Archive results for: Inside Our Walls

A Memorable Moment: VOCEL’s Founding Class Graduates

After opening VOCEL’s doors just two years ago and spending many hours planning, teaching, nurturing and conversing, the hard work and commitment of VOCEL’s children, families and teachers has paid off. On Thursday, July 28th, VOCEL held its first ever preschool graduation. 


VOCEL Teachers Ms. Kinya and Mr. Jameel lead the class to the graduation ceremony venue.

Cheered on by friends and family, staff, supporters, and volunteers, our inaugural class of students marched into Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory Academy’s auditorium. Our eleven graduates, dressed in the most precious bright blue cap and gowns, happily celebrated the end of what seems like an era.

In the past two years, we have seen so much growth at VOCEL. Cognitively, children have made some pretty impressive gains. Closing our school year 94% of our students are on track with all developmental milestones. In a single year at VOCEL, children made more than 2 years of vocabulary growth. Knowing these numbers, the joy and pride that filled the room came with no surprise.

After Kelly Lambrinatos, Co-Founder and Executive Director of VOCEL, welcomed the guests and graduates, the VOCEL class gave a small presentation to their audience. Smiles, laughter, and even a few tears were seen throughout the crowd as voices sang, “I’ve learned more than I can say. Now it’s graduation day.”

Next, Jesse Ilhardt, VOCEL Co-Founder and Director of Program addressed our graduates, acknowledging how they have become curious explorers and sophisticated learners.

Ruth speaking

VOCEL Teacher Ms. Ruth presents diplomas and superlative awards to each student. VOCEL Teachers and Board Chair, Ms. Barbara Koren shook the hand of each graduate.

Finally, the time had arrived – the awarding of the preschool diplomas. Each child was called up and individually recognized. Graduates were presented with a diploma and all students received their own superlative award.

Reflecting on VOCEL’s accomplishments in the organization’s first few years, we are proud and excited to send our founding class off to the schools they have chosen to attend. Children have been accepted to high-ranking schools of all types across Chicago, including magnet, charter and private schools.

As we bid farewell, a favorite classroom phrase comes to mind: “From our hearts to your heart, we wish you well!”

Latrell and CJ

Two of the #VOCELkids relish their moment in the spotlight and smile for the camera.

Learning to love literature: a morning with Ms. Reidy

Being housed within Chicago Jesuit Academy (CJA), a tuition-free college prep middle school affords VOCEL many great opportunities for learning from the work and studies of the older students. As an added bonus, many of CJA’s staff and volunteers share their passions (and lots of hugs!) with the VOCEL kids. Today, we’re introducing you to one of those volunteers, Ms. Reidy.

Anticipation builds as we head inside. Calming our bodies from outdoor play is nearly impossible as anticipation builds on the way to our next destination: the library! (While our classroom library is filled with some fantastic books, nothing beats the chance to visit the “Big Boys’ Library” and see a real librarian.)



Ms. Reidy, CJA’s volunteer librarian, greets us with a warm smile as we file in and excitedly take our seats. From there, Ms. Reidy reveals the books she’s hand-picked for us to read this week and begins to read as smiles spread across both students’ and teachers’ faces. After the stories are finished, questions are asked, songs are sung , and even the occasional bookmarks are handed out. Without a doubt, the most joyous part of each visit comes when Ms. Reidy hands the books to one of our teachers as a donation to the VOCEL classroom library!

Thank you Ms. Reidy for sharing your time and pouring your love for literature into the young minds of VOCEL.


New year, new perspective

Each month VOCEL’s team members gather for a monthly Togetherness Meeting which opens with a different team member sharing a reflection. This month, Cooperating Teacher, Kinya Willaby, shared her thoughts.

From Ms. Kinya, January 5, 2016:

I was prepared to reflect on some professional resolutions that would assist me in being a more effective educator and a better team member overall. While important, I realized last night, I was moved to reflect on Wesley* instead. (Wesley’s last day at VOCEL was Jan. 4 as his family relocated outside the state.)

Yesterday was his last day at VOCEL, and it was a vast contrast from his first day here. I can vividly remember him throwing classroom furniture, being verbally and physically aggressive to children and staff alike, and bolting down the hallway running away from teachers. I recall getting in my car feeling defeated and saying out loud: ‘I don’t know how to do this job.’

As Wesley’s challenging behavior persisted, so did our team’s commitment to persist: we researched, trouble-shooted and derived solutions and resources. We learned how to understand Wesley’s behavior, communicated effectively with his family, developed signals for teacher’s to tap in/out, discovered and anticipated the triggers for his anger and frustration, helped him identify and communicate his emotions, and ultimately, we learned his love language.

It was not just one of the aforementioned ideas, strategies or resources that helped Wesley develop into the loving, charming, classroom-rule-following kid that departed yesterday. It was the collective efforts, commitment, experiences and knowledge of the entire VOCEL team that contributed to Wesley’s overall growth and success. The shared trials and victories over this one child’s successes helped us bond as a team, by recognizing each other’s strengths and trusting each other to problem solve together.

It certainly armed us with the tools to effectively combat present day challenges that occur in the classroom. It also helped validate my purpose and decision to educate kids during the critical early years. Whatever my daily challenge is at VOCEL, I no longer have the sentiment I did on that first day. I take comfort and pride in knowing that I can, in fact, do this job because I never have to do it alone.

*Name changed to protect the identity of our VOCEL child.

More Than Words: Gifts That Keep on Giving

“There are many ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”
– Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Children in VOCEL’s preschool classroom love reading — with teachers, by themselves and with other children — so teachers ensure there’s always a great supply of books in the classroom. We were overjoyed when one of our partners, local non-profit organization, More Than Milk, helped ensure VOCEL children had the access to high-quality literature to bring this love of books home with them each day.

This spring, More Than Milk collected hundreds of quality storybooks to stock a Lending Library where children can check out and return new stories to share with their families at home. The group even created custom VOCEL labels to put on the inside front cover of each book they donated. 



Several children at VOCEL come in to the office every evening at pick up time to return their book from the night before and select a new one to bring home. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of excitement for many of the children is checking the inside cover for the label and then exclaiming, “This book belongs to my school!”


Young children love novelty whether it be finding a new song, playing with a new toy or reading a new book. On top of that, we’ve seen the Lending Library help develop children’s sense of responsibility as they carefully select a book, place it gently into a protective carrying case and remind their parents that they have to keep it safe so they can bring it back and borrow another book.

Thank you, More Than Milk for your support of VOCEL’s program, children and families!



Learning from each other: VOCEL’s first student teacher

One of VOCEL’s four core values is Learning & Growing. We believe every member of our school community including teachers, children and their family members, is continuously growing and developing.

That growth requires feedback from one another and ample opportunities to practice new skill sets, as well as an environment where taking risks and making mistakes are embraced. It’s one of the ways we learn best. This commitment to Learning & Growing extends beyond the walls of VOCEL, so when Ms. Vanessa, who is currently working towards her early childhood teaching certification at National Louis University reached out to VOCEL with a desire to complete her student teaching with us, we jumped at the chance.

Over the past few months, Ms. Vanessa supported children’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development. She planned lessons that taught children about caterpillars and their life cycle concluding with a gift to our classroom of a butterfly garden complete with live caterpillars.


Small group

For all of us at VOCEL, Ms. Vanessa’s experience at VOCEL was a highlight of the spring, and the feeling was mutual. Ms. Vanessa shared with us recently, “Working with the children of VOCEL was a wonderful experience. The days were filled with rich conversation, learning through play, and teamwork. I learned as much from the students as they learned from me. Thank you for inviting me to your classroom, VOCEL!”

Children and teachers alike were grateful for Ms. Vanessa’s commitment to VOCEL. We practiced showing our appreciation with a parting gift of flowers and handmade cards on Ms. Vanessa’s last day. This fall, Vanessa will be working as an early childhood teacher at Newberry Math & Science Academy in Chicago. We wish her the very best!



Meeting Baby Nicodemus!

These days, the VOCEL classroom is filled with babies, and no, we’re not talking about our students! Our class study of babies started in April, and we’re reading about babies, taste testing baby food, washing baby dolls in the water table and sorting baby clothing in the dramatic play center. But the favorite activity of late, hands down, was meeting one student’s baby brother in the classroom.

After creating a concept web together to record information the children already knew about babies, we generated a list of questions or things they wanted to find out. And what better way to answer our questions than to go straight to the source? So we invited families with infants to join us in the classroom. Nehemiah’s dad agreed and shortly thereafter, 5-month-old Nicodemus visited VOCEL.

We started with Ms. Ruth asking Nehemiah’s dad to describe Nicodemus and asking him some of the questions our class had posed. Because we recently read Ooonga Boonga, a great story about an infant who can only be comforted by silly words by her older brother, Ms. Ruth asked, “How do you comfort Nicodemus when he’s upset?” Dad’s response: “Moving. He likes to dance so he wants to be held and walked around. He doesn’t like to sit still.” This led to an impromptu dance party. Children took out musical instruments and we sang Wheels on the Bus, watching with joy as Nicodemus danced from Dad’s knee.

NA 3

Later, children asked whether babies can give high fives. So we tested it out and ended the visit with each child taking a turn to give Nicodemus a high five. He was calm and happy, despite 17 three-year-olds crowding around him!

NA 2

NA 4

Many thanks to Nehemiah and the whole family for sharing Nicodemus with us for an afternoon!

NA 1

Jazzing with the “big boys”

Being housed within Chicago Jesuit Academy (CJA), a tuition-free college prep middle school affords VOCEL many great opportunities for learning from the work and studies of the older students. As an added bonus, the young gentlemen’s work ethic and commitment to learning serve as great examples for our preschool children.

The most recent opportunity came about when a child told us that his older brother (one of the school’s 8th graders) had recently started playing the trombone. After reading several books including This Jazz Man and Jazz Baby, Mr. Carroll, CJA’s Music and Jazz Band Director invited VOCEL to a recent practice session.

The afternoon started with several musicians in the beginning jazz ensemble introducing themselves and their instruments. After two quick songs, Mr. Carroll taught our little ones about the piano’s pedals and how they work to extend and shorten notes the musician plays.

JB 1

JB 2

JB 3 

From there, we headed to the musc room next door and met members of the more experienced jazz ensemble who were rehearsing for the Action for the Arts Recital coming up this week at the House of Blues. Several children loved the music so much they couldn’t help but get up on their feet and start grooving.

JB 4

JB 5


The learning that started with these budding jazz musicians continued back in the VOCEL classroom with a shared writing activity. We worked together to remember the various instruments we had seen and wrote the sounds we heard in each instrument’s name. The day ended with the impromptu formation of our own class marching band. Many thanks to CJA’s students, teachers and staff who continually welcome VOCEL and support our children’s learning.

JB 6

JB 7

JB 8

5 Things Friday: Beautiful Junk

One thing that constantly amazes VOCEL’s team is the creativity and imagination our 3- and 4-year-olds bring to the classroom each day. So it was a joyous occasion for all when the teachers introduced “beautiful junk” and a brand new art cart in the classroom last week.

Paper towel rolls, buttons, fabric scraps, egg cartons, pipe cleaners. All these items might be found in your kitchen junk drawer or recycle bin, but to our VOCEL kids, these are the makings of treasures. Last week the teachers introduced “beautiful junk” and a new art cart full of materials, ready to be used for innovative creations.



Research says that giving children open-ended materials and free reign to do with them what they will is much more beneficial for children’s development than crafts with step-by-step directions and parameters set by teachers. In the early education world, this is also often discussed as the difference between process art (focused on the process of creating, the experimention and exploration, and the frustration and joy that process brings) and product art (focused on a specific outcome and requires that children create in a predetermined way). At VOCEL, we love process art and are committed to fostering children’s creativity and artistic abilities through as many open-ended opportunities as we can provide. 

Curious what our kids gravitated towards in their first week with the new art cart? Here are the current top five favorite beautiful junk items:

1.  Popsicle Sticks- Our bulk supply of wooden popsicle sticks has been put to good use as children have tried their hand at creating snowflakes, covered with glitter and Mod Podge, and fashioning various letters of the alphabet, including their favorite letters – the first in each of their names.

2. Egg Cartons-  Children immediately took to the cartons with scissors, slicing them in half along the hinge of the cartons. From there, the creativity took them in different directions with some children making them into guitars with rubberbands and other string, while others turned the carton halves upside down to create long, narrow hats.

3. Buttons- The most popular use of the buttons has been in conjunction with pipe cleaners as children have strung buttons on the pipe cleaners and then bent them to create bracelets or jewelry for themselves or their friends.



4. Rubber Bands- Children have been fascinated by the abundance of multi-colored rubber bands in the cart and especially their varying sizes. The largest rubber bands have become strings of egg carton guitars while the smallest have been used to fasten popsicle sticks. 

5. Fabric Scraps- This week, fabric has been used primarily to create musical intstruments. Children found that they could toss beads into a alumnium can, cover it with a scrap of fabric, fasten the fabric and shake away. Bonus: using scissors effectively is challenging in the preschool years and cutting fabric is a fun way for children to hone these fine motor skills.



What beautiful junk is hiding in your house? Think of all the ways it can be repurposed by young children you know. If you don’t have any use for some of your beautiful junk, feel free to stop by VOCEL and add it to our art center. We can’t wait to see how VOCEL’s children use the art cart items next week. 

Child chefs: making & breaking bread

Over the past several weeks, we’ve learned that VOCEL’s children not only enjoy pretending to cook in the dramatic play center, they love becoming real chefs, as they participate in classroom cooking experiences.

Recently, we took advantage of children’s interest in the classic storybook, The Little Red Hen and decided to take conversations about how to make bread to the next level by trying our hands at it ourselves. One of VOCEL’s teachers, Ms. Ruth introduced all of the ingredients that would be added to her breadmaker and the magic began.

Bread 2


Each child had a different responsibility, from measuring the cream of tartar, to adding the yeast, to pressing the start button on the breadmaker.

Bread 3


One of the children’s favorite parts of the story, The Little Red Hen, is pretending to smell an aroma of bread baking in the oven. So, after adding all of the ingredients, each child watched that breadmaker like a hawk, waiting patiently for the bread to rise. And the timing couldn’t have been better, as children noticed the delicious aroma of our very own bread filling the classroom, just as they were falling asleep for naptime. As they woke up, many children rushed directly to the breadmaker to see the finished product.

Bread 7


In addition to the great learning that takes place as children measure ingredients, follow directions from a recipe, take turns and demonstrate patience as they wait for the final product, their favorite part is tasting their creations. And to be honest, that might be our teachers’ favorite part too! 

Partners & Pennies

Our VOCEL kids are always in awe of the middle schoolers at CJA, our partner school; so imagine how excited they were to contribute to CJA’s Penny Wars.

In anticipation of Pi Day (March 14th), Chicago Jesuit Academy (CJA), the middle school incubating VOCEL, had Penny Wars between the four grade levels.  Each penny was a positive point while all other coins and bills subtracted from the total.  Since the 7th and 8th grade young men share their corridor with VOCEL, we thought it would be a kind gesture to collect pennies in our classroom and gift them to the middle schoolers.  Not only did our kids get to count pennies and consider topics like estimation and quantity, they also discussed what it means to show compassion and do something kind for others.

Last Friday, three CJA 8th graders came to visit VOCEL and receive the collected pennies.  Our children were ecstatic to gift the pennies and the 8th graders were gracious and appreciative of the gesture.

Penny Wars

We’re fortunate to have role models for our young children right down the hallway. Now we are just waiting to see who wins the Penny Wars!



Our blog is a gathering place for all things VOCEL. It's a window into our classroom, a resource for early education news, and a place to discover stories that showcase our teachers, our children and our families.