Monday evening I attended an event about boys, body image, identity development, and puberty in the digital age titled: “A Common Sense Conversation with Peggy Orenstein & Dr. Cara Natterson moderated by Steve Goldbloom.” The authors spoke about their new books and provided practical advice regarding navigating these topics with our children – advice that I intend to bring both to The Willows Life Skills Program and to my own parenting.
Sarah Bowman, from Common Sense, summarized well what I found most salient:
The conversations we have with our children are important, and they are, in fact, indelible. What you say counts. At Common Sense, we believe media literacy is a staple of parenting today, and our panelists did an excellent job of describing how to slip these conversations into your family’s daily life. Cara and Peggy urged us to initiate these chats earlier and surface these issues frequently, and to do it with humor. We instinctively teach our kids manners by gently prodding them to say “please” and “thank you” over and over; frank conversations about the body and a consciousness about media literacy likewise must become part of your parenting mindset. This past week provided two oversized examples of topics for conversation: Kobe Bryant’s death (men expressing grief and emotion) and the Super Bowl halftime show (body image).
The best advice of all? Trust your gut and remember to explain why you feel what you feel. This is what is unique to you and what your kids will cherish most.
While this talk and their books focused on boys, much of Orenstein and Natterson’s parenting advice and these conversations can resonate with girls as well.
These strategies may be used by families with both boys and girls.
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!
Contrary to my answer in the ‘99 yearbook, a career as a “ballerina” was never the real goal. In actuality, I have always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. The Willows has been my happy place since the day I arrived in 1998, and I feel honored and excited to show up to work—every day—in the very classroom where my love of learning began.
I consider myself academically driven, and I largely attribute my time and experiences at The Willows to that descriptor. Never before—and not since—have I been a part of a community where curiosity and exploration are at the forefront of experience every single day. The Willows practices as it preaches; we are allowed to make and learn from our mistakes, we can turn an assignment on its head to suit our needs and style, and we have ample opportunity to form authentic and reciprocal relationships with our co-learners (aka peers, teachers, specialists, etc.). These relationships were the lamp to my metaphorical moth, and the practices I relished as a student still inspire me to grow both as a faculty member and person.
As an alumna working at the school I once attended, I am often asked a lot of questions, which is great, because, thanks to The Willows and their inquiry-based education, I love questions. The question that comes up most frequently is this: How was it coming back to work at the place where you went to school? My short answer is usually: “Surreal!” The long answer has much more flavor…
Many of the faculty that taught me and formed my personhood, are still at The Willows today. So, coming back to the nearly unrecognizable campus in 2016 as their “co-worker” was quite an experience. It took a few months for me to accept that the conversations I had with them were no longer considered part of my year-end written evaluation. It took a few months longer to not feel out of place at faculty meetings–as if I had walked into the wrong room at the wrong time. By the end of my first year, I realized I wasn’t living some strange dream. I actually worked among my mentors at my favorite school doing what brings me great happiness and satisfaction, and I would get do it all over again the following year.
I believe a well-rounded education is the greatest gift a person can receive. The Willows offers that and so much more. It offers a safe space, a place to question and create, a home away from home. So thank you, thank you, to my teachers, who created, packaged, and put the bow on my gift. I hope to empower my own students and guide them toward a love of learning just as you did for me. That is my goal, and that is why I am a teacher at The Willows Community School. Although, I’m sure being a ballerina would have been cool too.
Current teachers that taught (and continue to teach) me:
Kindergarten – Andrea Passarella
First Grade – Jennifer Cunningham
Second Grade – Dakota Smith
Third Grade – Wendy Amster
Fourth Grade – Jill Offer
Fifth Grade – Bobby Hamm, Jane Lewine
Middle School – Stuart Knox, Steve Futterman, Kyle
Smith-Laird, Doug Klier, Liz Ganem, Brian Tousey, John Lee, Ann Istrin
Specialists – Marc Weiss, Susannah Funnel, Kristie Toomath,
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
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!
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.
Members of the organization American Independent School Librarians will be meeting at The Willows Community School for the summer institute Critical Literacies: Empowering Learners in Your Library. They will explore the intersections between source literacy, media literacy, information literacy, and the library program. The Institute will include workshops and discussions designed to help members effectively structure library instruction and collaborate with campus partners, giving students the tools and skills to be independent, critical researchers. Colleagues from all grade level divisions are invited to participate!
The main speakers will present workshops on source literacy, news literacy and inquiry as an information literacy tool. There will also be sessions offered on cognitive bias, and bias and diversity in google searches.
Nuts and Bolts of Source Literacy
Nora Murphy, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, La Canada Flintridge, CA
At the core of every critical literacy is source material, i.e. the texts that drive our questions and determine how we will answer them. What is Source Literacy, and how can we prioritize it as a necessary component of all critical literacy instruction (and why should we do so)? Nora will introduce key concepts and discuss case studies that illustrate how Source Literacy informs students’ research trajectory and, ultimately, their thinking.
Breaking News: Read Between the Lines, News Literacy Skills for the Digital Age
Bobbie Eisenstock, Ph.D.
How news literate are your students? Do they know how to judge the credibility and reliability of news and information flooding their digital devices? Can they detect “fake news” and political bias on social media? When they go online, are they trapped inside filter bubbles that reinforce cognitive bias and inadvertently spread untruths? A recent Stanford University study found that the majority of students cannot distinguish fake from factual news or native advertising from news articles. This workshop will demonstrate media literacy strategies to empower students to critically analyze and evaluate what they consume and create in the ever-changing participatory digital culture.
Connie Williams of The Right Question Institute
How does forming the “Right Question” encourage learners to engage deeply in the learning and research process? Learn how to create a question-driven learning environment by understanding how questions set the stage for exciting and engaging research. We will explore different kinds of questions, how to prioritize, categorize, and then use them to narrow topics, to broaden searches, and to assess learning. Using primary sources and other compelling subjects, we will practice several strategies that strengthen and enhance inquiry and information literacy.
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 entitled “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 delve 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 and 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.
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.