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.

ComicCon Meet Your Rival WillowCon!

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!

25 Years, 25 Stories

What started off as a dream and a vision for a dedicated group of pioneers became a reality in 1994 with the opening of The Willows Community School. Together they created a new kind of school with a balanced, progressive educational approach and strong roots that instilled character, compassion, and flexibility. Throughout the years, The Willows has grown to include not only a vigorous, committed community of students, faculty, staff, parents, grandparents, and alumni but also an outreach into the larger community and around the globe.

This year, The Willows embarks on a very special anniversary; The Willows turns 25!

To pay tribute to 25 years of excellence, we are honoring the inaugural Willows school-wide theme, which was The Ties that Bind Us. This inaugural theme represents the core foundation of what truly makes The Willows special. We celebrate our ties to each other, to our unique educational program, to our traditions, to our innovations, and to our phenomenal progress, as well as our ties to our broader community and the world.

We will also have an ongoing special exhibition that will be displayed in our reception area. Throughout the 2019/2020 school year each grade level of our students, DK-8, will be asked to choose 25 objects that best represent their experience at The Willows Community School to be displayed on exhibit. Pictured above is last years 8th grade’s curation. Be sure to check back as the exhibit will change throughout the year to offer different perspectives on what The Willows means to all of us.

As we continue to pay tribute to our roots, we also look forward to the future and continuing to embrace The Ties That Bind Us.

Mousetrap Car:
 
The mousetrap car represents struggles and triumph. Creativity and Bliss. It was a great learning experience where all of us were able to bond. Whether you won or lost, the memories will last a lifetime. Painting the cars, cutting the wood, our blood, sweat, and tears pouring into them. And when we released the snap, watching all of our hard work soar like a bird into the oblivion beyond. Going away as fast as our 8th grade year did. The wheels turning like a clock. We conquered something. We conquered the race

– 8th grade  

The Willows Community School and AISL Summer Institute 2018 Critical Literacies: Empowering Learners in Your Library.

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!

MS_Library

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.

Workshop Descriptions

Nuts and Bolts of Source Literacy

NoraNora 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

 

bobbieBobbie 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.

Exploring Inquiry

Connie_pic_2014Connie 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.

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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http://www.instagram.com/willowscommschool

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!”

Music: The Natural Resource of a People

Can making or listening to music shape our identity? Can music effectively challenge stereotypes? How does music impact the way people think and act? What role can music play in a movement for social change? These were some of the guiding questions I pondered recently while taking part in the Facing History and Ourselves workshop FullSizeRenderentitled “The Sounds of Change” on, quite poignantly, both the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots and the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s historic civil unrest.

Together with my teaching partner, Steve Futterman, I am tasked with preparing our 7th graders for their upcoming trip to Memphis, Tennessee and Little Rock, Arkansas by bringing to life the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and by encouraging the students to consider its relevance to the divisiveness and unrest that seem to be permeating our country right now.

While attending this workshop, I had the opportunity to try out lesson plans that delveFullSizeRender[1] deeply into several classic soul songs produced by legendary Stax Records, placing them within the context of the African Americans’ struggle to gain equality and examining how the stories of the artists, the music and the lyrics provide a window into the ways that music can both inspire and reflect social change.

Steve and I are excited to incorporate this approach into the 7th grade Core (Humanities) classroom. Students will analyze the lyrics of “Soul Man” within the context of the Detroit riots, compare and contrast Otis Redding’s “Respect” (later immortalized by Aretha Franklin as a feminist anthem) and “Respect Yourself,” a Staple Singers hit, investigate how music is able to build community among seemingly different groups through a close study of The Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” and examine more contemporary message music.

The soul music that came out of Memphis and the musicians who followed in their footsteps offer a very compelling pathway into some pretty challenging material. The idea here is to give our students the opportunity to engage deeply with the music by exploring each song’s social and political commentary, by reflecting on how they connect with the music intellectually, emotionally and ethically and to consider which aspects of the music challenge their thinking. What shocks or surprises? What is most interesting or intriguing? What is particularly troubling? What can they discover in the music that offers insight into something new or unfamiliar or, conversely, that serves as a mirror of their own lives?

These lessons extend the curriculum that Steve IMG_5303and I have developed to further our students’ comprehension of not only the history that they will encounter on our field trip to the South, but also of the complexities that characterize the contemporary American experience. And they touch on some of themes that run through our instructional program: society and the individual, the oppression of one group over others and those moments when people take action to change the status quo.

This is what I learned at “The Sounds of Change” workshop and through my ongoing work at The Willows: People make choices. Choices make history. And unless people begin to make different choices, history will continue to repeat itself. I am hopeful that as our informed, compassionate and thoughtful students come of age, they will have in their possession the tools necessary to promote greater understanding, inclusivity and kindness.

In the meantime, the 7th graders and their teacher chaperones head to Memphis and Little Rock in early June to learn more about our country’s past, its present and the role of music to reflect and incite social change and to bring people together as we embrace the future, come what may.

Regulating Strategies to Deal with Test Anxiety

Last week we welcomed Marc Brackett, Director, and Robin Stern, Associate Director, of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence back to The Willows. In their talk to parents and the larger community, they reminded us of research findings that show children in schools today experience higher levels of anxiety than their parents. While there are myriad potential causes for this anxiety, one cause that is especially present this time of year is standardized testing taking place in schools. bubble-test

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children suffering from anxiety related to taking standardized tests typically present three main categories of symptoms:

  • Physical symptoms, often resembling those related to a panic attack, including headaches, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and light-headedness
  • Emotional symptoms, including feelings of anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, and disappointment
  • Behavioral/cognitive symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself unfavorably to others

At The Willows, challenges like these make us feel more grateful than ever for our burgeoning partnership with Yale and the RULER program for emotional intelligence that we are implementing in our community. In order to address these concerns straight on, specifically with our youngest test takers in third through fifth grades, the members of our Willows RULER team recently met with our Upper Elementary teachers.

Due to two to three teachers in a classroom, Willows teachers are able to meet regularly during the school day at our monthly Learning Lunches, where DK-8 faculty are invited to meet, watch, and discuss a video on a topic relevant to our professional practice and break bread together (often with colleagues who teach in separate buildings and rarely see each other.)

For this particular lunch, rather than watch a video and then discuss potential applications for our different classroom settings, we began with an open forum led by RULER team trainer and 5th grade teacher Alex Wolfe, who asked everyone to begin by sharing strategies they’ve used over the years to mitigate student test anxiety.

All teachers emphasized the need to impart to students specific and concrete strategies to use when anxiety begins to rear its ugly head during testing, such as:

  • Don’t spend too long on one question
  • Skip certain questions and come back to them at the end
  • For questions that require written responses, don’t leave them blank (even if you have no idea how to respond – anything written can be scored!)
  • Use positive self-talk and mindful breathing

(See below for links to more specific strategies and tips)

self talk

Certain teachers also shared related posters they already have on display in their classroom for their students. Alex shared that one particular piece of advice she tells children is that these kinds of tests are designed so that some questions are hard and some are easy, so if you don’t answer one correctly it’s ok, because usually no one answers all the questions correctly.

self talk 2Particular attention was given throughout the discussion on how best to help our 3rd graders, who are facing the standardized testing experience for the first time. Many teachers acknowledged the need to strike a fine balance when talking to these students about testing; it’s our job to simultaneously convey that on one hand they need to take the test seriously but also try to regulate their stress as well.

Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life and leader of the school’s RULER team, shared that it’s important for children to recognize that standardized tests can be thought of as a different genre that we all need to be able to comprehend. Like other texts, it has certain structures and conventions that are predictable, and just like we would with any project or assignment, we all simply must try to do our best.

Christina also shared some related posters photographed on our recent school visit to High Tech High. I felt that all teachers present left our lunch meeting empowered to help students navigate the wide range of emotions that arise during test taking.

growth mindset poster

For more information on test taking anxiety please visit:

https://childmind.org/article/tips-for-beating-test-anxiety/

https://www.iecaonline.com/PDF/IECA_Library_Test-Anxiety.pdf