Innovation at Work! An Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Approach to Learning (for students & teachers!)

The collaborative spirit embraced at The Willows can be observed amongst faculty and staff as well as within a classroom’s structure. I am fortunate in my role as Dean of Educational Technology to collaborate with teachers across grade levels on a regular basis. Intersession is a week-long, innovative experience when the Middle School breaks from our regular curriculum and all teachers have the opportunity to collaborate in new teams and students collaborate across grade levels as well. This year, we brought in a Visiting Maker Expert and founder of Catalyst, Jean Kaneko, to teach a Middle School Intersession course titled Biomimicry and Battle Bots: A Story of Survival.

Working alongside Jean was a valuable learning experience that provided students with a unique and challenging skill building experience, and also offered me valuable professional development.

On a surface level, Jean taught us how to use equipment – Arduino boards with shields, Bluetooth electronics, wire cutters and strippers, air dusters to flash cool hot glue, and most exciting, our new 3D laser cutter – Glowforge Pro. This immediately sparked ideas for ways to engage with the 8th grade science teachers and have classes use the Glowforge with our upcoming mousetrap car project. Intersession culminates in a Family Education Night, an interactive evening for students and their families that highlights the projects and accomplishments of the students. Upon viewing the course artifacts at Family Education Night, two third grade students, with the assistance of their Maker teacher used the laser cutter to create a present for their teacher’s upcoming birthday. And last week I led a Willows Academy workshop where teaching faculty created laser cut projects and brainstormed potential classroom applications. The momentum is strong!

Less tangible but deeply powerful, was the shift in thinking that we really gained from collaborating with Jean. I have read a lot about prototyping in connection with making and design thinking, but I didn’t see the value for the time invested until now. My participation in this Intersession course showcased firsthand the amount of planning, critique, editing, revision, and teamwork that was necessary for each iteration of a bot – from ideation to battle ready. Now I am enthusiastically ready to incorporate this process in my teaching!

Another highlight of the class was Jean’s outstanding presentation of and emphasis on failure as a central part of the process. Watching the kids listen, and then later observing them undergo struggle and limited success made us all celebrate the victories and feel truly proud of what was accomplished. While debriefing with Jean about the course and future collaborations, she emphasized the unique value of The Willows Intersession as being “a year’s worth of work or focus in one week.”

Tips for Helping Kids Navigate Digital Connections

Technology provides a powerful means of connection, keeping us connected with our our friends and our school community – students, colleagues, parents, and alumni. At several recent Willows events, we have had a chance to hear from experts in the field and Willows alumni regarding their thoughts on how parents can connect with their children’s use of technology and social media in particular.

One such event featured featured high school students, including Willows alumni, from Archer, Santa Monica High School, Wildwood, Windward, and Vistamar. Themes discussed that evening included:

  • Technology is a way to find inspiration and role models.
  • There was a range of ages when the panelists received their first cell phones, many of whom started with basic functioning devices without internet capabilities. The consensus from the teens was that it’s fine to have kids wait until it is needed.
  • Multitasking is really task switching.
  • “Technology taught us how to adapt and change really easily. It’s something that defines our generation.”

These are a few of my favorite tips shared by the high school students during the parent evening:

  • The 2, 2, 2, 2, Rule – Ask yourself will it matter in two days, two weeks, two months, two years?
  • Setting rules/expectations around technology is fine as long parents are clear about why they are in place.
  • Trust between teens and their parents is important. Those who haven’t established this are more likely to rebel, get into trouble, and may not feel comfortable seeking help from adults.
  • Have kids read books!

March’s Common Sense Media Teen Panel was the second parent education event hosted at The Willows focusing on children growing up with digital technology. Earlier last school year, we hosted a screening of the documentary Screenagers followed by a panel of experts discussing social media and the digital landscape. The success of the Teen Panel, like that of the Screenagers evening, prompted Head of School Lisa Rosenstein to share the experience with our middle school students.

A Willows Alumni Teen Panel event was the perfect follow up to the Screenagers film, which many Willows students felt highlighted the more negative aspects of technology. The alumni panel, consisting of Koorosh Hadavi and  Zach Elbaum, Windward School, and Talia Goodman and Annie Schindel, Archer School for Girls, spoke with our 7th and 8th grade students in May. The conversations focused on teen’s productive and pro-social use of technology and social media, as well as some of the smaller, less extreme lessons they learned in high school.

Highlights from the panels with 7th and 8th graders:

  • Don’t text when you are in an argument.
  • There is nothing wrong with asking someone to take a post or photo down; they usually will. And along with that, take yours down if asked.
  • It is important to gain parents’ trust early on so later they earn more freedom and not to make social media the first priority.
  • How to maintain academic integrity and to be your real self on social media
  • Everyone feels FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) sometimes, especially when making the transition to a new high school. It’s normal, and it will pass.

Beyond being proud of how poised, articulate, and reflective our alumni panelists were, I also felt the themes presented echoed and validated the skills and discussions covered in tech life skills classes here at school. And I’m looking forward to using a new resource with middle school students this year, The Tech Savvy User’s Guide to the Digital World by Lori Getz.

For parents wishing for further information on these topics, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner, PhD provides valuable scenarios and strategies for being a digital mentor as we raise children.