Getting sorted at Mack Benn

Published 10:50 pm Friday, August 30, 2019

This year’s fifth graders at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School have already been sorted.

Now what’s left is for them to go to Platform 9¾ and enter their houses – or for the rest of us muggles out there, classes – and create some academic magic as the start of the school year begins Tuesday.

The Harry Potter theme permeating fifth-grade started out as a joke among that grade level’s teachers. It’s no joke now.

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“We were the wrong folks to say that to,” said Wayne Rau, a fifth-grade math and science teacher whose class was sorted into Slytherin.

The fifth-grade teachers began plotting last year about what they could do to liven up their hallway and classrooms, and to that end, they went full-bore on a theme that gives students, as much as possible, the feel of being at Hogwarts.

“We wanted them to, as soon as they round that corner, feel like they are walking into a whole different world, a whole different environment that could be relatable back to Harry Potter,” Rau said. “And also something that can be very visceral, something that can be their own community.”

Jeff Seneca, a fifth-grade math and science teacher whose class was sorted into Gryffindor, pitched the idea to Mack Benn Jr. principal Garrick Rhoads and got his support for it.

“I went to our principal and I said, ‘This is our idea, would you mind us painting?’ And he said, ‘Well, the school’s going to be painted … but you can paint over it if you want,’” Seneca said. “So he was really cool with letting us, but he did come down a couple of times last week while we were doing it and his eyes were like, what am I getting myself into?”

But the hallway has already been a hit with students and staff.

Doors and classrooms are decorated with one of the four houses in the Harry Potter series – Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw. The teachers recreated the platform and a phone booth, and plan to add other touches in the coming days and weeks.

The fifth-grade team spent about $1,000 of their own money and pooled resources to carry out the theme, using donated items from the Little Theater of Virginia Beach, thrift stores, Amazon and homemade items. They then spent about a week painting walls and dressing up their classrooms.

And the teachers will be dressed up in house robes on the first day to greet kids as true professors of that house.

“A big characteristic was communal,” Rau said. “We wanted to make sure that even though we’re different houses, there was a way to bring everyone back together as a family – with the house points, having different events throughout the year. … Just making sure that they all knew this was one big family.”

Already their effort has paid off in the excitement among those who came out to an open house event last week.

“The kids’ eyes, I mean, they were just so excited about coming back to Hogwarts,” Rau said, “and parents were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to have an awesome year.’”

Parents were taking photos of their children in the Hogwarts hallway, and students were taking selfies by the platform.

But it’ll be hard for the students to rival the excitement their teachers had in creating the fantasy world for their students.

“We started doing it for the kids, and then we realized as we were doing it, this time is rough on the teachers,” Seneca said. “They want to get in their rooms, they want to get everything ready, and all of last week, every fifth-grade teacher was out there working and waiting on the rooms to get that done for the kids. So it was kind of like a bonding experience a little bit too.”

Said Rau: “We were excited about this project. I mean, I know that it was extra work, but we were really excited. We each had ideas, and we knew how we wanted to bring them to fruition.”

Caitlyn Curry and Lindsay Tomaras, fifth-grade reading, writing and social studies teachers, will be reading from the books in their classes.

Curry, whose class is host to the Ravenclaw house, had the idea to have each student provide a thumbprint to put on the wall that denotes which house they are in. And there is more planned throughout the year.

On the other end of the hallway, new Mack Benn Jr. teacher Tomaras was grandfathered into the Hogwarts theme and will be home to the Hufflepuff house. She’s jumped right in, though. On her door is a quote from one of the characters, Dumbledore: “It matters not what you are born, but what you grow to be.”

Seneca’s co-teacher Brittany Chavis and Rau’s co-teacher Kim Faulk – both special education teachers – were also key contributors of time, resources and ideas to the project.

Rau said it’s a matter of the kids walking away from fifth grade with a memorable experience, and they expect their enthusiasm for it to permeate to their students.

“We’re really excited to see how this unfolds,” Rau said. “Because, I can guarantee this is not where it ends. As we see the students get more and more into it, we will continue to build onto that, whether it be academically or just socially to make sure that they are getting the best Hogwarts experience from it.”

And the best Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School experience, too.