Posts Tagged elementary school

Systems, Systems, Everywhere!


Welcome To Our Museum

Welcome To Our Museum!

Question: Beyond “b”, what do bees, boats, and barns all have in common?

If you’re stumped, you might want to ask a Wildwood 2nd grader for help. She or he will tell you that all are key components of different systems—the pollinator, transportation, and farm systems respectively—and are integral to the world we inhabit.

2nd graders Jude S. (center right) and Hope H. (lower right) explain the transportation system

2nd graders in Sarah Simon’s class explain the transportation system

This past week, with assistance from 2nd grade docents, I joined the ranks of all Wildwood elementary students and teachers to learn more about the systems that surround us. The 2nd graders are able guides leading us through their inaugural systems ‘museum’— a collection of exhibits demonstrating student learning about the variety of systems at work in the natural and human world.

The Transportation SystemWe museum visitors walk through each of the three 2nd grade classrooms to interact with student presenters who talk us through various systems maps, explain 3D models, and answer our questions, and even delve even deeper—into an examination of our society’s broken and unfair systems. Our guides are good explainers, while continually reinforcing their own learning by teaching us what they’ve discovered.

The systems museum culminates a year’s learning guided by head teachers Stefanie Grutman, Monique Marshall, and Sarah Simon, along with associate teachers Jessica Collins and Molly Kirkpatrick.

A Coast Guard Boat, Part of the Transportation System

A Coast Guard boat, part of the transportation system

A visit to the students’ exhibits in each classroom is an excellent reminder that systems are our realities—our families and schools, our communities, even the plumbing in our homes all are systems which intersect and depend upon each other, all operating according to their own rules, yet integrated into broader systems.

Laurel H., Marco R., & Luna S. (l to r) present the pollinator system

Laurel H., Marco R., & Luna S. (l to r) present the pollinator system

We know our Wildwood graduates will pursue a huge range of professional and personal endeavors in the future, and developing a capacity for systems thinking at an early age will be of value to all. Minds trained to see the big picture, appreciate cause-and-effect and the inter-relationship of systems can map those understandings onto myriad experiences. Confronting systems that work, and don’t, is a lifelong challenge.

The smiles on 2nd graders’ faces and the thoughtful reflection on their work reminds me that systems thinking is also a lot of fun.

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

Leave a Comment

Prizing Children’s Voices in Literature, and About Literature: The Wildwood Medal

The Wildwood MedalJanuary is traditionally the big month for children’s literature, as the American Library Association awards the Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s literature—highlighting the best picture and chapter books for young readers.

At Wildwood,  June is the month to watch; that’s when we reveal the winner of The Wildwood Medal— our own children’s literature award chosen by Wildwood 5th graders.

This year’s nominees are:

Fifth graders interested in serving on the selection committee read each nominated book and take part in book group discussions with fellow students, as well as Wildwood faculty and staff.  Once they complete this process, they’re on the committee and attend weekly meetings during lunch and big yard time in March and April to discuss each book and its merits with a small group of their peers.

This year's nominees

This year’s nominees

The Wildwood medal is growing in recognition and makes it clear both on campus and throughout Southern California that at Wildwood, we value children’s literature and student voice very seriously.

“The committee discussions are really sophisticated,” says librarian Lorin Higashi. “The kids have a set of questions that they need to prepare to answer for each book.”  These include:  How did a character in the story solve a problem? What personality traits and Life Skills do you think allowed the character to reach this resolution? and Would you like to read something else by this author?  Why or why not?

“The students need to support all of their answers with evidence from the text,” fellow librarian, Jennifer DuBois, adds—an effective preparation for the rigors of learning at the middle and upper campus.

Jennifer and Lorin know the history and meaning of the award, now in its 16th year.

“Wildwood students knew about the Caldecott and Newberry Medals—both chosen by adults,” Jennifer says. “But they wanted to know why there wasn’t an award for children’s literature chosen by kids.” The elementary librarians at the time, Jeanne Avery and Bobbie Goeden, helped kids brainstorm and organize a process to evaluate and choose a book that resonated most with Wildwood students—and the Wildwood Medal was born.

Since 1999, choosing the Wildwood Medal has been a rite of passage for the oldest students at our elementary campus— allowing their voices to be heard and for them to leave their mark as they move on to middle school.

Each year five books are nominated. Every 5th grader reads at least one of the titles in a book group with Language Arts teacher Sandi Crozier. Ultimately, over half of the 5th graders opt in every year to serve on the selection committee.  Having deeply read each of the five nominated books, committee members take notes and thoughtfully analyzing each according to four criteria: Connection to the Life Skills, broad appeal, literary merit, and originality.

Wildwood Medal Winners: 1999 - 2013

Wildwood Medal Winners: 1999 – 2013

Ryder M., currently a 7th grader at Wildwood’s middle school reminisces on his experience as a Wildwood Medal committee member two years ago. “I remember first hearing about the Wildwood Medal when I was in 2nd grade,” Ryder says. By the time he got to 4th grade, Wildwood had instilled in him a strong passion for reading. “At that point there was never any doubt,” he says, “that I would be part of the committee that next year.”

The Wildwood Medal winner that year was Because of Mr. Terupt, by Rob Buyea. According to Ryder, the decision wasn’t easy. “The final meeting was intense,” he tells me. “All 35 of us were together and we had to reach consensus on the winner—it wasn’t easy. Because of Mr. Terupt was my top choice and I had to make a strong case to my classmates about why it should win.”

The Wildwood Medal committee chooses the winner in mid-spring and keeps its decision secret until the year’s final All School Meeting in June—no easy task.  “The committee members themselves make the announcement,” Jennifer relates. “They’re extremely proud of their choice and the work, and they want to share them with the entire school.”

Ryder recalls the excitement and pride in his committee’s announcement two years ago:  “I remember being on the stage and thinking—Wow! We did this. Our input really does matter.”

The Wildwood Prize process nurtures a love of reading, and critical analysis that grows with Wildwood students as they move to the middle and upper school campus.

Last year the Wildwood Medal went to Where The Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin, which students cited for its synthesis of wondrous storytelling and Chinese folklore with breathtaking illustrations.

This year’s Wildwood Medal will be awarded on Friday, June 6.

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

Leave a Comment

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

Leave a Comment

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

Leave a Comment

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

Comments (2)

All Systems Go

Systems ThinkersSarah Simon’s 2nd grade class is in the midst of reading Charlotte’s Web and talking about all of the things that go on in the barn at Zuckerman’s farm. Turns out, the story is very fertile ground for systems thinking. And it’s a perfect opportunity to see and hear why students are so invested in this exciting new way to learn.

Walking around the room, I see students seated at their table groups with 4 or 5 of their peers.  Each works on a large piece of poster paper— on them I see some drawings and cut-out photos but mostly I see that students’ posters are full of circled words, connected to others by lines, like ideas on a web diagram.

Marco R. shows off his systems map

Marco R. shows off his systems map

“This is my systems map,” Marco R. tells me, “It’s about the animal system on Zuckerman’s Farm in Charlotte’s Web.”  I look closer to see how Marco has identified the various animals in the book—geese, cows, cats—and how their roles on the farm are interrelated.

Sarah and Associate Teachers Jessica Collins and Molly Kirkpatrick gave kids their initial taste of systems thinking and systems maps on the first day of school. The teachers helped students identify all of the systems that make a classroom operate smoothly: the morning meeting system, the lining up system, the hand-raising system. “The kids learn to appreciate,” Sarah says, “how each system has its particular purpose and, working together, helps to make for a functional and efficient learning environment.”

Class systems in Sarah's Classroom

Class systems in Sarah’s Classroom

Since then, students in all three of Wildwood’s 2nd grade classes have been looking for systems everywhere.

Teacher Stefanie Grutman recently told me about an interesting request that her 2nd graders made: They wanted homework. “They’ve been so excited about finding systems,” Stefanie says, “that they all said they wanted to take the weekend to identify all the systems they notice outside of school.”  So her students eagerly brought their work home—uncovering all of the component parts and rules that govern the way our world and society work. Students identified plant systems, food systems, a sleep system, “even a system underlying the Hebrew alphabet,” Stefanie tells me.

I think about Stefanie’s students as I talk to more kids in Sarah’s class; I begin to understand better why systems thinking is so appealing to these 2nd graders.

Audrey S. and Laurel H. proudly share their systems maps

Audrey S. and Laurel H. proudly share their systems maps

“It’s fun to find connections,” says Laurel H. “Once you figure out one system, you find another one that connects to it,” she continues. “It never ends!”

I realize that systems thinking causes students to intently focus on the Life Skills of Curiosity and Organizing—through what educators would call divergent thinking.

A 2nd grader's home systems

A 2nd grader’s home systems

Divergent thinking is an essential component of creativity—finding relationships and connections between two seemingly disparate ideas can help train students to find novel solutions to complex problems. It also allows them to go deeper into any topic that they’re studying.

This really strikes a chord when I ask another student, Audrey S., why she likes making systems maps. “It lets you put together your own information book about a topic,” she says.

Systems maps in Stefanie's classroom

Systems maps in Stefanie’s classroom

Systems thinking validates the kinds of divergent thinking that kids naturally do as they seek to make sense of their world.

For Wildwood students, systems thinking reinforces these essential skills and provides foundational tools needed for navigating their increasingly complex worlds.

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

Leave a Comment


IMG_0905One of the rites of spring at Wildwood’s elementary campus is a real California adventure.

Each year, science teachers Christie Carter and Anna Boucher team up with Wildwood’s 4th grade teachers and give students a chance to make some authentic discoveries in the spirit of Gold Rush prospectors.

Panning for gold

Panning for gold

The goal: re-create that moment of discovery in California history when James. W. Marshall first struck gold at Sutter’s Mill, while reinforcing some of the essential principles of earth science that students study this year.

On the day of my visit, students from 4th grade teacher Colleen McGee’s class are searching for pay dirt: panning, sluicing, and looking through a magnifying scope as they try out different techniques to find gold in their own cup.

Sieving pay dirt

Examining sifted pay dirt

And this pay dirt is real. Wildwood 4th grade teacher Will Shaer has a passion for California history and started purchasing it for Wildwood several years ago from real miners up in California’s Gold Country, northeast of Sacramento.

“The trace amounts of gold in the dirt tested to a purity of 22 karats, which is pretty high,” Will tells me. Getting more California pay dirt from the miners has become more difficult, however, due to new and prohibitive dredging regulations. So, anything that the kids find today will be recycled back into the pay dirt, which will be re-used by future classes.

Science teacher Anna gives the students some brief demonstrations at each station, while her teaching partner Christie hands each student their own cup filled with the dirt. The kids work in small groups and try their hand at striking it rich.

Looking through a scope to find gold

Looking through the scope for gold

It turns out that there’s gold and silver in them thar cups. Soon, the science classroom resounds with shouts of “Eureka!” as students make their discoveries.

But it turns out that all that glitters is not gold (or silver). The pay dirt is also replete with pyrite, better known as fool’s gold—an eventuality for which Anna and Christie prepare their students. “If it looks like gold but it crumbles when you poke it with your tweezers, then it’s pyrite,” Anna tells her students.

The day's haul

The day’s haul

An occasional disappointment with finding fool’s gold is no match, however, for the pure joy that overwhelms students when they find the real thing (check out the videos below for a taste of their discoveries).

And what about the gold and silver that they find? Well, these students happily practice the Life Skill of Flexibility—they turn in anything they find to Anna and Christie for them to use for next year’s students.  And with gold prices at record highs, today’s student haul would fetch well over $100.

For Wildwood 4th graders, this classroom experience is golden.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning <a href=”″><img src=”“></img></a><a href=””></a&gt;

Leave a Comment

Older Posts »