Posts Tagged progressive education

The REAL Common Core: Joyful Learning for All

RelationshipsHere in Los Angeles we’re pretty serious about making sure learning and teaching is a fun, positive, even joyous experience for both students and teachers.

That’s why over 20 public and private school educators from across the region gathered at Wildwood’s elementary campus this past week to begin a much-needed conversation on how to ensure the joy in teaching and learning for all at a time when there’s so much emphasis on assessment.

Our gathering was eclectic by design: Teachers and administrators from Wildwood, like me, and other LA independent schools, plus our public and charter school colleagues. The group included teachers who work with pre-schoolers, up through 12th graders.

Our meeting space- prepped for conversation

Our meeting space- prepped for conversation

The consensus was pretty clear.  Together we identified some essential qualities necessary for our students’ joyful learning: emphasizing the importance of relationships, authentically engaging in meaningful curricula, and celebrating accomplishments—especially challenging ones. We each also reminisced about how these qualities influenced our own joyful learning experiences as school children.

Our gathering was inspired by the resonance of the theme at the Progressive Education Network national conference in downtown LA last fall:  Play Hard—The Serious Work of Keeping Joy in Learning. All Wildwood faculty attended that conference, and many wanted to continue the conversation with peers.

Our invitation

Our invitation

At the conference I connected with Zeena Pliska, a public school kindergarten teacher at Walgrove Ave. Elementary School in LA’s Mar Vista neighborhood. She was drawn in by the conference theme as well. But as it turns out, among the 800+ conference attendees, Zeena was one of only a handful of LA public school teachers there (and the only one not from a charter school). We knew others would probably like to join this conversation and decided to create a forum together to offer like-minded peers to way to connect. We tapped the talents of Wildwood middle/upper school counselor, Jill Valle, and organized our inaugural event—all three of us facilitating conversations.

We’re already planning the next conversation. The goals: strengthen and expand our connections and explore avenues for action— personally and professionally to ensure joyful learning for all.

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

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The PEN Is Mightier Than The Sword

PEN LogoAt Wildwood, we’re all learners—it’s as true of our teachers as it is of our students. So this past week when all 120+ Wildwood faculty and administrators joined nearly 900 other educators from around the world at the Progressive Education Network (PEN) National Conference in downtown LA, we came ready to think and learn about our teaching. The goal: to deepen knowledge of progressive educational practices in order to apply them in the classroom with Wildwood students.

Our faculty and administrators listened to internationally known keynote speakers, including DeborahMeier, Angela Davis and Erin Gruwell and many others. Our teachers found inspiration and insight, rounding out their own experiences with ideas and practical applications gleaned from over 100 workshop choices. Members of our Wildwood community also shared their expertise with conference participants: 11 faculty members and a half-dozen students helped to facilitate PEN workshops.

Some of our teachers found takeaways in keynote speakers’ messages.

Stefanie Grutman, 2nd grade head teacher, and upper school humanities teacher and advisor, Ariane White, were particularly moved by a keynote address by noted political activist and scholar, Angela Davis.  Stefanie was “riveted by Davis’s speech, and her vision of shaking up the hierarchy, in order to ensure an equitable education for everyone.” One of Ariane’s insights was Davis’s address. “It was all about teaching students to question everything they might take for granted and for educators to understand the systems of privilege and oppression that function in our world,” Ariane said. Davis’s message also inspired Ariane to make a connection to her own practice: “It felt really inspiring and validated all of the good multicultural work that is happening in our advisory program.”

Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well, challenged conference participants to consider how society’s narrow definitions of success adversely affect children. Susan Chung, Senior Institute literature teacher and advisor, noted how she “enjoyed listening to Madeline Levine and hearing what we (parents, teachers, and schools) are doing to kids and their love of learning.” Susan continued, “What really resonated with me during her speech was how much of our own struggles we do not share.”

For other Wildwood faculty, the various workshop sessions prompted deeper thinking.

Deb Christenson, Senior Institute social studies teacher and advisor, says a key takeaway was embedded in a discussion led by the heads of two small progressive schools here in California. “They found ways to articulate the difference between schools that ‘did’ progressive things and those that actually ‘are’ progressive,” Deb says. “That was very insightful for me.” Middle school humanities teacher and advisor, Becca Hedgepath, reflected on the meaning she took from a session on teaching students with learning differences. “On the one hand,” Becca posits, “progressive schools provide warmth, support and authenticity to students. However, challenges with time management and organizational skills can trip up some students.” Along with other Wildwood colleagues who attended this session, Becca and her colleagues “puzzled this and suggested solutions. It was a good opportunity to slow our pace and think out loud about how to best serve all of our students.”

Third grade head teacher, Roxanne Bergmans, found inspiration in three Wildwood students who took part in a panel discussion at the conference: 11th graders Julian C., Abby L., and Austin W.  Reflecting on their educational experiences at Wildwood, Roxanne recalled, “These students were articulate, honest, and poised. At the end of their session I was able to take a breath of relief knowing that this world may have a chance to become a better place with these students as our future.”

Professional learning experiences like the PEN Conference keep our teaching corps inspired, engaged in the national conversation around progressive education in practice, and offer opportunities to showcase our students’ exceptional experiences for others.

For many schools, these learning days for teachers would be a luxury. At Wildwood, we consider it an essential part of our mission.

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

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Intentional Instruction Begins… Before Students Even Arrive

While Wildwood students enjoy their last few days of summer break, teachers here are deeply engaged in their practice. During a week of opening meetings, one day was devoted to envisioning the Wildwood School graduate of the future. How would we prepare this person for her life?

By convening groups of mixed grade levels and disciplines to discuss and define the qualities of the ideal Wildwood graduate, we enjoyed a broad perspective in our morning meetings. After lunch, we met in subject-area groups, with a specific task: Communicate a vision of a future Wildwood graduate’s qualities and accomplishments.

The Butterfly

Humanities teachers describe the ideal graduate

Drawing on sound progressive educational practice, each small group choose a variety of ways to communicate their vision, including images, writing, and performance.

Butterfly details

The ideal graduate, through humanities teachers’ perspectives

Wildwood’s visual arts teachers discussed how they wanted to surprise their peers by presenting their ideas in a performance art piece. “They’ll all be expecting us to do something visual,” says upper school art teacher, Laura Forsythe, “but they won’t be expecting that.”

The ideal- Spanish

The ideas graduate from Spanish teachers’ perspectives

The kindergarten through 12th grade math teachers brought down the house with a hip hop vision of the ideal Wildwood graduate through their subject-area lens (check out these talented teachers in the video link below).

The Heart

The ‘heart’ of the Wildwood graduate through teachers’ eyes

Humanities and Spanish teachers depicted the ideal graduate through representational figures—both human and animal—symbolizing their most important qualities through images and words.

At Wildwood, we practice what we preach, so our teachers’ work this (and every) day reflects what our graduates will need as they take their experiences into the world— a clear sense of purpose, strong content-area knowledge, and the ability to work together to find novel solutions to authentic problems.

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

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Guess Who’s Coming to Wildwood?

Visiting Japanese educators with Director of Elementary School, Katie Rios, and noted educator, Barbara Polland

Visiting Japanese educators with Director of Elementary School, Katie Rios, and noted educator, Barbara Polland

Not just kids. But other kinds of learners, and, lots of them. At least twice a month, Wildwood hosts educators curious about what we’ve got going on here. As the director of the Wildwood Outreach Center, I play host to these visitors, who come from public and private schools all over the world. Some of our visitors are from as nearby as neighboring schools on LA’s Westside. Others come from as far away as New England and New Zealand, Singapore and Brazil.

Each of these visits is an opportunity to showcase the Wildwood approach. That’s valuable, as Wildwood is deeply committed to exporting what works here—from advisory to project based learning. But each of these visits is also a kind of exchange, as we gain insights from a huge range of teachers and education leaders from all over who face many challenges and come to us looking for ways to do it better.Camino Nuevo Charter Academy

I thought you’d be interested to know that often we open our classrooms for observations. Last week, for example, three middle school humanities teachers from City Charter School in LA’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood visited with their 6th grade counterparts, Wildwood Humanities teachers Alexis Lessans and Becca Hedgepath. We’ve also hosted a group of math teachers from LA’s Camino Nuevo Charter Academy who came to watch and learn from two of our teachers, Lori Reardon and Arlën Vidal-Castro.

U of Chicago Lab SchoolsThis fall I was honored when Asra Ahmed, an assistant High School Principal at the University of Chicago Lab Schools paid Wildwood a visit. Her school — which famously launched the progressive education movement in the early 20th Century—sent her to glean insights from Wildwood’s 21st century interpretation of ideas and practice. We talked about how Wildwood integrates Habits of Mind and Heart into the curriculum and our multicultural programming.

LAUSDOthers come looking for teacher professional development ideas. Michele Shannon is a doctoral candidate at Harvard on a year-long fellowship as an administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She told me she’d heard about Wildwood’s reputation, and came to explore what we have to offer the LAUSD administrator corps to boost and focus best educational practices in schools throughout the city.

Both of the last two years the Outreach Center has hosted a contingent of teachers and administrators from Singapore American School, here to learn from, what they consider to be, one of the most innovative schools in the world—Wildwood. Other international educators seek out Wildwood as a laboratory, where they can see best practices at work. We’ve hosted such delegations of Japanese elementary school educators, and Heads of international schools, like Medbury School in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the progressive High Scope Schools in Indonesia.Singapore American School

All of these visits make for engaging conversation about what we do at Wildwood, why, and how. These visits are also an occasion to remind myself: our school is founded on meaningful conversations, both internally and externally. Last month I was fortunate to spend some time with Tom Little, the Head at Park Day School in Oakland, CA. His school is a like-minded progressive, independent school similarly situated to Wildwood. Tom spent time in several elementary classrooms and then sat down with me and Director of Elementary School, Katie Rios, to ask us some questions for a book he’s writing on progressive schools.

High-Scope-IndonesiaThese visits are all part of a day’s work for me, but I’m not sure many people in our Wildwood community know about this constant flow of visitors who know and care about what we are doing. Thanks to our outstanding teachers and a genuine commitment to great teaching and learning, the buzz about Wildwood is real, and growing.

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

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The Wildwood Difference: A Bunch of Hot Air?

The day that I sit in on one of Levi Simons’s 12th grade physics classes, watching the lesson that he’s invited me to see, I begin thinking to myself: umm…this is pretty traditional high school stuff—a lecture and discussion on Avogadro’s Law. Sure, physics students need to know this essential physical law about the density of gases at various temperatures and pressures.

Levi Simons lectures to his 12th grade physics class

But…this is Wildwood. Like other upper school courses Levi’s class is project-based and the curriculum is both college preparatory and progressive, emphasizing critical inquiry and problem solving.  So why are the students sitting at tables, taking notes as Levi writes equations and examples on the whiteboard?

In a traditional college prep classroom, this lecture would fit into a predictable pattern: students memorize lecture content, maybe apply that content in a lab with a pre-ordained outcome, and then take test on the content. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

But just as I’m really starting to wonder…the Wildwood difference reveals itself. The lecture soon evolves into a conversation that prods students into asking questions; it’s clear that Levi invited me today not merely to sit through a lecture but rather to join his students on their first day of eight weeks of learning, investigation, planning, and design; work that will culminate in a project requiring students to synthesize everything by designing, prototyping, and testing their own hot air balloons. (There’s a video at the bottom of this post of an example from last year)

“High school science classrooms can reflect the actual work that researchers, engineers, and designers engage in,” Levi tells me later. “That work definitely involves acquiring knowledge but it also requires skills development to apply that knowledge.  Oh, and trial and error—lots of trial and error!”

Avogadro’s Law

Levi plans his courses to make room for all of this. Daily lessons provide a kind of scaffolding to ensure that every student gets the framework—all of the skills and knowledge they’ll need as they work their way up to completing the project. Today’s lecture is the first in a series introducing four key gas laws students will need to master before attempting their project. Levi designs each lab and homework assignment to allow students to apply their knowledge of the gas laws, experimentally and theoretically.

There’s much more than meets the eye in today’s lesson

Once students have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills, they’re ready to create.  “First the students propose a design based on what they’ve learned. Then, they’ll build a prototype,” Levi explains. “That prototype probably won’t work, but that’s good.  They need to analyze what went wrong and redesign and re-prototype.” That’s where the real learning takes place, and the Wildwood difference shows.

Back in class, the discussion prompted by the lecture on Avogadro’s Law is already provoking students to think with an eye toward its application. Levi presents a necessary assumption upon which the law is based: that gas molecules will bounce back off of other with the same amount of energy with which they collide—a concept known in physics as perfect elasticity. Immediately, students begin to challenge the assumption, knowing that perfect conditions never exist. One 12th grader, Luke Z. asks, “Wouldn’t that mean that there’s no energy loss and you could build a perpetual motion machine?  That doesn’t seem possible.”

“Exactly,” says Levi. “Of course some energy will be lost and perfect conditions never exist. Assumptions are necessary starting points in scientific inquiry.” “So, they’re like the foundation of a house,” Luke posits, to which Levi adds, “Yes, houses built up with experimental evidence.”

The imagination is launched.

For the final project, it’s not essential that students’ hot air balloons actually work.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but students’ assessments don’t even hinge on whether the balloons take flight. As Levi points out, that’s because “scientific and design breakthroughs are built on mountains of failure. For example, when we use an iPhone, we don’t think of the hundreds of designs and prototypes that ultimately failed to reach market.  But without knowing what didn’t work, Apple couldn’t have perfected the ones that did.

That is the philosophy that guides this project, too.

It’s really Wildwood. Real learning, not a lot of hot air.

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

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