UNION, N.J. - Despite finishing the year out of the classroom, second-grade students at Hannah Caldwell Elementary School received an enlightening and enriching experience right from the comforts of their own home.

The second-grade team organized an exclusive virtual assembly where students listened and shared their experience with two published authors, both alumni of the Township of Union school district. 

“The virtual assembly gave our students the chance to extend their learning beyond the classroom,” Tony Manderichio, a current second-grade teacher, said. “It elevated our curriculum and, at this time of the school year, gave them yet another reason to stay engaged.”

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Typically, most students in second grade pursue writing examples to answer a question. Led by Manderichio, the second-grade team looked to provide another avenue, one where creativity could shine through.

“We wanted to let our students know and understand there’s more than one topic to write about,” he said. “This showed them you can be creative with your writing and express how you feel with a story.”

The team contacted two new authors to help teach this lesson.

Both Frances Siino and Stefanie Hilarczyk are Union alumni, with Siino currently teaching at Franklin Elementary School. The duo’s books focus on the experience of elementary-aged students, describing lessons of empathy, diversity and the importance of respect.

Siino’s book, To My Child, is described as a poem meant to introduce young children about some important ideas about life. According to Siino, “The book describes the importance of being unique and imaginative in order to create your future. It encourages children to think freely and dream big.

Hilarcyzk’s book, The Adventures of Tooth Fairy Tommy, bases its story around a tooth fairy learning how to fit in with the other fairies. Her book looks to teach children what empathy means and what being kind to others is truly about.

“Everyone has a story, some just need extra time speaking it,” Hilarczyk said. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes as long as you tell it!”

After learning about their books, Manderichio pitched the duo on the idea of doing a virtual assembly with the entire second-grade class. 

“This idea fits into the theme of our student’s lessons - utilizing fun and interactive activities to reinforce grade-level curriculum before the summer months.

“What made this even more special is both authors are from Union and completed their education in the school system. It really reinforces the long-standing motto of the town I tell my students - What helps youth, helps Union.”

The students and authors came together on June 5, engaging in an hour-long assembly. Teachers served as moderators, gathering questions from the students to create two-way participation. The authors shared excerpts from their books and discussed their writing process.

It’s clear students, teachers and the authors learned something from the experience.

“Thank you to Mr. Manderichio and the other second grade teachers for letting me be a part of your event today,” Siino said. “Thank you to the students for being such a great audience. It was so special for me to be able to share my story with your students and to encourage them to write.

“One thing I want children to know is that you all have a voice, and you all have a story to tell. Believe in yourself and don’t be scared to express yourself, whether it be through writing, art, or whatever comes naturally to you.”