Where education begins: Grand View’s Dina Moll lays a joyful foundation
by Mark McDermott
Early on a Thursday afternoon in November, a chorus of “ehs” were echoing in Room 12 at Grand View Elementary School.
Twenty-five kindergartners sat in a semi-circle around teacher Dina Moll, who was making a game out of a lesson regarding the pronunciation and drawing of the letter “e.” This was the 59th day of the school year; the students were on their second time through the alphabet.
“E is one of those letters that is tricky,” Ms. Moll told the class, as she demonstrated how to draw a small “e” starting with the line in the middle. “Draw the diving board, then jump up, and around!”
An overhead projector illuminated a series of slides featuring a barnyard full of animals, including a cheerful elephant and some chickens with eggs. As if it were a game show, Ms. Moll called up different kids to identify the right letter to use. The large projector screen was a touch screen, so the kids could drag each appropriate “e” to a bucket in the bottom corner to win.
“I have an ‘e’ before a ‘y’ in my name,” said one girl.
“That is why you are an ‘e’ professional,” said Ms. Moll.
Every child in the classroom was paying full attention, which for a group of two dozen five-year-olds only two months into their educational lives counted as no minor miracle. When an elf appeared on the screen, Ms. Moll reminded the class of the elf who’d appeared in their classroom not so long ago.
“This is what I was for Halloween,” she said. “An elf!”
Welcome to the magical kingdom that is Ms. Moll’s classroom, where learning is joyful and the ringleader of 25 buzzing little beings is the most energetic of all. A class never goes by in which Ms. Moll has not made direct eye contact and interacted with each and every child in the room. Ms. Moll compares her role in the classroom to that of an actor, because she can’t take a single moment off — she has an audience glued to her every movement. But it’s hardly a passive audience. The students are ready to model their teacher’s every behavior, and she never forgets it. Her mood is always buoyant.
“Whatever is going on in your personal life doesn’t matter when you walk through that door,” Ms. Moll said. “I feel like I am on stage performing…At this age, they are sponges. They pick up on everything I say and everything I do. If I’m excited about a project, they are going to be excited. If I am not into a project, they are not going to care about it.”
“You are on every second of every day. There is no down time. You don’t get to pass out a test and say, ‘I’ll be here at my desk.’”
Ms. Moll was named Grand View’s Teacher of the Year last June in part because her colleagues recognized the depth of her dedication, something reflected not only in her ebullient, attentive classroom presence but in the hours of painstaking preparation that make her lessons fun, riveting, and effective for kindergartners.
Grand View Principal Nancy Doyle said that Ms. Moll is usually the first person at the school, arriving at 7 a.m. each morning. The work she puts into planning, Doyle said, makes her teaching appear almost effortless. But a lot of effort goes into the structure of each day.
“First of all, it’s the smile that is on her face, so welcoming to each child as they walk in that door, and you just know in your heart they are going to have a happy and productive day,” Doyle said. “Once inside the room, she is carefully organized. She fastidiously plans her lessons….Each is designed to engage, designed to keep the kids active. Little sound bites happen throughout the day; five-year-olds’ attention spans wax and wane.”
Kindergarten instruction is foundational. Ms. Moll’s classroom is brightly adorned, but with specific purpose. “There are so many beautiful reasons to be happy,” says a sign above her desk. Between her desk and the chalkboard a polka dotted tarp hangs with the words to “The Silly Squirrel” song pasted on via green construction paper squares.
The song is part of a poetry series used to emphasize tracking when reading, sight word practice, grammar, punctuation, and how to change your voice to match the contours of the lyrics. Ms. Moll uses songs to help teach many lessons. There’s a clean-up song, a sit down song, and a goodbye song.
“Most songs are used to help with transitions, or times when children are moving from one activity to another,” she said. “It keeps them focused and on task.”
Nearby, a “sharing schedule” was written on a marker board with each student’s name assigned with others for each day of the week. The students’ desks are shared, two-foot high tables encircling a rainbow-colored carpet, where the kids sit when Ms. Moll gathers them for group instruction intermittently throughout each day. Behind her desk, laying peacefully in a cage, was a kindly-eyed golden labrador named Quinta. Ms. Moll volunteers for a non-profit that trains service dogs, and though Quinta will only be in the classroom for a month, the kids are happy to be part of the dog’s socialization.
“When you are creating a foundation, the first thing is you have to get kids to want to come to school,” said Doyle. “She fills her classroom with a sense of community, and the students days with a myriad set of activities. So the day is super varied. They experience everything they need to experience in their little developing minds. The way she does it seems so seamless, but I know she is working super hard.”
“That service dog, too, really shows she is an example to the kids, of selflessness, of being responsible, and that really sets a tone,” Doyle said. “Everything is intentional, but it looks effortless. Whether it’s life lessons about being respectful, or learning an academic lesson on the meaning of four plus four, they are doing it effortlessly but extremely intentional under her direction.”
The “e” lesson wasn’t on the day’s schedule, but the kids had finished an art project 20 minutes earlier than planned. Ms. Moll, attuned to the mercurial nature of her students, always has alternative plans built into the school day. In fact, part of the reason she loves students at this age is their inherent spontaneity. No two days are alike.
“They are so funny, to me,” she said. “I just can’t predict what they will say, and what they will do.”
The art projects each student put together were made out of eight different pieces of colored construction paper cut to form the sun and the sky above two green trees and the ocean, with the inscription, “I am thankful for the blue water” at the bottom.
“Ms. Moll, I want to take this home today,” said one curly-haired little blonde girl.
“You are taking this home today,” Ms. Moll said, leaning down near the girl, smiling. The little girl did three celebratory leaps with another girl. “I am so excited!” she exclaimed.
Ms. Moll is in her 14th year teaching at Grand View. She graduated from Loyola Marymount in 2003. She was a psychology major before focusing her aspirations on teaching.
“I knew I wanted some type of job that helped others,” she said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how impactful certain teachers were in my life. I knew I needed work that made me feel I was doing some good for the world. Teaching was that for me, the fit.”
She briefly taught at an inner-city elementary school in L.A. A teacher friend told her about Grand View, describing it as “the Disneyland of schools.” She was hired first as a pre-kindergarten teacher and then as a kindergarten teacher. It was a grade level she had never aspired to teach.
“I didn’t really choose it,” she recalled. “I thought I preferred older kids. But after that first year at Grand View, I just fell in love with the innocence of the children of this age group. Looking out into a classroom and seeing how totally new they are to education, and how their bodies and faces transform into awe and wonder — it’s probably the greatest feeling as an adult that you can have. They are so excited by the little things. Sometimes you are the first person to explain to them why we have rain, how rain falls from a cloud — you don’t necessarily think about that as something cool, but then you sit and talk about it with the kids and see them begin to understand. It’s like a physical shift, how it lights them up. There are things I am the first person to tell them, about how the world works and how to be a good person in that world — it’s fun and exciting for me, so much energy, so much to talk about, so much to learn.”
Ms. Moll’s students practiced their “e” skills on worksheets, trying out big E’s and small e’s and identifying cartoon animals whose names begin in “e.” She inspected each student’s work, applying a rubber stamp seal of approval that shows an apple with a bite out of it and the word “Terrific!” She gave a high five to one little boy wearing a T-shirt that said, “Class of 2030.” The kids ended their day singing the goodbye song to each other, and to their teacher, who sang along.
“I love what I do, and I feel that it matters,” Ms. Moll said after her students gleefully departed at the song’s end. “I am teaching kids how to be responsible, kind human beings. Obviously parenting plays the biggest part in that, but I feel that this is the foundation of how they are going to feel about school for the rest of their schooling.”
The reality of this sentiment was brought specially to life last year. A group of the first class Ms. Moll taught at Grand View all returned to the school to celebrate graduation. A dozen of her former students returned, celebrating their graduation into the larger world back where their education began.
“It is Disneyland,” Ms. Moll said of Grand View. “I come to work every day thinking, ‘I can’t believe I get to work here.”