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:
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.
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.
Our Library/Media Center is the heart and hub of our campus, the soul of our school, and a center for collaborative and cross-disciplinary learning. At The Willows, “learning commons” are not limited to our library space but encompass many areas on campus and together create a vibrant 21st century environment that encourages creativity and meaningful social exchange. The importance of common space in primary, secondary, and higher education is gaining attention and changing the landscape of schools.
Last week, I presented with Dwight Long, Principal, and Kami Kincaid, Senior Project Manager, Pfau-Long Architecture and Elizabeth DuPuis, Associate University Librarian for Educational Initiatives & User Services Director of Doe, Moffitt, and the Subject Specialty Libraries, UC Berkeley at the 2016 California Association of Independent School (CAIS) Trustee/Head of School Conference in San Francisco on “The Evolution of the Traditional Library into Learning Commons.”
Elizabeth and I were aligned philosophically on the need for learning commons for elementary, middle, and college students with comfortable, flexible spaces to learn and collaborate as a group and study individually. Like Berkeley, our own Director of Library Services, Cathy Leverkus, has been very forward thinking, envisioning our library as a communal space, adaptable and ready to offer differentiated learning and new configurations that best meet our students’ needs in our constantly changing world.
Collaboration Builds a School Culture and Community
Our Learning Commons facilitates many different types of collaboration:
Student to Student
Student to teacher
Teacher to teacher
It also allows a constant dialogue between lower and middle school teachers and teachers from different disciplines and specialties. Our campus environment is dynamic and generates an exceptionally joyful community of learners.
We share, question, and grow together. Our learning commons enhances this collaboration, which is a hallmark of The Willows educational approach, and is instrumental in shaping the soul and culture of our school.
Intellectually and Architecturally Open
“The ideal school is designed to reflect an educational process that is nonlinear and encourages personal expression,” writes Eric Lloyd Wright, the Architect.
Our open and spacious environment inspires listening and learning on all sides. The campus is alive with endless possibilities in a climate of accessibility, creativity and companionship. The space is almost museum-like with high walls and skylights. The light and air are conducive to learning.
Hallways and common areas also serve as extensions of learning as art galleries and areas to display student work. Learning and sharing continues in this way as students are immersed in The Willows creative environment that values student work and provides students with daily proof of their own ability to impact the world with their own ideas and perspective. Teachers and students both see the projects and the work going on around them–there is great sharing and symbiosis.
Maximize Space – Optimize Learning
The learning commons configuration extends the classroom allowing for small group work and large project creation. The learning commons offers additional area to create a project too large for a classroom; teachers don’t limit their ideas knowing they may expand a concept into a commons area. An example is the Kindergarten Maker replica of the Mayflower complete with wind machine, which would be impossible in a classroom, but is an exciting learning experience in the Willows 1 common space. All our spaces are intentionally flexible offering a myriad of learning experiences and cross-disciplinary and multi-age opportunities. In our learning commons, our middle school students often buddy with our youngest students assisting in hands-on projects that are the very heart of our DK-8 model, building empathy and offering leadership opportunities.
Educational leader John Dewey wrote, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” The Willows mission statement says that “each child brings our community an extraordinary gift: a curious mind, ready to explore and eager to learn.” Our mission is to grow that gift and to give them every opportunity to engage with each other and the ever-changing modern world around them.
What better way to do this than on an open, expansive learning commons and campus?
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)
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.
With 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.
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!
Ultimately, 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!
Technology has changed our world and our lives. The benefits are endless. It even assists with revolutions and, of course, in any crisis. Just witness the recent terrorist attacks in Paris where Parisians launched the hashtag on Twitter, #PorteOuvert (DoorOpen) to offer shelter to those in need, who could simply follow the tweets on their cell phones to find refuge. Smart phones, laptops, iPads, all these devices and the always present, turned-on, mobile connectivity unite us and isolate us presenting social challenges–especially for our younger children, who are growing up with the ever-present, ever-tempting cellphone connection.
Informate, a mobile measurement firm, in March 2015 reported that during January 2015, Americans spent 4.9 hours per day on their smartphones and sent an average of 32 texts per day. Teens are thought to spend more than the average time. The 2015 Pew Research Center Study said that, “89 percent of cellphone owners said they had used their phones during the last social gathering they attended.”
In a recent New York Times article entitled Stop Googling, Let’s Talk by Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,writes, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk? . . . Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.”
Turkle continues with the idea that this disconnection is an assault on empathy, intimacy, and deep conversations, as well as solitude.
Ann Levit, a Willows parent, asked her daughter, Joby Levit, a current eighth grade student, to read Ms. Turkle’s article and write down her reflections regarding it. Joby wrote this thoughtful essay in response:
The report “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” written by Sherry Turkle is about how my generation of pre-teens, teenagers, and even some adults’ social skills are stifled by electronics and social media. I wish I could disagree with that and say it’s not true, but I have to be honest with myself: this writer is 100% correct. I try to tell myself that I shouldn’t be on my phone, but now it’s just a bad habit, like biting your nails or forgetting to brush your teeth.
In this article, Sherry Turkle talks about the technicalities, logic, and science behind the reason people use their phones while at, for instance, the dinner table. Look, I’m only thirteen, and science has never been my best subject, but the parts of this paper I was able to understand are completely true. The writer mentions that we use our phones at a table full of friends because we’re so obsessed with our mobile devices that we can’t help but check them all the time. That may be true for grown-ups and college students, which was the age group this article focused on, but I know that for me, it’s a bit different. I, personally, am a bit an awkward person. I tried to avoid admitting that, but I think my friends and family can all agree that that’s true. When there are gaps in a conversation, the easiest thing to do to avoid awkwardness is to take out my phone and show my friend(s) something funny on it to create conversation. And I know as I’m writing this that my mom will probably get mad at me when I read that fact to her, but I’m sorry, it’s true! Like Rebel Wilson said in Pitch Perfect, “I guess I’m not really living if I’m not 100% honest.” J
All right, enough about the article. My essay, my opinion! To the people my mother might send this to, my mother, if you may not know, is the biggest phone police ever. I mean I had to write a persuasive essay to get a Snapchat. And I know she’s just looking out for me, but we can all admit she’s a bit crazy when it comes to this stuff. In the middle of sixth grade, my mom gave me the privilege of creating an Instagram account for myself. If I was on it in the morning, she got mad. If I was on it in the car, she got mad. If I was on it after school, she was totally fine with it! Just kidding, you can guess how she felt about it. After a few years with social media, having recently added Snapchat and Pinterest to my phone, I get her point. She was trying to prevent me from becoming one of the people my generation has become. It’s time to face the facts: we are addicted to our phones. You might not think it’s bad, but trust me, you’re going to grow up and then get to high school and college not knowing how to verbally/physically connect to people. My mom thinks I have it bad, but I know people who have it a lot worse.
So get ready, parents. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but try shutting off all screens at 9:00 tonight. All you really need it for is your alarm in the morning. And what is that alarm set for? Certainly not to check your Instagram feed. That loud, annoying beeping sound that wakes you up in the morning is there to get you up for school, where you can get an education you can’t learn from Facebook or Twitter. Trust me, it’s going to be hard, but I promise you, you can live and thrive without your phone. Unplug! And don’t hesitate to tell your community about it too! We can all join in to help create a better tomorrow.
Some great insights for all of us! What is the answer to all of this connectivity? BALANCE and CONVERSATION. Balance is a word you hear often around The Willows. We are a balanced, progressive school. Tradition is balanced with innovation. Academics, the arts, athletics, and social emotional development are balanced in our educational program.
Conversation is also extremely important and valued at The Willows, and is also at the very heart of technology and collaboration. Questioning, deep critical thinking, and creative inquiry, and sharing this as a group, is accentuated in all our classrooms. Walk through our hallways and glance in any classroom and you will see that conversation is thriving and technology is integrated effectively and appropriately.
The balance of technology and personal interaction is a key to the issue of connectivity. As our eighth grade student Joby so beautifully put it: Unplug! And don’t hesitate to tell your community about it too! We can all join in to help create a better tomorrow.
Personalized learning is all the rage these days. Scan the latest headlines of major publications covering education, and you’ll inevitably come across lots of talk about classrooms where instruction is “individualized,” “student-centered,” and “customized.” So-called reformers from the ed-tech community especially favor this language, touting the latest software they’ve created to expertly deliver a curriculum to a passive learner in front of a computer or tablet.
In theory, no one should be against personalization. But if you believe, as many educators have for quite some time now, that learning almost always occurs in a social context, then some of this talk of creating an individualized curriculum for each child might give you pause. If one of our central aims in schools is to build vibrant communities devoted to learning, then we need to think about how individuals usually learn within communities.
In his landmark book, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith maintains that for millennia humans have learned from “the company we keep.” We are driven instinctively to seek out what he terms clubs – communities of influential people – and as we identify with the members of the club, we begin to establish our own sense of identity:
…as we identify with other members of all the clubs to which we belong, so we learn to be like those other members. We become like the company we keep, exhibiting this identity in the way we talk, dress, and ornament ourselves, and in many other ways. The identification creates the possibility of learning. All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.
While there are undoubtedly times when individuals learn something on their own – for example, reading a book on a topic, perhaps to understand some new concept or to complete a task or a project – Smith insists that even in this case, one is joining the “literacy club,” joining the company of authors, participating in an exchange of ideas towards the ultimate fulfillment of one’s intended goal.
Learning within your club
So, along this line of thinking, we are constantly learning about our world, and there are a variety of clubs that we identify with that deeply influence this learning. Some clubs we are born into (i.e. the American club, the rural or urban neighborhood club,) and some that we are more naturally compelled to join (what Smith terms the “spoken language club” that all infants and toddlers join at some point.) The clubs that we choose to identify with not only influence learning, but actually create conditions for the kind of deep learning that we carry with us throughout our lives.
Looking at the clubs that our students at The Willows gravitate towards, I notice that there are, of course, certain common examples: some children identify with clubs centered around sports or games, others identify with art, music, or dance. By middle school, when the pressure to join one specific club or another seemingly intensifies, children begin signing up for clubs like Rock Band or the Robotics team.
One new, informal club that has emerged this year is our Maker Club. Since establishing our makerspaces within the school two years ago (spearheaded by our Director of Technology Amy Dugré) and beginning weekly maker classes during the school day last year, we have wrestled with how to give interested students more devoted time to work on self-directed projects. This year, we found four blocks of time, two lunch periods and two afterschool sessions, where students are invited to work alongside fellow makers and maker teachers, often learning new skills and developing deeper expertise with familiar tools and programs.
However, in addition to being interested in becoming a better programmer or learning how to print with (and often repair!) 3D printers, we have also noticed other worthwhile interactions amongst our Maker Club members. Kids are genuinely excited to have this time and space available, and are quite disappointed when we have to cancel Maker Club. One student’s excitement about their particular project has the real power to inspire others in the same room to try something new, leading to a scene we recently came upon, where four fifth grade boys were crowded around a Youtube video on how to use a sewing machine after seeing the pillow a sixth grade boy had recently finished assembling.
These observations align with some of the latest research on maker-centered learning, specifically research from a recent initiative associated with Harvard’s Project Zero. In a white paper reporting initial findings (that are being prepared for a forthcoming anthology called Makeology), the researchers found that “the most salient beliefs of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.” Young empowered makers, they argue, see themselves as people capable of finding and solving worthwhile problems, as individuals within a supportive community “who can muster the wherewithal to change things through making.”
Thinking broadly about identity and association, several questions persist:
Are we aware of what draws us to our clubs, to the company we keep?
Do we belong to different kinds of clubs, representing diverse or divergent points of view?
Are we aware of clubs (or better yet cultures) that are different than our own?
Is it possible to learn much about a club you are not a member of?
Further, given that all of us are compelled to join communities and learn alongside their members, what does this mean for us as educators? Exactly, how do these issues play out daily in classrooms?
For example, think of the students who have already decided by second or third grade that they are either deficient in reading or math (or both, or school in general); these students seek out classmates who feel the same and reinforce this desire to be a part of the “non-reader” or “math hater” club. What steps can teachers and school leaders take to deal with all-too-common phenomena like this?
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!