Q&A With our Specialists

Our schools count on SPARK 


James Fester. I taught social studies and science for ten years at Hall Middle School and this year I have moved into a TOSA position (Teacher on Special Assignment) supporting the teachers and students at all three school sites in the areas of both project-based learning and technology.

Bob Montes: Intro To Programming, Mouse Squad, Tech Arts 6, Tech 6 Wheel. 31 Years teaching in Berkeley, Union city, Hayward, Brazil, Poland and Larkspur!


JF: One of my jobs is teaching students about digital citizenship and online safety. Many students are excited to get their email accounts or send their teachers work using their Google accounts, but are unaware of the potential dangers that can come with an online profile. This year I became a Common Sense Media Digital Ambassador so that I could support our district’s digital citizenship initiatives which include teaching lessons in class. It’s always fun to see students awareness grow as they progress through the lessons on the Common Sense website.

BM: I see these kinds of moments almost weekly these days. That moment of insight when a student understands WHY their program is behaving the way it is; or after a morning of coding Sphero robots a student proclaims “that was the most fun I have ever had in school”.


JF: Many of you have probably heard the quote, “We are preparing students for careers and challenges that do not exist yet.” We do not know what the world will look like when they begin their lives as adults, but we do know two things; technology will play a larger role in their lives and skills like communication, collaboration, and critical thinking will be essential to their success in whatever they choose to do. My work focuses on helping teacher build these crucial 21st century skills now so that our students are prepared for the future when it arrives.

BM: Well I think that we are trying to develop the entire child, address multiple intelligences, and leverage divergent learning styles. In this way, we provide a rich set of choices for kids to discover hidden talents they may not be aware of.


JF: The kids. I have been working with kids for over 20 years in a variety of different capacities. It is always challenging, hilarious, exhausting, and never in the same way twice. I feel very fortunate to be able to finally be a part of the work at Cove and to meet all the students before they begin their middle school careers.

BM: I often have kids tell me that this is their favorite class. I love making learning fun and allowing kids to explore while providing the mentorship and coaching kids need to keep going on the road to successful. Mouse Squad and Intro to Programming are the most fun courses I have ever taught.


JF: Thank you all for your continued support of SPARK!

BM: Thanks so much for all your support over the years. We have an array of electives that is second to none in the county!


Alexis Firsty: Hall, 6th Grade Studio Art, 2-D Art (7th / 8th Grade Elective), 3-D Art (7th / 8th Grade Elective)

Jennifer Fry, Hall, Digital Art and Digital Design/Yearbook, 10 years

Kerry Mason, The Cove, Art K-5

Denise Lipiansky, Neil Cummins Art K-5


AF: I have so many favorite moments, but many of them are the looks of joy and wonder on students faces when they make or achieve something they didn’t realize they could do, or when they are so excited about beginning a new project that I have introduced to them. When students come up with a technique that they develop on their own and want to share it with others, or when they find a new message or meaning in a work of art that we are studying, I see their pride in their own capabilities.

JF: My favorite teaching moments are the ones in which students approach me about an idea for an artwork and need help executing the idea. When a student is engaged with a personally relevant project, he or she is open to being challenged. This year, a student wanted to 3D print a car he designed to work with a certain scale of model railroad. I asked him to figure out the measurements in millimeters. It was not an easy task, but he was in my classroom before school the next day with the information, ready to proceed. In those moments, I am not the teacher at all, merely a facilitator of learning. In another instance, I have had the honor of working with a student who has special needs. She is learning to use eye-gaze technology in my class to create digital paintings and collages. It’s an incredible experience to watch this hard-working student pioneer a way to access art that allows her to express her creative ideas under her own control.

KM: My favorite teaching moments almost always occur when I’ve successfully set up a student for exploration and risk taking. I’ll find myself observing an individual student as they journey through the creative process: mixing colors, discovering new colors, surprising themselves with their creations, mixing ordinary art supplies and creating amazing works. It’s these hands-off moments of growth that are continually my favorite.

DL: Some of my favorite teaching moments are when I see students helping their peers with the directions I gave. It shows that they are learning the procedures and being kind.


AF: Visual Art teaches kids how to develop multiple solutions to problems, how to take appropriate risks in order to strive towards something better, how to find meaning and beauty in the world around them, how to observe details, and how to use their imagination. It helps each student to find confidence in his or herself as a unique person who is different from everyone else and has something important to share, and helps them, in turn, develop respect for others who are different from them. It helps them to communicate their feelings, even when they don’t have the words to do so.

JF: Digital Art is an incredibly demanding subject that draws on skills from multiple disciplines, including skills needed to navigate technology in a rapidly evolving global landscape. Moreover, in order to engage with the Digital Art curriculum, students must use creative problem solving skills, develop a tolerance for dealing with challenges and failures, and become increasingly self-reliant. Artistically speaking, Digital Art introduces students to the contemporary art world in which many current professional artists are just tapping into ways technology informs their artmaking. Having this class in middle school allows students to develop a strong foundation in technology and visual literacy, both of which are absolutely critical for high school, college, and beyond.

KM: Education increasingly has become a quantitative field, one where inputs and outputs are measured in test scores and salaries. We as a community seek to prepare our students for a competitive world where they will be challenged on a global level never before seen. Simply schooling our students in a STEM curriculum will not be enough – we must offer a holistic, creative, cross-disciplinary curriculum (STEAM) that will not only aid our youth in succeeding by external standards, but also aid them in their lives journeys as complete human beings.

DL: Art not only enables kids to embrace their own creativity, but many challenges in school and work are directly solved through artistic means. Art is inherently intertwined with science, math, history, architecture, and more. Thus, a solid art foundation will continue to aid them after they leave Neil Cummins. On a separate note, when students walk away with creations they are proud of, they gain confidence in themselves not only as artists but as individuals.


AF: I am amazed every day at the new ideas and creations that my students develop and share with one another in class. I love seeing students who are so passionate about what they are working on, and I also love seeing the hesitant artist have those moments of pride in what they are capable of achieving and creating. I like the physical aspect of working with paint, clay, glue, etc. because it is so natural and has such a strong connection with the earth and with the past, yet is also so timeless. I love that, through teaching, I get to share with my students what I love to do in my own life. Thank you to SPARK for supporting the arts!

JF: The best thing about teaching for me is being witness to a student making connections and having a-ha moments for the first time. It is also a beautiful and fulfilling experience to watch students teach each other, accessing the collective knowledge in the classroom. I feel beyond fortunate that our community members support SPARK, who in turn funds the Digital Art class at Hall. It’s a class that most students don’t have access to at the middle school level and yet is vitally important to their development. I appreciate the visionary leadership of the foundation and the administration in this district that continue to support our students in a holistic way.

KM: I’m always so wonderfully surprised to see how much detail, imagination, and natural artistry students put into their work. Students’ inhibition and their creations are so inspiring to me. I find a deep fulfillment in guiding and nurturing others’ love and exploration of the arts. The level of dedication I hold and share with the other faculty and staff at our school is unique to this profession and this position. I’m grateful for each day that I’m allowed to continue serving our youth in such a deep and meaningful way.

DL: I really enjoy seeing the children in their element and growing as people. School is about so much more than the academic subjects. You get to see kids learn life skills on a daily basis. They are also funny, cute, and sweet!



Gretchen Klaubert: K-5 General music, band and chorus at Neil Cummins Elementary This is my 19th year teaching and my 8th year at NC.

Sarah Wolf: I have been teaching general music, choral music and dance in the district since 2002.

Jeff Derby: Band/Jazz/General Music, 11 years

Christine Derby I teach Music- (General, Band & Choir) Cove


GK: I think some of my favorite moments are when parents approach me to tell me that their child is singing the songs we have done in music class at home. I once had a parent tell me that their oldest child was teaching the youngest one songs so that he would be ready for music when he entered kindergarten! To know that the songs, singing games and musicianship skills we are learning and enjoying in class have an even greater impact and resonate with my students outside of the classroom is truly amazing.

SW: This is a great question because I have had many, and here are two examples: A-ha moments happen regularly in the choral music classroom.  Students are struggling to read text and symbolic notation and to internalize the music into their bodies kinesthetically, mentally and emotionally.  The ongoing refining process that occurs as we are learning new music is challenging, but the reward is oh so great.  I absolutely love it when my students pause after a phrase or at the end of a difficult passage and exclaim in amazement, “Wow, that sounds really great!”  It is so satisfying as their teacher to see their growth.  The students see how their unique voices combine to make a beautiful chorus. I met a shy girl entering sixth grade.  She was very self-conscious, introverted and clearly, lacking self-esteem.  She would often shy away social interaction.  Over the course of three years, I saw a transformation. She began to trust and feel supported by her peers in her “choral family”.  She started taking small risks.   She began to sing out in chorus and by eighth grade, she took a leap of faith and auditioned for a solo. I was both moved by her singing and by the loud applause of her peers.  She sang her solo for our Open House and moved the audience to tears.  The confidence she gained from this experience will carry over in all areas of her life.

JD: A moment in time that made me feel extremely proud and honored, was when Lucas Roy, Hall Valedictorian 2016 spoke about the role model role that I’ve been in his life.  He mentioned the importance of the music knowledge that I passed on, as well as life skills and really caring for each student as a young adult, not just as a student in class.  His speech about me really touched my heart, made me feel amazing and refilled my tank, as at times, I feel like I’m running on empty.

CD: Too difficult to choose just one “A-Ha” moment, but I’d have to say that the best teaching moments for me are when I see students take risks in my classroom. I enjoy watching students develop over the years in elementary music and see how they come out of their shells in the process. One of my favorite quotes I have posted in our classroom is “life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and I think that children demonstrate this even better than we do as adults. I love that my room provides a safe place for students to know they can take risks and be supported along the way!


GK: Music is an amazing art form that connects people, gives an outlet to our emotions, brings joy and peace to the world and it’s fun!  These words come from our very own Neil Cummins students to whom I posed the question at the beginning of the year, “Why is music important?”  There is so much research that shows how music helps students make connections, it enhances their social emotional development, engages the whole brain, and much, much more.  I love music because it brings us together!

SW Chorus provides a wide platform for academic, creative and social growth.  In chorus, students build success skills: reasoning, intuition, perception, imagination, self-discipline, problem-solving and resiliency. We challenge students to sing various texts, often including foreign languages and music from historic periods and diverse cultures. Students are motivated to learn through active engagement, sustained attention and risk taking. Singing in a chorus fosters creativity as students interpret words and symbols they see on a page, and bring them to life in unique and deeply personal ways. Students become valued citizens who build community inside and out.  Meaning, a community exists within the choral classroom as friendships are sparked and a “chorus family” develops.  Students then take this with them to share with the community at large as ambassadors of school spirit. This includes performing for elders at Aegis of Corte Madera, singing at the town Centennial Celebration, performing with the town band for its annual spring concert and singing the National Anthem for our Spark Giants Night Out.   Chorus students feel a sense of belonging and find a haven within the institution. They have an opportunity to create something bigger than themselves.

Singing in a chorus has intrinsic value: Chorus connects students to themselves and each other. Chorus is a powerful vehicle for fostering empathy, social tolerance, social expression. (4) It reminds us of our shared humanity. We are fortunate to watch the power of music unfold and transform our lives in bringing us together by reminding us we are in this together. Thank you for supporting music in our lives.

JD: I feel that my music classes prepare kids for Redwood quite well, because I’m giving them all of the professional musician knowledge that I have.  I pass on everything I know and have very high expectations for my students development and ability level.  I’m teaching them high school, college, professional level material at a middle school, and they dig it enough to work really hard to improve.

CD: I feel that music at every grade/level is important for a child’s overall development. Particularly in 5th Grade Band & Choir, students learn and develop the skills in the areas of Teamwork, Leadership, Community, and Discipline which are qualities they will no doubt take with them to Middle School, High School and beyond. I strongly believe that Music is the common thread between all subjects. It is a universal language we can all speak no matter our skill level, background, etc. Music is more than enriching our students’ lives, it is helping mold them into future citizens of our world. Music builds character and  creativity and touches on human emotion. We live in a world where these qualities and focus need to be at the center. We as teachers raise them up the best we can while we have them, and set them off to fly! They are the hope for our future. They give me hope.


GK:The students and the joy, energy and questions they bring to class.

JD:  I love to see my students feel really proud of themselves when they accomplish something that is challenging.  To hear the audience clap thunderous applause for a solo, to get recognition from classmates with encouragement, etc.  I try to shape my students to be model citizens of the world and lovers of music.  I think they’re doing an awesome job!  I’m very grateful to teach at Hall and have such amazing support from the community.

CD: Investing in children and inspiring a love of music in them is a job I feel so fortunate to have. I am unbelievably grateful to SPARK and the community for acknowledging the importance of Music in our schools and allowing me to do a job I am most passionate about with children that inspire me every day in the classroom.