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!