Engagement and Ownership: Student-Led Conferences

As we celebrate the Willows 25th anniversary, we’ve been reflecting on the innovative work undertaken over the years inspiring students to reach their potential and share their gifts with the world. From looping classrooms in grades 1-4 to our annual Intersession, a week-long period when the School explores one theme in-depth, our school leaders have never shied away from adapting new ideas in our student-centered often pioneering educational program (scroll through the blog posts below for many more examples!)

One recent innovation is student-led conferences. Traditionally, schools hold parent-teacher conferences two to three times a school year, with teachers sharing student work samples and reports on how students are progressing towards academic and social-emotional goals. For the last several years, many schools nationwide have tried an alternative format: instead of having teachers lead these discussions, the students are tasked with preparing and leading the parent-teacher conference. 

Certainly, parents value the traditional one-on-one time with the teachers provided by the traditional conference structure. However, our balanced approach at The Willows has led us to adopt the format of student-led conferences only for the mid-year conference – and only for grades third through eighth. By third grade, we expect students have matured enough to begin to take more ownership of their learning and better articulate their strengths and struggles in the classroom. Further, mid-year conferences were chosen to be led by students since this is an ideal time in the school year to prompt students to reflect on where they’ve come since the beginning of the year and what progress they hope to make by year’s end.

Our process of implementing this new approach began slowly and strategically. For the first year, we only piloted student-led conferences in 5th grade, and, buoyed by positive responses from both parents and teachers, we expanded to third, fourth, and middle school grades the following year.

Teachers informed our school administration that the key to making student-led conferences a success was allocating time for students to adequately prepare. Teachers typically meet one-on-one with each student and map out how the conference will be structured, asking the student to reflect on his or her general progress, (i.e. “So what’s going well for you in 4A so far?) and to analyze specific projects or assignments to be shared with parents.

Understandably, for some students (especially third graders new to our Upper Elementary building) facing the task of leading a meeting typically reserved only for adults can be stressful. To address this, teachers may use the RULER tools integrated into our program to help students deal with any anxiety. The student-led conference experience has been positive and ultimately empowering for our students. Parents also report that they enjoy seeing their children in a new leadership role, taking ownership over their learning and their goals in their classrooms.

At The Willows, we firmly believe one of our primary responsibilities is to empower our students for the changing world ahead of them, and student-led conferences are a perfect example of this belief put into action.

Some Stories Never End

“What unites people?…Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it.”

-Tyrion, Game of Thrones, “The Iron Throne”

As another school year at The Willows winds down to a close, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the journey we’ve almost completed and to look ahead to the next school year.

Our schoolwide theme this year was “Story,” which means we’ve been thinking quite a bit about the power of the stories we tell each other all school year (even watching the Game of Thrones finale I couldn’t escape it!).

We started the year out welcoming the master storytelling collective The Moth to our campus, where they shared valuable ideas about how to craft powerful stories and what makes certain stories resonate with audiences. As a theme, “Story” was easy to integrate into almost every aspect of our curriculum, including Writer’s Workshop, Middle School Core, RULER integration, and even into STEAM and maker projects along the way as well.

8th Grade Core teachers used one powerful story, Angie Thomas’ novel The Hate U Give, as a springboard for several powerful conversations within our community about race, diversity,  equity, and inclusion. Multiple panels were led by Willows teachers and parents about the book and several of the sensitive issues the author deals with, and middle school student affinity groups were also formed and met to continue the conversation.

As with every Intersession we hold each year, the schoolwide theme was woven into all of the projects DK-8 students devoted a week of effort and creativity towards completing. Some highlights included projects like “The Story of a Meal” which prompted students to consider the role that personal and cultural experiences play in cooking and eating, and “Choose Your Own Adventure,” where students created their own digital versions of the beloved choose your own adventure books many of us read as children.

All stories are open to revision or reimagining, according to the needs of those telling and listening to them. At The Willows, our community is engaged in regular, ongoing revisions to our story and to our educational program. Besides bringing the Moth to our community, our faculty engaged in several other thought-provoking professional development opportunities that have caused them to revise certain approaches to teaching and learning in their classrooms. In January, a large group of teachers attended a workshop at Crossroads about the Harvard’s Right Question Institute (RQI) and techniques for improving the questions we ask during inquiry-driven projects. Onsite and on-demand professional development was embedded into one Middle School Intersession project, where Catalyst Institute founder Jean Kaneko came to lead students and teachers through a project entitled “Biomimicry and Battle Bots: A Story of Survival.” Over the course of the one-week project, we developed expertise with using our new Glowforge laser printer and with research-based systems of critique and prototyping that Jean uses with various school groups she consults with.

After our workshop with the storytellers from The Moth at the beginning of the school year, one important takeaway for me was that it is our job as educators to regularly try to improve upon telling our own stories. Two important upcoming events represent different manifestations of this idea, as we prepare to tell the story of The Willows as best we can for a variety of audiences. First, next school year, The Willows will welcome a visiting team from the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) as part of our process to renew our accreditation. Currently, we are in the middle of writing and revising several documents that comprise a self-study of our entire operation – educational program, facilities, development, alumni relations, and more.

Finally, next school year we will be celebrating our 25th year anniversary with a large celebration that we are currently in the process of planning. To commemorate this important occasion, we are bringing back our very first schoolwide theme, “The Ties That Bind Us,” which in many ways is a natural extension of this year’s focus on story. More details will be forthcoming regarding all of the ways we will be celebrating this important milestone!

RULER Institute & RULER Implementation Conference

This week, The Willows continues our fruitful collaboration with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence with two special RULER trainings for educators. RULER is the evidenced-based approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) developed at Yale and designed to teach emotional intelligence to people of all ages.

On February 6 and 7, we will host the first event, entitled RULER Institute: Creating Emotionally Intelligent Schools with Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Director; Dena Simmons, Ed.D., Assistant Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; Yale trainers; and Willows teachers and administrators. Participants will learn about the RULER approach and anchor tools and become equipped to with the foundational skills to bring RULER to their schools or districts.  A highlight of the training is the opportunity to tour our classrooms to see RULER in action throughout The Willows.

This is the second RULER training we have offered; our last training in May 2018 brought teachers and administrators from public, parochial, independent, and charter schools from West Coast schools in California, Oregon, and Washington State to The Willows with the goal of enhancing the emotional intelligence of students, teachers, staff, and families by integrating RULER principles and tools into the curriculum and cultural life of their schools.

Then, at week’s end, we are thrilled to be offering our very first RULER Implementation Conference for schools previously trained in RULER, also featuring Dr. Brackett and Dr. Simmons presenting alongside educators from The Willows. The conference will feature:

  • Keynote presentation from Dr. Brackett and Dr. Simmons
  • Breakout sessions led by members of our RULER team and art teachers on specific implementations of RULER
  • A panel led by Willows students and parents discussing their experiences with RULER

Some of the exciting topics that will covered within breakout sessions include:

  • Navigating Difficult Conversations
  • Integrating RULER into Secondary School Humanities
  • Project-based Learning and RULER
  • Supporting LGBTQ Students with RULER

The Willows is proud to be hosting both of these events in hopes of sharing with fellow educators what we’ve learned through implementing RULER at our school so far!

RULER and Robotics: An Unlikely Yet Winning Combination

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For over a decade, The Willows has sent a FIRST LEGO League team comprised of middle school students to one of the league’s qualifying tournaments held each fall. Every year, despite our best efforts and assiduous preparations, our teams have never advanced to the Regional Championships – until this year!

What changed this year? If I told you one of the key components to our team qualifying was related to RULER, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence approach to developing emotional intelligence that The Willows is implementing, you might at first be surprised by this. How could these seemingly disparate topics possibly intersect in a meaningful way?

Each year the FIRST LEGO League tournaments are organized around a central theme, and this year’s theme was “Into Orbit.” At the tournament, teams of students were judged in four different categories: project, robot design, core values, and robot game. For this year’s project, students were challenged to identify a problem related to long-duration human space exploration, and then to devise a potential solution to said problem.

During the team’s initial brainstorming for solutions, they researched solutions that NASA and other organizations had arrived at over the years to combat astronaut depression and other social-emotional issues that affected their time both in space and back on Earth. They read about software that had been developed that astronauts could use to connect to therapists while in space, though to date the software has not been implemented. This concept reminded our students about the Mood Meter app, which allows users to chart their moods on phones or tablets using the RULER Mood Meter that can be found in all Willows classrooms.

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This connection sparked a great idea: what if we develop an app for astronauts that combined some elements from the Mood Meter app with the aforementioned software above, so that astronauts could self-monitor their emotional states plus also connect to mental health professionals on Earth to work through problems. The Robotics team now had a sharp focus for the project that they had to prepare for the tournament.

A detailed description of their app was incorporated into the project presentation that ultimately helped the team win First Place at the Qualifying Tournament on November 10th. “Honestly, it was one of the best feelings in my life,” said eighth grade student Isis Ginyard afterwards. “I never expected us to win after years of disappointment. It was exhilarating!”

In preparation for their next tournament, Isis then took the initiative to spend part of her Thanksgiving break creating a mockup of the app, got feedback from her fellow team members and her FIRST LEGO League coaches (myself and Wendy Amster), and brought a tablet to show to the judges at the Regional Tournament in early December. Unfortunately, the team did not have the same success at this tournament (though only 5 teams out of several dozen advanced to later tournaments in Houston, San Diego, and Uruguay).

We are so proud of our resilient Robotics team, not only for how well they represented the school at both tournaments but especially for incorporating the work we’ve been doing for the last several years with RULER and emotional intelligence. Their efforts this year were a huge testament to the power of our progressive, whole child-centered approach here at The Willows, where topics like robotics programming and emotional intelligence sit side by side in the same project!

 

 

Open to Revision

When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun!

                                                                                                            -Lucy Calkins

Although the quote above from beloved literacy expert Lucy Calkins was originally intended to motivate writers to always remain open to revising and improving their written work, one might also apply it to the work we undertake here at The Willows. Given that our theme this year is “Story,” perhaps this quote has even more relevance. Our community is constantly writing and revising our story, through the changes we make to our campus and our educational program each year based on our needs and our desire for continual improvement and innovation.

This school year there are several such enhancements worth highlighting. First, inspired by the partnership we’ve forged over the last few years with Culver City’s reDiscover Center, a significant renovation was undertaken this summer in our Middle School designLab, overseen by Middle School Dean of Students Doug Klier. Last school year, Doug invited members of the reDiscover Center’s faculty to provide professional development to our faculty on safe use of woodworking tools, and also rented a variety of tools and related equipment from the center to be used in specific projects last spring (click here for more on information on this). Once these tools were in the hands of teachers and students, and we saw the inspiring woodworking projects being undertaken, Doug realized the need to not only permanently add such tools to the designLab but also to provide a workable space for all of us to access and store them. As you can see, his vision has been more than realized, with a permanent woodworking center now in place, complete with mounted power tools and safety equipment (to be used with teacher supervision).

 

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A major wish list item from our music department was added to the Electronic Music Room: a sound booth. Each week, Greg Blum, one of our music teachers, helps students create sophisticated beats and compositions using software like GarageBand and Logic in his electronic music classes. However, when students recorded live audio, it was always challenging to do so without capturing the sounds of other students talking as well as other ambient noises within the building. Those days are over, thanks to the purchase and installation of the new sound booth!

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In addition to changes to the physical spaces within our campus, we are always reflecting on whether we are utilizing the best approaches to learning throughout our educational program. Last year, various Lower School teachers met regularly as part of a new Language Arts Committee to examine aspects of our reading and writing program. One suggestion that emerged from these meetings was a desire to pilot the program Handwriting Without Tears with our youngest writers in Kindergarten and 1st Grade, which prompted us to purchase an introductory set of materials towards this end. Initial feedback from teachers using the program has been positive, and we are potentially providing additional professional development on the program in advance of next school year.

Many of these revisions were made possible thanks to generous donations to the school during last year’s annual Jog-a-Thon event. Other notable purchases made include:

  • an Occulus Rift, along with other materials needed for virtual reality explorations
  • potter’s wheels for our art department
  • additional Imagination Playground Blocks for students to use on our yard

Stay tuned for many other enhancements to come as the school year progresses!

Learning to Tell Our Story: The Moth Comes to The Willows

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“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” –

-Mary Catherine Bateson

As we wrap up the first month of a new school year, we reflect on the inspiration we’ve already received from our new school theme for this year: Story. As quoted above, stories help humans make sense of the world, they connect us to one another, and, especially in a school setting, are indispensable tools for educators to use in classroom to support the learning of our students.

This month, on October 10th, we are honored to be hosting a visit from the acclaimed storytelling organization The Moth. The Willows first connected with Micaela Blei, Ph.D., Director of Education and Community Programs for The Moth, this past spring at South by Southwest EDU in Austin, TX, after hearing her and three other educators share their stories as part of a keynote entitled, “Stories of Schooling and Getting Schooled.” On the 10th at 7:00 PM, she will be presenting “The Moth Storytelling for Empathy and Engagement – An Innovative Strategy for Child Development” as part of our annual speaker series (register here)

In addition to speaking to our parents and the larger community, The Moth will also be leading a workshop with our faculty earlier that same day. We feel so fortunate to have this opportunity to learn alongside these expert storytellers. Last spring we got a sneak peek of what to expect at this workshop because one of our Middle School faculty, Bobby Hamm, attended a similar session led by The Moth at South by Southwest EDU. During the training, session leaders asked participants to practice telling personal stories within the five-minute time limit that Moth storytellers have to adhere to.

According to Bobby, “The value of bringing The Moth to The Willows relates to the idea that we’re all storytellers,” sharing further that attending the session made him consider how using the techniques taught by The Moth storytellers might be able to help struggling writers at our school.

Ultimately, given our theme of “Story” this school year, we could not ask for a better time to have The Moth visit. As educators, storytelling is central to so much of our work, and whether we are sharing ideas with students or parents we know how important it is to be able to articulate stories about the learning that is taking place all around us each day.

Level Up Village: 6th Grade Global Partnerships

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One favorite talking point for most educational leaders and policy advocates these days is that children must acquire 21st century skills in preparation for work in a global economy. Beyond the rhetoric, what 21st century learning actually looks like in schools can vary; personally, I believe The Willows remains on the cutting edge with our longstanding focus on interdisciplinary, project-based learning that integrates current technological tools in thoughtful, meaningful ways.

One recent example of The Willows cultivating students’ 21st century skills involved our 6th grade participating in a unique partnership with the organization Level Up Village. The mission of Level Up Village is to “facilitate seamless collaboration between students from around the world via pioneering global STEAM enrichment courses.” Our first experiences with the organization took place last school year, during middle school Intersession, where a group of Willows students collaborated with students in India to co-create websites using HTML and CSS. Encouraged by this initial experience, middle school teachers looked at other, potentially lengthier, course offerings, and they were excited to find one focused on a novel study of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which 6th graders already read in their Core classes each year.

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Click here to access the video.

As you can see in the linked video above, one of the main components of the Level Up partnership is student-created videos that are shared by students in one classroom with another classroom in a different country. Willows 6th graders were paired up with classrooms in Ghana and Zimbabwe for the novel study, and their first task was to create short videos introducing themselves to each other.

As they read The Giver over the course of approximately five weeks, students traded videos on various topics, including utopias, dystopias, and methods for solving specific problems related to one’s community. Teachers made use of blocks of time in their weekly schedules specifically devoted to technology integration for video creation and support with navigating the online Student Portal used to submit videos and access materials for the students’ collaborations.

The teachers involved with this project report that it was a worthwhile endeavor overall, though it was not without its challenges. For example, the classroom that was paired with students from Zimbabwe was presented with some unique teachable moments as that country found itself in the middle of a military coup during their five-week collaboration. Besides giving teachers with an opportunity to compare our government and culture with theirs, Willows sixth graders had to practice patience waiting for their partner videos to be uploaded. Furthermore, discussions in all classes emerged as our students had to come to terms with cultural differences observed while reviewing videos, as well as technological challenges (i.e. limited computers) that their partner classrooms might have been dealing with.

One of the unexpected gifts this project offered was that, through reviewing their students’ videos, teachers were able to learn so much about them, in a way that doesn’t normally happen in the typical school environment. Liz Ganem, one of the 6th grade teachers, said that “Going into parent conferences after this project, I felt like I knew some kids better than I ever have before.” She noted that students creating these videos in quiet spaces away from class and for an authentic audience had an opportunity to express themselves and elaborate in a different kind of way. Teachers and students, in a sense, treated the videos almost as they do traditional writing assignments, using revision notes and teacher feedback on ways to make their messages clearer before sending them off to their partners in Africa.

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This last revelation has inspired the 6th grade teachers to contemplate how they can use video more often as a means for their students to respond to literature. Furthermore, the Level Up Village project reinforced the universal tenet that people all over the world can connect through great literature. As Liz remarked to me, “I love that it was a book that was connecting these two cultures – it made my kids realize that you can talk to anyone in the world about a good book!”