Once an Idea, Now a Reality!

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!

Once a Willows Student, Now a Willows Teacher: From the Perspective of Kendall Gross, Kindergarten Teacher

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, Cathy Leverkus

Permission to Feel

“We have a crisis on our hands, and its victims are our children”

-Marc Brackett, “Permission to Feel”

In this day and age, the mental well-being of our children and adults is shockingly poor. Marc Brackett knows why. And he knows what to do.

Marc Brackett, the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, has spent 25 years as an emotion scientist. Marc Brackett’s prescription for raising healthy children and adults is a system and approach that he calls RULER, which is an acronym that stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions. RULER was developed to help improve the lives of children and adults through understanding our emotions and using them wisely to help, rather than hinder, our success and well-being. The RULER approach has been implemented in more than 2,000 schools across the US and globe, reaching over 1 million students.His new book, Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, is the culmination of Marc’s development of RULER and his way to share the strategies and skills with readers around the world. Permission to Feel combines rigor, science, passion, and inspiration in equal parts. Too many children and adults are suffering; they are ashamed of their feelings and emotionally unskilled, they don’t have to be. Marc’s mission is to reverse this course and this book can show you how.

If you’re interested in learning more, Marc Brackett will be coming to The Willows to speak about his new book.It’s free and open to the public!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019
7:00 pm to 8:30 pm
The Willows Community School Gymnasium
8509 Higuera Street
Culver City 90232


Talk will be followed by a book signing of his provocative, new work!

RESERVATIONS required at: PERMISSION TO FEEL

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!

 

Telling Learning Stories Through Documentation

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

                                    -Harvard Project Zero, http://www.pz.harvard.edu

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!

 

 

 

Veterans Day Assembly a Day of Empathy & Understanding

“Each one of us can be kind and respectful and a good listener. Each of us can be a change-maker, adding to positivity in the world in our own way by talking to and understanding, uniting people with different opinions.”  –Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER article For families: How to respond to our young people

At our recent Veterans Day Assembly, it was clear that our eighth grade students would indeed be “change-makers.” Their empathy for and understanding of others was apparent in a video they created about their Washington D.C. trip that included visits to national monuments and a silent drama tableau set to “Imagine” by John Lennon they presented.

Visit our website media gallery to view the video of documentary shorts

Empathy–the ability to identify with other people and their struggles–on the part of our students and faculty, was vivid. Our implementation of the RULER approach to emotional intelligence from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence promotes empathy and a positive environment and experience in our classrooms, in homes, in our community, and beyond. RULER is helping us prepare students to be successful, empathetic leaders of tomorrow.

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The presentations by our eighth graders and faculty member Lumpee Lee both included tools of the RULER approach. The silent tableau by our eighth grade students used themes from their Class Charter that states how we want to feel at school each day and ways in which we can affect change within our community to work through conflict. Scenarios included a threatening bullying situation and a birthday where a child was not invited. The students would freeze in a scenario of a conflict and then a “fixer” would enter to make the scenario “right,” solving the conflict.

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Faculty member Lumpee Lee, who was born in Thailand and whose parents were refugees from Vietnam, shared his personal story. He discussed freedom of speech and human rights and expressed gratitude for the veterans who fought for freedom in a foreign place to assure that his family could come to the U.S. Lumpee then connected to our RULER approach through the use of a Mood Meter, another RULER tool by asking how the students thought the veterans might feel as young people being away from their families, fighting for freedom in another country. Students then plotted the emotions of the soldiers on the mood meter and shared feeling words.

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Our Middle School Honors Choir sang an inspiring rendition of “America the Beautiful” accompanied by a student on guitar. The assembly was a beautiful expression of empathy and understanding and also illustrated the many benefits of integrating our RULER Emotional Intelligence program throughout our school.

 

 

What’s next?

This time of the school year, parents and educators alike have their eye on the calendar, counting down the last days of school. For teachers, a much-needed break awaits, and school days are often consumed with wrapping up end-of-year projects, preparing final grades and/or narrative reports, and packing things away for next school year. During this busy time, it’s tempting to feel a sense of finality, as if the work of the school year is all but done.

However, this time of year I find myself thinking of one of my all time favorite phrases:

                    What’s next?

The genius of this phrase is its utility across a variety of disciplines, with children and adults alike. As a teacher, I annoy kids daily when they come up to me with something they think is finished and I prompt them with “What’s next?” They might be showing me a piece of writing, an animation programmed in Scratch or a maker project constructed out of cardboard and foam, but my intention for using this particular prompt is identical for each.

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Ideally, “What’s next?” prompts learners to take ownership over the project at hand, and to adopt the mindset that most projects are, in fact, works-in-progress, always able to be revised, extended, and improved. Echoing the best ideas from the design thinking movement, this mindset embraces the idea that projects can always be taken to another iteration. Additional layers of complexity and sophistication can be introduced, and some documentation of the creative process can be cultivated in anticipation of sharing the project with a wider audience. Even during these waning weeks of the school year, we are compelled to ask our students, “What’s next?” even only to hope that they at some point begin to ask this question themselves.

Of course, “What’s next?” is also a useful prompt for teachers and school administrators at this time of year. Reflecting on the ups and downs of the year behind us, what was learned that should be applied to the next year ahead? What points of interest and excitement must be capitalized upon and carried forward? What projects or endeavors almost worked in the way we intended, and with a bit more fine-tuning could really have the impact we desire?

Asking “What’s next?” is, however, not enough. What actually lies next after that depends on the willingness of all parties to put in the work needed to grow and improve based on the conversations that spring forth.

What’s next for you?

 

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