Student Engagement

Grandparents are Curious

While much of our Grandparents Day messages concentrated on connections between their grandkids today and their own childhood, we also pointed out some of the differences as a result of our changing world.

Grandparents know more than anyone else how much the world has changed, and how schools need to change in response. So unlike the teachers each grandparent recalled from his or her own childhood, our Mount Vernon teachers…

not only teach children to find their voice as writers of stories                                    but they also teach children to write code                                                not only teach children to read books                                                                                    but they also teach children to read and analyze blogs                               do not teach about science through textbooks                                                                    rather, they invite children to observe and question their world,                      create and conduct experiments in a lab, and analyze results like                    scientists and engineers                                                                                     provide opportunities for students to develop the skills of design thinkers            digital citizens, and global citizens

We hope this sets each child on a journey to do whatever he or she wants to do and to be whatever he or she wants to be. And as we told the grandparents, the brightest of the bunch want to grow up to be…

Just like their Grandparents!


Grandparents are Multiplers

Friday, November 28 was our annual Grandparents and Special Friends Day. This is an unusual day in that we are hosting and celebrating our wise and loving grandparents. However, it is a typical day in that we are celebrating our kids – because that is what we do every day in Lower School; we celebrate kids!

I know that many lower school students may not even realize that their grandparents were once 5-10 year olds too. However, while seated in the audience, grandparents took a moment to reflect on their elementary school years and the teachers who were most impactful on their lives. It is no surprise that  memories are so vivid. The formative years of elementary school are some of the most influential on a child’s life. For the first time in a child’s life, factors outside of the home have the biggest influence on the child.

Children in these formative years are forming opinions of themselves and what they value. They are forming attitudes about school. Do they like it? Do they need it? Is learning fun? They are also making friends that will influence life decisions and direction.

While some aspects of these formative years have remained the same, some aspects of teachers  have too. Our teachers still cheer hard to encourage perseverance when things are hard. We set high expectations and hold our students accountability because we value life lessons and character building.

Grandparents were able to connect to these examples, and it is good to know that kids are still kids.


Elizabeth Payne led a recent Parent University on a Strengths-Based Approach to Parenting. She shared that talent is something you are naturally good and it helps us shine. She reminded us that when we ask people to operate in a weakness all the time, and offer negative feedback, it is frustrating and unproductive.

So there is much value in knowing your child’s (or your own) strength. When we focus on strengths, we are 3x more likely to report a happy quality of life, and we are 6x more engaged. Elizabeth outlined 4 clues to finding our child’s strengths:

  1. What do they yearn to do?
  2. In what settings are they rapid learners?
  3. When do they automatically know the next steps?
  4. When do they ask, “How did I do that?”

As adults it is our responsibility to celebrate and cultivate our children’s strengths. We can appreciate their curiosities to learn more, and give them hope for an optimistic future.

Connectors Build to Last

Multipliers build to last because they are curious, and they are connectors. We are designing learning experiences with your children that connect foundational skills to real-world opportunities and future possibilities. As you know we launched a new schedule prototype designed by our most fabulous maker, Jim Tiffin,  this year to experiment with extending the minutes and build continuity in connections classes (i.e. music, art, maker, science and Spanish). The previous model allowed for about 30 minutes every week. The new model provides connections teachers with 300 instructional minutes for one full week for deep project work. Classes then rotate every five weeks.

This extra time provides more opportunities for student curiosity and passion to drive learning. It also enables our teachers to have increased ownership over their own curriculum. Our outdoor playspace Frontier and newly renovated STEAM wing [the art studio, science lab, and studio(i)] are also inspiring creativity in all of us. Teachers are thinking more innovatively with five-hour chunks of time rather than 30 minutes.

Piper Hendryx, fourth grade Mustang, describes her love of maker classes in studio(i), “If I had to tell someone about studio(i), I would tell them they will have the time of their life here! It lets your creativity go wild. It sets you free!” She goes on to explain her maker project with four magical objects and how she writes computer code in Scratch to manipulate those objects. She also loves working with PicoBoards, and its various sensors like light and sound, to help her programs interact with the physical world. This connects to the science and engineering happening in homerooms as well as the science lab. Next, Piper plans to bring one of her stories she wrote in her literacy block to life using the tools in studio(i).”

My Notebook, Part III

Notes from a leadership meeting:

Quality Classroom Assessment

  • designed to serve information need of user
  • have achievement targets
  • accurately reflect student achievement
  • effectively communicate to users
  • involve students (in assessment, record keeping, and communication)
  • assess to gather evidence on student learning
  • have a clear sense of achievement expectations
  • use student-friendly language

The Thinking Classroom Part II: Language

When a phenomenon is complex, it tends to have many words to describe it. Consider love, sadness, and thinking. Each of these abstract concepts are complicated and can be described with many different words, actions, and experiences. When we expose young children to abstract concepts, it is our job to make them as clear and concrete as possible. Tishman, Perkins, and Jay challenge readers to consider the meaning of these six words:

  • guess
  • suppose
  • surmise
  • presume
  • assume
  • speculate

While all the words mean to form an opinion, each word marks a slight but significant difference. As teachers, we are challenged to use a wider variety of thinking words when we want a specific task from our students. The more ways of directing our students’ thinking, the more opportunities they will have to direct their thought processes. As a result, students will think more precicely. A teacher’s language can send different signals to students promoting specific patterns of thinking. Even children in the early elementary grades have acquired the necessary conceptual apparatus to understanding a range of thinking vocabulary.

While textbooks are simplifying language, we need to expose children to a larger variety of more specific thinking cues. Tishman, Perkins, and Jay describe words as precision instruments that will elicit detailed, thoughtful thinking in our learners. Just as teacher questioning has become a staple in unit planning, I hope we can add more precise thinking vocabulary in planning for instruction as well as directions on assessments.

First Day of School Welcome Message to Students

Carpool began at 7:25 a.m. and over 350 Lower School students bounced out of their cars and into newly redesigned learning spaces to start the 2014-2015 school year. It is my task to welcome each child, returning or new to this school year. The message I decided to share in this year’s Opening Assembly was, “You are a Genius!”

Each one of our students was born with the potential for genius. We may have the next Steve Jobs or William Shakespeare sitting among us and it is our job as teachers to help them know and understand their unique abilities early on. I reminded each child that the world has been changed by by ordinary people who were encouraged to be extraordinary.

Genius is the act of solving problems in ways no one else has solved it before. It’s about using human insight and initiative to find original solutions that matter. A genius is someone with the insight to find not-so-obvious solutions to a problem.

The only path to expertise, as far as we know, is practice. So this year in Lower School at Mount Vernon, we have turned our classrooms into laboratories of innovation and creativity. While the new furniture is fantastic, the paint is fresh, and even the potties are clean… the best part of these classroom spaces is that they are filled with our students, our little geniuses. Their class, our school, Atlanta, and our world needs their ideas and contributions. It is fun to think about:

  • Galileo making his first important scientific observation at 17.
  • Handel composing music when he was 11.
  • Marian Anderson beginning her singing career at gage six and taught herself to play the piano at age 8

The stage is set, the bar is raised high, but I hope each one of our Lower School geniuses left today’s assembly with a full bucket.


The Thinking Classroom Part III: Thinking Dispositions

Tishman, Perkins, and Jay (1995) outline 5 dispositions that foster good thinking.

  1. Like our Mount Vernon Norm, “Start with Questions,” they include the disposition to be curious and question. This encourages a spirit of inquiry and wonder, challenging students to pose problems, probe further, and look beyond what is given.
  2. Like our Mount Vernon Norm, “Fail Up!” the second disposition is to think broadly and adventurously. Students should be in environments that encourage exploration, open-mindedness, flexibility, and play.
  3. The third disposition is to reason clearly and carefully. Learners should seek clarity, gain understanding, and be precise.
  4. The fourth disposition is to organize one’s thinking to be orderly and logical, and to think ahead.
  5. The final disposition is to give thinking time. Thinking does not always happen quickly. It takes time and effort to pull thoughts together and to generate original ideas.

If we value thinking, we must provide the time and space for students to engage in all five thinking dispositions. We must teach thinking routines, allow students to try it, to wrestle with it, and to reflect upon it.


The Thinking Classroom Part I

Shari Tishman, David Perkins, and Eileen Jay are all researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education. The work they have done with Project Zero has influenced the way I see the classroom experience since 2006 when I first attended Project Zero.

I recently read (long overdue) their book The Thinking Classroom Learning and Teaching in a Culture of Thinking and used many of the ideas as I developed the New Teacher Orientation and Onboarding course for our 2014-2015 new hires.

Tishman, Perkins, and Jay remind us that schools are places of culture. Each member should feel a sense of community and common entreprise. The word enterprise surprised me in this context, but it really challenged me to think about our school’s purpose. How do our students and teachers interact? What expectations do we set for each? Are they different, and if so, why? What common language do we share? What do we value?

The book focuses on creating a culture of thinking the classroom and shares many real-world classroom examples. of this type of culture. The six dimensions of a culture of thinking outlined are:

  1. a language of thinking – words we use to describe thinking
  2. thinking dispositions – attitudes and habits of mind
  3. mental management – metacognition
  4. the strategic spirit – use of thinking strategies
  5. higher order knowledge  – ways of solving problems, using evidence, and using inquiry as a discipline
  6. transfer – applying knowledge and strategies from one context to another

In Lower School at Mount Vernon, we have tried to be intentional about creating a culture of thinking through visible thinking routines, asking children to show, prove, and explain their thoughts, celebrating original ideas over “right” ideas, and displaying authentic student work everywhere. Digging deeper into these six dimensions this year will help support this work.

Setting Readers up for Success

Everyone who has paid any attention to recent research knows the value of giving students experiences with nonfiction text. As a matter of fact, some researchers suggest that 50% of reading material should be nonfiction. Does simply changing out book titles, though, ensure students are growing as readers?

Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke share some great pointers for teacher of reading in Text and Lessons for Content Area Reading (Heinemann, 2011) and Text and Lessons for Teaching Literature (Heinemann, 2013).

  • Text should be shorter, not longer
  • Readers should self-select their text, not read teacher-assigned material
  • Readers should have background knowledge on the subject, rather than be exposed for the first time through heavy print
  • The reading material should be of personal interest to the reader
  • The text should contain visuals
  • Readers should be proficient in visualizing, inferring, questioning, and rereading, not just scanning for answers
  • Readers should be allowed to mark in the text, not prohibited
  • Readers should be able to discuss the text before, during, and after reading, not reading in isolation
  • Readers should have experience writing in the same genre, not just reading in the genre

While a print-rich environment can literally change a person’s life, adding nonfiction titles to classroom or home library is not enough to build a reader. Reading experiences, even SSR/DEAR times, should be intentionally planned and scaffolded.

Happy Reading!