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.

Raising Resilient Children

What is the mind? What can we do to help kids develop a resilient mindset when facing life’s challenges?

These perplexing and provocative questions were just two of many raised and discussed at the most recent event in our annual Ideas@TheWillows speaker series, led by acclaimed UCLA professor and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute Dan Siegel.

E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel015

One of the things that I truly value about working at The Willows is our community’s willingness to engage in a thoughtful exchange of ideas with extraordinary people like Dr. Siegel. I first became aware of his work in my early years of fatherhood, when my wife and I read his book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Later, I became aware of his efforts to introduce mindfulness into schools through his Mindsight Institute’s MindUp curriculum that we’ve used parts of with middle school students at our school.

In his wide-ranging and lively talk, Dr. Siegel shared findings from research about resiliency, which he linked generally to the concept of integration in brain research. Adults and children who are adept at integrating the various systems of the brain in a harmonious manner are better suited to facing life’s challenges without becoming overwhelmed or disconnected. To illustrate this at one point in his talk, Siegel asked for volunteers – specifically, people who sing in choirs (including our Director of Library Services Cathy Leverkus) – to come on to the stage with him. He gave his singers various directions to demonstrate the results of an integrated brain (harmony, where different singers worked together towards a common goal) versus a non-integrated brain (chaos, where different singers covered their ears and only sang their own song). E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel040

Besides sharing essential brain research for everyone to ponder, Siegel also underscored several helpful takeaways specifically for parents in attendance. According to Siegel, the most powerful finding from parenting research that many are not aware of is the need for parents to make sense of their own lives first – in his words, “It doesn’t matter what happened to you, it’s how you make sense of it.” If we neglect to engage in this process of looking inward and examining our lives, we run the risk of sending mixed messages to our children as we direct them to make good choices in their lives.

Additionally, he mentioned several times the importance of parental presence. I have found myself repeating one line from his talk several times on this subject:

The more present you are, the more you are willing to learn about who your children are versus who you want them to be.

In Siegel’s view, modern parents’ preoccupation with a future destination for their children often leads them to send messages that provoke shame, which he defined as the opposite of resilience, as well as encouraging children to compete with each other instead of “competing with the world’s problems.”

Afterwards, I debriefed with my colleague Andrea, who is part of a team of teachers at The Willows working to implement and strengthen our school’s RULER emotional intelligence program from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. One connection she made between his message and our school’s work with mindfulness and emotional intelligence was Siegel’s emphasis on the need to look inward, to be aware of this inner world that we all need to connect to in order to recognize and regulate the energy associated with our emotions. Clearly, this message applies for adults and students alike in our community.

One final note: Siegel did give an answer to our initial question above – “What is the mind?” – which I have to share (I would recommend reading one of his many books on the subjects of mind for a detailed explanation:)

The mind is the embodied and relational self-organizing process that regulates informational flow between ourselves and others and the planet.

E_17_Speaker_Dan_Siegel002
Lisa Rosenstein, Head of School, Dr. Dan Siegel, and Christina Kim, Director of Student Life

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.

int_17_3-8_day-one002

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 http://framescinemajournal.com/article/video-essays-in-the-cinema-history-classroom/

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.

e_17_veterans_day017

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.

img_5589

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.

e_17_veterans_day047

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.

 

 

Designing with Empathy

unnamed
instagram.com/willowscommschool

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.

design-process-better
dschool.stanford.edu

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.

img_0111

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

prototyping3

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?

 

IMG_7519

“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.

NNegoponte-highres-1100x400

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: