When it was time to apply for graduate school, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to take the GRE to get in. At that point in my career, I was a young teacher who had already experienced the pitfalls of standardized testing. While a perfectly capable test taker myself, I harkened back to my first year teaching in a small rural high school in the foothills of the Appalachia mountains where I was tasked with supporting the 9th graders who had failed the Ohio Proficiency Test (for which a high school diploma was contingent upon passing all four sections). I worked with 6 boys twice a week on the reading comprehension portion. I remember one session vividly. We were reviewing a passage on tennis, when one of the boys, frustrated, confused, eyes furrowed, said, “Wait, wait, wait…who’s in love with Ace?” Tennis, as you can imagine, isn’t a very popular sport in Appalachia, nor at a school where over 50 percent of the student population lives at or below the poverty level. This moment encapsulated the root of my frustration with the testing frenzy, that has only increased since the late nineties. I watched these boys struggle week to week. I ranted to anyone who would listen. I railed against the big business money component of testing, the politics, the bias in the testing, the origins of that bias, and the negative impact on teachers. I ranted about the fact that tests didn’t capture the creativity, critical thinking, and intelligence that I saw my students demonstrating each day in my classes. And so I decided to walk a major walk and refuse to step into the test rat race for graduate school admissions.
In a previous blog, I discussed common threads of progressive education that Tom Little researched in his book Loving Learning. He found three common attributes in all progressive schools: 1.) An ardent commitment to social justice 2.) An emphasis on active citizenry, and 3.) Attention to the whole child. An aspect of his research that I haven’t yet shared was that Tom Little also found that there are three common threads of how progressive schools educate: Experiential Education: Learning is hands-on and active with multiple modalities Emergent Curriculum: The learners’ curiosity and questions help guide where the curriculum goes and how it culminates Integrated Curriculum: Learning is most powerful when there are connections across subject matter The Progressive Education Network’s semi annual conference in Boston this past month satisfied these three areas for us as adult learners. We experienced professional development through workshops and experiences that were experiential, integrated in nature, and that honored our questions. They were hands-on, engaging, and collaborative. Curiosity and questions guided our grappling, inside the formal structures of workshops and even at our full staff dinner (where only one glass of red wined got turned over; I won’t reveal who). Connections and integrated learning were rampant—discussions on leadership got connected to how classrooms are run, high school teachers reflected with grade school teachers, and in a all-morning workshop on Islam that I and three other Westland teachers attended, science got connected with music got connected with history got connected with anti-Muslim tropes that we hear in the media today. The learning was progressive through and through—no matter the geographic location of our schools, the size, the community composition, or how long the school had been around. I divide the PEN
Three years ago, one of my oldest and dearest friends in L.A., Sarah Shulkind, also a head of school, wrote a piece exploring Rosh Hashanah for her Sinai Akiba school community (now called the Lainer School). Her message got at something I had grappled with for years as an independent school educator. Parents wondered it. Prospective parents asked it while I sat on admission panels. It was a question I wondered how to answer with clarity and integrity, because in my gut I had the answer, but my gut doesn’t always translate into the articulate. The question always went something like this: “How will our children be prepared for ‘the real world’ if they’re growing up in this ideal, even unrealistic private school bubble?” The question popped into my head a month ago at New Parent Orientation, when a father asked about the non-competitive nature of Westland’s philosophy in the context of physical education. While he asked the question with curiosity and zero-cynicism, it did prompt me to think of a powerful passage from Sarah’s piece: “Our program enables students to experience the best version of our society. We are a community of learners that celebrates each others’ successes as our own. Our students perceive the world as supportive and encouraging. They perceive learning—whether in or out of the classroom—as joyful and relevant. Many have asked me if we’re sheltering our students; they ask if this reassuring, constructive environment reflects the ‘real world’. My answer? It reflects what the world could be, especially if our students come to expect it.” I sort of want to end my blog here, that passage is so poignant and powerful. In the context of Westland, however, it’s exciting for
In Context Volume 2 “Differences must be immediately experienced to be treasured and understood. A school which avoids differences, directly or obliquely, places education outside the context of living.” Gus Trowbridge, the founder of Manhattan Country School. Okay. Please read that quote one more time. Thanks.  Mr. Trowbridge’s quote, taken from a beautiful obituary honoring his life in The New York Times, was sent to me by a Westland teacher this summer. (Yes, friends and colleagues alike send me obituaries during my holidays.) Reading Mr. Trowbridge’s words, I immediately am left with an essential question as Westland’s new head of school: How do we experience, treasure, and understand differences at Westland? This school year—and every subsequent one—our Westland community will actively seek to answer this essential question to develop the most impactful ways to increase diversity, improve our sense of equity and inclusivity, and to place a Westland education in the context of real life. For the sake of this piece—and our ongoing work together—let’s first make sure we’re using language that is shared. Here are some key definitions offered by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS): Diversity refers to the range of human characteristics we use to mark our individual and group identities. Equity is a condition that balances two dimensions: fairness and inclusion. Inclusivity encompasses it all—it’s about taking every individual’s experience and identity into account and creating conditions where all feel safe, accepted, empowered, supported and affirmed. Multiculturalism invites us to honor and celebrate differences, understand the impact of differences in society, and utilize differences within our community. A framework utilized by Visions Inc., a multicultural consulting company with whom Westland partners, approaches the work and seeks to improve equity
Am I normal? By Ellen Sanchez, Human Development Consultant When approaching the time of body changes and the onset of puberty, the number one question on children’s minds is, “Am I normal?” For 8 -12 year olds, the changes in their own bodies and those they see around them provide a full menu of questions, concerns, fears and confusion. For this reason, talking about bodies and how they change should begin, at the latest, by the time children are 7 or 8. The goal is to offer children honest and accurate information BEFORE they experience the changes of puberty, so they know what to expect and have a chance to think through strategies for managing those changes, both physical and emotional. By doing so, we can help make the experience a positive one, an exciting metamorphosis from child to young adult, and one that encourages confidence and provides opportunities for learning how to keep their bodies healthy and themselves happy. It’s best when the conversations about bodies include settings with their peers. Having these discussions in the classroom is ideal, as the teacher facilitating can set the tone for acceptance of differences that can prevent hurtful teasing about this sensitive topic. What do we want to communicate? Everyone grows at their own pace, at exactly the right time for them. Each person has their own body clock that will start the changes when it’s right for that person and move through puberty at just the right pace for that individual. There are many books that can help get the conversation started and provide the vocabulary that’s right for the age group. Here’s a short list of a few I rely on: Ages 3-7 Amazing You!
Group Six Campout Preparation By Danielle, Naomi, Shelby, and Gus The prep was mostly at Westland. The reason it was mostly at Westland was because we didn't have the right materials at the campsite. We also wanted to be organized and not miss any activities. It all started in Science when we made the snacks. We made trail mix that had pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts, m&m’s, and dried fruit. Then we made puffed rice bars with melted vegan marshmallows, dried fruit, puffed brown rice peanut oil, and honey. Then there were the granola bars, which had granola, honey, butter, vanilla, salt, almonds, oats, ground flax seed, brown sugar, and sunflower seeds. We made all the snacks with Julie and Ella. Next, we went down to the basement to get our supplies. We had coolers, water jugs, bins, burners and tents. We brought up the supplies and washed them to get all the dirt out. We did not want contaminated food. Each student then got their own personal list of things to bring on the campout. Everyone was responsible for their own supplies and carrying them. In Science, we broke into meal groups. Each group was responsible for their meal, and for the equipment that their meal needs. The groups individually went into the kitchen to pick out their pots, pans, and utensils. The next step was to load everything onto the bus, with the help of parents and teachers. When we arrived at our campsite we had to unload everything from the bus, so that's what we did. First, we took our bags and put them in a big pile. Next we took all of our equipment from the bus. And finally we
What is a Refugee? Today, nearly 60 million people around the world have been forced to leave their countries and homes, searching for safety. Many men, women, and children are living in temporary shelters and camps. These are Refugees. Refugees are people who live in countries experiencing poverty and war. Because of these life threatening issues they are forced to flee their homeland. Some of the countries that are fled most are Syria, Myanmar, the Dominican Republic of Congo, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Most refugees are forced to flee on foot, traveling hundreds of miles. Some have fled to neighboring countries, and many have even made the trek across many thousands of miles, like from Syria to Germany. Our Read-Aloud Book, Home of the Brave: Connections and Thoughts Group 6 read a book called Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. This book is about a brave refugee named Kek from Sudan. He was forced to flee to the United States of America without his mother who got lost in a raid. After we read the book, we read articles about current Syrian refugees who were able to escape the war in Syria and move to the U.S. Some are still waiting to flee their countries, but cannot. The articles inspired Group 6 to start brainstorming how to help these people. One of the articles we read was about a Syrian family whose children's school was destroyed in a series of attacks. The family left Syria, and now the family found refuge in the U.S. We connected the stories we read in the articles with Kek’s story. We understood that when there is a war, there is no other choice but to flee and leave
Group One has been exploring the topic of Firefighters and recently had the opportunity to welcome Firefighter Liz Curry from Fire Station 88. Group One’s initial visit to Fire Station 109 led to many questions about firefighter uniforms. Upon returning to the classroom, the children completed an in-depth project, constructing moveable firefighters. Group One recreated the details of a uniform, revealing what they knew but also what they still needed to find out. More questions emerged as a result of this project and intensified their curiosity about the uniforms. Does a firefighter need a new badge if they switch stations? What else is on the badge? Having Firefighter Liz available to answer these questions and being able to hold her badge to personally investigate was extremely exciting. The group learned that the badge has a phoenix on it and Liz shared about its significance – this was new information, even for Michelle! In addition, Firefighter Liz shared her Urban Search and Rescue uniform and demonstrated how she uses a harness in this component of her job. Being aware of young children and their development, she facilitated an activity that involved movement, dramatic play, and the role playing of a rescue. The following week the group incorporated this knowledge into a new blockbuilding topic, “Rescue in the City.” Westland students are exposed to the many resources available to them as they study the world around them and soon recognize the value of people as a primary resource. There is such richness in the people-to-people experience. Students have the opportunity to understand, in a more complex and meaningful way, the role, experience and feelings of someone else. Meeting Firefighter Liz furthered Group One’s appreciation for the role