Engagement and Ownership: Student-Led Conferences

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 action.

ComicCon Meet Your Rival WillowCon!

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!

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

25 Years, 25 Stories

What 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.

Mousetrap Car:
 
The mousetrap car represents struggles and triumph. Creativity and Bliss. It was a great learning experience where all of us were able to bond. Whether you won or lost, the memories will last a lifetime. Painting the cars, cutting the wood, our blood, sweat, and tears pouring into them. And when we released the snap, watching all of our hard work soar like a bird into the oblivion beyond. Going away as fast as our 8th grade year did. The wheels turning like a clock. We conquered something. We conquered the race

– 8th grade  

Some Stories Never End

“What unites people?…Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it.”

-Tyrion, Game of Thrones, “The Iron Throne”

As another school year at The Willows winds down to a close, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the journey we’ve almost completed and to look ahead to the next school year.

Our schoolwide theme this year was “Story,” which means we’ve been thinking quite a bit about the power of the stories we tell each other all school year (even watching the Game of Thrones finale I couldn’t escape it!).

We started the year out welcoming the master storytelling collective The Moth to our campus, where they shared valuable ideas about how to craft powerful stories and what makes certain stories resonate with audiences. As a theme, “Story” was easy to integrate into almost every aspect of our curriculum, including Writer’s Workshop, Middle School Core, RULER integration, and even into STEAM and maker projects along the way as well.

8th Grade Core teachers used one powerful story, Angie Thomas’ novel The Hate U Give, as a springboard for several powerful conversations within our community about race, diversity,  equity, and inclusion. Multiple panels were led by Willows teachers and parents about the book and several of the sensitive issues the author deals with, and middle school student affinity groups were also formed and met to continue the conversation.

As with every Intersession we hold each year, the schoolwide theme was woven into all of the projects DK-8 students devoted a week of effort and creativity towards completing. Some highlights included projects like “The Story of a Meal” which prompted students to consider the role that personal and cultural experiences play in cooking and eating, and “Choose Your Own Adventure,” where students created their own digital versions of the beloved choose your own adventure books many of us read as children.

All stories are open to revision or reimagining, according to the needs of those telling and listening to them. At The Willows, our community is engaged in regular, ongoing revisions to our story and to our educational program. Besides bringing the Moth to our community, our faculty engaged in several other thought-provoking professional development opportunities that have caused them to revise certain approaches to teaching and learning in their classrooms. In January, a large group of teachers attended a workshop at Crossroads about the Harvard’s Right Question Institute (RQI) and techniques for improving the questions we ask during inquiry-driven projects. Onsite and on-demand professional development was embedded into one Middle School Intersession project, where Catalyst Institute founder Jean Kaneko came to lead students and teachers through a project entitled “Biomimicry and Battle Bots: A Story of Survival.” Over the course of the one-week project, we developed expertise with using our new Glowforge laser printer and with research-based systems of critique and prototyping that Jean uses with various school groups she consults with.

After our workshop with the storytellers from The Moth at the beginning of the school year, one important takeaway for me was that it is our job as educators to regularly try to improve upon telling our own stories. Two important upcoming events represent different manifestations of this idea, as we prepare to tell the story of The Willows as best we can for a variety of audiences. First, next school year, The Willows will welcome a visiting team from the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) as part of our process to renew our accreditation. Currently, we are in the middle of writing and revising several documents that comprise a self-study of our entire operation – educational program, facilities, development, alumni relations, and more.

Finally, next school year we will be celebrating our 25th year anniversary with a large celebration that we are currently in the process of planning. To commemorate this important occasion, we are bringing back our very first schoolwide theme, “The Ties That Bind Us,” which in many ways is a natural extension of this year’s focus on story. More details will be forthcoming regarding all of the ways we will be celebrating this important milestone!

Innovation at Work! An Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Approach to Learning (for students & teachers!)

The collaborative spirit embraced at The Willows can be observed amongst faculty and staff as well as within a classroom’s structure. I am fortunate in my role as Dean of Educational Technology to collaborate with teachers across grade levels on a regular basis. Intersession is a week-long, innovative experience when the Middle School breaks from our regular curriculum and all teachers have the opportunity to collaborate in new teams and students collaborate across grade levels as well. This year, we brought in a Visiting Maker Expert and founder of Catalyst, Jean Kaneko, to teach a Middle School Intersession course titled Biomimicry and Battle Bots: A Story of Survival.

Working alongside Jean was a valuable learning experience that provided students with a unique and challenging skill building experience, and also offered me valuable professional development.

On a surface level, Jean taught us how to use equipment – Arduino boards with shields, Bluetooth electronics, wire cutters and strippers, air dusters to flash cool hot glue, and most exciting, our new 3D laser cutter – Glowforge Pro. This immediately sparked ideas for ways to engage with the 8th grade science teachers and have classes use the Glowforge with our upcoming mousetrap car project. Intersession culminates in a Family Education Night, an interactive evening for students and their families that highlights the projects and accomplishments of the students. Upon viewing the course artifacts at Family Education Night, two third grade students, with the assistance of their Maker teacher used the laser cutter to create a present for their teacher’s upcoming birthday. And last week I led a Willows Academy workshop where teaching faculty created laser cut projects and brainstormed potential classroom applications. The momentum is strong!

Less tangible but deeply powerful, was the shift in thinking that we really gained from collaborating with Jean. I have read a lot about prototyping in connection with making and design thinking, but I didn’t see the value for the time invested until now. My participation in this Intersession course showcased firsthand the amount of planning, critique, editing, revision, and teamwork that was necessary for each iteration of a bot – from ideation to battle ready. Now I am enthusiastically ready to incorporate this process in my teaching!

Another highlight of the class was Jean’s outstanding presentation of and emphasis on failure as a central part of the process. Watching the kids listen, and then later observing them undergo struggle and limited success made us all celebrate the victories and feel truly proud of what was accomplished. While debriefing with Jean about the course and future collaborations, she emphasized the unique value of The Willows Intersession as being “a year’s worth of work or focus in one week.”

RULER Institute & RULER Implementation Conference

This week, The Willows continues our fruitful collaboration with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence with two special RULER trainings for educators. RULER is the evidenced-based approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) developed at Yale and designed to teach emotional intelligence to people of all ages.

On February 6 and 7, we will host the first event, entitled RULER Institute: Creating Emotionally Intelligent Schools with Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Director; Dena Simmons, Ed.D., Assistant Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; Yale trainers; and Willows teachers and administrators. Participants will learn about the RULER approach and anchor tools and become equipped to with the foundational skills to bring RULER to their schools or districts.  A highlight of the training is the opportunity to tour our classrooms to see RULER in action throughout The Willows.

This is the second RULER training we have offered; our last training in May 2018 brought teachers and administrators from public, parochial, independent, and charter schools from West Coast schools in California, Oregon, and Washington State to The Willows with the goal of enhancing the emotional intelligence of students, teachers, staff, and families by integrating RULER principles and tools into the curriculum and cultural life of their schools.

Then, at week’s end, we are thrilled to be offering our very first RULER Implementation Conference for schools previously trained in RULER, also featuring Dr. Brackett and Dr. Simmons presenting alongside educators from The Willows. The conference will feature:

  • Keynote presentation from Dr. Brackett and Dr. Simmons
  • Breakout sessions led by members of our RULER team and art teachers on specific implementations of RULER
  • A panel led by Willows students and parents discussing their experiences with RULER

Some of the exciting topics that will covered within breakout sessions include:

  • Navigating Difficult Conversations
  • Integrating RULER into Secondary School Humanities
  • Project-based Learning and RULER
  • Supporting LGBTQ Students with RULER

The Willows is proud to be hosting both of these events in hopes of sharing with fellow educators what we’ve learned through implementing RULER at our school so far!