FOR MISS VAN, KIDS' MISTAKES ARE PART OF REACHING NEW HEIGHTS.
TARZANA -- Her students call her Miss Van, and that's just fine by Lhani van Lamsweerde.
Like her name, her lesson plan at Nestle Avenue Elementary School also is long and filled with colorful twists and turns.
``I want to take them to the stars and share everything I can with them,'' van Lamsweerde said. ``I want them to know they can learn.''
Since 2001, van Lamsweerde has taught one of three special education classes at Nestle. Her classroom overflows with art projects -- copper-foil replicas of ancient Egyptian art, dragons made of recycled plastics and paper, and Van Gogh-inspired paintings -- all created by her group of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
But most of her creative lessons focus on van Lamsweerde's love of space travel.
Last year, she helped to enroll Nestle into the NASA Explorer School Program, winning the campus a $10,000 grant. Last summer, she attended a five-day residential training program with JPL and NASA.
And on campus, she organized NASA Day and an upcoming Astronomy Night. She has rented a space suit and photographed the children wearing it. She has painted a mural on campus of Earth and Mars.
Co-workers say she takes education to new heights, using art to introduce children with special learning needs to the worlds of math, science and language.
Many of her students graduate from Nestle and matriculate easily into mainstream middle school classes, van Lamsweerde said. That is why she is among a number of Los Angeles Unified School teachers honored as part of National Teacher Appreciation Week.
``She's phenomenal,'' said Nestle Principal Alan O'Hara. ``She teaches with patience and that's what they need. They don't get bored because she's so creative.''
On Tuesday, the children settled down for a lesson in robotics, using Legos and small solar panels to create cars that ran on their hand signal commands. Later, they visited the school garden that they tend to almost daily, to pick strawberries and tomatoes, and pet an adopted white duck named P. King.
``The biggest thing is to be able to reach each one of these kids in an individual manner,'' said classroom assistant Charnette Farr. ``The attention she gives to these students is one on one, but she does it in a way that doesn't make them stick out like a sore thumb.''
Van Lamsweerde grew up in Van Nuys and graduated from Birmingham High School before earning her teaching credentials at California State University, Northridge. Before coming to Nestle, van Lamsweerde taught in private schools for almost 20 years.
``I've taught a gifted class, and it's amazing how fast they learn, but I like to try to find different ways to teach,'' van Lamsweerde said.
Most of this year's students have been with van Lamsweerde since they were in third grade. Many are now fifth-graders and will graduate in June.
The thought makes van Lamsweerde sad that they are leaving her, yet happy with all they've learned. She hopes they always remember the class motto.
``It's OK to make mistakes,'' she said. ``That's how we learn.''
(1 -- color) Lhani van Lamsweerde's class at Nestle Avenue Elementary School brims with projects. ``I want to take (my students) to the stars and share everything I can with them,'' she says.
(2) Teacher Lhani van Lamsweerde feeds her class's adopted pet duck, P. King, at Nestle Avenue Elementary School in Tarzana on Tuesday. Her colleagues say Lamsweerde takes education to new heights, using her creativity to find innovative ways to get through to special needs kids.
Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer