Posts Tagged Life Skills

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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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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Getting The Wiggles Out — The Wildwood Way

This week I peeked in on an elementary classroom that made me wish I was a 3rd grader again.  Our elementary Physical Education team—Tyler Williams, Hasan Muhammad, and Darren Pasco—transformed The Commons into a massive indoor obstacle course. Students ran, hopped, rolled, and crawled their way through the elaborate set-up, all the while dodging soft fluff balls lobbed at them by their classmates.

Screaming with delight to the amplified sounds of kid-friendly dance music, our 3rd graders were having fun and practicing essential PE and life skills.

“The main point of the obstacle course,” says Tyler, “is to improve agility, balance and strength. It also provides an opportunity to revisit throwing techniques.”  Tyler says he and his colleagues carefully designed the course to require crawling and rolling, because “Crawling is a great full body strength building exercise, while rolling is a wonderful way for students to work on their balance.” While they’re having fun, this activity also gives students ample opportunities to practice the Life Skill of Cooperation, as the game requires one group of student retrievers to collect the fluff balls that were thrown on the course back into the buckets of their peers who were throwing them.

It’s not the same as being there, but check out the video clips below, and have some fun!

Special thanks to Tyler Williams for the great footage.

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

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White House Confidential

IMG_0232Students in Sara Lev and Alli Newell’s Whale Pod returned for the New Year eager to further explore to a hot topic introduced before the break—the White House. Some of the important questions these kindergartners and 1st graders had: How many rooms does the White House have? Exactly how big is it? Does it have everything that the President needs to do his job?  Do the doors have any peepholes for the President to look out of?

The Whale Pod's White House replica

The Whale Pod’s White House replica

The work that inspired these, and even more student questions reflects the Wildwood Life Skill of Curiosity, and this week Sara and Alli’s students are also practicing the related Life Skill of Problem Solving as they seek ways to satisfy their curiosity.

Seated with the class on the rug, Sara shares photos and stories she gathered during a private tour of the White House’s West Wing that she took over winter break. The social studies discussion broadens when Whale Pod students Bowden E. and Max A., who also both recently visited the White House, shared their experiences with the class.

Max A. shares some fun facts about the White House with his classmates

Max A. shares some fun facts about the White House with his classmates

Curiosity about the White House grew directly from the Whale Pod’s year-long social studies theme of Homes and Habitats and was enhanced by the 2012 presidential campaign and election. “The kids were really inspired by the 5th grade’s school-wide mock election in November,” Sara tells me. “We began talking with the kids about the White House and Alli and I could tell that they were interested in learning more.”  Sara says the curiosity about the residence makes sense since, “The White House is one of the most famous homes in the world, so there is a genuine connection to our social studies theme.”

Whale Pod Student, Bowden C., shows a model of the White House to his classmates

Whale Pod Student, Bowden C., shows a model of the White House to his classmates

One expression of the Whale Pod’s deep interest is a replica of the White House they built with wooden blocks back in the fall. It’s an artifact that today sits in a key space on the floor at the far end of the classroom.  Max A., the project’s original architect, tells me what inspired him to begin, and his peers to join, building their version of the White House.  “We borrowed a model that the 5th graders had of the White House and I just started building it with the blocks one day during Explorations,” he says. “Then my other friends started to help me and add on to it.”  He points out the East and West Wings and the North Face, complete with its triangular pediment. “We came in early after morning drop-off to finish it.”

Our 42nd President, Bill Clinton, at home in the Whale Pod's White House

Our 42nd President, Bill Clinton, casually attired and at home in the Whale Pod’s White House

Back in the discussion, Sara guides students as they discover how to connect all of their questions to future learning. “So,” she asks, “how can we find answers to our questions about the White House?”

“We can read non-fiction books about the White House,” offers Bryce C., while Holden M. suggests that the class consult the Internet.  “We could write down our questions and send them to the White House,” offers Isaiah W. After students share other ideas, Nita K. suggests that the class could send their questions to President Obama, who could come visit the Whale Pod to answer them in person.  “Or,” Nita continues, “We can all go on a field trip.”  “To the White House?” Sara asks. Maybe not, Nita concedes, but then Sara suggests a trip to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, to help the students find some answers; the students are very excited by the prospect.

The Whale Pod’s study of the White House offers all of us in the Wildwood community of teachers and learners valuable insights into young children’s thinking and problem solving. Some of it might seem fanciful to us adults, but it fosters the deep learning we seek at Wildwood everyday.

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

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An Afternoon with “America’s Most Influential Teacher” Rafe Esquith and Reflections on Teacher Practice at Wildwood


Hobart Blvd. Elementary School

It’s been nearly three weeks since I visited Rafe Esquith’s classroom at Hobart Blvd. Elementary School, and I’m still thinking about what I saw, and how it relates to the work we do with kids here at Wildwood.

Hobart Blvd. Elementary in Los Angeles’s Koreatown is a non-descript Los Angeles public school serving a predominantly Latino and Korean-American student body. Eighty-five percent of the students at Hobart qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—a common indicator of poverty.

Here Rafe Esquith, the most influential classroom teacher in America, (according to The Washington Post’s long-time education reporter Jay Matthews), does things his way.

After spending some time there, I saw that his way is in many ways, the Wildwood way.

No_ExcusesHis core focus is on instilling skills and habits that prepare students to meet the challenges ahead.  And the outcomes are irrefutable. Despite their modest means, Rafe’s students from the past three decades have gone on to lead happy, fulfilling lives, with scores attending the most prestigious universities in the country.

On the day I visit Rafe’s classroom, I can see this focus first-hand.  The school day is over, and I’m sitting in on a typical 3-hour afterschool rehearsal of the Hobart Shakespeareans, an internationally recognized group of Hobart 3rd through 5th graders, led by Rafe.  His students perform a different Shakespeare play each year.  This year, the play is The Tempest and over 50 students are arrayed across the room, and each has an open copy. Silent and attentive, the students are entirely focused on their peers who are rehearsing a scene on the makeshift stage at the back of the room.

Rafe seems aware of what about this scenario might pique his classroom visitors’ curiosities most, so when the scene concludes he asks a young boy, rhetorically, why he and his peers are so quiet and attentive. “Because it shows the students rehearsing that they matter to us; it’s respectful.”

Immediately, my thoughts turn to Wildwood’s Life Skills—the personal qualities and skills that we consistently weave into our own elementary program. One of these, Interpersonal Skills, includes the respect and good manners that this young man describes.Teach_Cover

As if reading my mind, Rafe asks his students this follow-up: “What else are we doing here today that has nothing at all to do with Shakespeare?” Hands shoot up everywhere. “We’re learning to be organized—we need to know our cues and our stage directions,” says one student. “You have to know your lines and everyone else’s in your scene—so we’re learning to be responsible and collaborative.”  Again, I hear an echo of the Wildwood Life Skills.

What’s my takeaway? While there are obvious differences between Wildwood and Rafe Esquith’s classroom at Hobart Blvd. Elementary– differences that can’t be glossed over—the students in both settings benefit profoundly from each’s rich, nurturing environment. Wildwood classrooms, like Rafe’s, flourish in an atmosphere of respect, trust, and a sensitivity to each child’s needs. It’s good educational practice, and it knows no socio-economic bounds. However, to make substantive changes in every child’s education, we need more Rafe Esquiths… and more Wildwoods.

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

Learn more. Rafe Esquith is also a New York Times bestselling author.

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Learning to Build a Community

Friday is payday for 3rd graders in Melanie Benefiel’s class. The hard work of planning and building “Wildwood Town” will be rewarded as the students collect wages they earned over the past three weeks as part of a Wildwood social studies curriculum long-term project in community design and construction.

From the Wildwood Town Council

For a few weeks in October, Melanie’s classroom morphs into Wildwood Town — a polyglot collection of communities designed and built in the room by her students. The project is launched early in the month. Students engage in a chalk talk (a written brainstorming exercise) in response to the question “What is a community?”  Then, each student receives an official-looking letter from the Wildwood City Council explaining the town’s growing challenges.

The letter from “council members” — head teacher Melanie, and associate teachers Jody Poulos and Kendra Elstad — explains that Wildwood Town has acquired new land and needs a development plan. There’s a need to build urban and suburban communities where people will live, a rural area to provide food and natural resources, and a cyber community, linking these together.  This entire city, the students learn, will be designed and built by them.

Next, students make a career choice. They can select one of three jobs within each community. City designers and mapmakers will be responsible for the overall community plan. Construction workers will need to create the structures and build the roads. And landscape architects will need to collaborate and come up with a design for all green spaces, select plants, and plan for integrating bodies of water.

Every grade level at Wildwood emphasizes authentic learning experiences as part of the core program. For these students, applying and interviewing for the jobs that will make Wildwood Town a reality are part of the work.

3rd grader Paige P. interviews with Jody Poulos

Each student fills out an application form to get the process started. On the day I visit their class, associate teacher, Jody Poulos, calls students one-by-one to the back of the room for interviews where she sits at a desk—a pile of job applications before her, along with an empty seat for students.

Paige P. is the first applicant. “Your application says that you’re applying for the job of construction worker,” Jody begins.  “What experience would you bring to this job?”  Paige thoughtfully responds, “I was really good at block building when I was in the Pods. I built boats and houses. I also like to build things at home,” she says.  Jody ponders Paige’s application and responds, “All of this really indicates that you can look at a plan and create what you see.  That’s what we need our construction workers to do on this project. Can you do that?” Without hesitation and with a smile, Paige says, “Oh, definitely.” She’ll find out whether she’s gotten the job by the end of the day.

An Official Employee Badge

Once hired, each student receives an official employee badge, which they need to wear during all work periods.

Beckett P. and Ian N. work on their community

Do the students take their responsibilities seriously? “On the day jobs are announced and each child is presented with their employee badge, all of the kids stand and applaud, says Melanie. “They do it for everyone. They are so excited and proud that they’ve ‘landed’ their first job.”

Over the course of the next two weeks, students collaborate, create, and construct their assigned communities, and then carefully arrange them into one big Wildwood Town right in the center of the room.

Wildwood Town, Completed

It’s a multi-dimensional social studies simulation with valuable takeaways.  Students learn about communities while experiencing collaboration and integrating the Life Skills, like responsibility and initiative. Melanie says these skills grow naturally, and describes a conversation she had with the kids after a work session.  “I asked them,” Melanie says, “‘What do you do when a co-worker is not working as hard as everyone else?’ One of the girls in her class suggested, ‘Don’t gossip about them….just go up to them and tell them to get to work…you have to.’ Another student,  Beckett P., then raises his hand and exclaims apologetically, ‘I’m sorry! I think I was slacking off today…will I still get paid?’”

Probably. And also like the real world, as soon as the paychecks come tomorrow, students will exchange part of their wages for a class party, to celebrate a job well done, as well as many lessons learned.

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

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The World Next Door

First thing Tuesday morning Allan Yu’s 5th graders were putting the finishing touches on their version of the spiritual, “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” complete with hand motions and gestures to accompany the lyrics.

“Ok, friends, let’s go through our songs one more time,” Allan says, “and when you sing your songs today, the more animated, the better,” Allan adds. Six students standing together at one end of the room lead their classmates through the final rehearsal.

Today, Allan and his students, along with Associate Teacher Leslie Troy, will make their first trip to the James J. McBride Special Education Center. The school is a short walk from Wildwood’s elementary campus across Mitchell Avenue, but a world away for most of these students.  McBride is one of 18 public schools in Los Angeles exclusively serving students with severe disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome, and autism.  With their visit today, Allan’s students will add to the 20-year history of our oldest elementary students forging relationships with their younger counterparts at McBride.

As we cross the street, Allan’s students show their excitement with animated conversation about what they think McBride will be like. I ask two of Allan’s students, Marlo I. and Ryan M. about what they’re thinking about their first visit. “We had a chance to meet the McBride kids at the end of last year,” Marlo tells me. “They came to Wildwood to spend time with last year’s 5th graders and the teachers introduced us to them.”  Ryan tells me that he’s learned that the McBride students also have peer models in their classroom. “They are with some pre-schoolers who are the McBride kids’ siblings,” Ryan explains. “Their parents send them to McBride with their older brothers or sisters so that they can have a strong relationship with them.”

McBride and Wildwood students

McBride Teacher, Kara Guastella (far right), leads her students and their Wildwood friends in song.

Entering McBride’s front door, the students become silent and close their ranks into a single file line.  The halls at McBride are wide and the walls bare— it looks very different than Wildwood. As we turn the corner approaching our host classroom, we see the hallway is lined with dozens of walkers and wheelchairs, arranged in two rows along the walls. The students fix their gazes on the collection of assistive devices, and then, on each other, as the excitement turns to a bit of anxiety.

The classroom door opens and out steps our host McBride teacher, Kara Guastella. She greets Allan and Leslie by name, and the Wildwood students with a welcoming smile. “Our students have been looking forward all morning to meeting you,” she says.

We enter Kara’s room and see her students, who range in age from 5 to 7 and their peer models, arrayed in a semi-circle looking in our direction.  “Please sit down next to a new friend,” Kara asks Allan’s students.  The 5th graders pair up and seat themselves next to McBride students, introducing themselves with smiles and kind greetings.

5th grader, Ryan M., bonds with his new McBride friend, Ari.

Kara leads the whole group in a song about the alphabet and the Wildwood students take their new McBride friends by the hands and help them clap along to the music. The ice is broken.  I watch as, with each passing song, the McBride students gaze more intently at their new Wildwood friends, who respond with smiles, encouragement and hugs.  Allan comes over to me and speaks about how these connections can often extend beyond these regular visits. “We’ve had students who go and spend time with their McBride friends on days that Wildwood is off of school,” he says. “And there are others who, even now as 8th or 9th graders, still come back on their own time and work with Kara’s students.”

After the Wildwood students share the songs that they’d prepared for their McBride friends, it’s time to head out to the play yard to have some more fun. The Wildwood students begin to realize that there are no quick transitions at McBride. The teacher and classroom aides have to help students get their walkers and some put on helmets to avoid injury.

Out on the play yard, Wildwood 5th grader Chloe S. spends time with her new McBride friend, Solomon. “Show her your stuff, Solomon,” teacher Kara says.  Each step in his walker is labored and unsteady, but Solomon, who has cerebral palsy, meets each one with a beaming smile and look of satisfaction.

When it’s time to go, the Wildwood students say goodbye and give hugs, getting ready to walk back across the street. Over many years, our classes’ visits to McBride have given hundreds of students opportunities to practice caring for others and respect, two of Wildwood’s Interpersonal Life Skills so essential for gaining a strong sense of self, and social agency.

Over many trips back and forth across this street, Wildwood students bring back with them a growing understanding that the McBride students aren’t really in a different world at all but rather are very much a part of our community.

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

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