Here We Go… Again: Preparing for the New School Year

With the new school year drawing closer, the natural approach for many is to anticipate what set of changes and challenges may arise in the near future. Whether adapting to a new grade, routine, or school altogether, the onset of a new year provides an opportunity to look past the present and plan for upcoming events. With that in mind, a few key methods may help you plan and prepare for the academic year.

“Sometimes the most influential thing we can do is to hold space and listen. The desire can be to help our children fix the feeling, so they move out of it faster but helping them to feel and deal is far more helpful in building their resilience long-term.” – Madison Besser, Willows Community School Counselor 

First and foremost, encourage your children to mindfully reflect on the successes, and obstacles they experienced in the previous year. Whether they thoroughly enjoyed their classes or disliked certain aspects of school, it is important to remind them that it’s completely normal and expected to feel multiple emotions. Take the RULER skills that are being taught at The Willows and implement those into your home. Bridging these skills into your home will provide a consistent, unified method to help your children recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate their roller coaster of emotions.

Emotional self awareness is a valuable skill to develop, no matter the age of a child. By promoting emotional flexibility it will allow them to better process inevitable difficulties, in educational or personal settings. Madison Besser, our school counselor offers this advice: “Sometimes the most influential thing we can do is to hold space and listen. The desire can be to help our children fix the feeling, so they move out of it faster but helping them to feel and deal is far more helpful in building their resilience long-term.” Continue this practice with your children throughout the school year and consider setting up a consistent schedule to mindfully reflect with them.

Set a list of developmentally appropriate goals with your children. Then, give them some time to come up with their own goals, specific or broad, and provide guidance if needed.

  • For younger children a goal might be, “I will be responsible for my belongings.”
  • For older students a goal might be, “I want to have a consistent routine.”

The same goes for the scope of the goal; your children may not yet have a wide-reaching goal for the school year, but they may have an even greater goal, such as a desire to have a certain job when they grow up. Emphasize that setting small goals is fundamental in defining what they aim to achieve, and the practice of setting goals is a means to prepare for greater ambitions in the future.

Once classes, enrichment, and other extracurriculars begin, it’s normal for students, and parents, to become overwhelmed. For many, it’s difficult to appreciate finer details when there’s multiple sources that require ample attention and effort. In such instances, it is essential to focus on each day, one at a time. Staying focused on the present is a skill that many adults even struggle with. Encouraging your children to appreciate the smaller details is not only important for their education, but also for their future personally and professionally.

Remember and accentuate that a school year is a long time, even when they always seem to fly by. There’s plenty of time to grow, to fail, to try again, and to change, but most importantly, there is time to adapt. Preparation is only a single portion of this process, and when we run into inevitable obstacles, remember to reflect, set goals, and take it one step at a time.

End of Year Reflections

As the school year winds down, it’s important we all take time to reflect on the year. So many of us get consumed in the daily grind that we often forget to intentionally pause and reflect on the past. Reflection is a very important tool in having a growth mindset and being able to learn and grow from our choices and actions. When our students reflect on what they have learned or achieved, it gives them a heighten sense of self-awareness and ownership.

In the last week of school, this is a great opportunity to sit down with your child and create the space and time to reflect back on the school year.

Here are some ways to help facilitate the conversation and to encourage our children to reflect.

Write a Thank You Note

Have your child choose one or two individuals that have made an impact on them this school year and write them a thank you note. You can provide them writing prompts to elaborate on why they chose this person and the impact they had.

Write a Letter to Themselves One Year in the Future

Ask your child to write a letter to themselves one year in the future. Don’t put restrictions on what the letter can be about or the tone of it. It can be a letter congratulating them on a future goal they plan to accomplish or some words of wisdom. Let the focus be on whatever they choose. Keep this letter and give it back to them at the end of next year.

Write a Letter to Your Teacher’s Incoming Class

Have your child think about what advice might be helpful to give to the incoming students from both an academic and social perspective for them to be prepared for the next school year. What advice might you give to those students? What do they need to do to be successful?

Create a Vision Board

Have your child create a vision board to imagine what they want what their future to look like. Let them be creative and use whatever materials they would like. Encourage them to include anything that inspires them such as pictures, quotes, memorabilia, etc.

Teaching to be Kind over Teaching to be Nice

Niceness is saying “I’m sorry you’re cold,” while kindness may sound like, “I’m sorry you’re cold, here’s my sweater for you!” Kindness comes from the heart.

For many of us, we use these two words interchangeably. However, there’s a major difference between the two. What’s the difference between being kind and being nice?

In simple terms, being nice is when you are polite. It’s doing something that is pleasing or agreeable. Whereas being kind is when you do something for someone because you care about that person. It’s doing something that is helpful to others and comes from a place of benevolence. The distinguishing factors lies in the motivation of a person or act. For example, if you help someone move a piece of furniture, that would be described as either nice or kind. If the underlying motivation was to create a favorable impression or to ask for a favor later, then that action can only be considered nice and not kind. If the action was done to spare the other person from extra effort or inconvenience, then that action can be considered kind, as well as nice. These two are not always mutually exclusive.

At The Willows, we strive for teaching our students to be both kind and nice. While we acknowledge the importance of being nice in social and professional settings, it’s also important for us to teach our students to stand up for what is right and, at times, that action might not be viewed as nice. That’s where teaching kindness comes in. Teaching kindness starts with an understanding of emotional intelligence and learning to comprehend our own feelings and emotions as well as being able to empathize that in others. The importance of emotional intelligence has always been recognized as one of our core values at The Willows. In 2015, The Willows integrated RULER, and evidence-based program from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, into The Willows classrooms and curriculum. RULER has enhanced our teaching practices and self-regulations of our students as well as strengthened empathy and relationship quality. It helps us teach kindness. Learn more about RULER @ The Willows here.

Here are few ways to teach your child to embrace kindness.

Ask Questions

Helping our children understand what kindness means is done through conversation. Talk to them about their feelings and the feelings of others. Ask your child, “How do you think that person felt or what do you think they’re feeling?” By asking these questions and having them think from a different perspective, they begin to gain an understanding of empathy.

Model Kindness

Preach what you teach. Help your children see what kindness looks like by performing acts of kindness. When you see someone that needs help, act. Children learn through behaviors model by adults so the more we model kind behaviors, the more likely our children will exhibit those. Be aware of what you’re saying. Children are always listening. Do you talk negatively about your neighbor or relatives? Children not only see you modeling behaviors, but they also hear them.

Point out Kindness

Pointing out your own acts of kindness or noticing it in others will teach your child to look for kindness in this world. Acknowledge your child when they are doing an act of kindness. Let them know that you recognize their efforts and how their efforts made a positive impact on you and those around them.

Help Others

Teach your child the joy of helping others. Let them know that it feels good to help others, even if you’re not getting anything in return. Setup opportunities for your child to help the local neighborhood or get involved in an important cause to them.

“How we feel effects our learning, the decisions we make, how we treat others, and our personal well-being.” – Yale Center for Emotional intelligence RULER.

Why Field Trips? The Positive Effects on Learning

For teachers, one of the best tools in solidifying concepts and tying together classroom learning is through real-world experiences such as field trips. Whether it be a local trip to the beach, the aquarium, the post office, or a retirement home, each of these experiences contributes to students’ understanding of the world.

By stepping outside of the classroom, we provide students an opportunity to see connections between what is happening at school and in the real world. They begin to take what they have learned in the classroom and apply it to the situations around them.

There has been new research published in The Journal of Human Resources that finds the positive social and academic impact field trips have on children. In the study, more than 1,000 fourth and fifth grade students were put into two groups. One group participated in 3 to 6 “culturally-enriching” field trips, such as a visit to an art museum or play, while the other group remained in class. The study found that the kids in the field trip group scored higher on end of grade exams, received higher class grades, and exhibited fewer disciplinary behaviors compared to those in the other group.

Here at The Willows, we embrace field trips and view them as a supplement to learning. As a community of dedicated life-long learners, we believe that to enrich the lives of our students we need to extend our borders beyond our campus and embrace the world. We need to build bridges by seeking ways for our students to explore and engage with our neighbors and those globally, and one engaging and authentic way to do that is through field trips.

Our Director of Teaching and Learning Terri Baird said, “Field trips are one of the best ways for students to make meaning and see connections between the classroom and the world. Learning outside, through experience, helps put the “do” in Dewey.”

Here are just some of the Willows’ field trips:

  • Middle School Community Service-Learning Trip to Peru
  • Middle School Community Service-Learning Trip to Nicaragua
  • 7th grade overnight to Memphis
  • 8th grade overnight to D.C.
  • 5th grade overnight to Boston
  • 4th grade overnight to AstroCamp
  • 3rd grade overnight to Hilltop
  • 2nd grade overnight trip to Long Beach Aquarium
  • Olvera Street
  • The California Science Center
  • Leo Carrillo Tide Pools
  • LA Zoo
  • Local Fire Station
  • Local Post Office
  • Local Farmer’s Market

These field trips engage students in variety of ways and create touchpoints for students and teachers to reflect on in the classroom. While many of the students’ worlds revolve around Los Angeles, branching out into the community or even internationally provides an opportunity for our students to access different learning experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom or on the Internet. It’s our responsibility to bring rich, multisensory, and engaging experiences for our students in a holistic and progressive approach.

A Meaningful Conversation: How to Have One with your Child

Conversations are incredibly important. It’s a pivotal component in communicating our thoughts, opinions, and emotions to one another. It’s our way of communicating what we want, what we need, and more. By learning how to have meaningful conversations, we begin to listen, empathize, and effectively communicate better with those around us.

Knowing the importance of meaningful conversations, how do we encourage our children to have more meaningful conversations with us?

Here are some tips to encourage more meaningful conversation with your child:

Meet Eye to Eye

It’s important to get on their physical level. Having an eye level conversation can help your child feel less intimidated and more open. If your child is smaller, sit down or kneel when you speak. It allows you to look at your child in the eye and face to face. It shows that you are fully attentive. 

Know their Space

Get to know your child’s comfortable spaces. Once you do, find time to speak with your child in those places. Parents often tend to seek conversation with children when it’s convenient to them, regardless of place. What might be more helpful is to assess the surroundings and allow your child to be in their comfortable space, such as their bedroom, to help engage a richer and deeper conversation.

Keep a Constant Line of Communication

It’s so important to keep the lines of communication open. When communication dies in any relationship, the relationship itself soon follows. As parents, continue to engage in small talks, deep conversations, superficial conversations, talks about school, friendships, sports, or any topic, but make sure to do this often. Never stop talking to your kids.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

To encourage deeper and more meaningful conversations, ask open-ended questions that allow for more than one-word answers. Ask questions starting with “why” and “how”. The purpose of using open-ended questions is to allow your child to share and make their answers more personal and meaningful.

Be Patient

This may be incredibly hard at times. Remember, children aren’t always going to give you what you want when you want. Parents need to check in with themselves and to know when to step back. If their child is not giving a lot, then parents need to take that cue. That means being patient and holding off a conversation for another time. Sometimes your child just needs a little bit of time to process things on their own.

Be Neutral

Check your judgments at the door. Remember that your child isn’t always seeking your advice. Once you get deeper into meaningful conversations, make sure to engage with curiosity and not judgement. Sometimes your child just needs you to listen or to validate their feelings. Being able to step back and be neutral, will encourage more meaningful conversations.

Try these tips with your child and see if you engage in more meaningful conversations. Remember, it’s a process and takes time.

Origami Cranes – Bringing Hope and Healing to Our Community

This past fall in art class, students learned about cranes and their cultural significance around the world. In Japan, origami cranes are symbols of hope and peace. An old Japanese folktale promises that anyone who folds 1,000 cranes will be granted a wish! This practice was popularized after World War II by the story of Sadako Sasaki. Communities often band together to fold 1,000 cranes for a shared purpose. At The Willows, origami paper was sent home with our DK thru 8th grade students. In art history, 3rd thru 8th graders learned about cranes and how to fold origami cranes in art class to create a community senbazuru, a group of 1,000 cranes, to promote hope, health, and healing for our community during this challenging time. Our diverse and inclusive community banded together and folded over 2,000 cranes!

The Willows WPA Co-Chairs, Taryn Condo and Lori Hashimoto, and art teachers Jean and Kristy, all played an integral part in the final installations of the cranes. There are three installations throughout campus. The spiraling care installation in the Middle School art room totals 1,000 cranes, the installation in the 3rd-5th grade building has around 850 cranes, and the remainder of the cranes are in the installation behind the front desk of The Willows entrance.

Middle School art teacher Jean Magers said, “It was so rewarding to see the kids delight in these gorgeous crane installations and then watch them realize that they had a part in making it. I love everything that it represents – beauty, hope, dreams, determination, and the power of community.”

Lower School art teacher Kristy Acero said, “I loved the collaboration aspect of this project and how the entire community was involved in some shape or form. The results are striking and loved the wow factor from the students!”

This school-wide community project exemplifies and highlights the cohesive, nurturing, and inclusive community we foster here at The Willows. The word “community” is indeed an intentional and integral part of our name.

Independent Investigations @ The Willows

One core concept of The Willows’ philosophy is to provide students with rich, engaging, and authentic real-world learning experiences. We understand that at the very heart of learning is allowing students to explore for themselves. When students can explore and make discoveries on their own, the sense of autonomy tends to be more rewarding and meaningful to learners.

Each year, The Willows’ seventh graders start the year with a unit on the scientific method. They explore topics such as experimental design, hypothesis testing, variables, and scientific analysis. In addition, they hone their skills as young scientists by carefully collecting, organizing, and analyzing both qualitative and quantitative data. The unit culminates with each student conducting an independent investigation where they create and design an experiment in an area of interest for the purpose of demonstrating their understanding of the scientific method.

The independent investigations last around three weeks. Throughout those three weeks, students turn in step-by-step assignments via Google Classroom and are also given time in class to work on their independent investigation and seek out assistance from the teacher.

Liz Stocksdale, a seventh-grade teacher, loves supervising these independent investigations. She says, “This project is a great way for students to apply the vocabulary and concepts of scientific inquiry in an engaged and creative way. It allows them an opportunity to dive into a topic they are interested in (sports, chemistry, gardening, physics, food, etc), giving them ownership over the process. The whole project is so thorough, it ends up becoming a clear and valuable assessment tool for where they are as scientists after the first trimester. It is fun to see the students who can just run with it from beginning to end, accomplishing impressive scientific discoveries. At the same time, it is helpful for evaluating who needs more guidance or clarification of the curriculum, and this project often ties things together for the students who might have initially struggled with the vocabulary or concepts.”   

Here are a few independent investigations questions the 7th graders came up with:

  • Do girls complete a written maze faster than boys?
  • How do different liquids affect the dissolving of Alka-Seltzer?
  • Does smell affect taste?
  • What types of paper hold the most water?
  • How does different levels of salt affect the boiling point of water?
  • How does glass react when exposed to different temperatures?
  • How do different brands of markers and paper affect whether they bleed or not?
  • Do 7th graders complete the monkey bars faster than 4th graders?
  • What ingredients affect how fast water boils?
  • What type of soup stays warm the longest?
  • Do gluten -free cookies bake differently than non-gluten-free cookies?
Simone’s Thermo-Molecular Heat Expansion Independent Investigation

These independent investigations provide students an amazing opportunity to immerse themselves in real-life experiences that are meaningful to them, along with building a wide range of skills such as critical thinking, time management, writing, researching, and planning that will give them the tools needed to be successful in the future.

Gary the Duck: A Collaboration Between a Willows’ Teacher, Four Alums, & 100 Students

Pictured above from top left to bottom right: Ben Knight (alum), Greg Blum (alum), Evie Knight (alum), Mahra Peterkin, Max Bradley.

What does a Willows’ music teacher, one hundred Willows students, and four Willows’ alums have in common? A duck astronaut.

This piece is about collaboration and how one Willows’ music teacher reached out to The Willows community and collaborated with four alums and one hundred students to create an animated music video called “Gary the Duck that has been submitted into many festivals and has already been awarded multiple accolades.

“Gary the Duck” is a musical and visual storytelling experience featuring a young aspiring duck astronaut who, with support of his friends and family, overcomes adversity and eventually achieves his dreams. The project was conceived by Willows Music Teacher Greg Blum and is a product of many years of hard work and collaboration of many artists including four Willows alums and 100 Willows students.

The inception of “Gary the Duck” started in 2016 and was inspired from an experience Greg had as a teacher and the passing of David Bowie. It first started out just like any other songs Greg had composed in the past but after completing the song, Greg knew that it needed animation. Greg knew he couldn’t do it by himself so he reached out to Ben Knight, an 8th grader at the time, and eventually worked out a plan for him, along with his parents, to help with video animation. As the music video evolved, Greg reached out to other talented alums and artists to assist:

Isaac Willson (alum) – Piano 

Evie Knight (alum) – Character design  

Mahra Peterkin – Background painting

From character design to 3d modeling to background painting, more people became involved in the production of “Gary the Duck”. In the end, the finished music video, which consisted of digital 2d animation, 2d hand drawn sketching, and 3d animation, is a true Willows collaboration across all ages.

The experience for Greg was a memorable and enjoyable experience. “It was so fun. We got onto a schedule about a year ago where we would meet on Zoom twice a month. We would talk about what needs to happen, the direction, who is doing what, etc. Ben would animate the scenes, and then he would assign the three to do a clean-up of over each frame. It was gratifying. The team was just lovely.”

This project that took 3 years to finish is a prime example of how The Willows is a community. It is not by accident that the word “community” is included in the name of our school. It is an intentional and integral part of our identity. The impact and the relationships that are formed in the early years continue to thrive as students graduate from these walls and pursue their dreams just as “Gary the Duck” does in his dream of being an astronaut.

The Power of Robotics: The Middle School Robotics Team

As our world becomes more digital and automated, the skills we teach our students need to be tailored to the future careers when our students graduate into the work force. Many of those positions will be in the field of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). STEM continues to evolve and play a huge role in the future of our world. STEM education creates critical thinkers, instills a passion for innovation, and develops creative problem-solving skills. The Willows believes not only in the importance of STEM but in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) and incorporates them throughout the curriculum in all grades in an integrated approach.

The Willows offers many opportunities for students to pursue these types of classes. One major program The Willows offers is the Robotics team. Every fall, The Willows Robotics team is open to any Middle Schooler. From September to November, those on the Robotics team meet roughly twice a week to prepare for the First Lego League Robotics competition in November. The friendly competition consists of teams engaging in researching, problem solving, coding, and engineering – building and programming a LEGO robot that navigates the missions of a robot game.

The Willows Robotics team provides an opportunity for students to develop real world skills. As a school community, The Willows offers a wide variety of experiences for students to try and explore.

Having a Robotics team that is inclusive to all, exposes students who may have never thought about it before. These little experiences may lead them to pursue something in STEM in the future. For example, check out Willows alum Isis and her Stella 5.0 App and Alums Julianne Hannon and Eliza Kaplan on the Robotics team at Marlborough High School. Being on the Robotics team provides them real exposure to what careers and jobs look like in that field.

Wendy Amster, Dean of Ed Tech and Robotics team Coach, says, “It’s more than just a robotics team. There’s the component that many of us think of when we hear robotics, the building and programing of the robot to accomplish mission, but there’s also a research component which is equally weighed. The research component requires students to research about a real-world problem and to develop an idea, speak to experts, make a model, and pitch their ideas. This is STEM in the real world.”

Erin Carter, Middle School teacher and Robotics team Coach, says, “STEM education is so important in general. This is just one facet of STEM. It exposes students to a wide range of real-world applications and opens up many possibilities of where this interest can take them in the future.”

So whether or not our students pursue a career in STEM or robotics, The Willows understands the myriad interests of our student body. Our goal is to create a place for individuals to explore and to find their passion.

Restoring your exhausted and tired brain through “Soft Fascinations”

“Soft fascination relieves stress by helping us close those mental browser tabs; unhurried reflection lets us sift through mental clutter, quiet internal noise and come up with fresh, useful solutions.”

– Lisa Damour

Stress is a part of life and always will be. There’s no way to avoid it. Our minds are constantly processing, sometimes at speeds faster than we’d like. Often our thoughts compete with one another to be front and center in the frontal lobe causing our brain to figure out how to process all our thoughts. With stimuli coming from all directions, at times, it can be extremely distracting, loud, and debilitating but other times it can reinvigorate our brain and provide clarity.

So how do we focus our attention to have the outcome be the latter?

The answer is through “soft fascinations.” Soft fascination is the connection with activities that require attention but don’t entirely occupy the mind, such as folding laundry, spending time in nature, or washing the dishes. These soft fascinations require less bandwidth and allow the mind to wander, explore, and reflect on the unresolved thoughts we had.

While we don’t want to be engaged in soft fasciation the whole day, we want a healthy combination of different types of attention since it can be overwhelming and tiring if our attention never gets a break. Direct or hard attention, one that requires a lot of attention, such as playing a video game or solving a puzzle, may contribute to stress if it’s overworked and never given a break. In contrast, soft-fascination attention requires less effort and less mental energy but allows your mind to reflect and to problem solve.

Have you ever experienced a time throughout the day when you had a moment of clarity while you were showering or taking a stroll outside? That’s a soft fascination.

Moments of soft fascination daily can help recharge our brains to take mental breaks from the day and to help reset our tired brains.

The following are soft fascination activities. Keep in mind not all of these are soft fascinations for everyone. They are a generalization. While you are engaged in these activities, it’s important to not have any other distractions such as watching TV or listening to music. It takes your attention away.

  • Folding laundry
  • Showering
  • Washing dishes
  • Taking a walk around the neighborhood
  • Looking at the clouds
  • Being out in nature
  • Doing simple chores
  • Driving without music
  • Walking your dog

The next time you feel like your brain is on overload, try one of these soft fascination activities and allow space for your mind to wander. I bet you’ll feel more recharged and invigorated.