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
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.
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!
“Each one of us can be kind and respectful and a good listener. Each of us can be a change-maker, adding to positivity in the world in our own way by talking to and understanding, uniting people with different opinions.” –Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER article For families: How to respond to our young people
At our recent Veterans Day Assembly, it was clear that our eighth grade students would indeed be “change-makers.” Their empathy for and understanding of others was apparent in a video they created about their Washington D.C. trip that included visits to national monuments and a silent drama tableau set to “Imagine” by John Lennon they presented.
Empathy–the ability to identify with other people and their struggles–on the part of our students and faculty, was vivid. Our implementation of the RULER approach to emotional intelligence from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence promotes empathy and a positive environment and experience in our classrooms, in homes, in our community, and beyond. RULER is helping us prepare students to be successful, empathetic leaders of tomorrow.
The presentations by our eighth graders and faculty member Lumpee Lee both included tools of the RULER approach. The silent tableau by our eighth grade students used themes from their Class Charter that states how we want to feel at school each day and ways in which we can affect change within our community to work through conflict. Scenarios included a threatening bullying situation and a birthday where a child was not invited. The students would freeze in a scenario of a conflict and then a “fixer” would enter to make the scenario “right,” solving the conflict.
Faculty member Lumpee Lee, who was born in Thailand and whose parents were refugees from Vietnam, shared his personal story. He discussed freedom of speech and human rights and expressed gratitude for the veterans who fought for freedom in a foreign place to assure that his family could come to the U.S. Lumpee then connected to our RULER approach through the use of a Mood Meter, another RULER tool by asking how the students thought the veterans might feel as young people being away from their families, fighting for freedom in another country. Students then plotted the emotions of the soldiers on the mood meter and shared feeling words.
Our Middle School Honors Choir sang an inspiring rendition of “America the Beautiful” accompanied by a student on guitar. The assembly was a beautiful expression of empathy and understanding and also illustrated the many benefits of integrating our RULER Emotional Intelligence program throughout our school.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Walking through our halls Wednesday morning after Tuesday’s election, discussions about the election results could be overheard everywhere. Most children sought out friends with which to share their collective surprise over the news; others parroted remarks they may have heard on TV or from various adults. Some others said nothing.
I can only speak for myself, but watching the results the night before I couldn’t help but wonder: what do I say to the kids tomorrow? Regardless of one’s own personal political persuasion, the nature of this campaign and its surprising end made for an election night like no other. Contemplating spending Wednesday with young children eager to discuss this at school, I asked myself: how do we respond?
Waking up Wednesday, I thought of Victor Frankel’s famous quote (above). One of our most challenging jobs as educators is to live in the space between stimulus and response, to appropriately model for our students the importance of taking the time to pause and be thoughtful before we react to the words and actions around us. Imagining my conversation with a student about the election, I resolved to offer more questions than answers, especially open-ended ones like “How are you feeling?” or “What’s making you anxious?” so that students feel they have a safe space to process their emotions or concerns.
Shortly after arriving at school, I saw an email in my inbox from Lisa, our Head of School, stating that we would be meeting as a faculty after school to discuss our school-wide response to the election.
During our discussion, we heard from various teachers about their experiences throughout the day, many of them similar to my own. We all agreed on the need to acknowledge feelings, encourage conversation, and allow for differing points of view. Lisa reminded us that the RULER emotional intelligence tools we’ve been implementing in classrooms over the last year and a half are truly powerful for times like these. (Read a short message on the election from Yale’s Emotional Intelligence team here)
Different grade levels shared specific moments and activities from the day. During their morning meeting, first graders plotted themselves on the classroom mood meter; one student acknowledged the news of the election had left him feeling “uncomfortable,” after plotting his mood somewhere between blue and red.
One third grade teacher felt that the activities surrounding a mock election held at school had really helped her students learn to be respectful of others’ choices and to deal with feelings surrounding winning and losing an election. In the middle school, certain math classes had studied polling surrounding the various California ballot propositions, and their discussion Wednesday morning covered not only the predicted versus actual outcomes, but also about the vital need to cultivate a mathematically-informed electorate in our country.
Although it is unclear what the next four years will bring, it is certain that plenty of emotions and other stimuli in need of our collective responses await. Of the many things I saw on social media Wednesday, one short passage shared with the staff by third grade teacher Stephanie Wald helps show a path to the growth and freedom Victor Frankel spoke about:
Let’s start small. Let’s start by looking each other in the eye. By smiling to a stranger. By picking up a piece of trash. By being helpful in your community and commit to listening to each other. Let’s start with more mindfulness, more self-care, more reading and writing. Let’s take it day by day. We have a lot of work to do, but today let’s be really kind to each other. Let’s be honest, generous, and forgiving and connect through our hearts rather than through our minds. Let’s start small, and with love. Let’s start now.
This time of the school year, parents and educators alike have their eye on the calendar, counting down the last days of school. For teachers, a much-needed break awaits, and school days are often consumed with wrapping up end-of-year projects, preparing final grades and/or narrative reports, and packing things away for next school year. During this busy time, it’s tempting to feel a sense of finality, as if the work of the school year is all but done.
However, this time of year I find myself thinking of one of my all time favorite phrases:
The genius of this phrase is its utility across a variety of disciplines, with children and adults alike. As a teacher, I annoy kids daily when they come up to me with something they think is finished and I prompt them with “What’s next?” They might be showing me a piece of writing, an animation programmed in Scratch or a maker project constructed out of cardboard and foam, but my intention for using this particular prompt is identical for each.
Ideally, “What’s next?” prompts learners to take ownership over the project at hand, and to adopt the mindset that most projects are, in fact, works-in-progress, always able to be revised, extended, and improved. Echoing the best ideas from the design thinking movement, this mindset embraces the idea that projects can always be taken to another iteration. Additional layers of complexity and sophistication can be introduced, and some documentation of the creative process can be cultivated in anticipation of sharing the project with a wider audience. Even during these waning weeks of the school year, we are compelled to ask our students, “What’s next?” even only to hope that they at some point begin to ask this question themselves.
Of course, “What’s next?” is also a useful prompt for teachers and school administrators at this time of year. Reflecting on the ups and downs of the year behind us, what was learned that should be applied to the next year ahead? What points of interest and excitement must be capitalized upon and carried forward? What projects or endeavors almost worked in the way we intended, and with a bit more fine-tuning could really have the impact we desire?
Asking “What’s next?” is, however, not enough. What actually lies next after that depends on the willingness of all parties to put in the work needed to grow and improve based on the conversations that spring forth.
Technology has changed our world and our lives. The benefits are endless. It even assists with revolutions and, of course, in any crisis. Just witness the recent terrorist attacks in Paris where Parisians launched the hashtag on Twitter, #PorteOuvert (DoorOpen) to offer shelter to those in need, who could simply follow the tweets on their cell phones to find refuge. Smart phones, laptops, iPads, all these devices and the always present, turned-on, mobile connectivity unite us and isolate us presenting social challenges–especially for our younger children, who are growing up with the ever-present, ever-tempting cellphone connection.
Informate, a mobile measurement firm, in March 2015 reported that during January 2015, Americans spent 4.9 hours per day on their smartphones and sent an average of 32 texts per day. Teens are thought to spend more than the average time. The 2015 Pew Research Center Study said that, “89 percent of cellphone owners said they had used their phones during the last social gathering they attended.”
In a recent New York Times article entitled Stop Googling, Let’s Talk by Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,writes, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk? . . . Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.”
Turkle continues with the idea that this disconnection is an assault on empathy, intimacy, and deep conversations, as well as solitude.
Ann Levit, a Willows parent, asked her daughter, Joby Levit, a current eighth grade student, to read Ms. Turkle’s article and write down her reflections regarding it. Joby wrote this thoughtful essay in response:
The report “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” written by Sherry Turkle is about how my generation of pre-teens, teenagers, and even some adults’ social skills are stifled by electronics and social media. I wish I could disagree with that and say it’s not true, but I have to be honest with myself: this writer is 100% correct. I try to tell myself that I shouldn’t be on my phone, but now it’s just a bad habit, like biting your nails or forgetting to brush your teeth.
In this article, Sherry Turkle talks about the technicalities, logic, and science behind the reason people use their phones while at, for instance, the dinner table. Look, I’m only thirteen, and science has never been my best subject, but the parts of this paper I was able to understand are completely true. The writer mentions that we use our phones at a table full of friends because we’re so obsessed with our mobile devices that we can’t help but check them all the time. That may be true for grown-ups and college students, which was the age group this article focused on, but I know that for me, it’s a bit different. I, personally, am a bit an awkward person. I tried to avoid admitting that, but I think my friends and family can all agree that that’s true. When there are gaps in a conversation, the easiest thing to do to avoid awkwardness is to take out my phone and show my friend(s) something funny on it to create conversation. And I know as I’m writing this that my mom will probably get mad at me when I read that fact to her, but I’m sorry, it’s true! Like Rebel Wilson said in Pitch Perfect, “I guess I’m not really living if I’m not 100% honest.” J
All right, enough about the article. My essay, my opinion! To the people my mother might send this to, my mother, if you may not know, is the biggest phone police ever. I mean I had to write a persuasive essay to get a Snapchat. And I know she’s just looking out for me, but we can all admit she’s a bit crazy when it comes to this stuff. In the middle of sixth grade, my mom gave me the privilege of creating an Instagram account for myself. If I was on it in the morning, she got mad. If I was on it in the car, she got mad. If I was on it after school, she was totally fine with it! Just kidding, you can guess how she felt about it. After a few years with social media, having recently added Snapchat and Pinterest to my phone, I get her point. She was trying to prevent me from becoming one of the people my generation has become. It’s time to face the facts: we are addicted to our phones. You might not think it’s bad, but trust me, you’re going to grow up and then get to high school and college not knowing how to verbally/physically connect to people. My mom thinks I have it bad, but I know people who have it a lot worse.
So get ready, parents. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but try shutting off all screens at 9:00 tonight. All you really need it for is your alarm in the morning. And what is that alarm set for? Certainly not to check your Instagram feed. That loud, annoying beeping sound that wakes you up in the morning is there to get you up for school, where you can get an education you can’t learn from Facebook or Twitter. Trust me, it’s going to be hard, but I promise you, you can live and thrive without your phone. Unplug! And don’t hesitate to tell your community about it too! We can all join in to help create a better tomorrow.
Some great insights for all of us! What is the answer to all of this connectivity? BALANCE and CONVERSATION. Balance is a word you hear often around The Willows. We are a balanced, progressive school. Tradition is balanced with innovation. Academics, the arts, athletics, and social emotional development are balanced in our educational program.
Conversation is also extremely important and valued at The Willows, and is also at the very heart of technology and collaboration. Questioning, deep critical thinking, and creative inquiry, and sharing this as a group, is accentuated in all our classrooms. Walk through our hallways and glance in any classroom and you will see that conversation is thriving and technology is integrated effectively and appropriately.
The balance of technology and personal interaction is a key to the issue of connectivity. As our eighth grade student Joby so beautifully put it: Unplug! And don’t hesitate to tell your community about it too! We can all join in to help create a better tomorrow.