Thursday, December 5, 2013

The timeline project

The Timeline Project is a service project that the 3rd and 4th graders have been working on to benefit the whole school. Spanning 10,000 years, the line will run all around the first floor of the school building, starting in the middle school commons outside the faculty lounge. It will run around the lunchroom, through the library, along the passage to the kindergarten classroom and back, past the courtyard and my office up to the art room, picking up again outside Chris's room, running along the passage and back into the lunchroom where it ends, here, at 2013. We've left plenty of space at the end here, as we know that current affairs will need plenty of real estate. 

The whole school is invited to enter interesting dates and historical information as material comes up in their studies. We anticipate that the timeline will gradually become a collective record of the school's engagement with history. The measuring, calculating, cutting, inking, and taping has been an epic feat in its own right. The 3rd and 4th graders are honored to present this work to the school. 

Timeline factory

We're very close! First piece going up in two minutes!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Praising process and grit

It's not news that children develop better coping skills, internal motivation, self-esteem, skills and productivity when their efforts are recognized rather than their innate abilities ("Look how far your hard work has brought you," rather than "You're so smart!"). This article underlines the importance of this for girls in particular.

I'd emphasize this same point for gifted kids in particular, whose identity is in grave danger of being bound up with their intelligence, and who are often particularly susceptible to debilitating perfectionism. Students who can't get started on work, who procrastinate, have anxiety attacks, develop distraction techniques, cry, rush their work ("of course it's no good - I didn't try to make it good") - all these can be symptoms, not of lack of ability to do the work, but lack of ability to take the risk of not being perfect at first attempt. It is crucially important to support effort and celebrate the learning process that comes from mistakes.  

When kids flunk on their assignments - and sometimes they do, even our little darlings - it's  a great way to learn that their teacher trusts and respects them enough to allow them to learn from that and engage with the work again, properly. Effective learning takes effort, practice, and the knowledge that you are part of a network of people who care enough about you that they help you through avoidance and don't let you give in to insecurity. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Time for an update!

Another month has flown by, and there is more to share with you from an educational, programmatic perspective. Again, this is general information, not a call to action. Please feel free to skim to the parts that interest you.

The Alternative Athletic Association
As you know, Karl has connected with Upland Hills School in Oakland County, and The Friends School in Detroit - two warm, friendly, small independent schools with open hearts - to form an Alternative Athletic Association. The only league where schools write thank-you notes after competitions, the AAA continues in November with Summers-Knoll's middle schoolers welcoming visitors from Upland Hills, and getting on the bus to visit the Friends School. We don't have any scores to report, because thus far our games haven't lent themselves readily to statistics: ropes courses, gaga ball, parkour, and Calvinball.

This is a program that could expand to other schools in the future. At the moment we're keeping it small. The kids are having a blast, making new friends, and developing their team skills and sportsmanship in the process. We're enjoying the connection to other schools, and some great conversations are coming of it.

While we're on athletics, a completely different note:

PE Assistant
Adam Checkle, who has been so ably supporting Shan as PE assistant (a necessary role as Shan does so much work with the students off-site where the presence of a second adult is a crucial part of the picture) has moved on. His goal is to work as a classroom teacher, and he is actively pursuing that goal. We are sad to see him go, but of course we fully support him and wish him the very best in finding work that fits his needs.

This leaves us without a dedicated PE assistant at this point. Nick Taylor, my classroom assistant, is taking the time to support the PE program as a temporary measure. We do need to find another person, however, and will be searching for a really great, warm, active, person who can be Shan's assistant in this program. If you have thoughts, please don't hesitate to let me know.

The Odyssey
The play is cast, rehearsals have started, Karl is working like a demon with actors of all heights and ages, and excitement is swirling around the school. You've seen messages inviting you to get involved - this is truly a whole-community event. All faculty, staff, classes, parents, as well as their pets (no joke, there is a dog in this play) are encouraged to be a part of this vibrant experience. With seventy-two SK students in the cast, The Odyssey is a quintessential example of project-based learning. The kindergartners are the sheep; third and fourth graders are servants, suitors, sailors, shades, and swine; first and second graders are gods and goddesses; middle school students handle everybody else. The seventh and eighth graders are reading eleven different versions of the story--prose, poetry, children's versions, Caribbean vernacular, screenplays . . . . Through it all, they have been considering the distinction between quest and homecoming, and writing essays and creative pieces on that theme.

Our first production meeting, set up for any interested volunteers, will be on Wednesday, November 6, from 11:30 to 12:30. We are looking for assistance in designing and building costumes, putting the stage together, gathering amphorae, arrows, and other props, and wrangling those 72 actors.

A side effect of all this has been to make the younger children crazy for acting. Impromptu performances happen all the time (and more "promptu" ones also, like the performance of "The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, performed by Elaine's class for an audience of 3rd/4th graders and Kindergarteners).

The 7th and 8th graders have been up to their ears in the past couple of weeks, presenting their Explorations projects. (Each theme culminates with individual projects. These projects are shown to peers, families, and faculty members in Exhibitions--two short lessons, packed with activity and newfound expertise.) Our set of Explorers Exhibitions ran from October 29 to November 5.

Among the twenty-four lessons taught were Ponce de Leon (in character); Mars rovers; life on Mars; the Silk Road (including attendees bartering Halloween candy); Eurycleia, Penelope's loyal maidservant; minimalism in music; tours of New York City, London, Antarctica, and Maastricht; early navigation and cartography; early cinema; and the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. (Attendees were spared this experience.)

Our next round of Exhibitions will take place in the second week of January, engaging the theme of Identity.

Theme Work
We are embarking on the theme of Identity, and in many cases it is blending magically with our Exploration work. (One example: the Out of Eden walk undertaken by Paul Salopek explores the identity of human beings as well as the geography of their progress across the planet.) It also brings in opportunities for a delightful shift in focus. No matter what your background, chances are you are celebrating something around this time of year, and that this is meaningful to your family and your heritage. So as the holidays come closer, some of our classrooms will be inviting families in to share their own identity through celebration. At the same time, students will be looking at the science of identity - DNA and genetic studies of different kinds. Children will be reflecting on what makes them themselves in all kinds of different ways. Stay tuned with the blogs to see how this all develops.

Community Partnerships
The 5/6 class is engaged in a project based in County Farm Park, with the support of naturalists from the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor. Each student is designing a study to collect and analyze data. (An example: one student is learning how to track deer activity throughout the park. As he finds evidence of deer trails, he'll add them to a map. He'll then use that data to try to determine their habits and diet, studying deer population that is specific to County Farm Park.) Each student will be tackling a wholly unique project in this fashion. Seed dispersal, water flow, evidence of glacial activity, squirrel behaviors, and fungi populations are a sampling of some of the other studies. The naturalists who are partnering with us offer our students the mentorship and example of experts from the community. Students plan to publish their studies at the end of the year. This is also tying in with work they are doing in Math, on contours and maps.

5th-8th grades continue to partner with the Sweetland Center for Writing - thank you to Anne Gere for the continuing inspiration and support.

The 3rd/4th grade "Walks with Experts" series continues. So far our visitors have included Tom Mansell (sound artist - thank you to Christine Hume for the connection), Theresa and Brad Angelini (the architects who designed our school), A. Van Jordan (poet - thank you to Peter Ho Davies for the connection), and this week we are looking forward to Amy Kulper (Amy is an architect but also a historian, and will be focusing on history for her walk). Coming up we have a botanist and a police officer with his dog. We anticipate that this series will run all through the year.

Our own Christopher Matthews, father of Eliza Braunschneider in 1st grade, has written an astonishing poem about the journey of Lewis and Clark, which a couple of different classes (1st/2nd and 3rd/4th) will be working with. It's a huge enrichment and a great gift to the school to have parents who share their talents with us so generously. It builds on the work the younger kids have been doing on Lewis and Clark for the Exploration theme (lots of hands-on activities like making candles, Great Plains stew, moccasins, and preserved fruit, as well as excursions into the field to make notes and to take samples of flowers and leaves like The Corps of Discovery did).

On a similar poetic note, Christine Hume has arranged for visual poet Douglas Kearney to do a workshop with our 3rd and 4th graders on November 6th - poetry abounds in our elementary school. This promises to be enormously exciting.

We had a soul-stirring experience with Mark Stone and Dan Piccolo, who ran workshops and performed an interactive World Music concert for all our students. It was vibrant, beautiful, compelling stuff - thank you to Josh for making it happen. Mark and Dan also stayed for lunch to chat with our faculty, and we were joined by Jenny Koppera, a theatre professional with an interest in global theatre for kids, and James Chaffers, an architect who has worked in Europe and Africa, and who was a guiding light in the development of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington DC (thank you, Amy Kulper, for the connection). It was a lovely, lovely lunch with many interesting conversations which I know are continuing to happen between teachers and our guests. It will be fascinating to see where this might lead.

Kindergarteners have forged an on-going relationship with the University of Michigan Hospital Child Care Centre, where several of our children attended preschool and our own Val used to teach. This gives our smallest students the opportunity to be the big kids, and to offer love and guidance to the preschoolers when they visit them at the UMHCCC.

Josh is starting a series of relaxed evenings to share the children's music with the community. We are calling them Music Cafe evenings, and the first one, focusing on middle school, will be on November 21st. You should have received an email from Karen with details on this. Josh's goal here is to break down the barrier between music at home and music at school, and have the children identify as musicians whose musical passion is integrated into every part of their lives. As such, they are encouraged to bring music from outside school to perform at the Music Cafe.

As you all know, the math books are only part of the picture, providing structure and necessary practice. Math abounds with activities, also, that bring excitement and deeper understanding to the subject. 3rd and 4th graders have started on some programming work, with the majority studying the Tynkers program, and a small group studying robotics with Dr. George with a view to training others later. All classes are doing work that brings math alive, from cutting up potatoes and studying County Farm Park contour maps, to cube nets, to calendar games at kindergarten level that support developing readers as well as budding mathematicians.

Always fun, always exciting, always popular, EBs are in full swing after only one week, as we have changed the format to twice-a-week sessions. It's a lovely way to mix up the classes (my poetry EB has 3rd-7th grade participants) and the atmosphere that pervades the building as children head to their different EBs has a unique kind of energy to it. The buzz is palpable. EBs this session include Photography, Bread Baking (and culture), Paper Airplanes (and rockets), and Forensics for the little ones, and Poetry, Gardening, Card Games, Africa, and Science FIction for the older ones. Great stuff.

Costumes for EcoFair were, as ever, imaginative, creative, adorable, and amazing. A big thanks to you and your children for making this celebration so much fun and so memorable again this year. The parade was a blast. Next year, weather permitting, we will take it outside and walk around Arbor Hills Crossing mall with it. The world needs to know!

That's it for now - please do check your teacher's blog for more details, and read the blogs that other teachers write, too. There's some really interesting stuff happening in this school, and it's just not possible to capture it all here. I'm grateful to the faculty, the children, and all of you for the opportunity to work in such a vibrant place - much of this is on-going, but when you think that this represents a month at SK, you can perhaps see how magical it is to work in such a place. Please continue to bring your thoughts, expertise, connections and vitality to share with us - you are a vital part of the energy that drives this school.

Thank you all for your support and warmth, and for sharing your children with us. Please let me know if you have any questions at all.

Monday, November 4, 2013

ADHD event

Here's a great opportunity to attend a program on ADHD, free and open to all,presented by Dr. Charles Krasnow at the WISD. Dr. Krasnow is a local psychiatrist specializing in pediatric and adolescent psychiatry, and his talk promises to be useful and interesting. Details can be found on the Washtenaw Learning Disabilities Association Upcoming Events page.
Today a student who knows my love of poetry brought me a book of poems by the Persian poet Rumi. At morning meeting we shared this poem with the school, a celebration of the inspiration others can give us through love and friendship.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A month has passed already!

We've got off to an exciting start to the year on a bunch of fronts. Here are some highlights:

We've reached the middle of our first theme - Explorations - and it's clear that this is a theme that is going to last forever. Faculty discussions about project collaborations are reaching into upcoming themes (Identity, Cities, Mythology) and linking constantly with Explorations as a vehicle. Exploration is a key element of the SK learning experience, and will always be a part of the process.

The school play - The Odyssey - is a prime example of project-based learning in action. The middle school students have researched this story in many forms, and rehearsals are about to begin. More on the play below. Students at this level are about ready to jump into independent projects based in their studies from the first month of the theme.

The Odyssey has led to some other adventurous work around journeys. Kids are writing their own epics, and will be illustrating and, we hope, turning them into books. In maybe more unusual ways, though, we are connecting with travelers of the body and mind who bring unique insights to our children. Paul Salopek, the journalist who is doing the Out of Eden walk will be skyping with our students; sound artists, policemen, poets and explorers of other genres will be walking with them and sharing their individual ways of looking at their environment with us; Josh, Imogen, Monica, Tracy, George, Shan - all our brilliant team (I love these people) are exploring with the kids and planning collaborations with homeroom teachers to bring far-reaching projects to life. Across the board, from Lewis and Clark to space exploration, there is so much to tell and learn here. Read your teacher's blogs. And if they are behind on them, harass them about it. Harass me. :) We all get caught up in the doing, and the telling can get neglected.

Dr. George is working on a - truly - amazing system for our greenhouse, to ensure that it is heated throughout the winter to extend our growing season. All of George's blog is worth reading - fascinating stuff - but the greenhouse system is best explained here.

You'll see (if you read his blog) that the middle school students are engaging on the science behind this along with George. On that subject, I'd like to take a moment to clarify George's role this year. You've given me feedback that the changes are confusing; here's (I hope) a more comprehensive explanation.

George's title this year is Scientist-In-Residence. This was a moniker he and I dreamed up because it seemed most in keeping with the inspirational, enriching work that he does with the children. Last year, each class went to the science room to work with George for an hour each week. He also did science club three times a week. We saw the way that science club ideas and projects caught fire in the children's imaginations, and George and I discussed how we could make this happen best in the context of the classroom. Out original vision, when we hired George two years ago, was that he would bring inspirational science as an extension to the work being done in the homeroom, and in the process inspire the teachers as well as the children to love science and engage with it in creative, central ways. So we are re-committing to that vision.

This is the way we have fashioned it. The homeroom teachers teach science. At middle school level we are exceptionally fortunate to have two trained science teachers, Jason and Sam, as part of the team, and they are heading up the science/STEM program for the 5th-8th students. For all our homeroom teachers, George is a partner and a resource. So, for example, I have been working on an understanding of atoms and elements with my class, and George has been working individually and with small groups to support and enrich every child in developing an experiment or demonstration of their chosen element. Because we have flexibility of time, George is able to join us, or take children to the science room, when we need it rather than when the schedule arbitrarily demands. George is able to bring his magic to science in a way that keeps it in the context of homeroom studies but also takes it to other dimensions, and do it in a way that gives every child his undivided attention.

George also brainstorms with the faculty and comes up with larger group projects. The greenhouse heating project is a case in point. George has been working with middle schoolers on understanding thermodynamics, and he has been planting tomato and cucumber seeds for our winter harvest with both the 3rd/4th grade groups. We are brainstorming together how to collaborate on an aquaponics system. The work is meaningful because it is uniquely George's brilliance, couched in the larger context of the homeroom experience.

George is available to all homeroom groups and all teachers in this way. He is of course also still doing science club for the enthusiasts who just can't get enough science, and ultimately the students working with him during the club will have the opportunity - under his guidance - to teach their findings to their homeroom groups.

That was a lot of explaining. Thank you for bearing with me!

Josh is arranging for for world percussion expert Mark Stone to come to the school and do a performance and a workshop. Mark is absolutely amazing and will play, demonstrate and talk about a large range of instruments and music from Africa, India, and a few other places. Mark will also be leading workshops for small groups when he comes in. It's a really exciting opportunity.

Josh is doing a music workshop for teachers! Yes, he is! Thursday lunchtimes we are going to be happy bunch of noisemakers, and it is going to be so much fun. Thank you, Josh, for giving us the chance to be musical learners with you.

(By the way, Josh is doing FABULOUS work in music. I have kids singing in my classroom because of him, just for the joy of it. But they are composing, too, engaging with different instruments, experiencing the joy of collaborative creation, and the older kids are bringing in their own saxophones, flutes, violins etc, and developing ensemble skills with those instruments too. The music room is active, vibrant, noisy and delectable, and the kids are loving it. Just thought I'd say.)

Middle School
We're introducing a sex education curriculum, Our Whole Lives (, to our middle school classes. This is an impressively well-designed program with a strong emphasis on self-worth, responsibility, social justice, and thoughtful decision-making. It was developed by the Unitarian Church, although it is an entirely secular curriculum. Rachel Goldberg, our new Director of Camps and Extended Learning, has joined our middle school teaching team to provide female mentorship and leadership for our girls. It is our great good fortune that Deb Dean-Ware, mother of Josiah in 1st grade, is extensively experienced and trained in this program, and is trained to train. She has given her time and energy generously to make sure that the middle school team, including Rachel, are properly prepared to teach. The 5th/6th program is comparatively short and will start later in the year. Karl and Rachel have already started some very thoughtful work with our oldest kids, taking them on a retreat to the UP (to a place very kindly lent to us by Karl's parents, Bill and Sheila Sikkenga) last week to give ample space and time for foundational reflection and discussion.

The University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing is partnering with our middle school students to develop writing workshop skills and techniques. This has been inspiring and challenging for our kids, and they have stepped up to the plate with enthusiasm. Huge thanks to Anne Gere (Denali's mother) for masterminding this connection.

Karl Sikkenga has started the initial stages of our school play, which this year will be based on Homer's epic of exploration, The Odyssey. The main characters will be played by middle school students, and there will be opportunities to take part in group scenes for the younger students also. Every class in the school will be involved in some way, whether acting, set-painting, or some other contribution, and every teacher collaborates under Karl's guidance in this process. This is a fitting follow-up to last year's highly successful Gilgamesh, and fits exceptionally well with our themes of Exploration, Identity, and Mythology. (Coincidence? I think not.) It's also a fantastic example of the collaborative approach taken by our faculty. The play will be performed on December 5th, 6th and 7th, so please mark your calendars now. Middle school students should plan to be available for all three of these performances.

Sam Hirschman, Jason's 5th/6th grade homeroom partner (who is new to his role although not new to Summers-Knoll), has been pioneering a new model of teaching math at middle school level. Sam is a highly experienced math and science teacher, and we have altered that math model to allow maximum access to his exceptional teaching. Sam is leading all three math groups at middle school level, from the latter stages of the Singapore curriculum and into Algebra and beyond. Sam is also teaching the most advanced of our elementary math groups. Thank you, Sam.

Elementary School
Nate Ayers has started working with both 3rd/4th classes. Nate is a professional permaculturist who first established a relationship with Summers-Knoll two years ago. Nate has been discussing monocultures, polycultures, and bio-mimicry with the children so far, using our own County Farm Park as his science lab. He's a brilliant educator and scientist, and we're looking forward to working with him as he continues to blow our students' minds. Thank you to Chris Swinko for establishing and fostering this relationship.

In time-honored tradition, naturalist Faye Stoner from County Farm Park has been working with our 1st and 2nd grade students. Faye typically walks in the woods with our kids three times a year, watching the changing seasons and examining the activity of the natural world. See Susan Carpenter's blog post about it here. Many thanks to Faye for her lovely work.

Our kindergarten class ended up being 13 children strong this year - one more than we normally anticipate. Because of this, Shan Cook is working with Val in a supporting role this year, thereby realizing a dream of working with kindergarten kids. Thank you, Shan, for bringing your great energy, love, and experience to the kindergarten room.

My thanks go to the entire teaching team for their teamwork, huge hearts and brilliant brains. It is an absolute privilege to be working with these people. Our returning teachers are, of course, fabulous. Our new additions to the team - Mary Swain, Sam Hirschman, Monica Wilson, Josh Grekin, Rachel Goldberg in her Our Whole Lives role, and Shiyu Nitsos have all thrown themselves into the spirit and life of our school with enthusiasm, generosity and great teaching chops. It feels as if they have been part of our family forever. Thank you, all of you, for everything you bring.

And, lastly, a HUGE shout-out to the operations team, under the guidance of Fran Loosen. You people are bringing our school to new heights, and it's a total joy to me to be focusing on curriculum, faculty, and my own teaching, knowing that operations are in such good hands. Huzzah! and THANK YOU!