Hillview students go exploring in week of mini-courses


Susan Churba spends weekdays as a learning specialist in language arts at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park. Much of the rest of the time, however, Ms. Churba can be found in a completely different setting: competing at a pool table.

Ms. Churba is captain of a pool team, one good enough to have made it to national competitions.

Recently, Ms. Churba had a chance to bring her job and her passion together in a week-long class called "Str8 Shots." It was one of 35 classes, involving all 875 of the school's students, that made up the second annual Hillview Mini-Courses week, April 13-17. Her class, Ms. Churba says, was about "the science and strategy behind ping pong, billiards and pinball."

Other courses taught at Hillview during the week included "The House That Hillview Built," in which students built two playhouses, from scratch to finishing touches. Both houses will be donated; one to the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation and the other to an East Palo Alto charity called 10 Books a Home.

In "Explorations of Baking," students culminated a week of learning about and practicing baking with their own "Cupcake Wars" competition.

Associate Principal Willy Haug and math teacher Mark Schack, with art teacher Dan Stys, taught "Picture This," in which students spent the week taking photos all over the Bay Area and learning about digital cameras.

See some of the students' photos on

Students in "Author, Author" not only wrote the first chapter of a book during their week-long class taught by school librarian Tracy Piombo, they also chatted via Skype with children's book author Wendy Mass, author of "Candymakers," in New Jersey and Adam Rex, whose book, "The True Meaning of Smekday," was recently made into the animated movie "Home."

See examples of some of the student's writing here.

Menlo Park City School District Superintendent Maurice Ghysels even got into the spirit of the mini-courses by spending a day with "Ocean Odyssey," taught by Arion Espinoza. His students combined science with sailing on the Bay.

In "Adventures in Babysitting," taught by seventh-grade language arts teacher Charea Batiste, students took a Red Cross course and received certificates in first aid and CPR. They visited Stanford University's Bing Nursery School, where they not only learned now to change a diaper, but also about research done at the school. The students culminated their week by holding a preschool on Friday for the children of Hillview teachers and staff.

Students in "Eat, Blog and Be Merry" spent the week learning about the art of critical writing and reporting about food and restaurants. Then they wrote their own restaurant reviews. Below are links to the student reviews of two Menlo Park restaurants: Piccolo at 651 Oak Grove Ave. and Mama Coco at 1081 El Camino Real.

Piccolo review 1 and Piccolo review 2

Mama Coco review 1 and Mama Coco review 2.

Hillview Principal Erik Burmeister said the week of mini-courses is an attempt to let students be more involved in their own education and make choices about what they study. "It's really important to us that kids get to choose what they want" to do during the week, he said.

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