from other teachers online, and some I’ve made up with my own words and tunes.”
Putting a melody to their learning also helps her with classroom management and with getting students’ attention.
“Sometimes I feel like a dork while filming them, but I also send videos of myself singing the songs to parents so they can practice with their students at home,” Rowley said.
Parents recognized her musical and teaching skills and nominated her for the Michigan Lottery’s Excellence in Education Award.
“Tammy teaches more than just academic skills; she incorporates life skills into her teachings as well,” wrote a nominating parent. “Her weekly messages to parents keep us engaged and remind us how to raise wonderful and mindful human beings.”
In December, Rowley found out she received the weekly award that recognizes outstanding public school educators.
The best part, for Rowley: “hearing kind words from my colleagues and former students. Even my own fifth-grade teacher reached out over Facebook to congratulate me.”
Rowley greets her students in the hallway by the front door every morning with their choice of a high-five or a hug before they’re off down the hall toward their classroom to hang their coats and backpacks in their lockers.
Despite the inches of snow outside on a brisk January morning, kindergartner Jacob Pike excitedly told Rowley about his new red-and-black tennis shoes that allow him to run “really fast.”
After acknowledging their classmates out sick with COVID-19, Rowley instructed her students to find their assigned seats so she could guide them through their I Spy: Phonics worksheets, identifying words ending in “et.”
Clara Hume pointed to a picture of the girl setting a dinner table and matched it with the word “set.” While writing the word on her example sheet projected on the whiteboard, Rowley explained the trick to writing lowercase e’s: “Throw the baseball and run the bases!”
Sensory activity stations were next: a mix of fun and phonics, modeling clay snowman building and ice fishing for paper word “fish.”
Rowley gave instructions for each station, then students set off in small groups to rotate through each activity.
Riley D’Amico and Elliot Sackett told a visitor they liked stations because they get to “play with playdough and do puzzles.”
“We’re doing our best,” Riley said, while trying to fit together two pieces of a 48-piece horse puzzle.
To get her kiddos’ attention in order to switch stations, Rowley sang, “Ta rah rah boom dee a! Look is L-O-O-K.”
“Stations are so powerful,” she said. “So much socialization happens and I like to keep kindergarten playful and academic. I make sure they’re having fun and discovering sensory and motor skills. A lot of these kids missed preschool over the past two years, so we’re making up for lost time.”
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Growing up in Ionia, Rowley found inspiration to become a teacher watching her mom teach students from K-12 in a rural school.
“We never had snow days; we just went to school with mom,” she recalled. “She had that servant’s heart that really inspired me to become a teacher. We eventually transferred to public school and there, I had wonderful teachers as a kid.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Michigan State University, Rowley began her 32 years-and-counting career teaching fifth grade in the Ionia Intermediate School District. She has taught in Caledonia for 30 years, 27 of them at Kettle Lake.
She also earned a master’s degree in counseling from Western Michigan University.
“I started at Kettle Lake teaching first grade, then did second- and third-graders, and have been teaching kindergartners for about eight years now,” she said.
Now that she’s older, Rowley said she appreciates the “young, fresh enthusiasm in kindergarten.”
“They keep me feeling young and hopeful for the next generation of kids growing up and coming through my classroom.”