Pitch Fest, Wildwood Style


Final Draft LogoYou know, it’s kind of like Meet the Parents meets March of the Penguins.

I bet you figured my elevator pitch was a joke.

But here in LA, the creative work of adapting literature for the screen is no joke, it’s big business.

So the Literature to Film class here at Wildwood upper school is quite popular, and the work is real.

The dilemmas are authentic: the student writers and filmmakers are looking for creative partners whose style and sensibilities match well.

On the day I visit, writers Morgan V. and Brandon B. pitch their script based on Ray Bradbury’s science fiction tale, All Summer in a Day, to a jury of peers who will hear from five teams all hoping to have their script produced by the Digital Film students in arts teacher Laura Forsythe’s class.

Writers Mason A. and Clay K. make their pitch to student filmmakers

Writers Mason A. and Clay K. make their pitch to student filmmakers

The filmmakers have a lot of questions about the Bradbury script. Some seem dubious about taking on an adaptation set on the planet Venus. Morgan touts the script’s inherent relatability to viewers. “It’s set in a school, with teenage characters from Earth,” and he adds, “with teenage issues.” The story’s main character, Morgan describes, “faces an internal conflict about getting revenge on peers that have tormented her.” The filmmakers now see the possibilities.

The scripts are a culminating project for Emma Katznelson and Melinda Tsapatsaris’s students, who have been working for several weeks to adapt favorite short stories and books.  For Laura’s film students, the process and project will be a genuine test of their skills and creativity as they connect their own visions with the screenwriters’ creating finished products that will  “premiere” just before Spring Break.

Everett D. (center) and other filmmakers assess their peers' pitches

James D. (center-right) and other filmmakers assess their peers’ pitches

Kaiya K., Georgia P., and Quinn M. pitch their script—an adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman first published in 1892. “Would you be open to a more contemporary setting?” one of the filmmakers asks.  “I think we’re ok with it,” Kaiya responds, “as long as it stays true to the story.”

The filmmakers take in the other pitches, each posing its unique challenges and opportunities.  Mason A. and Clay K. describe their adaptation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the eponymous short story in a 1982 collection by Raymond Carver, which is dialogue-heavy. “What kind of action do you imagine?” they’re asked. Mason relays their vision of lots of flashbacks and voice-overs, and the filmmakers nod their assent.

xxx, Sarah Bales, xxx, and Benji (l to r) make the case for their script

Lucy A., Sarah B., Sophie L., and Benny L. (l to r) make the case for their script

Other offerings range from the lighthearted, like Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, to dark comedy, with David Benioff’s City of Thieves. Across the genres, this collaborative learning experience is realistic— mirroring the real work and meaningful learning that students will do in college and beyond.

This type of story to screen project prompts students to develop some specific skills in the Habits of Mind: Perspective, which the writers develop through their adaptations and Connection, as the filmmakers seek to merge the writers’ visions with their own, to create something new, and ideally fresh.

Which brings us back to my idea about Meet the Parents.

JK. I don’t have a screenplay….


~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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GRIT: It’s About Relationships

Grit from NYTimes

As the conversation continues among educators about “grit”, that determiner of long-term success for students, I believe we should be hearing more about the role of relationships.

My years in the classroom as a teacher and advisor have made it clear to me that while the perseverance we call grit may be innate or instinctive for some, it can also be learned, cultivated and instilled – with help from caring adults.

Why grit matters is clear: the ability to envision and attain goals and long term achievement can keep a student on course during a dry spell, a downturn, or even a series of disappointments.  Adults as advisors can help build grit by documenting progress and incremental successes along the way.  Those positives are critical in creating grit as a habit.  The data shows that success is not mostly or only about talent, its correlation with grit is very high. But you need to get there.

Student-advisor relationships are most valuable when the goals are not just about the semester ahead, but take in a broader, big picture scope. Mapping ultimate destinations – in college, career, and life – with consistent guidance from caring adults over a long period of time matters. Kids are not always ready to take the long view, but adults can show them how many short views add up to a long view, and a picture of greater success.

I’m also interested in how thinking about thinking fits in.  Helping students develop what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset is another key determiner. In other words, a student’s capacity to see herself as capable of learning ever greater amounts of information and applying new thinking tools influences outcomes.  Advisors remind students of their status as growers – the advantage is with young students in re-setting the brain’s capacity to integrate new data and habits.

Unpacking the conversation about grit is helping to inform our work at Wildwood around how we structure our advisory programs. Grit, like advisory, is essential to students success – both in school and life.  Find out more about how advisory programs can help students develop grit; click to learn more about workshops offered through The Wildwood Outreach Center – Advisory Is Essential 101 and Advisory is Essential 201.

~ Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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Through Visitors’ Eyes

Scaling project example from 6th grade pre-algebra

Scaling project example from 6th grade pre-algebra

Every year we get dozens of requests from educators from far and wide, wanting to come see Wildwood’s teachers and students in action. As Wildwood’s Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning, it’s part of my job to help them find the inspiration they are looking for at Wildwood, and take home a few things to think about.

This past week I had the opportunity to play host to two sets of LA-area visitors. Jeff Mercer and Deborah Dowling came from Chadwick School on the Palos Verde Peninsula to check out Wildwood’s Middle School. Jeff is Chadwick’s Middle School Director and Deborah is the Assistant Head of Academic Affairs.

On another visit, Linda Nakagawa and Kim Hayashi came seeking our best practices and split their time between both Wildwood campuses. Linda is an educator in the Rowland Unified School District east of Downtown LA and Kim is an adjunct professor in the education department at Chapman University in Orange County.

Here are some highlights of what our visitors saw in Wildwood classrooms. They speak clearly to Wildwood’s strengths: academic inquiry, project-based learning, collaboration, and technology implementation.

Elementary campus—

  • Fixing Broken Systems. Monique Marshall’s 2nd grade students host their buddies from Central High School, a continuation high school located in the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Project in Culver City. Together, they look at how citizens can build consensus on how to fix the systems in our society that don’t work equitably for everyone.
  • Mathematical Calculations, with a Holiday Twist. Fourth graders in Claudia Hatter’s class take a math challenge: Calculate the total cost of all of the gifts “my true love gave to me” from the song The 12 Days of Festivus, an updated version of the holiday classic.
  • Alphabetic Geography. Jan Stalling’s 5th graders show off their knowledge: Each student comes up with world geographic features and locations based on the last letter of the one that came before it. For example, Jan says “Hong Kong,” and Leslie follows up with “Grand Canyon.”
  • Celebrating Family Systems. Whale Pod head teacher Alli Newell shows off an elaborate systems map that her students created— demonstrating that, although students’ families may celebrate different holidays, there are commonalities that connect them all.

Middle and upper campus—

More models-- scaled up

More models– scaled up

  • Academic Ambassador. Sixth grader Jude M., notices our visitors in the gallery space looking at Arlën Vidal-Castro’s students’ pre-algebra scaling projects. She shows off various examples and explains the math required to complete the project, in which students take a regular household object and either scale it up to create a lager representation, or scale it down to produce a miniature version.
  • Scientists at Work. We stop in to Deborah Orlik’s 7th grade life sciences class to see her students working on laptops. Turns out the students are working with virtual ladybugs, breeding successive generations of the online critters to find out what factors determine the number of spots each ladybug will inherit from its parents.
  • Graph It. Our visitors walk into Cameron Yuen-Shore’s 8th grade algebra class to find students hard at work with another tech tool: A free, online graphing calculator called Desmos. Their assignment is to choose a photograph of a famous building, like the Empire State Building or Big Ben, and plot out a line graph of it on Desmos—showing the algebraic rules that make the graph possible.
  • Film It. Seventh and 8th graders in Megen O’Keefe and Alex Cussen’s Humanities class are in the midst of staging and filming various scenes from their all-class read, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Alex will edit each group’s scene together to create a film that the whole class will watch—further enhancing each students’ knowledge of the novel’s themes, plot, and characters.

Our visitors’ takeaways: “The students here are very self-directed,” Jeff Mercer said, “They sought out the instruction they needed from their teachers and then went ahead and did their work.” Our other visitors echoed this sense of purpose: Wildwood students are consistently engaged in their work.

Student engagement—driven by relevant and interesting content delivered by Wildwood teachers—is central to Wildwood’s program. It spurs our students’ learning and excitement, and will continue to draw visitors to our classrooms—from here in LA and around the world—to see what works in education.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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They Make A Village

4th grade Chumash coastal scene

4th grade Chumash coastal scene

Dropping in on Will Schaer’s 4th grade class these days, you’ll find students hard at work on their latest California history project. Groups of four to five students are scattered throughout the room—some are working with clay and straw, others with paint and sand. Their collective task: construct a scale-model scene of an indigenous Chumash coastal village.

Will's students work on their scene

Will’s students work on their scene

By design, the Wildwood Life Skills are embedded in the work. Each group needs to reach consensus on their design, materials, and presentation. “It’s a very collaborative process,” Will tells me, “Each group gets a foam core base and an assignment to design and construct one of four scenes.” “When they’re all done,” Will adds, “we’ll put them together to form our own Chumash village.”

A survey of the works in progress shows a range of approaches. One group is building miniature ops, the typical round Chumash-style dwelling—using sticks, clay and straw. Another group is carefully creating a coastal scene, smearing blue and yellow clay on their foam core to represent the sea and sand, respectively.

Will's students show off their work

Will’s students show off their work

A group in the corner, tasked with illustrating a variety of Chumash children’s games, has a couple of ideas in the works. One intriguing example is explained by 4th grader Eli M.: “It’s called ‘kill the bunny,'” he shares. Turns out, the name is much more harrowing than the actual game. “It was the Chumash version of bowling,” he reveals. “They rolled a rock to knock down wooden ‘bunnies.'” His group mates show me their plans to depict other games—a Chumash version of kickball and ‘hoop and pole,’ a target game.

At a round table in another corner, a group of five students have filled their foam core base with pencil sketches, and they are considering various printed and illustrated handouts. Fourth grader, Ella K., talks her group through some ideas on how to build a key element of their scene—a ceremonial fire. “We can use the red clay for the flames,” she says, “and some pebbles to show the fire pit.” She shares with me some of the photos the group is using to guide their design, from a book the class read on the Chumash.

Will’s 4th graders will work a few more days before their scenes are assembled into the full Chumash village. Throughout the process, these students will continue to practice the Life Skills embedded in every successful collaboration with peers—flexibility, perseverance, and problem solving.  Expecting students to approach, analyze and innovate together is a way of making the content more meaningful and memorable. For Wildwood students, this collaborative way of working is introduced casually, learned and reinforced daily, and becomes a lifelong habit.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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Public School Change: One Advisory At A Time

The Wildwood Outreach Center continues shaping teacher practice and student learning in public high schools on both the East Coast and the West Coast.

Landmark High School in New York City and The Banning Academies of Creative and Innovative Sciences (BACIS) in Los Angeles both are consulting closely with the Wildwood Outreach Center for a second year to shape their advisory programs with a view toward student achievement.

Landmark High School—New York City

The Rustin Educational Complex in Chelsea-- Home to Landmark High School

The Rustin Educational Complex in Chelsea– Home to Landmark High School

A third visit to Landmark in November focused on measuring the positive changes to the school’s advisory program—in both student and teacher attitudes about advisory, and plans for ensuring future student success.

During an initial visit to Landmark in April, it was clear that students at this small, urban public high school benefit from a highly engaged and reform-minded teacher corps. The spirited and thoughtful debate here about how to best serve student is invigorating. Even more impressive: in a very challenging environment, these teachers are not only engaged, but positive, and very optimistic about the opportunities for their students. It would be impossible not to be inspired by this group.

Student art abounds at Landmark

Student art abounds at Landmark

The Outreach Center’s work with the full faculty began with re-focusing a new set of goals for the school’s advisory program. After fifteen years, the leadership team paused to assess, and assign tasks and plan for strengthening the existing program. Landmark High uses Wildwood’s Advisory Toolkit and shares Wildwood’s fundamental belief in the value of helping students foster relationships with influential adults and keeping advisory central to their school’s educational mission.

Landmark HS ClassroomWe began our work together by mapping a plan for the school’s re-envisioned advisory, and in a return trip in August, put the plan into action—working with the full faculty to help them develop their own advising skills, as well as provide tips on leading advisory sessions. As we wrapped up our engagement in early November— the work focused on collaborating with the faculty to assess their program’s success and solidify plans to keep the program strong and serving the needs of Landmark students. Particular areas of growth were identified—greater consistency of the program from advisory to advisory, as well as deepening students’ familiarity with their peers—while several faculty member will be working on making the advisory curriculum and activities more relevant to students’ lives.

A thoughtful approach to moving forward, the Wildwood way.

The Banning Academies of Creative and Innovative Scieces (BACIS)—Wilmington, Calif.

BACIS's home campus: Banning HS in Wilmington, Calif.

BACIS’s home campus: Banning HS in Wilmington (from The Daily Breeze)

BACIS is a new Los Angeles Unified Small Learning Community school on the Wilmington campus of Banning High School near the Port of LA.  The school is dedicated to graduating students with specialized preparation for college and careers in engineering, manufacturing, digital arts, and computer science.

Science teacher Adam Paskowitz, who heads the BASICS design team, attended an advisory program workshop at Wildwood several years ago. His strong impressions prompted him to reach out to Wildwood when it came time to design BACIS because he understood that a strong advisory program needed to be at core of the new school’s mission.

The Wildwood Outreach Center began working with the BACIS design team last spring, and continued through the summer until the program was launched this fall.

Early on we were listening to what the faculty wanted for their students, helping them design a site specific program that, like Wildwood’s, puts a strong emphasis on the development of real relationships between students and with an advisor .

After listening to the BASICS staff over the course of several meetings, the Outreach Center designed the structure for the weekly schedule that accommodated what the design team wanted to accomplish through their advisory program—personalizing students’ school experiences, building a strong home/school connection, academic preparedness and career readiness, and academic tenacity. The Outreach Center provided curriculum to get the program up and running and teacher training in some essential teaching techniques with which most Wildwood middle and upper schools students would be familiar—chalk talk, four corners, and fishbowl.

Wildwood Outreach Director Steve Barrett address the BACIS Community

Wildwood Outreach Director Steve Barrett address the BACIS Community

This fall, the school welcomed it’s first 9th grade class of over 200 students. Advisory is a central part of the program, and will build out over the next three years as the faculty adjusts the advisory offering to meet the evolving needs of their students in this urban school where most of the students receive access to free or reduced-cost lunch—a common indicator of low socio-economic status. What’s most important is that BACIS students benefit from having determined, enthusiastic teachers who are dedicated to preparing them for college and careers that our new century will offer.

In August, the design team asked Wildwood Outreach Center Director, Steve Barrett, to address over 400 parents and students at BACIS’s orientation night, highlighting the new advisory program’s benefit to students and their learning, and how to use and get the most out of it.

Our work continues with BACIS as we provide program support, observing advisories and giving feedback to teachers on their practice, along with designing curriculum to meet their needs as their program grows.

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No easy answers. And that’s okay.

Quick! How many triangles can you find in the following diagram?


Look daunting?  Maybe—but I’ll give you the solution to this one.  There are 35 triangles in this pentagon. Upper school math teacher Alton Price recently offered this puzzle as part of a weekly school-wide math challenge, open to all, and posted on walls around the middle and upper campus.

This week, Alton’s math challenge will be more formidable:

How many triangles can you find in this one?

IMG_2875Before posting this more problematic polygon for the weekly math challenge, Alton posed it as a dilemma to students to grapple with in his elective math class, Introduction to Problem Solving and Probability.  There’s no easy answer to this one (believe me)—and that’s ok.

In fact, that’s the point. Alton’s class is designed to challenge students’ minds.

“We start off every class with a problem,” he tells me. What’s different from a traditional math class is that Alton doesn’t feed students formulas or algorithms—tricks to help them solve. Rather, students tackle the problems—sometimes successfully, and sometimes not—through reason, trial, and error. And they often discover and construct the formula themselves.

What I witnessed in a visit to his class is a problem-solving process that’s rigorous and collaborative.

Noah G. offers a possible solution as Alton looks on

Noah G. offers a possible solution as Alton looks on

Eleventh grader, Noah G., jumps in—walking up to the diagram, projected on the classroom screen. “If we can count all of the points,” he says, “then we can figure out the triangles. There are only so many ways you can connect three lines to make a triangle.”

Tenth grader, Gabe F., looks at the diagram and notices its symmetry. “The shapes on the right are just reflections of the shapes on the left, and vice versa,” he says.  “Let’s count the triangles on the right side and just double them…. That will give us the number.”

Alton adds his thoughts, guiding the discussion: “I see polygons… lots of polygons.  Maybe there are patterns we can identify? It could be easier than we think.”

Alton's students consider the problem from a variety of perspectives

Alton’s students consider the problem from a variety of perspectives

It turns out that Alton’s attempts at problem-solving are authentic. He doesn’t have a solution to the puzzle either—a vulnerable position for some teachers but one that Alton eagerly takes on here in the spirit of learning. This polygon was offered up from a teaching colleague, music teacher Hagai Izraeli, who was inspired by last week’s math challenge and drew up this one himself. He’s been seeking his own solutions for a week. “I told him we’d give it a try,” Alton tells me. “I want to figure this one out as much as the kids.”

I get hooked on finding a solution, too, and find myself trying to sketch ideas on my copy.

Ninth grader Nora B. takes a different approach. She heads out of the room with a copy of the polygon and returns a few minutes later with several more copies.  She sits down, takes out a scissors, and cuts out as many different-shaped triangles as she can. Gabe notices and admires the approach: “Nora, that is really smart.”

Nora B. works through her geometric solution to the problem

Nora B. works through her geometric solution to the problem

After more than a half-hour of grappling, the kids are getting a better sense of the problem but…not the solution.  Alton okays a math-related break. Gabe, fellow 10th grader, John B., and a few others play a quick game of chess to clear their minds.

So what are these kids learning without finding a solution? “For one,” Alton shares, “they’re able to employ their reasoning skills and apply the knowledge they’ve already gained to a new situation.” What’s more, they’re internalizing that many of life’s challenges—math related or not—don’t always have easy answers.

They’re also learning that getting there is sometimes half the fun.

After the others have moved on to other work, I check back in with Nora—still cutting out and arranging triangles—to see how her work is going.  “It’s complicated… very complicated,” she says, and I sense her frustration when she adds, “and not very fun.”

I ask her, “So why keep at it?”  She turns her head and smiles, belying her true feelings: “Ok… it’s a little fun.” She goes back to her work, confident that she can figure out a solution.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, Learning

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Lean In… To The Whole Process

Classroom NormsWhen I walked into the visual arts room at the elementary campus and heard the sounds of hammering and drilling accompanied by the smell of glue and sawdust, I knew that whatever the project is, some of the Life Skills would be at play, too: Patience. Problem Solving. Cooperation. Organizing.

These Wildwood 3rd graders are learning to weave. What? Hammers? Yes. They’re starting by building their own looms.  The idea was kid-generated; often the best projects begin that way. Keep reading.

Day One: Building

Cut wood for the looms

Pre-cut wood for the looms

Kids learn basic woodworking skills to assemble their looms, on which they’ll later learn and practice weaving. Each student begins with four pieces of pre-cut wood, laying them together to make a 16” x 14” frame. Two adult helpers—Jeff, a parent, and Tanya, a substitute teacher—drill holes in each frame’s corners. Visual arts teacher, Kendra Elstad, explains to me that “while the kids don’t operate the drill, we do want them to hold it, to know what it feels like.” To secure the frame, students glue and place small wooden dowels in each hole, hammering the dowels into place.

Clara M. sands her loom

Clara M. sands her loom

I ask 3rd grader, Clara M., if the assembly work is difficult. She gives me a thoughtful, 8 year-old perspective: “This isn’t hard.  I go camping. Putting up a tent and living in the woods…. That’s hard.”

The Inspiration: Two Teachers ‘Lean In’

Kusum Nairi, Kendra’s co-teacher, has taught Wildwood 3rd graders to weave for several years now—always on simple, recyclable cardboard looms. But this year when kids asked, she and co-teacher Kendra were inspired to teach their students to build and use their own, long-lasting wooden looms. The catch: it would require Kusum and Kendra to teach basic woodworking skills, something that they would need to learn themselves before teaching the kids.

Teacher Tonya does the drilling for students

Teacher Tonya does the drilling for students

Kusum tells me how it began: “Kendra and I were generating a set of classroom guidelines early in the year with one of our classes. One student’s suggested guideline was ‘lean in to the discomfort of a material’  (see photo above). This prompted another student to ask why we don’t do woodworking in visual arts.” Kendra and Kusum pondered this too. Kendra’s focus area is painting and Kusum’s is sculpture. Neither is a woodworker. Inspired, they sought models to introduce the craft to Wildwood students. Both attended a woodworking workshop at the recent Progressive Education Network Conference here in L.A. That experience pushed Kendra further: She looked up plans for simple looms online. They got the necessary materials. The facilities crew (Beto, Claudio, and Joaquin) prepped the wood, and Kendra and Kusum rolled out the project this week.

Day Two: Warping

Warping the loom

Warping the loom

“It’s harder than it looks,” I overhear one 3rd grader say to another. “You have to go over and under in a pattern. See? Like this.” I watch and listen as students get the hang of warping—taking several feet of yarn and setting it lengthwise across the loom. As students’ confidence grows, the room begins to echo with their voices as they repeat the warping pattern like a mantra: “Over. Under. Over. Under….”

Ready for weaving

Ready for weaving

“This step is essential for their weaving tomorrow,” Kusum tells me. “It also taps into some of the skills that kids this age are perfecting.” I look closely and notice that the work requires these 3rd graders to use their fine motor skills—and a level of concentration that their younger peers in the Pods might not be able to muster.  They also have to recognize and re-create the warping pattern—tapping their visual and spatial skills. I’m beginning to realize that—by design—there’s more to this project than meets the eye.

Day Three: Weaving

Weaving with a shed stick

Weaving with a shed stick

“Think about a landscape here in Los Angeles to inspire you—the city, the ocean, even something from your neighborhood,” Kendra tells the students.  “What are some colors you think of?”  “When I’m at the beach, I see yellow and blue,” a boy says. “Excellent! You can pick out those colors of yarn for your weaving,” Kendra encourages.

Leily K. shows off her weaving

Leily K. shows off her work

The excitement peaks soon after as the dozen or so 3rd graders gather around Kusum’s weaving demonstration. She shares the essential skills: establishing a pattern, changing yarn colors, and using something called a shed stick to ease the process. Afterward, the students eagerly take to their looms, joyfully diving into their work—combining their newly developed motor and spatial skills with symbolic thinking, crafting their visions of local landscapes in woven yarn.

The Takeaway

Words most often heard? “This is so totally awesome!”  I hear that sentiment over and over as I wander the room when I drop in each of the three days. In fact, I hear that quite often at Wildwood at all grade levels; it’s an authentic expression of wonder and insight that tells our teachers that their students are on the right track—for learning and engagement with the subject.

This week these students took on three new skills and prompted their teachers to stretch, too. Together they practiced Life Skills through a learning process that asked them to confront discomfort, see a project through from start to finish, and add skills they didn’t know they were capable of. Awesome, indeed, and a clear example of Wildwood’s commitment to both the content and process of meaningful learning.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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