It’s not every day that you can go sightseeing in Egypt with Cleopatra and listen to her firsthand account of life in ancient Alexandria. But students at the Jubilee Christian School in Mount Lebanon, Pa., recently got the opportunity to hobnob with her highness as well as several other legends from the region. And they didn’t set foot outside the United States.

Okay, so it wasn’t really Cleopatra—it was a parent volunteer whose convincingly regal rendition helped kick off Jubilee Christian’s annual “all-school unit,” a hands-on curriculum module presented by faculty and PTO members. Held every March, the all-school unit gives students in grades K-6 the opportunity to “visit” a particular region and learn about the events and traditions that have shaped its history. Thanks to the many creative and involved parents—about 45 in all—teaching students about life around the Nile for last year’s unit on Egypt was a pleasure cruise.

“We get many volunteers, and this allows us to free up the teachers to do the teaching exclusively, which is great,” explains former Jubilee Christian principal Mary Wolling, who retired in spring 2009. She developed the all-school unit tradition more than 20 years ago; while teachers provide traditional classroom instruction with slide shows, video clips, maps, pictures, and lectures, PTO leaders use creative license to help bring that year’s topic to life.

That’s where PTO volunteer and unit coordinator Lori Cook comes in. “The unit is very demanding on the principal and teachers and leaves them little time to explore local resources or supplemental activities to enhance the learning experience,” Cook says. “This is where I can make a difference. I can evaluate available resources and either pass useful information on to the teachers to implement or coordinate these learning opportunities through parent volunteers.”

A veteran classroom volunteer and a physician by training, Cook has been the PTO’s all-school unit coordinator for three years. She helps arrange special programs and guest speakers over the four-week lesson plan; she is also instrumental in planning the opening activities. To kick off the month on Egypt, parent volunteers staged an elaborate mock film production of “Pennsylvania Jones and the Pharaoh’s Fortune” in the school gym. Students were cast as extras for the film and guided through a series of “location sets” crafted by parents with help from a local artist. Volunteers portraying the likes of Cleopatra, Moses, and Pharaoh Khafre’s queen, “Jewel D. Nile,” gave students a glimpse of each character’s role throughout the centuries. Students ended the day’s tour at the Valley of the Kings, where “Pennsylvania Jones” (a dad volunteer) lectured about the ancient Egyptians’ preparations for the afterlife.

PTO volunteers coordinated other activities throughout the month, too, such as a showing of The Prince of Egypt and a schoolwide field trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Guest speakers who visited Jubilee Christian included King Tut (portrayed by another volunteer dad) and several community members who shared their professional knowledge and experiences of the country. And students excavated Egyptian figurines in a simulated archaeological dig arranged by parents. “It has been incredible to see the parent organization come together to pull this thing off,” Cook says. “Clearly, it requires many people working together using the individual talents and abilities that God has given them.”

During the final week of the unit, parents serve a traditional meal to students and faculty at an all-school luncheon; a Jubilee dad who is a chef provides food for about 100 people. Last year’s dishes included hummus and pita, lemon chicken, rice, and pastries for dessert. At an evening celebration to wrap up the month, students share some of the facts they’ve learned. Families also vote on the next country to be studied, which is always announced with much excitement that night. Principal Wolling plans to come back for a visit during Jubilee Christian’s 2010 unit. “I can’t wait to see what the children will learn from music and dance about Russia next year,” she says.

Cook is looking forward to it, as well. “Each year we think that the unit can’t get better than the last, and each year somehow it seems as though it has,” she says. “Each unit lends itself to totally different opportunities, allowing the kids to create new and memorable experiences with one another—hopefully valuable experiences to stay with them for a lifetime.”

The Group
Jubilee Christian School PTO, Mount Lebanon, Pa.

School size: 93 students, grades K-6
Amount raised: $45,000
Fundraisers: Race for education (pledge drive), direct donations from families, online auction, Easter candy sale
Mission statement: We will use our time, talents, and money to support our teachers in any way possible to help make our teachers and staff successful and appreciated.

All-School Curriculum Unit
Students experience a country’s history and culture through a month of hands-on lessons

Pyramid scheme: Plans for the all-school unit in March begin almost a year in advance; a letter sent home to families outlines the various tasks and volunteer opportunities. “Parents are asked to sign up for things they would like to help with,” notes retired Jubilee Christian principal Mary Wolling. Options include checking out library books, helping with art projects, decorating classrooms, and chaperoning field trips.

Learning from dads and mummies: For the 2009 unit on Egypt the PTO arranged a trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where students took in Egyptian artifacts and virtually toured an ancient pyramid. Special guest speakers visited Jubilee, including a former school dad who talked about his experiences on archeological digs in the Middle East and a staff member from the University of Maryland School of Medicine who shared his knowledge about the mummification process.

Cost per unit: Typically, PTO leaders spend about $2,000 on supplies and materials for the month’s activities. (They exceeded that last year with the trip to the natural history museum, but those expenses were covered by a separate budget for field trips.) Expenses range from books and curriculum materials, costumes, and souvenir hats for students to props, artist fees for scenery, and food for the all-school luncheon.