Cultivating 5th Grade Designers

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!

designthinking annotated process copyTo 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!


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.

Telling Learning Stories Through Documentation

Documentation is an act of communication; it makes public a conversation about what we value. 

                                    -Harvard Project Zero,

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.

IMG_4616High 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). tipi documentation-page-001Also, 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!




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.”
3rd_Gade Expert Book_Cover
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.

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.


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

“Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It”

All of sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

In advance of a visit to The Willows next week from Nicholas Negroponte, one of the world’s most innovative, revolutionary thinkers (and grandfather to one of our Kindergarteners), I was inspired to revisit an incredibly prescient short piece he wrote for Wired magazine 22 years ago, from which the above quote was taken. The whole piece, “Learning By Doing: Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It,” is short and worth taking the time to read in full.


Negroponte is well known as one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab and for giving the very first TED talk, where he predicted much of the modern technology we use today (see links below). Reading this Wired article again, I found it fascinating to reflect on which of his predictions for education and society at large actually came true.

One quote that really caught my eye in the  article:

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.

What was true in the 1960s and the 1990s is still true today. Now more than ever, what sells in Ed-tech are just shinier devices and platforms for delivering facts and practicing rote skills. Arguably, there are times and places for facts and skills, but Negroponte reminds us here that educators need to imagine all the ways to use computers to help people learn something besides Googling facts.

Learning By Doing

Negroponte’s insistence that schools promote more learning by doing resonates most today. Essentially, this is the ethos of the maker movement, and one that informs many of the projects I choose for the maker classes that I teach at The Willows.

For example, our third graders are learning about the Native American tribes of California, specifically the villages of the Chumash tribe. Naturally, the classroom teachers and I thought it would be a good idea for the students to make their own interactive version of a Chumash village, complete with littleBits circuits and other tech-related components.

However, before even beginning to create the Chumash village, I asked students to first just build a village. To kill two birds with one stone, I actually asked them to draw and program a village using the software Microworlds EX, so they could practice coding skills while sharing what they know about villages.

The direction I gave was simple: think about what you would find in a village and try to represent that on your screen. As they worked, spontaneous discussions arose about the difference between villages versus cities; students would identify certain components (shelter, food sources and storage, water), inspiring others to add on to their villages in an organic manner. By observing and taking notes as I circulated, I was certainly learning from their doing, and as they designed I noticed they were learning a few things too.

First, given a finite space on which to build, they had to carefully consider where to place different elements of their village, and how much space each could occupy. For example, most students showed that a village has more than one building some for inhabitants to live in and others for various communal purposes; each had to be scaled and placed properly, and much revision was needed as they tinkered with their designs. Second, many students learned that in their first iterations they had omitted certain vital features; for example, only certain students included some means of transportation to move people in and out of their hypothetical village.

Of course, I could have simply read a book or showed a video about villages to them beforehand if I wanted to ensure that they all had close to identical villages with all of the same elements. But my goal was for these third graders to construct their own understanding about how villages work, rather than mimic what I told them should go into a village. Or, echoing Negroponte’s words, I asked them to build their own village instead of dissecting someone else’s.

By asking them to learn by doing, I was actively engaging them, and also allowing them to teach me what they knew or didn’t know, to inform the rest of our project.

For more on Nicholas Negroponte, here are a few links, old and new:





Reinventing Math

Most students when asked what they think their role is in math classrooms say: it is to answer correctly. They don’t think they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to approach the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject. They think they are in the math classroom to perform. – Jo Boaler, What’s Math Got to Do With It?

At our Learning Lunches this month, teachers and administrators at the Willows began our time together pondering two questions:

Why do so many students loathe math?

Why do many teachers feel uncomfortable teaching math?

The initial discussion that followed focused on a few recurrent themes:

  • Math is different from other more open-ended subjects – there is just one correct answer, and you’re either right or you’re wrong
  • When students struggle with math problems, teachers feel they only have a limited amount of strategies to help students get to the correct answer
  • Teachers feel less comfortable with teaching math in different ways than they learned it as students

One teacher even spoke about math as being its own language, separate from the usual language we use to engage with language arts, history or even science.

All of this set the stage for us to watch a provocative TED talk from renowned physicist, mathematician and technologist Conrad Wolfram, who will be one the keynote speakers at the upcoming Reinventing Mathematics Education Symposium being held here at the Willows on January 4th.wolfram ted

In a recent Financial Times article, “Stop teaching kids to add up – maths is more important,” he states:

At its core, maths is a problem-solving process. You specify a real-world problem, develop an abstract representation of it, calculate an answer for the abstraction and then translate back into the real-world language you started with. Before computers, almost all human energy was focused on the third stage: calculating. Now it is usually focused on the other steps instead.

Throughout the video we watched, Wolfram essentially sidesteps much of the traditional debate about how to teach mathematics, in favor of a discussion about why we teach math – and, more crucially, what math is actually taught in schools.

Wolfram’s idea for reinventing math education: use computers. Not just for calculation, but also to build conceptual understanding beyond mere calculation. He maintains that the primary way that people understand processes and procedures that drive most of our modern world is through programming; a great way to check if someone understands math, he claims, is have them write a program to do it!


Looking at our classrooms at the Willows, we can see some applications of Wolfram’s ideas, mainly in the programming that students have been doing at our school for many years now. Even our youngest students begin wrestling early on with the basics of programming as they work with Bee Bots, working later with more formal programming in Turtle Art, Scratch and Microworlds.


Beyond providing opportunities for programming (year round, not just for the Hour of Code), Willows teachers have also begun to take steps this year to reinvent math in other ways. Inspired by our school-wide theme of action, teachers in the P.E. department have started to incorporate the concepts of estimation and averages into the weekly activities happening in the gym. Utilizing pedometers for precise data collection, K-5 students were asked to estimate and then discover how many steps it took to complete a lap around the gym. Real-world results enabled rich discussions, as students saw that different student factors (pace, stride, height) influenced the findings. Further conceptual understanding of variance was explored as they worked to estimate and find the average number of steps per grade data

Further data collection and analysis has taken place in Middle School classrooms, centered around the question: What does a typical middle school student do for all four of his/her P.E. physical fitness tests?  Students estimated mean, median, mode and range for the tests, used Excel to work with the data collected by the P.E. teachers, and created graphs to make conclusions about the data. Best of all, student engagement in real-world math in action was clearly evident throughout both of these projects.

Next Steps

With our Math Symposium right around the corner, mathematics is on everyone’s mind at the Willows. Look for future posts on the subject after the Symposium in January!