When Layla Plakes and Emily Harms are asked if they are best friends, they immediately respond in unison, confirming the suspicion. They laugh effortlessly and often in unison, regardless of whether a joke occurred. They finish one another’s sentences almost as if it were scripted. They display happiness in one another’s presence that feels simple and pure, the way only a childhood friendship can.
Layla and Emily are fourth graders at JeNeir Elementary and have been friends since they met in pre-kindergarten. When asked what it’s like to be a fourth grader, “It’s challenging,” says Layla, only for Emily to cut in and add that “it’s fun!” Layla takes back over without hesitation, adding, “you get the hang of it.
They tend to take charge, and it’s really cool to see that leadership developing. – Dr. Michael Bleyle
By Barry Engelhardt
Born eleven days apart, they are far more similar than different. They both come from large families and are the youngest in their households. While they both started in gymnastics, they each moved on and found separate paths.
Layla has been attending dance classes for seven years. Her favorite subject is math, whereas Emily plays softball and loves reading. They love to learn and hope to one day teach their passions. Layla wants to open a dance studio and share her passion for hip-hop dance. She shares that it’s her favorite dance style based on the “strong moves and fun facial expressions.” In contrast, Emily plans to attend college to coach a sport—most likely softball—or become a band instructor.
They love the arts, a hobby each of their parents supports by stocking their homes with what the girls describe as countless art supplies. They share that they’re currently learning to play the recorder in music class. Having already mastered “Mary Has a Little Lamb,” they’re learning “Jingle Bells’’ in preparation for the annual Christmas concert.
If Layla and Emily weren’t already busy enough, they are also STEM competition co-captains. They recently led their team of ten Momence third and fourth graders at the FIRST Lego League Superpowered Challenge. The event hosted thirty five teams of fourth graders, all of whom participated in four team-based events. Each team participated in robot design, robot building, an innovation presentation, and a core-values presentation.
One of the unique aspects of STEM is its focus on failure as a necessary point in the learning process. FIRST Lego League Coach and Kindergarten through Fourth Grade STEM Instructor Michael Bleyle understands the value, saying that failure is “part of life. It’s part of everything. You’re going to mess up. Nothing is going to go perfectly. Life happens. These moments are what makes life interesting.” He continues by adding, “I try to expose them to as much thinking and as much fun learning as possible. They’re learning so many different concepts. They understand what they’re grasping in a controlled environment where they’re able to fail, make adjustments and not feel threatened by failure.”
Bleyle shares that this marks Emily and Layla’s second year competing and appreciates how far they’ve grown over the past year. Momence just finished sixth in the robot game, where they were required to ‘explore building and coding skills’ by designing, building, and demonstrating the functionality of a robot. Overall, the team finished just shy of cracking the top ten, placing Momence in the top third of competitors.
Mr. Bleyle considers Emily and Layla instrumental in the team’s success, saying, “They both have loud and direct personalities. They’re great kids. I’ve known them since Pre-Kindergarten, as my son’s also in fourth grade. They tend to take charge, and it’s really cool to see that leadership developing.”
From dance to softball, Emily and Layla have learned the value of sticking with things regardless of momentary frustrations. It’s also how Layla learned to hit a line drive despite admitting that she couldn’t make contact with the ball early on. Through this determination, Layla can attend numerous dance classes per week, even though she acknowledges that it can be exhausting at times.
Every day they walk into STEM Class, they’re greeted with a less-than-subtle reminder. Their class mission statement is Struggle, Learn, Adjust, Succeed. More valid words were never spoken. Or, in this case, painted on the wall.