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!