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.
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,
Last week we welcomed Marc Brackett, Director, and Robin Stern, Associate Director, of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence back to The Willows. In their talk to parents and the larger community, they reminded us of research findings that show children in schools today experience higher levels of anxiety than their parents. While there are myriad potential causes for this anxiety, one cause that is especially present this time of year is standardized testing taking place in schools.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children suffering from anxiety related to taking standardized tests typically present three main categories of symptoms:
Physical symptoms, often resembling those related to a panic attack, including headaches, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and light-headedness
Emotional symptoms, including feelings of anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, and disappointment
Behavioral/cognitive symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself unfavorably to others
At The Willows, challenges like these make us feel more grateful than ever for our burgeoning partnership with Yale and the RULER program for emotional intelligence that we are implementing in our community. In order to address these concerns straight on, specifically with our youngest test takers in third through fifth grades, the members of our Willows RULER team recently met with our Upper Elementary teachers.
Due to two to three teachers in a classroom, Willows teachers are able to meet regularly during the school day at our monthly Learning Lunches, where DK-8 faculty are invited to meet, watch, and discuss a video on a topic relevant to our professional practice and break bread together (often with colleagues who teach in separate buildings and rarely see each other.)
For this particular lunch, rather than watch a video and then discuss potential applications for our different classroom settings, we began with an open forum led by RULER team trainer and 5th grade teacher Alex Wolfe, who asked everyone to begin by sharing strategies they’ve used over the years to mitigate student test anxiety.
All teachers emphasized the need to impart to students specific and concrete strategies to use when anxiety begins to rear its ugly head during testing, such as:
Don’t spend too long on one question
Skip certain questions and come back to them at the end
For questions that require written responses, don’t leave them blank (even if you have no idea how to respond – anything written can be scored!)
Use positive self-talk and mindful breathing
(See below for links to more specific strategies and tips)
Certain teachers also shared related posters they already have on display in their classroom for their students. Alex shared that one particular piece of advice she tells children is that these kinds of tests are designed so that some questions are hard and some are easy, so if you don’t answer one correctly it’s ok, because usually no one answers all the questions correctly.
Particular attention was given throughout the discussion on how best to help our 3rd graders, who are facing the standardized testing experience for the first time. Many teachers acknowledged the need to strike a fine balance when talking to these students about testing; it’s our job to simultaneously convey that on one hand they need to take the test seriously but also try to regulate their stress as well.
Christina Kim, our Director of Student Life and leader of the school’s RULER team, shared that it’s important for children to recognize that standardized tests can be thought of as a different genre that we all need to be able to comprehend. Like other texts, it has certain structures and conventions that are predictable, and just like we would with any project or assignment, we all simply must try to do our best.
Christina also shared some related posters photographed on our recent school visit to High Tech High. I felt that all teachers present left our lunch meeting empowered to help students navigate the wide range of emotions that arise during test taking.
For more information on test taking anxiety please visit:
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.
Wisdom of The Willows provides a forum for members of our unique community to share their knowledge and reflect on a variety of topics. Certain posts will highlight innovative teaching and learning within our community; others will address broader issues on the minds of educators and parents worldwide connecting the experiences of our Willows community to broader, global conversations in education and parenting.
The Willows is a strong, collaborative community of lifelong learners. Wisdom of The Willows opens a window on the learning undertaken on our campus by not just students, but also by teachers, administrators, and parents alike. For example, here on this blog we will share details of the issues discussed by our teachers and administrators during our monthly Learning Lunches and at our Willows Academy (all-day professional development held once each trimester.) In addition, these articles will be accompanied by references and connections to research and theoretical bases supporting our school’s program.
In-depth profiles of parent and family educational events, as well as those centered on technological, creative or personal development topics, will also be featured.
The overall intent is to make the learning that takes place regularly in our community visible to all.
We look forward to posting more soon, and we invite you to expand your vision, explore the blog, get inspired, and join the conversation!