Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On the Road with The Willows

Sea Lions and Dolphins and Sharks, Oh My!

Imagine waking up one morning to find one of your roommates staring you right in the face. Disconcerting, perhaps – and, especially so, if your roommate is a Great White Shark!

For a Willows’ second grader, it’s simply one of the unusual perks of the traditional overnight trip to Sea World. This trip - a highlight of the second grade curriculum since 1997 – celebrates the students’ yearlong study of the oceans.

Each May, the children trek, via bus, to San Diego and spend the night on the Sea World grounds, sleeping in rooms that house sea animals. Kids and teachers arrange their sleeping bags on the floor and fall asleep (or not!) to the glow of the aquarium tanks. The next morning, children tour the park and enjoy some of Sea World’s famed animal shows.

Amy Dugré and Maura Visconsi were the second grade teachers in 1997, that first year. “We had been talking about wanting to do this trip all year,” remembers Amy. “Maura made contact with a friend of hers who worked at Sea World, and once Lisa learned that it was an established program with good supervision, we decided to go for it.”

“It really was amazing,” Amy adds. “They had a specialized curriculum that integrated with everything we were doing. And the best was being able to enjoy Sea World after the park closed.”

Embarking on an overnight adventure with such young students might seem unusual, but at The Willows, it’s part of the teachers’ focus on integrated learning experiences at each grade level. From second grade on, each student has the opportunity to participate in a trip that connects with the curriculum.

The overnight trips often provide those “aha” moments for students, when their classroom learning comes alive and takes on a new significance. Perhaps this moment occurs on the third grade trip to Big Rock Creek Camp, when a student lying on his back, gazing up at the stars discovers the Orion constellation . . .

or maybe it’s on the fourth grade trip to Astrocamp, when students work underwater with their classmates to assemble a structure with plastic building materials and truly understand what it feels like to be an astronaut working in a low-gravity environment.

Seventh graders travel even further afield, visiting Washington, D.C., as they study American history. Students explore the Smithsonian Museums on the Mall, visit the city’s monuments, and day trip to one of the many historic sites outside the city.

“I especially loved the Library of Congress,” notes Jacob G., a current student, who was a member of this fall’s excursion to the nation’s Capitol. “The entire book collection was amazing, but I was astounded by the art. It covered the place from head to toe. Sculpture, mosaic, architecture, and painting—it was all there waiting for everyone and anyone.”

“I loved the Lincoln Memorial at night,” adds seventh grader Sophie K. “The view of the reflecting pool was so beautiful. It was also fun to see Steve point out that there was a mistake in the engravings on the wall.”

The trips support the curriculum, but also allow students to build independence in a safe setting. For many students, The Willows’ overnight trips are the first time they spend any significant time away from home and family.

Back in 1998, Tori Storosh, ’02 participated in the third grade’s first overnight trip to Big Rock Creek Camp. It was her first time sleeping away from home, and she was incredibly anxious. “I remember my teachers being extremely supportive and understanding of my troubles and fears. They tried to make it as fun for me as possible, and it was really nice of everyone to be so caring. I think that says a lot about the community that is formed at The Willows.”

 Reflecting on the decision to commit to overnight trips at almost every grade level, Lisa Rosenstein says, “It was a natural decision for us. Our curriculum emphasizes experiential learning – we want our children to understand first-hand those connections between the classroom and the world beyond.”

 “Plus,” she adds, “The shared experience of these trips is priceless. As our students grow older and move through the Lower and Middle School, they’re able to look back and remember all the adventures that they’ve had as a group. It’s just one more element that binds them together as a community.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Great Wall of Sugar & Other Adventures: Learning Comes to Life at The Willows!

As with the 3rd grade tipi, innovation, creativity and hands-on participation infuse learning at The Willows!

“We were learning about China and decided to reconstruct the Great Wall out of sugar cubes,” Lower School Director Terri Baird remembers one of her favorites from the early days of The Willows, when she was the teacher in the combined 5th/6th grade classroom. “One of the students, Jared R., '99, was obsessed with the idea of making sure that the entire structure was exactly to scale.”

“Each student brought in one box of sugar cubes, and we got to work,” Terri recalled. The whole thing was built on top of a huge wooden board. As you can imagine, there was probably as much eating of sugar cubes as there was building, but the kids had a blast.”

“The only people who weren’t happy with our project were Vladimir and Solomon [the school’s first custodians], continues Terri. “They couldn’t believe the mess we had made with the sugar! They were convinced that an army of ants was going to invade our classroom.”

Teachers and students at every grade level immerse themselves in activities that tie math, reading, writing, science, history, technology, and the arts together, making learning both meaningful and fun.

Recall these projects?

Superheroes - Developmental Kindergarteners transform into “superheroes” designing superhero costumes and imagining their own superpowers, as part of their study of community heroes.

Vascular Vests - Kindergarteners make “vascular vests” out of brown paper bags, attaching a balloon and straw to demonstrate how the lungs work, as part of their unit on the human body.

Willows Post Office - 1st graders embark on a field trip to the Culver City Post Office and then create their own “Willows Post Office,” designing and implementing a school-wide postal system, from stamps to delivery, as they learn about occupations.

Roller Coasters - 4th graders design and build roller coasters for marbles on the playground climbing structures – and then go to Six Flags to experience g forces first hand! All part of their unit on physics and motion.

Living Museum - 5th graders create and portray a “living museum” demonstrating crafts and trades during the colonial period as they study Colonial America.

Dig Project – 6th graders participate in the “Dig Project” with each homeroom class creating an imaginary ancient culture, complete with art, music, scientific and religious information. “Artifacts” related to this imaginary culture are buried in the school sandbox for the other class to excavate and examine. All part of their archaeology unit.

African Marketplace - 7th graders create an “African Marketplace” sharing cultural information of the various tribes of the African continent with their peers.

World War II Propaganda – 8th graders design their own propaganda posters reflecting the themes of the period, as they learn about propaganda during World War II.

What other hands-on projects do you remember? Add to our list!

Monday, November 30, 2009

TIPI! . . . we made our home out of ?????????


We made our home out of paper bags
128 to be exact
We sewed and sewed 'til our fingers exploded!
We made our home out of paper bags
But not from skins of buffalo
We Ralphed and Gelsoned and Trader Joed it.
We used twine instead of sinew
Metal needles instead of bone
Leave your matches outside when you
Step into our paper home:
Our Tipi!
- from The Tipi Song

If you visit one of the third grade classrooms during the fall, you may be lucky enough to view a Willows tradition in full swing:  the building of the tipi.

It is definitely not a project for the fainthearted!  Picture desks covered with piles of brown paper grocery bags and a roomful of  children threading needles, measuring seams, and sewing bags together in groups of two, four, and eight.  The challenge of creating a completely handmande, life-size tipi over 6' high and 12' in diameter seems daunting - but somehow it all works!

The Willows' very first tipi was created in 1997.  A rainy El Nino winter and bad weather forced the children inside during recess and lunch day after day. (Remember, this was when there was only one building and no gym where kids could blow off steam!)

The third graders were in the midst of a unit on native American life, reading novels about Native Americans, creating clay kachina dolls, and building Seneca medicine masks.  Third grade teacher Erin Sullivan was searching for a larger project that would give the class a collective mission. She also thought it wouldn't hurt for them to have an activity during the rainy recess periods.

"Let's make our own tipi," suggested one third grader.  Together, they discussed the materials needed (we can't use buffalo skins, so why not paper bags?) and the steps to take  (let's make small rectangles and piece them together into bigger rectangles).

"As the project unfolded, the tipi started to take on a life of its own," remembers Erin.  "The kids had to use multiplication to calculate the dimensions of the canvas they were sewing - how many bags long? how many bags wide?  We had to work with the number pi to cut the canvas into a tipi-shaped semicircle. Then, of course, they had to research and read about the pictographs that they would use to decorate the outside.  The tipi project wasn't just 'social studies' anymore - we were integrating all the disciplines and drawing on a huge set of skills to get the job done."

That spring, the completed tipi was erected in the atrium of Willows I.  On the day of their end-of-unit culmination, the third graders stood proudly at the entrance and provided tours for parents and friends.

That morning, the students also presented the very first performance of "The Tipi Song," a staple of The Willows "songbook" that third graders have sung at every Step-Up ceremony for years.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tradition! Establishing traditions!

Today, each year at The Willows is jam-packed with fabulous school-wide events that unite the community to benefit the school or simply to celebrate each other and the community. 

"Our traditions are important," says Lisa Rosenstein.  "These are the moments when we can gather as a community to enjoy each other's company and celebrate our shared purpose of educating children."

Founder and former Board member Mark Solomon recalls how these traditions were established during the early years, "We knew we wanted to anchor the calendar with some events, but we wanted to be sure they would be meaningful to families and help them feel connected to each other."

The Willows Auction was one of those early first events.  "I remember at our first auction, we collected what we could, and we had all this stuff out there for bidding," recalls Mark.  "My son Jake, '01 had come to the auction, and about an hour into the event, (Founder and Board Member) Gary Yale taps me on the shoulder and tells me, 'You better go check inside -- your son has bid on every piece of art from every kid he knows!'  By the end of the night, we ended up with the funniest collection of art you've ever seen.  It cracked me up, but it also spoke to me.  Even in the 3rd Grade, my son loved The Willows -- and he loved the art that the other kids were doing enough that he wanted it in our house!"

Parent volunteers are at the very heart of The Willows' traditional events and have worked tirelessly over the years developing and producing these successful events. 

Kudos to the Willows Parent Association, whose efforts over the years have made these and many more events possible:

THE BOOK FAIR (coming up this year on December 6th) - established the first year to fund the library and provide curricular books for classroom use.

BIG SUNDAY, a city-wide day of service in which Willows families gather together to support the larger community through a variety of hands-on projects.

THE PIER EVENT (this year on May 6th),  a family FUNdraiser at The Santa Monica Pier.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Eden Cipolla, '05 Remembers Poetry Night!

Poetry Night holds important memories for Eden Cipolla, '05.  Eden entered The Willows as a 3rd grader with a unique situation; she has lived with cerebral palsy since birth and lacks the ability to speak or move independently.  From an early age, Eden has utilized a motorized wheelchair, assistive communication technology including a computer she programs with her knee to "speak for her, and a companion, Dona. 

During 5th grade, Eden presented an original poem at Poetry Night. With the help of her companion, she danced while a classmate read her poem aloud.

Where Do Leaves Go?
Orange leaves blowing
in the wind
on a gray
gloomy day.
The sky's dimmed light
saddens me.

But the leaves
the sound is music
to my ears.

I listen
and watch

Where do the leaves go?
Do they get lost?
Do they ever find
their way home?

As I watch the leaves 
do a little dance,
I laugh
and feel so at peace.
      Eden Cipolla '05

"We did contact improvisation," recalls Eden, describing how  Dona assisted her move onstage to the rhythm of the words.  "I had so much fun onstage, and it felt wonderful to dance and have everyone watch us.  My favorite part about Poetry Night was seeing so many different kinds of performances and seeing so many of the students' families there supporting everybody."

Eden reflects,  "The Willows meant so much to me!  I have beautiful memories from my three years there, and every time I have gone to visit, I've had such amazing and touching experiences.  The last two times were especially amazing because at the time, I was having a very hard time at high school.  As soon as I go to The Willows, I just feel surrounded by so much love.  I felt safe enough to just let go of my stresses, and I felt like everyone was there to give me the support I needed at the hardest times of my life.  When I was at The Willows, I could totally relax and just be myself."

Eden recently returned to The Willows as an alumni poet, and at the 2007 Poetry Night one of her original poems was read aloud.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poetry Month: Changing and Growing!

What is The Willows?
The teachers and staff helping the children grow.
What is The Willows?
A place where each face can be known.
What is The Willows?

A place where we share to be kind.
What is The Willows?
A place to educate the mind.
What is The Willows?
Ashlee Cline, '00, The 1997 Willows Poetry Anthology

The success of the first Poetry Month/Poetry Night ensured that it would become a Willows' tradition.

"Everyone had such a good time that first year," explains Lisa.  "We realized what we could do with so much creative freedom, and we wanted to build on it."

The Willows' Poetry Month evolved over the next few years as teachers added to and improved on the event.  Classes started to write and perform group poems connected to their thematic units.

On Poetry Nights, teachers and parents took the "coffeehouse" redecorating challenge to new heights transforming classrooms into welcoming performance spaces. Whether elegant, cozy, mysterious or wacky, all were in the spirit of adventure and creativity.

Teacher Brian Tousey remembers one of his favorite class presentations from an early Poetry Night, "My seventh grade class all dressed in matching white jumpsuits and goggles.  They all jogged in from the back of the multipurpose room in unison to the strains of Mr. Roboto by Styx," he recalls.  "We had a smoke machine going, and the kids performed a robotics-themed poem they had written.  It brought down the house."

One element of Poetry Month The Willows held on to, notes Lisa Rosenstein, is the tradition of bringing in outside poets to broaden the students' perspective on poetry.  Markhum Who was followed by Jack Grapes for three years, and in recent years Deb Studebaker has served as The Willows' poet-in-residence.

"One of my fondest memories of the Willows involves Jack Grapes, who came and taught my fourth grade class how to write good poetry," recalls Jeremy Fassler, '04.  "Most of what I know about poetry I learned from him.  He was a great teacher, and he got all of us in the class to write very heartfelt, emotional stuff."