When you think of your music class experience in school, what comes to mind? Many of you might have fond memories of singing or banging on a drum, or maybe you have that memory of playing the recorder that we all learned to love.
Music programs in schools have existed for decades and have been an extremely important foundation of our educational system. But what happens when technology continues to be an integral part of our daily lives? How do we make sure we are preparing our children for the future, specifically in the realm of music?
Simple solution: Electronic Music. Electronic music is the integration of technology with music theory and composition to compose and record music using computers and software like Garage Band or Logic Pro.
Electronic Music started at The Willows way back in 1996 when a parent approached Head of School Lisa Rosenstein to teach a music composition class using a piano keyboard connected to a computer. At that time, technology in music was an extremely new concept. With a forward-thinking mindset, Lisa agreed to this idea. That Willows “can do” spirit sparked what has now become a beautiful, state-of-the art, electronic music lab with 15 Mac computers and piano keyboards, Beats headphones, and a private recording vocal booth.
The first class in 1996 inspired Greg Blum to become an Electronic Music teacher at The Willows. Greg, also an alumni of The Willows, says, “The first time I even wrote a song was in electronic music. It formed a big part of my relationship with music. One thing that’s instrumental about this class is that it’s for everyone.”
At The Willows, Electronic Music starts for students as
young as 3rd grade all the way through 8th grade. The
curriculum is designed to develop skills in song composition, writing and
reading original songs, song structure, and music theory. Each grade comes once
a week and spends roughly 50 minutes in the Electronic Music Lab.
Next time you’re on campus, make sure to stop by the Electronic
Music lab it will definitely be note-worthy!
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
Grab your cape and mask because this year The Willows will be hosting the very first WillowCon, a Willows version of ComicCon, on Saturday, November 9 from 11 am to 4 pm. In Willows fashion, it will be a collection of speakers, workshops, art pieces, books, costumes, music, fun, and food for all ages to participate!
Inspired by a school in Petaluma, CA, Director of Library Services Cathy Leverkus and Director of Teaching and Learning Terri Baird, decided that this was an opportunity to bring a version of ComicCon to the Willows. What better way to bring comic books and stories to life than to dress up, create masks, and speak to some of the industry’s top-notch comic book/story writers, artists, and directors?
Hence, the birth of WillowCon.
WillowCon will not only be a fun and exciting event, but it will also inspire and motivate those of all ages to read and write. Throughout the day, attendees will be able to listen to a panel of speakers, walk down artist alley that will include a collection of art work from Willows students and guest artists, meet and greet with speakers, develop writing skills through workshops, and decorate and create masks!
Some of the panel speakers will include Chris Ayers, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Dana Simpson, David Goodman, Cecil Castellucci, Emma Steinkellner, Josh Gad, Kyle Bornheimer, and Vaun Wilmott, just to name a few. Combined, these individuals have worked on Star Trek, Family Guy, The Daily Zoo, The New Yorker, Phoebe and Her Unicorn, DC Comics, The Okay Witch, Frozen, and much more.
Make sure to mark your calendars because WillowCon is going
to be out of this world!
Members of the organization American Independent School Librarians will be meeting at The Willows Community School for the summer institute Critical Literacies: Empowering Learners in Your Library. They will explore the intersections between source literacy, media literacy, information literacy, and the library program. The Institute will include workshops and discussions designed to help members effectively structure library instruction and collaborate with campus partners, giving students the tools and skills to be independent, critical researchers. Colleagues from all grade level divisions are invited to participate!
The main speakers will present workshops on source literacy, news literacy and inquiry as an information literacy tool. There will also be sessions offered on cognitive bias, and bias and diversity in google searches.
Nuts and Bolts of Source Literacy
Nora Murphy, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, La Canada Flintridge, CA
At the core of every critical literacy is source material, i.e. the texts that drive our questions and determine how we will answer them. What is Source Literacy, and how can we prioritize it as a necessary component of all critical literacy instruction (and why should we do so)? Nora will introduce key concepts and discuss case studies that illustrate how Source Literacy informs students’ research trajectory and, ultimately, their thinking.
Breaking News: Read Between the Lines, News Literacy Skills for the Digital Age
Bobbie Eisenstock, Ph.D.
How news literate are your students? Do they know how to judge the credibility and reliability of news and information flooding their digital devices? Can they detect “fake news” and political bias on social media? When they go online, are they trapped inside filter bubbles that reinforce cognitive bias and inadvertently spread untruths? A recent Stanford University study found that the majority of students cannot distinguish fake from factual news or native advertising from news articles. This workshop will demonstrate media literacy strategies to empower students to critically analyze and evaluate what they consume and create in the ever-changing participatory digital culture.
Connie Williams of The Right Question Institute
How does forming the “Right Question” encourage learners to engage deeply in the learning and research process? Learn how to create a question-driven learning environment by understanding how questions set the stage for exciting and engaging research. We will explore different kinds of questions, how to prioritize, categorize, and then use them to narrow topics, to broaden searches, and to assess learning. Using primary sources and other compelling subjects, we will practice several strategies that strengthen and enhance inquiry and information literacy.
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.
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.
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!”
“It is sobering to realize that the majority of American schools today, barring a minority of interesting experiments, look as they did at the end of the last century”
-Mara Krechevsky & Janet Stork, Harvard Project Zero (2000)
When I walk the halls of our campus at The Willows, I’m not so sure the above quote rings completely true. The schools I went to as a child and that I first taught in 17 years ago definitely don’t have the unique, vibrant energy from faculty and amazing artwork enlivening the environment that we have here.
However, even though The Willows does not closely resemble a school in 1899, some features in education are notoriously slow to change. Personally, I believe it is safe to say that the classroom arrangement of individual desks facing a teacher lecturing at the front next to a board is one of those features.
This year, in one fourth grade classroom at The Willows, dynamic changes are underway. Inspired by similarly-minded teachers and school leaders across the country, fourth grade teachers Stephanie Tanner and Lily Solomon have embraced the concept known as a flexible seating classroom for their students.
This arrangement was described in a recent article in NEA Today as the “Starbucks classroom” because of the focus on creating spaces for students to sit and work comfortably as adults are accustomed to at the iconic coffee shop. Instead of rows of desks, flexible seating classrooms feature students working at standing desks, café tables, couches, on top of pilate balls and next to hokki stools.
Beyond just giving students comfortable spaces to think and work, the research behind a flexible seating arrangement highlights several potential positive impacts for students:
Focus and engagement: students who struggle to remain seated and still throughout the day are often better able to focus and stay engaged with the task at hand when they have some choice over what type of seating is best for them
Responsibility: teachers allowing students to choose what type of seat is best for them communicates the message that the student is responsible for his or her learning, and that he or she is mature enough to make smart choices
When I first heard about flexible seating coming to The Willows, I wondered what had initially led Stephanie and Lily to consider redesigning their classroom space in this manner. Both teachers shared that this past summer, they reflected on how their group of kids had a lot of energy that was sometimes hard to channel, and that traditional seating arrangements were just not fitting the needs of most students (*note – 3rd and 4th grade students “loop” at The Willows, meaning they have the same teacher and classroom for two years in a row).
After scouring Pinterest and several other education blogs that featured tips for setting up a flexible seating classroom, Stephanie and Lily pitched the idea to Terri Baird, our Director of Teaching and Learning; she loved it, and had actually already been researching flexible seating on her own. Terri asked the teachers to write up a proposal for materials, with a plan in mind to pilot this approach this year in one classroom and possibly expand to other rooms if successful.
Two months into the school year, teachers and students alike approve of the new classroom arrangement. The teachers report that students are getting more work done without becoming distracted, and are working quicker and staying focused for longer. Students are motivated to stay focused since they know that if the teachers feel they have chosen an unproductive spot, they will be asked to move. Favorite spots for many children include the standing desks, wobble tables, and the couch; least prized seating options so far, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the traditional desks – though some students do prefer them.
Other Willows teachers are showing interest in potentially changing some, if not all, of their classroom seating arrangements. In one faculty meeting where we discussed flexible seating, many teachers agree it may not be the best approach for every classroom, or for every group of teachers and students. So far, however, for one fourth grade classroom, the change has been welcome.
Each school year, educators working in schools across the country gravitate towards some of the same shared ideas that are touted to transform teaching and learning in the classroom. Several years ago, the burgeoning Maker movement made such promises, and you’d be hard pressed to find a set of slides at most educational conferences these days that forgets to make at least a passing reference to Stanford University professor of psychology and author of Mindset Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets.
Here at The Willows, we strive to keep up with the current trends everyone is talking about, while still staying grounded in the values and traditions that have guided us for the last two decades. The last two years or so, one of the current educational memes that we’ve tried in earnest to incorporate is design thinking (see previous posts here and here for more information).
However, true to our constructivist and progressive traditions here, we are not just talking or teaching about design thinking – we are actually designing, and, hopefully, cultivating young designers in the process.
Let’s take a look at some of what our fifth grade students have been up to lately as an example. In Maker classes, I began a design and robotics unit back in March with an initial study of a particular design problem nested within our own community – well, to be more specific, a few blocks away from our campus proper.
Here are two photos (annotated by a fifth grader) and a video of a stoplight near our school that myself and many other community members approach each day on our way to The Willows. For first time users approaching this intersection, it is entirely unclear how traffic is supposed to proceed – there are no yellow or green lights (only constant flashing reds), and “Right Turn Only” signs are regularly ignored by drivers who weave their way around the concrete median in the middle of the intersection. As I told the kids, I am consistently baffled that there are not more collisions here!
To approach this intersection as a design problem, I gave my students an annotated version of Stanford’s dschool’s design thinking diagram and asked them to consider several questions for each step in the process, including:
How do you think the drivers approaching this intersection feel?
How do users of this intersection decide when it is safe to proceed?
If you were to redesign this intersection how would you want users to feel?
What specific changes to the design of the intersection do you recommend?
In order to answer these questions, we not only watched videos but also took a short field trip to the actual intersection to accumulate some real time observational data. I encouraged each group of students in their observing to really try to put themselves in the shoes of the people who used this intersection – to empathize and understand the decisions of the drivers and how the unsafe conditions at the intersection impacted these decisions. Unsurprisingly, many fifth graders enjoyed seeing people disobeying the traffic signs and going around the median (though I discouraged them from chastising the drivers while we sat there at the intersection!)
Once we had collected data about the intersection and came up with some possible solutions, it was time for us to move on to the next step in the design process – to begin working on designing prototypes of a new intersection. Currently, we are in the middle of this process; first, we have had to take a few weeks to learn how to program LEGO EV3 Mindstorm robotic vehicles to be our “cars” in the new traffic systems.
Look for a new post on our progress as well as some other design work 5th grade has been engaged with very soon!
At certain times of the school year, things can feel so busy it’s tough to take a moment and catch your breath. This is of course as true at The Willows as anywhere else, especially given the number of diverse projects and endeavors always underway. A challenge busy individuals have within any organization is to make time to stop and understand the processes going on around them. A further step, beyond pausing to take stock, involves articulating what you have accomplished to others.
Last week, I was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that went to visit the High Tech High network of charter schools in San Diego. During the last school year, our community watched the film Most Likely to Succeed, which featured one of their high schools prominently to illustrate the power of project-based approaches on learning and curriculum building.
High Tech High is well known for impressive and high-quality project artifacts visible throughout their halls, and there were plenty of examples that wowed us as we toured each school. However, what caught my eye most of all was not the amazing creations on display– it was the documentation accompanying each project that helped explain the process behind the project.
Besides simply articulating details about process, the very best pieces of documentation help tell relevant learning stories about curricular projects. They might walk an audience through the steps of the process, highlight epiphanies or failures that led to necessary revisions, or unpack the knowledge that was developed by participants. Ultimately, the idea is to make the thinking and learning involved in the project visible to all in an intentional manner.
A long tradition of researchers and educators from Harvard’s Project Zero – who’ve published seminal works like Making Thinking Visible and Visible Learners– and the vast network of schools associated with the Reggio Emilia experience have long advanced the power of documentation as a tool for improving teaching and learning. According to these proponents, powerful pieces of documentation do more than just capture what happened. Instead, the intent is ultimately to push learning forward, and, as the quote above states, to make “public a conversation about what we value.”
While feeling inspired after leaving High Tech High, our visit also caused me to reflect on similar work with documentation that we’ve undertaken at The Willows. Some form of documentation regularly accompanies all of the artwork that hangs in our halls and classrooms, and we have worked this year to make some of these displays more interactive by adding QR codes for visitors to access additional relevant (and often process-oriented) content. Additionally, knowing that a great picture often tells its own story, we have provided several professional development sessions for teachers this school year on photography techniques and how to incorporate high-quality photographs into their documentation.
What’s next for The Willows and documentation? Knowing that teachers are always juggling many different priorities, we are currently exploring how we might better utilize different templates for easy input of content and photos (see this recent example from 3rd grade). Also, we have recently begun engaging fourth through eighth grade students in this process in Maker and Science classes, having them document their progress on projects by creating websites and digital portfolios using Google Sites. The more we can engage the whole community in the process of communicating the learning that is taking place, the better!
I don’t know of any teacher who hasn’t heard a student ask some version of that question. We hear it all the time, and the query usually makes us suspicious at best.
“That depends. What are you planning on doing on it?” And therein lies the rub. The technology our students have access to can be a teacher’s best friend and worst enemy, often on the same day. To those of us who went to school in the “olden days” (pencils, paper, maybe a typewriter), incorporating technology can be a bit of a leap of faith.
When I designed a project for my class earlier this year in which they were to create a “Video Essay” about a figure or event from the Civil Rights Movement, I was only trying to give them an alternative to a “typical research paper.” Instead, why not try to do something that speaks to the times and to my students’ skills and interests? I knew what I wanted them to get out of the project; I hoped that if I gave these kids the opportunity to try something different, they would surprise me with the results.
When the finished products began pouring in, I was floored at how good, how professional, they were. But you know what? I probably shouldn’t have been. These kids are constantly and consistently barraged with media, and as a result, have become experts by osmosis. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in front of the class teaching when some technical glitch attacks my computer. Before I know it, there are 3-6 helpful 8th graders providing me with quick fixes for not only the current glitch, but ways in which I can download a new font, change the language on my keyboard, and download a picture of a llama wearing a fez as my new screensaver.
So their ease with technical concepts such as pacing, editing, sound, music, montage, and rhythm were way beyond my expectations. But as this was still a research project, albeit one that seemed to play to their strengths, I was still concerned about some of the basics. Would they still be able to clearly convey a thesis?If so, will they be able to defend it with support? And what will that support look like?
As I watched these Video Essays, these concerns began to melt away. I watched one film about Plessy vs. Ferguson that used an iPad’s time-lapse feature, vocal narration, and the student’s artistic talents to create a lesson so clear and concise, I am fairly sure I’ll be using her lesson in addition to mine in the future. Another student used editing techniques and music to create a feeling of momentum and excitement as she built toward her thesis in a video essay about our recent Intersession. Again, amazed by how sophisticated the work turned out to be.
So, is the takeaway here that students clearly no longer need to write essays, opting instead to let them play around on their computers? Absolutely not.Video Essays should be a complement rather than a replacement;an opportunity for students to learn how to develop a thesis and with valid support in a new, different way. To move scholarship beyond just creating knowledge and take on an aesthetic, poetic function.
I couldn’t be happier with how these projects have turned out. The students were excited about working in a new medium, while at the same time their strengths as thoughtful researchers were strengthened at the same time. I believe that is called a Win-Win.
Facing the waning weeks of winter and the promise of spring’s impending arrival, it’s that time of year at The Willows where we reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far this school year and look ahead to what still lies ahead. Around this same time, the school participates in the annual tradition of Intersession, when normal school routines and schedules are suspended for one week for specialized projects and classes for DK-8 students.
A year ago, I wrote a post about the success of Intersession coming down to two main elements: time and engagement. The power of both was still evident during this year’s Intersession, as I roamed the halls seeing students deeply immersed for hours in creating a wide variety of things: Escape Rooms, lamps, instructional videos, ramps and pathways for marble runs, and much more.
Reflecting further on this year’s Intersession, I think one element that also contributed greatly to the success of this year’s projects was choice.
We always gave students a fair amount of choice regarding which Intersession class they wanted to participate in, but this year was unique. We worked especially hard to make sure every student had his or her first choice out of the many offerings that were made available.
Hot off the heels of November’s election, DK-8 students were given “ballots” detailing the class offerings; in grades 3-5, we even held a “primary” to narrow down an initial list of more than ten class options. Unsurprisingly, kids clamored their teachers for information shortly afterwards – “Did I get my first choice?” they asked, not knowing that we had planned for that all along!
Why was it important for us to ensure first choice? According to research, providing choice to students is strongly correlated with motivation. Certain school environments motivate students by rewards or punishments with teacher-centered activities predominating. Intersession at The Willows doesn’t remove the guidance of the teacher but encourages students to take more ownership over their learning in a setting where time is truly given for deep learning and engagement.
Choice inspires motivation, and choice pervades the interdisciplinary learning environment that we strive to create each year at Intersession. In one popular class this year, middle school students designed original lamps, utilizing skills and resources from our STEAM2 disciplines (science, technology, art, engineering, and math and maker) and design thinking. Students were challenged to make choices about artistic and operational design features for their lamps, and to consider the impact of their choices on the needs of the potential, ideal users of their lamp. The finished products displayed for parents a week later at our Family Education Night celebrating the work of Intersession, highlighted the powerful returns we reap from providing rich, choice-driven learning environments for students.
A colleague of mine recently recommended a book on this topic, Choice Time: How to Deepen Inquiry Through Inquiry and Play by Renee Dinnerstein. My copy is on order, and though its focus appears to be on DK-2 classrooms, I am excited to build on the successes of Intersession, and to seek out applications for choice to enliven all classrooms.