Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Visit to The Children's School: a Day in the Life of Progressive Elementary Education

On an a beautiful day in late October I was lucky enough to visit The Children's School in midtown Atlanta. My dear friend Melissa set up a great day including a visit with fourth grade, pre-K, pre-primary, the counselor, specials (music and PE), and a full tour of the whole school, its faculty, administration, and students.

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, there's nothing as valuable as visiting another school to discover new ideas and best practices as well as to reflect on my own school, philosophy, and practices.  In this post I'll only describe what I saw and thought about The Children's School, a PK-6 independent school serving approximately 400 joyful students. For the basics about the school, check out their website.

Observations about the Space

TCS makes the most of its space. This is an urban campus, so space is limited. But kids have many outdoor spaces to play.  It is clear, right away, that play is a critical part of the school's philosophy and the children's experience. There are several play structures, fields of varying sizes, small gardens, and picnic tables. While children have two scheduled recesses, they often go outside more frequently, either in their own campus or across the street at the amazing Piedmont Park.  They also regularly eat lunch outside.

The campus feels like a tiny village, with an enclave of houses clustered together to form the academic space. "Homey" was the first word that came to me when I began touring the inside of the buildings. Classrooms are designed for kids--the rooms are filled with comfortable furniture and accessories, crafting and tinkering materials, books, hands-on manipulatives, and student work.

And there are no traditional desks--a clear sign of the school's identity as progressive and student-centered.  In one classroom, 4th grade teacher Jocelyn showed me the chairs her students made for Maker Faire that then became their classroom chairs; students designed and built their chairs based on their learning styles and interests. This is a perfect combination of play, passion, and purpose. 

Even the adults have their needs met--at TCS I saw 3 standing desks and IdeaPaint on many walls.  Comfort allows for passions and productivity to thrive.

Observations about the Culture

Children here are expected to live the school's core values. From the youngest students on up, children learn to sort out their differences, celebrate their acts of kindness, empathize with others, and respect one another's differences.  Everyone at TCS goes by their first names; children cheerfully greet their teachers by name and often with a hug. Hugging, I learned, is a TCS tradition.  I happily received several throughout my visit.  Other traditions highlight the social curriculum, such as the use of the heart pillow to sort out differences, pom poms to fill small buckets when they've done a "baboomba" (something that makes their heart feel good--they've done something nice for someone else), and a common understanding of their Building Character and Community values.

Kids are engaged in interesting and practical learning in a trusting and warm community.  From organic gardening to circuitry to rock-wall climbing to writing personal narratives, kids were engaged and challenged in ways that match the school's mission.

 I'm so glad I had the chance to spend time at TCS and see how their mission, to enrich minds and inspire dreams, comes to life.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Reading

photo credit:

The beginning
Many years ago, when Three Cups of Tea was sweeping the world (in a good way at the time) I encouraged my school to try a whole-school summer read.  The opportunity to read one story at three different levels (Listen to the Wind for lower school, Three Cups of Tea Young Reader's Edition for middle school, and Three Cups of Tea for upper school) was so exciting.  We could unite around one topic, centralize our philanthropic efforts, and move away from the notion of summer reading as getting a jump start in the English curriculum.  It was wonderful to have a shared experience as a school, and I would consider that summer reading a success.

The journey
Over the years we have tried several iterations of the whole-school summer reading idea.  We have not had another opportunity to read the same story across three divisions, but we have read about common themes.  One year we selected one book for each division, which was also fairly successful in terms of providing a shared experience, albeit divisionally. 

But we worried about providing books that would be interesting and accessible to all students; the one book for all concept was outstanding for building community but not for building readers.  So we tweaked the model again, devoting the summer reading to one core value (honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility) and generating lists many books long for each division.  For two years we also included movies on the list.  Once we did that it was clear that the mission of summer reading, or summer learning as we then called it, was to serve as a spark for an ongoing thematic conversation throughout the year.

Those of us on the committee knew and understood these shifts.  We regrouped every year to select the theme, review our purpose, and read like crazy.  Unfortunately, few people beyond our small group had any idea what we were up to.  And it seems that the parents of our students were the most excluded in understanding. We have fielded many questions from about our book selections and about the assignment in general to signal that we need to have a wider, more substantive conversation this year.

Now what?
It is time to iterate again--and as my twitter handle (@bookcrusader) intimates, I'd like to bring the conversation back around to how our summer reading program can nurture and inspire readers.  It's time, in my opinion, to figure out how to help our younger kids celebrate the joy of reading and our older kids rediscover it. 

From looking back on this 7-year summer reading journey, I can tell that we've been floundering to ask the right questions, to really identify the problem, and to "think like freaks" about how to find the best solutions. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

8 New Things I Tried This Year

This year I returned to the upper school after two years away to teach one section of our revamped sophomore English curriculum. While I worried that teaching this class would pull me away from my work as an instructional coach (it did), the time I spent this year with my hilarious, challenging, endearing, and frustrating students supported my growth as a teacher/learner that has and will strengthen my work as a coach.  That's because this year I returned to the mindset I had as a first-year teacher waaaay back in 1995--the mindset of "why not."  As a coach I want to support teachers as they try new things and as they stretch themselves beyond self-imposed limits. So as a classroom teacher I "why-notted" my way through the new Brit Lit/America Lit mash up curriculum.

What follows is a list of some of what I tried. Some of the things on the list were enormous undertakings (the first two); others were a one-off. I'll provide a brief explanation of each, but really what I'm doing is making my list of future blog topics!

1.  Standards-based grading

I joined a growing group of FHS teachers using Active Grade as my gradebook tool. While the most frustrating thing about SBG is that we force it to end in one overall grade at the end of each quarter, the delightful thing is that students can see how they are progressing in specific aspects of the curriculum. There is so much more to say on this...

2.  Passion projects

I began the year with the idea that I wanted kids to improve their reading, writing, research, thinking, and presentation skills by exploring one of their own passions. So I created a 20% time concept that would run through every A day of the year (our school is on a 6-day cycle) and incorporate a range of learning opportunities all built around students' individual passions. Students wrote children 's books, created infographics, started a blog, read blogs, and reached out to experts in their fields of interests. We ran out of time before we got to the final project--Make Something/Do something--which I regret because it would have brought all of the other work together. 

3.  Literary analysis reality tv-style (confession cam assignment)

I'm pretty proud of this one since the idea was entirely mine, I think!  I wanted to approach literary analysis in a new way--one that would still require close, careful reading and rereading as well as a synthesis of that reading. So for our study of Arthur Miller's The Crucible I asked the students to select one character to become and get inside that character's mind throughout the play.  They had to choose four moments from the play, consider their character's reaction to/explanation of the event, and sit down on the couch to film a "confession" about it.  You can find the assignment here and the planning doc they used here.   A completed doc can be found here.  The students' footage was proof that they understood the characters in the play and could analyze it successfully.

4.  Personal visual representation and reflection project

We finished our year with a study of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta.  We were taken with V's personal icon (the red V) and wanted to find a way to help kids visualize their end-of-year reflection.  This was a short assignment that resulted in personal icons that were thoughtful and creative (also plenty that were sloppy and fairly shallow!).  Here's an example:

5.  Book trailers as an independent reading project

Book trailers are not new, but were new to my sophomores.  They were surprised to learn that publishers are creating book trailers as a way to market new books.  We watched several together and created a list of "ingredients" of book trailers before they created their own.  With the help of iMovie's trailer feature, some students produced high quality book trailers that revealed their understanding of the book and its core.  I found it to be an excellent way for kids to creatively synthesize the central issue of a book and entice others to read it.

6.  Database-only research project

Our school has invested an enormous amount of time and money in developing a large database collection for our students.  Unfortunately, most students do not know that we have these resources and/or they do not know how to use them. So, when we set out to conduct our research for our school's annual GatsbyFest, I required the students to use our online databases to research their chosen key court case of the 1920s.  The process was both distressing and fascinating for all of us as the students realized they were uncomfortable with anything but "googling it."  They appreciated the information that was available to them through the databases, but I don't think they are ready to abandon their Google addiction yet.

7.  An assortment of online tools:  Today's Meet, Animoto, Educanon, Socrative, Goodreads

These tools have all helped me differentiate my teaching and assessment, expand my communication with students, and encourage greater student engagement.  Give them each a try!

8.  100% transparency with my students about my teaching philosophy

I am grateful to the kids (Tamika, Christine, Justin, Mitch, Danny, Kory, Nick, Conner, Bryan, Maddie, Christina, Megan, Janie, Genna, and Lexy) for their willingness to engage in the year of "why not" with me. While some of them still ask questions that chip away at my spirit (How long, how many paragraphs, will this be a 4...), they have all had to think and work in ways that challenged them this year. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

People are not restaurants or water, Michelle Rhee

Bigstock photo                                                                      

In her editorial, "Opt out of standardized tests?  That's the wrong answer," Michelle Rhee tries to explain that angry parents and educators should not merely opt out of standardized testing but work to make the tests better.  She writes, "Opt out of measuring how well our schools are serving students?  What's next:  Shut down the county health department because we don't care whether restaurants are clean?  Defund the water-quality office because we don't want to know if what's streaming out of our kitchen faucets is safe to drink?"  Seriously?  Those are the best comparisons she can make?  Of course restaurants and water should be subjected to quality control standards and measures.  They are THINGS.  Students and teachers are PEOPLE who cannot be measured or assessed as easily as the chemical components of tap water. 

Rhee takes one step further in the dehumanization of standardized testing.  She tells the folks who are concerned about the stress and anxiety that students feel because of the testing to simply get over it.  "You know what?" she writes, "Life can be stressful; it can be challenging.  The alternative is to hand out trophies just for participating, give out straight A's for fear of damaging a kid's ego--and continue to fall further and further behind as a country."  Enough, Michelle Rhee.  Children and adolescents are supposed to be falling in love with learning, to be exploring their passions, to be uncovering their greatest strengths.  School does not need to be a competition or a training ground for real life. 

Thankfully, the Washington Post had the good sense to balance Rhee's article with one from Alfie Kohn, "Sometimes it's better to quit than to prove your grit." 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Importance of Play(ing) the snow

We get one or two good snows around here a year, if we are lucky.  By good snow, I mean enough to play in but not so much that children can't maneuver in it.  A few inches of fluffy, glorious snow that draws kids outside into temperatures they would otherwise not choose to play in. 

In the two days that we've been out of school, my daughters have spent at least five hours (thus far) out in the bitter cold.  When they come in their cheeks are red, their noses are running, and their eyes are shining.  For some of those hours, my husband and I have joined them.  We have gone sledding, played on two snow-covered playgrounds, and tried (without success with this powdery stuff) to build a snowman. 

Hooray for snow and all the fun it brings.  Hooray for the extra playtime it brings our way.

Until tomorrow, when they go back to school and can't go near it.  When recess time rolls around the kids will have indoor play, either in their classrooms or in the gym.  I'm not sure why.  But I know they aren't supposed to get near the snow.

After the last snow, a friend in Pennsylvania emailed around a copy of a letter her son's teacher sent home.  It asked parents to send in snow pants and boots so the children, third graders, could enjoy the snow during recess.  Right on.

We all know about the importance of play--especially physical play.  So what if the kids get wet.  So what if the floors get wet.  Their shouts of joy, their enthusiasm, their complete immersion in fun, are worth it.