By Arlene Schulman
Special to DNAinfo.com New York
INWOOD — When fifth-grade teacher Annmarie Aquino tosses a small knitted square into the air, the lesson begins. Peg looms emerge from backpacks, wool is measured and cut, and needles begin clicking.
It's knitting time at P.S. 98.
Aquino, a City College grad who has been teaching at the school on West 212th Street for 18 years, says the unconventional classroom activity offers her kids valuable problem-solving skills while encouraging them to be focused and creative.
"It challenges them to think beyond the obvious — how to calculate. How much do I need? What colors do I want to use? How do I get stripes?" Aquino says during a recent visit. "And, they have thinking time.”
Isaiah Rodriguez, one of Aquino's students who is creating a placemat, says he expects to keep weaving even after he leaves elementary school.
"It just relaxes you. I feel calm and collected when I weave," says the 10-year-old, who dreams of becoming a pro basketball player and expects he'll even "weave in the locker room."
Aquino, 57, began teaching students to knit with needles years ago, and introduced weaving after finding peg looms in a classroom closet. She foots the bill for the wool and the knitting needles, and a donated table loom has become a valuable classroom asset.
The knitting instruction comes at the end of the day, and the time varies based on how well students follow directions and complete tasks like putting books away.
“The minutes add up, sometimes to 20 minutes or half an hour a day,” Aquino says.
The kids are also encouraged to take the looms home. Joshua Cabana, 9, says the new hobby has cut the time he spends watching TV.
"Weaving gives me some time to think about my future,” he says. "Working with my hands is pretty cool. It’s like being an artist. Instead of paint, you work with yarn. I don’t watch TV too much when I have my loom.”
Parents at the school — and Principal Maritza Rodriguez — say they support this use of class time.
“Ms. Aquino embraces every opportunity to provide students with new experiences. I’ve seen so much growth and maturity in her class," says Rodriguez, who is hoping students will knit her a souvenir scarf. “It takes a great deal of concentration and collaboration. And the students are so proud of their work."
Fifth-grader Oona Higgins hasn't decided whether the blanket she's weaving will go to her older sister — or her dog.
"I love weaving," she says.
So do her parents, actors Matt and Tracie Higgins.
"It’s really extraordinary," says Tracie Higgins. "Ms. Aquino speaks to the children in such a warm way and with a lot of hugs. There’s a lot of love and empathy. She creates a safe environment to take risks."
The side-effects have been positive, the parents say.
“Oona will pack the loom in her backpack and instead of watching TV, she’ll work on the loom,” her mom says.
For their next class project, Aquino plans to bring in larger peg looms for collaborative weaving using the Fibonacci sequence of numbers.
"We don't have data to substantiate that the fiber arts have a direct impact on standardized test scores and other school work. There are too many other variables in the mix," Aquino says.
But it's easy to spot the boost in self-confidence, she says.
"They learn to have confidence in their own work," Aquino says. “I teach them that there’s more than one way to solve a problem. There’s more than one way to cast on stitches. Later on, they’ll be inventing their own techniques."
But for now, when the chatter gets too loud, Aquino gently reminds her knitters and weavers to quiet down.
“People need to hear their own thoughts,” she reminds.
As Lisbeth Paulino weaves wool over and under on her loom, she sighs.
“I think a lot about what I’m going to do after school and what school I’m going to go to next year," Lisbeth says about moving on to sixth grade. "I will miss weaving the most."