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  

Writing Workshop at The Willows

Five years ago after moving from teaching the first/second grade loop to teaching upper elementary students, I noticed that there was a need for a more consistent writing curriculum across the grades at our school. Of course teachers gave writing assignments, but a continuity in how writing was being taught needed to be reviewed and updated.

In search of more comprehensive writing instruction, I found The Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. I was familiar with Lucy Calkins and her writing workshop curriculum, but I wanted to learn more. After attending their Summer Writing Institute on their campus at Columbia University, I returned to The Willows inspired and invigorated to share what I learned with my colleagues. Since then, we’ve created an exceptionally strong writing curriculum, guided by Writing Workshop.

The Writing Workshop Model is very Willows in that it is student-centered, but also provides structure and clear goals.

These are the Writing Workshop Essentials, from Lucy Calkins’s book, Guide to the Writing Workshop, and how we have implemented them at The Willows:

  • “Writing needs to be taught like any other basic skill, with explicit instruction and ample opportunity for practice.”

I found that we weren’t scheduling writing into our regular weekly lessons. We’d give students creative writing assignments during the year, but the craft of writing wasn’t being explicitly taught everyday. We’d justify this by reasoning that our students were doing lots of writing in other subjects. Imagine if we did that with math— “Oh, we don’t have a regular math time, but students do math in science and social studies without even realizing it, so that’s okay.”

The first and most important change we made was to make writing a priority and to put it on the weekly schedule, just like math, reading, social studies, and science.

  • “Children deserve to write for a real purpose, to write the kinds of texts that they see in the world and to write for an audience of readers.”

    1st Grade Expert Book Cover
    A first grade “expert book”

In Writing Workshop there are three main types of writing we teach—narrative, informational, and persuasive. We teach each of these forms every year and build upon the skills from the year before, increasing the complexity and sophistication of the writing. At the end of each unit, we “publish” our books and share them with one another and our greater community.

 

  • “Writers write to put meaning onto the page. Children invest themselves in their writing when they choose topics that are important to them.”

We teach children strategies to find topics they are passionate about, rather than assign them a topic. We teach them that the purpose of writing is to communicate your ideas. We write because we have something to say, and we often discover what we have to say through our writing. This has been so empowering. Our students love writing workshop because of this.

  • “Children deserve to be explicitly taught how to write.”

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A third grade “expert book”

In the younger grades, we teach informational writing units in which students write “expert books.”. Each student chose a topic that they feel they are experts in and do not need to research (being an older sister, football, playing with sticks). We then explicitly teach them how to write an informational piece well, organizing and focusing their topics, writing paragraphs, using lots of examples, synthesizing their ideas, and using vivid, descriptive language. Later, we combine our informational writing unit with a social studies or science unit, and introduce the element of research into their process.

  • “Children deserve the opportunity and instruction to cycle through the writing process.”

By explicitly separating writing into stages, we’re demystifying the writing process and giving students the expectation that they will create several drafts when they write.

The biggest change I’ve seen has been to differentiate revision from editing. Many teachers lump these together, and end up giving revision short shrift. We talk about revision as the big stuff—does the writing make sense?, is there enough description so readers can picture this in their minds?, what is the writing really about?, is my message—what I have to say—really coming through? Editing is fixing the conventions (spelling, punctuation, grammar) so the work can be read easily. This comes after revision.

Narative-Writing Example

My students now enjoy revision. Their papers get messy, and the more revisions they make, the messier the draft gets. I revise my own writing in front of them, then invite them to do it to their work.

  • “To write well, children need opportunities to read and to hear texts read, and to read as writers.”

We use mentor texts by master authors that we examine to see what techniques the writers use to communicate their ideas, so we can try using them as well. Now, during book clubs or read aloud, students are noticing devices writers’ use that they can incorporate in their own writing, like flashbacks or foreshadowing.

  • “Children need clear goals and frequent feedback.”

This happens mainly during writing conferences. Before writing workshop, my writing conferences took place at my desk, after a student had finished a draft. I’d hold a pen and write on the student’s paper, showing them where to add a detail or to re-order some sentences. The student would often stare into space, and I’d mark up the paper and give it back so they could make my corrections. I’d have a long line of students snaking around the room waiting for my help and my approval.

Now, I rarely sit at my desk during writing times. I move around the room and check in with students at their tables. I talk to them and give them feedback in whatever stage they’re working in. I don’t write on their papers. I might write some notes on a separate paper so they can remember what we talked about, but the students have to make their own revisions, do their own writing.

We use checklists and charts so students can remind themselves of their goals. Students don’t stand in line and wait for a conference with a teacher. They keep working and use the tools we provide to help themselves until the next teacher check-in.

Teaching writing like this takes more work, but we are now sending students to each higher grade with more skills, ready to take on a new level of sophistication in their writing. It’s been so gratifying to see how our students have embraced this process. Students are excited about writing, disappointed when their writing time is over, sometimes asking if they can stay inside during recess to keep working on a story. As a teacher it doesn’t get better than that.

Raising Resilient Children

What is the mind? What can we do to help kids develop a resilient mindset when facing life’s challenges?

These perplexing and provocative questions were just two of many raised and discussed at the most recent event in our annual Ideas@TheWillows speaker series, led by acclaimed UCLA professor and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute Dan Siegel.

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One of the things that I truly value about working at The Willows is our community’s willingness to engage in a thoughtful exchange of ideas with extraordinary people like Dr. Siegel. I first became aware of his work in my early years of fatherhood, when my wife and I read his book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Later, I became aware of his efforts to introduce mindfulness into schools through his Mindsight Institute’s MindUp curriculum that we’ve used parts of with middle school students at our school.

In his wide-ranging and lively talk, Dr. Siegel shared findings from research about resiliency, which he linked generally to the concept of integration in brain research. Adults and children who are adept at integrating the various systems of the brain in a harmonious manner are better suited to facing life’s challenges without becoming overwhelmed or disconnected. To illustrate this at one point in his talk, Siegel asked for volunteers – specifically, people who sing in choirs (including our Director of Library Services Cathy Leverkus) – to come on to the stage with him. He gave his singers various directions to demonstrate the results of an integrated brain (harmony, where different singers worked together towards a common goal) versus a non-integrated brain (chaos, where different singers covered their ears and only sang their own song). E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel040

Besides sharing essential brain research for everyone to ponder, Siegel also underscored several helpful takeaways specifically for parents in attendance. According to Siegel, the most powerful finding from parenting research that many are not aware of is the need for parents to make sense of their own lives first – in his words, “It doesn’t matter what happened to you, it’s how you make sense of it.” If we neglect to engage in this process of looking inward and examining our lives, we run the risk of sending mixed messages to our children as we direct them to make good choices in their lives.

Additionally, he mentioned several times the importance of parental presence. I have found myself repeating one line from his talk several times on this subject:

The more present you are, the more you are willing to learn about who your children are versus who you want them to be.

In Siegel’s view, modern parents’ preoccupation with a future destination for their children often leads them to send messages that provoke shame, which he defined as the opposite of resilience, as well as encouraging children to compete with each other instead of “competing with the world’s problems.”

Afterwards, I debriefed with my colleague Andrea, who is part of a team of teachers at The Willows working to implement and strengthen our school’s RULER emotional intelligence program from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. One connection she made between his message and our school’s work with mindfulness and emotional intelligence was Siegel’s emphasis on the need to look inward, to be aware of this inner world that we all need to connect to in order to recognize and regulate the energy associated with our emotions. Clearly, this message applies for adults and students alike in our community.

One final note: Siegel did give an answer to our initial question above – “What is the mind?” – which I have to share (I would recommend reading one of his many books on the subjects of mind for a detailed explanation:)

The mind is the embodied and relational self-organizing process that regulates informational flow between ourselves and others and the planet.

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Lisa Rosenstein, Head of School, Dr. Dan Siegel, and Christina Kim, Director of Student Life

News Literacy: Recognizing Fake News and Choosing Reliable Sources

Misinformation and fake news have become the clarion call in these politically charged times, but this is not a new topic. Journalists have been writing pieces from one point-of-view or creating a bias in a particular story to increase readership and ratings for as long as there has been news in print. Thomas Jefferson was credited as the first politician in the U.S. to use muckraking as a political tool, this method of discrediting your opponent has resurfaced lately. So, it is important that we give students the tools to cull through the information available online and in print to find reliable sources.

During a Willows faculty meeting in January, I spoke to the faculty about the proliferation of fake news and offered them some news literacy tools that they could share with the students.

The Washington Post and Reuters posted an article about Canadians heading to the Women’s March in the U.S. that were stopped by U.S. border patrol guards and told to turn back. Each article included an interview of one person (Sasha Dyck), who described the experience. It was the same person interviewed in the two newspapers. So, I wondered, “Why is there only one person being interviewed? Did one news source write the article and the other source copy the information? Was there only one person turned away at the border, or were more people turned away? Can I find more information in other articles?”

dyck_photo

I searched for other articles about Canadians being stopped at the U.S. border because they wanted to attend the Women’s March, and found Joe Kroese, and Joseph Decunha were also turned away according to a BBC News article. Finally, I looked on the fact-checking site Snopes.com to see if there was any information about this incident. Snopes.com had an article about the incident that listed four people who had been turned away at the same border crossing. Was there one overzealous border guard on duty?

These are the steps I used to check the authenticity of my source:

  1. Focus on finding good resources (The Washington Post and Reuters are good resources)
  2. Form questions about the information in the resources
  3. Look up other resources to determine the validity of the original source
  4. Use a fact-checking site to evaluate the information

Fact Checking Sites

Fact Check.Org: A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fact-Checking – Duke Reporters’ Lab Duke University’s database of global fact checking sites

Snopes.Com The definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation

Resources:
Dyck, Sasha. “Sasha Dyck, Second from Left, Who Said He Was Was Turned Away at U.S. Border on Thursday, Instead, He Participated in Women’s March in Montreal with Family and Friends.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Jan. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/canadian-traveling-to-womens-march-said-he-was-turned-away-at-the-us-border/2017/01/21/79e4b4ee-dff9-11e6-918c-99ede3c8cafa_story.html?utm_term=.17b93dc46a69. Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.

Erickson, Amanda. “U.S. Border Agents Turned Away Canadians Hoping to Come to the Women’s March.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Jan. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/01/21/u-s-border-agents-turned-away-canadians-hoping-to-come-to-the-womens-march/?utm_term=.592322079c09. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Mann, Helen. “’We Didn’t Have Anything to Hide’: Canadian Heading to Women’s March Refused Entry to U.S.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.3944955/we-didn-t-have-anything-to-hide-canadian-heading-to-women-s-march-refused-entry-to-u-s-1.3944962. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Palma, Bethania. “Canadians Reportedly Turned Away from U.S. Border on Inauguration Day.” Snopes.com, Snopes, 25 Jan. 2017, http://www.snopes.com/2017/01/24/canadians-border-inauguration-day/. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

“Protesters from Canada, UK, ‘Turned Away at US Border’.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Jan. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38694437. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Sharp, Alastair. “Canadians Traveling to Inauguration Turned Away at U.S. Border.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 20 Jan. 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-inauguration-canada-idUSKBN1542UD. Accessed 3 Mar. 2017.

Video Essays: A Win-Win

“I’m done with my work. Can I go on my computer?”

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.

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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 nint_17_ms_intersession_bo072arration, 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.

*Some of the research and wording came from a website http://framescinemajournal.com/article/video-essays-in-the-cinema-history-classroom/