The Muddy Marsh, Deodorant, and The Journey to Our Best Selves

As our bus driver Mr. Jack pulled into Walker’s parking lot on the evening of Friday, October 27, I immediately began reflecting upon the fifth grade’s trip to Driftwood Education Center and how it so perfectly encapsulated our mission here at Walker. From the wee hours when we departed on a Tuesday morning until stepping off of the bus that Friday evening, our fifth graders were thoroughly engaged in an educational opportunity that contributed to both transformative learning and the building of meaningful relationships. Those four days on the coast of Georgia connect directly to the heart of what we do.

The scientific learning that occurred on this trip will resonate with students in both the upcoming quarters and the years to follow. Over the rest of their academic careers and throughout their lives, they will continue to make connections to the concepts and ideas that were on display in the learning centers, within the forest, out on the river, and even in the muddy marsh. Because student learning is the chief priority of our school, each and every child participated in a meticulously designed program that enriched their minds in a way that classrooms are not fully equipped to do.

Tantamount only to the content-specific knowledge gained on this endeavor are the strides that these children took on the path of their development into independent and empathetic citizens. With guidance from our leaders, students built the confidence and social skills needed to work both independently and collaboratively. Their perspectives expanded in a way that encouraged responsible decisions and to consider others and the world around them. Not only did they grow as scientists, but they also blossomed as thoughtful boys and girls.

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The questions we discussed were varied and purposeful. Whether regarding the environment (How do ecosystems evolve across various terrains?), land structures (What purpose do barrier islands have in relation to the mainland?), sustainability (What are both positive and negative effects of food waste?), teamwork (How can we get our entire team across the hot lava?), responsibility (How exactly do you fold a sleeping bag?), or personal hygiene (How much deodorant is enough deodorant?), each day was spent in exploration of our world and ourselves.

We in the Lower School did some learning as well. Our teachers learned even more about their students, the way they process information, and the systems they use to connect ideas. As with any learning opportunities, we were able to identify areas for growth leading us into a great place where we can provide a challenging environment with high expectations for student achievement as they correlate with individual needs and strengths. As for me, I was able to foster deeper relationships with a wonderful group of students. The time we spent together will empower me to spend the remainder of the school year helping to mold their character, resilience, gratitude, and ethos.

All in all, I want to offer my appreciation to Dr. Holly Martin and the fifth grade team and chaperones for their coordination and execution of this event. As with any successful undertaking, the details were many and the hours were long. I implored Mrs. Jacki Gass to turn off her notifications for the weekend, and I would like to encourage you to have your child pen a quick note of thanks to these teachers for the marvels of the week. Though such is part of the Walker package per se, we never want our students to cease to find the gratitude in every moment.

In addition, thanks is due to Nurse Dana Ferguson for her unwavering commitment to the care of students and leaders alike, as well as our Middle School liaisons Mr. David Gale, Mr. Roberto Llopart, and Mr. Kevin Tilley as they laid the foundation for the bridge between our two divisions. I invite you to join me in thanking them as well.

Walker parents have given the faculty and staff here at Walker the privilege of assisting in the development of their children, and that responsibility is never lost on us. Entrusting us as you did speaks to the partnership we have forged. It is my earnest hope that, for all involved, this trip was filled with wonder, the kind that leads us to new learning, increased empathy, and a deeper understanding of our best selves. Our week at Driftwood has been but a guide map for tomorrow.

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Walker’s Core Strengths: Nurturing Atmosphere

This is truly my favorite part of the year …the warmth, kindness, excitement, and generosity fills the air and nurtures my spirit. It’s the time of the year where somewhere among the hustle and bustle, we get to take a breath and remember all that is truly important – our people.

At Walker, we often hear our school described as a place with a nurturing environment, and as Lower School Counselor, each day I see the work that happens so that our students are nurtured to grow and evolve into the version of their best selves. I watch the hands-on instruction; I watch the daily hugs, high-fives, and occasional tear-wiping from our teachers; I witness the behinds the scenes genuine LOVE, sweat, and tears of our faculty; and I hear the constant encouragement, reassurance, and inspiration specified for each and every student. These actions are heartfelt, as these precious students are “our people.”

Yet, in order to help our students transform into productive and positive citizens of the world, we have to show them what it is like to be nurtured, and also how to nurture others – how to step aside and put others’ needs as a priority. On Friday, December 18th, the Lower School celebrates its second annual Day of Giving, and we are continuing a tradition with our students in serving others. Each grade level chooses a way to give, whether it is making sure homeless animals have homemade treats to eat or hospitalized children have warm blankets, or sharing the love of reading with nearby preschool children, we must show our little ones what it means to nurture others, and by doing so, we in turn nurture them. Those in need of our service are “our people” too.

Yes, Walker provides an amazing place where are students are known, nurtured, and cared for in every way, and what I love about Walker is the fact that we also give our kids the opportunity to nurture others. May you all have a fabulous winter break and take a moment to nurture your people – those who may be unknown to you and those who you hold most dear.

Passion, Progress, Purpose

BRAIN_temp coverIn our fifth grade class meeting last week, I had one of those moments that we, as teachers, hold sacred.  It became apparent to me that my students still didn’t quite understand the symbolism of the rubber bands as they relate to learning and the brain research presented by JoAnn Deak. In early January, JoAnn Deak visited The Walker School and shared her latest brain research…and the example of how rubber bands symbolize areas of strength (large, stretchy rubber bands) as well as areas of weakness (small, inflexible rubber bands).

So I reread Deak’s Your Fantastic Elastic Brain book aloud to them. Although they enjoyed practicing the pronunciations of the words amygdala and cerebellum along with me, I could tell they still didn’t realize the significance. There was no connection. I got smiles and polite nods, but not a single light bulb flickered on.  I tried a new tactic. I asked them to guess what my largest, most elastic rubber band was. I heard things like:

“Speaking!” “English!” “Reading!” and “Writing!”

“Yes!” I said. “Those are my PASSION bands, and do you know how they got sooooo stretched? I loved writing and reading books and teaching others when I was young. I told them stories about how I used to come home from school and play “school” for three hours until my mom called me down for dinner. (Some of the looks of disgust/incredulity from my students were priceless by this point.) I went on to tell them that I remember fishing through the trash for discarded workbooks on the last day of school so I could use the unused pages for my imaginary students at home. (By this point the chuckles grew louder.) And then I dropped the bomb.

“Guess what was happening to my brain every time I read, and wrote a story, and pretended to be a teacher in my little classroom upstairs? IT WAS STRETCHING! The areas required for those tasks were getting worked and stretched and expanded and strengthened, but it didn’t feel like work at all. I was just following my passion.”  

I then made it personal: “So, Shane, you know all those basketball videos you make on iMovie with your buddies for fun? You are doing EXACTLY what I was doing when I played school. You’re having fun, exploring your passions, and stretching parts of your brain that might not have otherwise been stretched.”

Rhodes chimed in, “My stretchiest rubber band is definitely organizing. I love it.”

“Mine is definitely talking,” said Adam (one of my highly communicative students).

I continued on to talk about my small “PROGRESS” rubber bands – the ones I wish I’d stretched more as a child. I talked about math with Mrs. Herrmann and Mrs. Hussey…Mrs. Rhodes’s dreaded physics class…Mr. Parkhurst’s chemistry course…and even my public speaking courses in college. (My class was shocked to learn that I would much prefer speaking to parents one-on-one than giving a large lecture on Parents’ Night.) These were all taught by amazing teachers whom I still respect and admire to this day, but because the content was not my passion, I didn’t ever grit my teeth, press on, and really S-T-R-E-T-C-H them.

We ended our discussion by viewing Shane’s video entitled “Elite Dudez: Episode II” and it was everything I had hoped it would be. The flawless technical editing on iMovie, musical overlay, exaggerated celebration, and passion encompasses everything I love about teaching fifth graders.

What’s important about moments like these? I am reminded that the power of knowing this information about the human brain is, I believe, better than any knowledge I impart to my students this year. Understanding these seemingly silly, symbolic rubber bands can literally open doors that would have otherwise remained closed. Who knows where Shane’s videos will lead him? Where Rhodes’s passion for organizing will take her? What doors will open up because of Adam’s quick wit and ease in speaking? We, as adults, can only look back and wish that we had stretched our bands more. How wonderful it is that we are showing these young minds the power of stretching both their PASSION and their PROGRESS bands!

If you’d like to see what stretching looks like (and you need a good laugh), please check out Shane’s latest basketball video. It’s a priceless reminder of progress, passion, and the purpose behind everything we do here at Walker.

About the Author: Mrs. Kate Carter (’99) is the fifth grade Language Arts teacher in the Lower School. She has been at Walker since she was in Preschool but has been teaching for six years at the school. Mrs. Carter currently serves as the upper elementary Language Arts coordinator.

Why Twitter? For Learning and Connecting!

If I used Twitter the way most people think Twitter is used, last week I would have posted:

  • A re-tweet of The Walker School announcement that school was closed on Monday
  • A picture-tweet of the thermometer prior to morning carpool on Tuesday showing 5°F
  • A tweet saying how yummy the SAGE vegetable soup was for lunch on Wednesday
  • A video of Maisie bouncing at the door, welcoming me home from work late on a Thursday
  • A tweet saying that I had procrastinated in writing this blog entry on Friday afternoon

Why TweetBut the reality is that as the Lower School Principal and as an ongoing learner, I use Twitter for so many different reasons. While I did not actually tweet any of the examples above, the mundane occasionally makes it into a tweet. But as a professional educator and leader, I see Twitter is the place where I primarily go to amplify my professional learning, connect with other administrators and teachers to glean ideas and best practices, and share the dynamic teaching and learning that happens within (and outside) of the walls of the Lower School at The Walker School.

One specific way that Assistant Principal Liz Meadows and I use to Twitter amplify, connect, and share is by documenting our Lower School Learning Walks using the hashtag #LSLearningWalk. A goal of ours is to informally observe (and offer feedback to teachers and even students) on a regular basis. We often schedule a LS Learning Walk on our calendar because it’s as important a commitment as a meeting with a parent or teacher. Once a Learning Walk is scheduled, we do just that: we learn and we walk. And we use Twitter to document and share the teaching and learning that we happen upon in the hallways, classrooms, lunchroom, or even out at recess! We kicked off 2014 with three days of learning walks which we not only documented on Twitter but also on the Lower School Learning blog in a post full of visuals and videos titled “Lower School Learning Walk – First Week of 2104.”

Fifth grade Language Arts teacher Kate Carter also uses Twitter for learning and connecting. She shares, “Although I wish I could tweet more during the school day, I love that Twitter allows me to celebrate those special learning moments in the classroom that usually only I, as the teacher, get to see. I can’t tell you how many times in prior years I said to my students, “I wish your mom/dad was here to see this!” Now, they often hear me say, “Oh my goodness, I have to tweet this!!” Having a twitter handle (@KateCarter15) helps me connect and also reminds me to celebrate the special little moments that happen every day here at school.”

Fifth Grade Twitter

Mrs. Carter also invites her students to tweet. At any point during the school day, a student can share something they learned by completing the paper form that’s in her classroom. It’s a learning experience in itself to synthesize and summarize new information in 140 characters or less! It’s also a great way for Mrs. Carter to assess what students are learning and to evaluate what they find powerful in their classroom experiences.

All in all, Twitter is certainly something extra. It’s another social networking tool, but as an educational leader, it’s the tool I (and many others) use to amplify professional learning, connect with other administrators and teachers, and share the dynamic teaching and learning that happens within (and outside) of the walls of the school. A lot of teachers and parents at The Walker School are giving it a try — ask around and you may find it a helpful way to learn even more about how this social networking tool is inspiring meaningful relationships and engendering transformative learning!

You do not have to have a Twitter account to follow The Walker School on Twitter. Click here to access the School’s profile and Twitter handle (@thewalkerschool).

Walk as a Child: A Day in the Life of a Fourth Grader

Over the past several weeks, Lower School and Preschool teachers have “walked as a child” from morning carpool until afternoon pick-up. Last Friday, Mrs. Sue Rittenberg, Preschool and Lower School Learning Specialist, spent the day as a fourth grader.

She describes her day walking a child in her own words:

“Lightning-fast. Eye-opening. Way more fun than any school day I remember.”

And if she were to let us peek into her journal or diary, fourth-grader-Sue describes her day from the point-of-view of a Walker student.

After socializing at my table in Gatti Hall, everyone lines up, quickly, to get upstairs. The day starts fast, and the pace is set.

There’s an easy flow to that first organizational piece of dropping off homework and writing down assignments. Teachers have us programmed well to get assignments from the white board — some sit at a desk, but others sit on the floor right in front of the white board. (Probably would have been me in fourth grade!) There’s a quiet hum as students hold up their hands to have assignments signed off by Mrs. Mulroy. At precisely 7:55 a.m., we are hearing the next chapter read out loud from a great novel she’s reading to the class. Must be great to have your own “book on tape” installment every morning.

First class is a social studies test. Wow, Mrs. Jackson has quiet music playing when we walk into the room. (My brain sure feels calmer just having that music in the background.) And I can’t believe how helpful she is when she hands out the test. She actually tells us which key words to highlight for the first four questions. Even better, on the second page, she draws the picture we went over in class to remind us of the details for that Mayflower Compact question. And she tells us to come up to her desk and say, “I have a question about this question.” Some kids go ask questions…it’s no big deal, and makes a big difference if I don’t understand how the question is worded.

Now we move to math class. I’d probably feel a lot differently about math if I had Ms. Ahmed as a teacher in fourth grade. She’s always saying things like, “I’m not that fast with my multiplication facts…can someone tell me how they would get that answer?” or “Numbers are easy, it’s the words that get in the way — let’s walk slowly through the words.” A classmate said that she didn’t understand the reason zero wasn’t a prime number and, get this, Ms. Ahmed said, “I don’t like that reason either, and I’m going to come back with a better reason on Monday and share it with you guys.” It’s super safe to raise your hand in here, and you don’t have to be certain you have the exact right answer!

Back to English class to work on our personal narratives. I really didn’t know what a “hook” was, but now I get it — it’s how to trick the reader by saying something funny, or using dialogue, or maybe a contrast — and then they’ll read the whole piece of writing, even the parts that aren’t that exciting. Mrs. Mulroy is awesome at saying things over and in a different way — until we get it. (Should probably go back and rework the hook to this piece.)

Finally, it’s recess and then lunch — then PE. No one complains about running 4 laps right after lunch, probably because Coach Brady just makes everything FUN, even all the conditioning drills! (Those fourth grade arms were much stronger than mine doing the 5 pull ups following a full minute of sit-ups).

What better way to end the day than to have Science with Mrs. Waddington and Mrs. Mullins? When Mrs. Waddington said we were having a quiz, I thought “Oh, great.” But guess what? She had us work with a partner and make up our own quiz! That’s more fun, but actually not that easy. We had to make up easy, medium and hard questions — plus a bonus question. And we had to figure out the answers for every question. Science goes by way too fast—all the kids say that!

Now, quickly check the books we need for homework, listen for our carpool number, and down the steps to carpool circle!!!

What an incredible, amazing experience this was.  I really can’t begin to describe what these teachers are able to pack into a day. Tomorrow, I’d love to be a first grader…then a Kindergartner…and then….second grade…and then…

What did I learn about Walker from this experience walking as a child?

  • Students feel so respected and are constantly encouraged to ask questions or make comments on other’s answers by agreeing or disagreeing.
  • Critical thinking takes place in EVERY class — students are asked to discover answers on their own, or better yet — come up with the questions. Students simply don’t have the chance to “sit back.”
  • Learning strategies are being taught in so many ways and naturally incorporated into how students ask for help, how to use resources, and how to walk through a test.
  • Being in the classroom, it’s easy to feel how much these teachers care about each student — encouraging someone to ask a question that they haven’t heard from yet or authentically commenting on what a great connection was just made.
  • These kids should be TIRED when they get home — they are going nonstop, and it moves fast!!!

About the Author: Mrs. Sue Rittenberg, M.A., is the Preschool and Lower School Learning Specialist. She is in her seventh year at The Walker School and is a certified Speech-Language Pathologist.

What do a medical school and an elementary school have in common?

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” –John Dewey

What do a medical school and an elementary school have in common? More than you might initially think.

The University of Virginia medical students in the Class of 2014 are undergoing a learning experience that is radically different from that of previous generations. With a new medical education building, upgraded curriculum, and innovative technology, these students are being offered a learning experience like very few in this country.

As I reflect on The Walker School’s vision for the future – which includes both building upon an already strong foundation and enhancing our program in many ways – I am confident that our students are embarking on an unparalleled learning experience from the early years in Preschool through their final year in Upper School. Reading the article Adjusting the Prescription: University of Virginia’s School of Medicine Overhauls its Century-Old Educational Approach provided solid confirmation for the new directions in which we are headed.

Cooperative Learning: The Medical School’s “Learning Studio” is a radical departure from the lecture halls of the past. The large circular room with tables houses 155 first-year medical students, and Randolph Canterbury, Senior Associate Dean of Education, explains that “one of the goals of this whole model—of having students do a lot of the learning themselves rather than passively listening—is that they need to be lifelong learners.” In many classrooms in the Lower School, you will find desks assembled into tables and often students are working collaboratively on an art project, debating the best medium for a group presentation, or engaging in a cooperative learning task that requires problem solving and creativity. These tables require that students sit “elbow to elbow and knee to knee” in order to do the active learning that Dean Canterbury describes.

The Power of Reflection: UVA’s Medical Simulation Center is nationally recognized. While some may think the prestige lies in the six adult and two pediatric medical simulators (one of which costs $250,000), rather it is the Center’s focus on debriefing (or reflection) which is an essential component of the simulation experience. In fourth and fifth grade at Walker, a reflection period is built into the school schedule on Fridays which allow students to seek to understand their role as learners and the power of the learning process. One-on-one conferences during writing and reading blocks in first, second, and third grade, carefully and regularly planned class meetings, and a thoughtful approach to character education which includes student input and leadership provides our students with time to reflect on who they are as learners both in and outside of the classroom.

Active Engagement: Students in UVA’s Class of 2014 indicate that this new approach has made them feel less stressed and more engaged than their peers at other institutions. Student Tom Jenkins explains, “The faculty really wants us to understand, not parrot back a lot of rote information…and I like the way everything meshes.” At Walker, teachers place a premium on understanding. Students – whether they are in the hallway working in partnerships, in Winship Library grouped in small clusters with laptops, or in small groups at lab tables in the science lab – are actively engaged in the learning process. They are exposed to countless opportunities for the worlds of art and science (or math and language arts) to collide, just as they do at UVA’s Medical School and in the world outside of The Walker School.

Cooperative Learning. The Power of Reflection. Active Engagement. It’s easy to think that elementary education is merely preparation for secondary school or even college. However, I agree with the educational philosophy of John Dewey and believe that education, even at the elementary level, is life itself.

Sharing Our Summer Reading

Confession from the Lower School Principal:

“I don’t actually remember a single summer in elementary, middle, or high school when I started my summer reading prior to August 1st.”

When I called my mother – with great hope that she would tell me my memories were incorrect – she confirmed that it was “like pulling teeth to get you started on that summer reading of yours.”

Interestingly, in elementary, middle, and high school, I adored reading. The thing with summer reading though, when I was growing up, was that there wasn’t much of a choice about what I read…and there wasn’t much dialogue going on with my friends – at swim meets, during soccer camps, and in the neighborhood tree houses – about what my friends were reading.

I’m sure that there are still many children – and even students in our Lower School – who feel the same way young Ms. Howard felt about summer reading. Yet, I also know that we are striving to enhance learning experiences in the Lower School, and in May, we created a digital space (a blog with currently over 650 views) called Sharing Our Summer Reading. As a result, students are exposed to a greater choice of reading selections and have a place to dialogue about their summer reading.

Student learners and adult learners (parents, teachers, and administrators) can submit recommendations and reviews which are posted for the immediate School community and for the world to see (already, visitors from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela have happened upon our project). So far twelve reviews have been posted and rising second, third, fourth, and fifth graders have contributed thoughtful book recommendations (in addition to two contributions from adults).

One of our rising fifth graders, Tanya D., shared a review on The Tale of Despereaux and wrote,

The Tale of Despereaux is a page-turning book. It’s something you’d be reading in bed at midnight when you’re extremely tired, but you have to stay awake to finish the book. This book would appeal to someone who enjoys adventures and surprise. I would recommend this because it is interesting. Some characters switch heart completely.”

Not only will her review potentially motivate her classmates to be curious about Despereaux, but Tanya received valuable feedback from a second grade teacher at another school, a parent of a rising third grader, and a senior from the Upper School at Walker. Her blog post, like many others on the blog, is detailed and thoughtful. It invites others to engage…and that was our purpose in creating this digital space. While summer is certainly a time for play, rest, and a bit of summer reading, at Walker we are always striving to create engaging educational experiences for our learners — children and adults alike.

I hope you will take time to visit the Sharing Our Summer Reading blog…and if you have time to leave a comment, please do! Or better yet, write a review for a book you’ve enjoyed this summer!