Poetry Night arrives every winter at The Willows! It’s an exciting event embraced by the entire school community. Yet long before the poets take the stage in February, poems are popping throughout the school.
My name is Deb; I’m a writer and movement educator who is privileged to teach poetry at The Willows. As I work my way through every grade level in a five-lesson time frame, each student has a chance to imagine, feel, and remember—then paint those pictures in words.
My goal is to make poetry a playful, interactive, relevant experience. Come with me behind the scenes and peek into our creative process.
DK Poets: Move, Play, Wonder
How to teach poetry in DK? Read to the children, play with them, ask them questions! Questions and games facilitate the flow of words and feelings.
Here, a crawl tunnel makes expressing creative ideas an engaging experience! First, I ask a question. Then I encourage the children to crawl through the tunnel like an animal. They pop out to share their answers in the voice of that animal!
Crawling is a developmental movement that primes the brain for learning; we’re building learning readiness as we build our poems, a line at a time.
Here, our youngest students are learning to make word pictures by drawing their answers to fill-in-the-blank questions, like sometimes I feel____.
Kindergarten Poets: Play with Words
Silliness rules in Kindergarten! I encourage the children to have fun with language, so we first explore poetry through nursery rhymes and books they may already know.
Then we build on the sounds they’re learning in class, and turn them into silly sentences full of alliteration, like:
Taco’s Tiger taught a pterodactyl to talk too much!
Kindergartners also create individual poems, where I ask them to imagine, remember and add details. As in DK, the children respond to questions after lots of movement and play.
In this example, our “ties that bind” school-wide theme served as inspiration for a poetic form:
When I’m in 3rd grade I will remember
my blue Super Wings plane named “Jerome”
my blue sequined dinosaur shirt
my blue cotton candy
and eating spaghetti at home with my mom and dad.
– Kindergarten poet
It’s a joy to witness the excitement, the honesty and the clarity that these five and six- year-olds bring to their poems. Poetry isn’t some abstract art. We make it concrete as we play with our words.
“Not only do Willows’ teachers possess the “Can Do” spirit, so does the facilities team.“
Over the years, you may have seen some new additions at The Willows like the multi-purpose furniture between Buildings 4 and 6 or the free-standing sand sifter in the sandbox. What you may not know is that these were all made in-house by our talented facilities team.
The Willows’ facilities team consists of Treisha, Rocky, Gonzo, Eladio, Juan G., Juan V., and Daisy who have a combined 50 years at The Willows. They have embraced The Willows spirit, and when something needs to be done, they accomplish it!
Here are a few objects that have been created by the facilities team:
The multi-purpose furniture idea originated when students and staff noticed there weren’t enough outdoor classroom spaces on campus. They researched and found the best solution for The Willows would be a mobile outdoor classroom apparatus. The Middle School students interviewed teachers and students who would be using the space the most and collaborated with a San Francisco architectural firm, Thing One, to construct 2D and 3D models. The blueprint was then given to our facilities team to be constructed as a working product!
These Design Lab tables were made out of necessity–we had a wonderful design lab but no tables. The facilities team built tables to the dimensions that fit perfectly for the space for a fraction of the purchase cost!
It’s amazing to have a hands-on, talented facilities team, but more importantly, it’s beneficial for our students. By modeling the inquiry process and design thinking approach, students are able to see first-hand the ideas they formulated become a reality on campus in front of their eyes. Students then begin to understand that with the right amount of tools and resources, they can bring their own ideas to reality.
This collaboration and “Can Do” spirit is what makes The
Willows a special place. As the saying goes, it takes a village, but
in our case, it takes a community!
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!
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!
“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!
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
I teach in a makerspace each day. Design thinking and the steps of the design process are interwoven into so much of what takes place within my maker classes. During each hour-long class, students learn by engaging in work similar to real-world designers: facing challenges, coming up with creative solutions, and tinkering and experimenting their way towards a finished product.
In this space, I see myself as a coach or a guide, providing assistance, resources, and encouragement throughout the design process. When inevitable frustrations occur, I try to be present and listen to the needs of my students so I can provide a useful perspective to enable them to persist with the problem they’re trying to solve.
Do I see myself as someone who’s teaching children to develop their emotional intelligence? I have to admit that in the past I have not, or at least not in the same way as I see my colleagues, who are directly teaching tools for developing emotional intelligence in the classroom. However, recent events at The Willows have caused me to contemplate the connections between design thinking and the work we’re doing with emotional intelligence within our community.
As we begin our second year of work with Yale’s RULER program, I am reminded that the “R” and “U” in the RULER acronym stands for “recognizing” and “understanding.” Taking a second look at the design thinking process outlined by Stanford’s d.School, the first step, “Empathy” matches perfectly with these ideas.
When designers are beginning a project, it is important that they ask questions like:
Who am I designing for?
What are their motivations?
What needs am I seeking to meet?
Stepping into the shoes of whom you are designing for and understanding the world from their perspective is crucial to the design process. Similarly, successfully navigating our interactions with the members of our community also requires recognizing and understanding the feelings of others. There is a spirit of inquiry and openness that is essential to both, and empathy is a key component to developing collaborative skills across the curriculum.
I give full credit to Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life, for helping me fully connect these ideas together. She was part of a group of Willows teachers and administrators that visited the d.School last spring while in the Bay Area for the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference, who came back inspired to redesign a space in our Middle School based on what they had observed on their trip.
Shortly after their return, I found myself in a meeting that exemplified for me this intersection of design thinking and empathy. Lisa Rosenstein, our Head of School, brought together an eclectic group of 8th graders, Middle School teachers, administrators, and specialists in IT, ed tech and maker to engage in a dialogue about how to best transform one Middle School classroom into what has now become our designLab.
In a sense, all those assembled were being asked to empathize with the future users of the space – incoming 6th, 7th and 8th grade students (as well as their teachers). I was most impressed in this dialogue by the 8th graders; even with only weeks to go before graduation, they were full of constructive suggestions and comfortable sharing ideas at a large table full of adults. I saw a group of students reflecting on their experiences and imagining how the space could best serve the Middle School after they leave, and I also saw the kind of collaborative effort between different members of our community that makes me inspired to work at The Willows.