Intersession: The Power of Choice

Facing the waning weeks of winter and the promise of spring’s impending arrival, it’s that time of year at The Willows where we reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far this school year and look ahead to what still lies ahead. Around this same time, the school participates in the annual tradition of Intersession, when normal school routines and schedules are suspended for one week for specialized projects and classes for DK-8 students.

A year ago, I wrote a post about the success of Intersession coming down to two main elements: time and engagement. The power of both was still evident during this year’s Intersession, as I roamed the halls seeing students deeply immersed for hours in creating a wide variety of things: Escape Rooms, lamps, instructional videos, ramps and pathways for marble runs, and much more.

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Reflecting further on this year’s Intersession, I think one element that also contributed greatly to the success of this year’s projects was choice.

We always gave students a fair amount of choice regarding which Intersession class they wanted to participate in, but this year was unique. We worked especially hard to make sure every student had his or her first choice out of the many offerings that were made available.

Hot off the heels of November’s election, DK-8 students were given “ballots” detailing the class offerings; in grades 3-5, we even held a “primary” to narrow down an initial list of more than ten class options. Unsurprisingly, kids clamored their teachers for information shortly afterwards – “Did I get my first choice?” they asked, not knowing that we had planned for that all along!

Choice matters 

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Why was it important for us to ensure first choice? According to research, providing choice to students is strongly correlated with motivation. Certain school environments motivate students by rewards or punishments with teacher-centered activities predominating. Intersession at The Willows doesn’t remove the guidance of the teacher but encourages students to take more ownership over their learning in a setting where time is truly given for deep learning and engagement.

Choice inspires motivation, and choice pervades the interdisciplinary learning environment that we strive to create each year at Intersession. In one popular class this year, middle school students designed original lamps, utilizing skills and resources from our STEAM2 disciplines (science, technology, art, engineering, and math and maker) and design thinking. Students were challenged to make choices about artistic and operational design features for their lamps, and to consider the impact of their choices on the needs of the potential, ideal users of their lamp. The finished products displayed for parents a week later at our Family Education Night celebrating the work of Intersession, highlighted the powerful returns we reap from providing rich, choice-driven learning environments for students.

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Further reading

A colleague of mine recently recommended a book on this topic, Choice Time: How to Deepen Inquiry Through Inquiry and Play by Renee Dinnerstein. My copy is on order, and though its focus appears to be on DK-2 classrooms, I am excited to build on the successes of Intersession, and to seek out applications for choice to enliven all classrooms.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Designing with Empathy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Time + Engagement = Intersession

Each year after Winter break, The Willows school community participates in an annual tradition known as Intersession.

Essentially, Intersession is best described by what it is not­ – a time where “normal” school time, usually chopped up into discrete blocks devoted to different disciplines, is disrupted in favor of long, less-structured sessions where both teachers and students work on complex and engaging projects. Depending on the age range, these sessions last 3-4 hours per day; with our middle school, Intersession lasted all day for an entire week.

(Click here to learn more about the nuts and bolts plus specific projects undertaken during Intersession)

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Why take this departure from normalcy? Essentially, I see Intersession is an answer to the following questions:

What if teachers were allowed to create projects they were extremely passionate about?

 What if these projects were heavily student-driven with students choosing which project best suited their interests?  

 What if teachers and students had long periods of time to engage deeply with the ideas and skills associated with these projects?

There are myriad aspects of Intersession worth celebrating and discussing at length, but I’d like to focus on two that I feel are the most powerful: time and engagement.

The gift of time

Releasing everyone from the constraints of their normal schedules is one of the greatest gifts a school can give itself.

DSC_0126With unprecedented amounts of time, our students were able to build real expertise, often with new skills or concepts. Immersed in their projects, they were more willing to take risks, to persevere through difficulties, to collaborate and problem-solve with peers, and to see the true value in what we call “hard fun.”

Personally, I was involved in a project called Robot Theater, inspired by Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. For six days, groups of students created interactive “rooms” featuring a variety of small robots with lights, motors, and sensors powered by Hummingbird controllers. Students wrestled with unfamiliar tech tools (and the occasional frustrations that go along with connecting and programming them!), built backdrops for their robot “characters,” and presented to groups of amazed parents afterwards. This work takes time – especially if you want to do things right. IMG_0951

Time + Engagement

While any school can simply abandon its regular schedule for some period of time, doing so may not always result in the kind of engagement Intersession delivers. There’s a palpable sense of excitement pervading every space of each building. There’s also plenty of intensity and creative struggle, as children work to realize the shared vision for each project. One easy indicator of engagement that I saw with my robot designers: instead of going outside for snack and recess, they would regularly stay inside to test a new light or motor or finish just one more block of code!

IMG_8594Ultimately, in my mind, time and engagement go hand in hand. Without the time to really dive deeply into something, engagement will always remain superficial while everyone moves on to the next regularly scheduled block of learning. When children are shown that educators truly value their strengths and interests and are willing to give them time to immerse themselves in meaningful projects, they really rise to the occasion.

** Check back for a video we’re preparing highlighting many of the amazing Intersession projects – coming soon!