50 for 50

Brownell teacher pays it forward one LEGO set at a time

There are many moments that resonate in Pat Brown’s memory after his son, Hudson, was unexpectedly diagnosed with brain cancer, but particularly stark was watching the five-year-old suffer after his emergency surgery.

On Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, Pat and his wife, Megan, brought Hudson to the Ascension St. John Hospital emergency room due to headaches and vomiting. He was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent emergency surgery that night.

“For about three days he was in the bed in horrible pain and depressed and angry,” Brown said. “He had just turned five. This had to be very confusing, too. It was that third night he and I were sitting in bed and I took out a LEGO set. I said, ‘Do you want to work on this?’ It was the first time he sat up in three days. He and I stayed up till 1 a.m. working on that LEGO set.”

That Fire Mech set, given to Hudson at the hospital by a neighbor after his surgery, holds a place of honor in the Browns’ Grosse Pointe Farms home. Hudson received many sets during his nine-day stay in the intensive care unit and throughout his cancer journey. These LEGO sets made a significant difference, helping him keep his mind focused and often serving as something to look forward to after a difficult procedure.

“There were times he would have to get a mediport access, which means a needle in the chest,” Brown said. “Friends would give him a LEGO set and we would say, ‘You can play after you get your port.’”

Racing for LEGOs

Brown hopes to help other children and their families by hosting a LEGO drive to benefit the pediatric floor at Ascension St. John. In “50 for 50,” he plans to run a 50-kilometer marathon at Kensington Metropark on Sunday, July 25.

“Ever since our son was in treatment and when we had gotten through it, we wanted to start doing things for other people who were in a similar situation to us,” Brown said. “It had always been in the back of our minds.”

The initial idea was to host a toy drive. It was Hudson’s child life specialist, Shay Rocco, whom the family got to know quite well during his treatment, who suggested a LEGO drive instead.

On Monday, July 26, the day after the race, Brown hopes to show up with his family at the pediatric floor at Ascension St. John “with a whole lot of LEGOS and really blow them away,” he said.

The Browns kicked off the drive on Memorial Day and collected $1,000 within the first 24 hours, with about 30 LEGO sets already on their way.

Megan, who helps with social media, writing and the online component of the drive, is “the brains behind the operation,” according to her husband, while he is “just doing the legwork” — literally.

Brown has been running since 2007. After completing his first half-marathon and reaping the health benefits, he said he was hooked. While he has completed other full marathons, this will be his longest.

For example, while running in the Kensington Marathon last year, he discovered the 50-kilometer option. He realized after he finished he would have had the stamina to complete the additional five miles.

“I waited all through COVID and when they announced it, I was the first one to sign up,” he said.

As part of his 16-week training program, Brown is out the door between 5 and 5:30 a.m. each day and back home to make breakfast and help pack backpacks before school. To train for a hilly course, he runs up and down the hill between Grosse Pointe Boulevard and the lake.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System is a family affair for the Browns. Pat began teaching at Kerby the year their oldest, Emmy, was born. Pat and Emmy, a fifth grader, are now both at Brownell. Megan taught first grade for 10 years at Richard and made the switch this year to Kerby. She was joined by Hudson, now a second grader, and Cece, a kindergartener.

All clear

Hudson has been in remission since March of 2019. He receives an MRI every six months; the last one in April was all clear, according to Brown, with a few more years of regular scans and checkups to follow, including regular hearing checks due to some hearing loss as a result of the chemotherapy.

“He’s just loving life as a normal, happy second grader, playing baseball and going to school. We have a lot to be thankful for,” Brown said.

The inspiration behind “50 for 50” is to extend “some of the kindness that was shown to us,” Brown said. “We really were well supported by this community and from all different places — both of our schools and our families and our neighborhoods, my running group and total strangers. We were so well taken care of and people treated us with such kindness that we were inspired to pay it forward in any way we can. That is the goal of all of this. I keep it in my head that I want to make these kids smile. I want them to be happy. I want their siblings to be happy. It’s a really hard time these kids go through, and the siblings and the parents. We want to brighten their days.

“These LEGOs were a real game changer for us and we hope it can do great things for other families too,” he added.

To donate LEGOS for 50 for 50, go to the Amazon wish list (ship orders to: Patrick Brown, 409 Lothrop, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI 48236) or Venmo cash to @Megan-Brown-132. Donations will be accepted through July 24.

Tech coaches to the rescue

As far as Director of Instructional Technology Chris Stanley is concerned, his group of secondary technology coaches is a dream team.

The team has grown since it was formed more than three years ago, but the core members that came together at the outset have remained steady: Julie Lawrence, seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher at Pierce Middle School; Alexis Lecznar, eighth-grade social studies teacher at Parcells Middle School; Jenna Roebuck, math teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School; and Sue Speirs, who teaches honors and AP biology and applied medical research with clinical investigations at Grosse Pointe North High School. Corey Ernst, sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher at Brownell who is part of OneGP Virtual this year, joined the team upon the retirement of Todd Whitefleet.

The group first came together to help instruct teachers when Schoology, the district’s learning management system, “entered into our school world,” Stanley said. Training began at the secondary level, with the idea to expand to elementary schools down the road.

The tech team was instrumental to the process, as they were “the folks who are doing this every day,” Stanley said. “Not only are they working with our teaching staff, they’re living this. When it comes to anything Schoology, these are the folks that we can go to.”

The idea at the beginning was to start slow, using Schoology as a gradebook and gradually adding the structural and teaching components.

“Our main goal last year with the teachers was to get them to use folders, maybe do a test or an assignment,” Ernst said.

Then COVID-19 hit, school buildings closed last March and Schoology went from being a new feature to a necessity.

It was the tech coaches who led the professional development session on March 13, 2020, in which district staff prepared for what lay ahead.

“None of us knew what this pandemic was going to be like March 13,” Speirs said. “All of us were working 120 hours a week just balancing our own classes and what teachers needed and knowing we were kind of that key to unlocking the communication for teachers and students.”

Having a learning management system already in place turned out to be a boon. 

“There were a lot of districts that were at a photocopy machine making handouts,” Speirs said. “We at least had this opportunity to leverage the communication and the organization for learning.”

“In spite of the sometimes frustration with Schoology and the training of people and the pandemic, thank God we had Schoology,” Lecznar said. “I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if one person was still on Noodle and one person had Schoology and one person had Canvas and one person was still on Weebly.

“From the parents’ perspective, everybody organized it a little differently, but at least it was all the same system,” she added.

Pictured are navigational buttons within Schoology Julie Lawrence used to keep her English classes organized. The district focused on using these buttons to help build consistency throughout Schoology courses.

A silver lining of the pandemic was it catapulted the school district two and a half years ahead of where it would have been in normal circumstances, in Stanley’s estimation.

“Instead of Schoology being one other thing for us to do, it became a tool everybody was thankful for,” Lawrence said.

“What was also nice was that some of the things teachers had to do, they weren’t feeling like we were pushing it,” Ernst added. “It was because of the pandemic they had to do it. It was real life making them do this.”

While teachers might have been more receptive to learning the new technology, this didn’t lessen the pressure all staff members were under. The tech coaches felt an additional layer of responsibility to help their colleagues learn and adapt, especially when the decision was made to begin the school year remotely.

A significant drawback to this process was that elementary teachers hadn’t had the opportunity yet to receive the same training as the secondary teachers. Before school opened remotely in September, they had roughly three weeks in August to get up to speed.

Training ramped up across the board, with the tech team devoted to helping however possible.

“We felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to dedicate ourselves to get those answers to the teachers in any way we could,” Speirs said. “I know we were using our cell phones, I was FaceTiming, I was calling people.”

“We kept learning from each other,” Stanley added. “What I love about this platform is that it’s content agnostic. You’ve got Jenna Roebuck, math teacher for high school students, who has no problem telling a first-grade teacher what they could be doing. It was truly awesome.”

Lawrence added that their approach in training teachers or conducting workshops was “pretty laid back.” Rather than watch a prepared presentation, teachers seemed receptive to having the coaches available to answer questions or go into break rooms to explore different areas of interest.

The group also relied on one another during this intense experience — and continues to do so today.

“We worked really well together and I can’t imagine going through the last 16 months without these people,” Lawrence said.

Now that students and teachers have returned to full-time face-to-face instruction, the sense of urgency has passed, but the need for technology as an instructional tool remains. The team looks forward to taking advantage of the structure and organization they created to continue to support students and teachers with the myriad of technology tools available to them.

“It puts us ahead because up to this point, it might just have been used for organization,” Roebuck said. “Now since we dove so deep into it because of COVID, more teachers are using it for formative assessments, for online quizzes and tests, for projects, for different things that are helpful for instruction in the classroom. Now people are continuing to build on that when we might have been only at the folder stage.”

“Not only does it provide structure, but now that we are two and a half years ahead, there’s going to be more spark for more teachers to be more innovative, sharing best practices and making it even better,” Speirs added.

Lawrence, an English teacher, used an analogy to compare the difference between the early days of the pandemic and the present.

“It felt like a firehose, everything coming at you,” she said. “Now that we’re back to face to face, it’s more of a garden hose, which is a little more user friendly. It enables you to be a little more innovative and creative because you don’t feel like there’s all these things coming at you really quickly. You can mix what you’ve learned really fast through the pandemic and just the normal, everyday stuff you used to use before that.”

Stanley said he has big plans for the tech coaches in the fall.

“Hopefully we’re going to be in a much better spot this upcoming fall when it comes to providing professional development. We’re going to be looking at a lot of different ways to be able to show how this new technology works, but also, how do we continue to build upon our LMS going forward? That’s going to be a big focus and goal for us. We’re going to be doing that at the elementary level as well now that we do have an elementary team of folks on board.

“Stay tuned come August,” he added.

South senior set on technical path

Thomas Heath knew from a young age he wanted to become an electrician. His interest began when he watched YouTube videos. What he liked most about it was it was hands-on, interactive work.

While the Grosse Pointe South senior will cross the stage next week and receive his diploma, he chose a different route to getting his required credits to graduate, splitting his time between classes at South and courses in technical education at the Frederick V. Pankow Center, a part of the L’Anse Creuse Public School.

Thomas became eligible to take these courses his junior year. His original plan was to attend a program at East Detroit, but after that was canceled, he enrolled at the Pankow Center in its construction technology program.

“It let me get my hands dirty in the trades,” he said. “It instilled the basics, like how to read a tape measure, how to draw prints, how to read blueprints. It was a pretty basic program.”

He obtained several licenses that year in occupational safety — all at no cost to him.

His senior year he enrolled in the Pankow Center’s HVAC program, which was the closest he could get to an electrical vocational program for high schoolers in Michigan, he said.

In that course, he learned about residential and commercial heating and cooling and refrigeration. He learned how to braise and solder copper. He took apart and rebuilt a furnace, completely on his own.

As part of the HVAC program, Thomas passed a four-part test and received the EPA 608 Technician Certification, a universal qualification that will never expire — once again free of cost.

For his hard work, Thomas was awarded two post-secondary scholarships — the Mt. Clemens Rotary Club Pierson Memorial Scholarship and the Frank J. Sladen Scholarship from the Rotary Club of Grosse Pointe.

His goal after he graduates is to become a union electrician. He has set his sights on the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of the largest unions in the country, and is particularly interested in the five-year inside construction wireman program.

Thomas will apply in about two weeks, then take an aptitude test. If he passes, he will go on to the interview stage and get put on a list.

“It’s a waiting game,” he said. “It depends on how you do.”

If accepted, he will do five years of an apprenticeship, which consists of 8,000 hours of on-the-job experience and 2,000 hours in the classroom.

Thomas, who refers to himself as “an old soul” and prefers old cars, architecture and music, such as the tunes of Hank Williams Sr., Al Dexter and Waylon Jennings, recognizes his path is different from many of his college-bound peers.

It is the right path for him, he said, adding he believes some of the stigma about trade schools is fading with the recognition of how lucrative these careers can be. There is also a demand for people trained in a variety of trades.

“We need a diverse crowd at South,” Thomas said. “Everybody can’t go to college. It looks good when you have people doing other things. It shows diversity.”

He added he would like to give a message to any underclassmen interested in school trades.

“If you’re young, get involved early,” he said. “Take advantage of the opportunities that you’re given in a good way. Stack up on your qualifications. Learn as much as possible. Become a useful person.”

South literary magazine crowned a finalist

Grosse Pointe South's 2019-20 art and literary magazine, The Looking Glass, won a Silver Crown award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association in its first year entering the competition. The 2020-21 issue, featuring writers and artists from the Class of 2021, has been submitted for this year’s contest, with winners announced in January 2022.

South English teachers Harry Campion and Taryn Loughlin serve as advisers. Senior Eva McCord was editor-in-chief for both volumes.

Click here to order your copy of either volume of The Looking Glass.

School Pointes is a publication of the Grosse Pointe Public School System. To submit story ideas or Pointes of Pride, email info@gpschools.org.