Monday, June 7, 2010

Dramatis Personae

The key components of The Willows’ Latin curriculum: grammar, vocabulary, translation, singing, and dancing.

Singing and dancing?

It’s a tradition not seen at other schools: the 7th grade Latin play. The brainchild of Latin teacher Kyle Smith, the Latin production has become an integral part of every middle school student’s experience at The Willows. Over the years, students have presented adaptations of numerous ancient classics, including Homer’s The Odyssey, Plautus’ The Menaechmi Brothers, and Aristophanes’ The Frogs.

Kyle thought a Latin play would bring the history and culture of ancient Rome to life for his students. “The Romans provided the foundation for Western civilization as we know it,” says Kyle. “The plays that were written thousands of years ago touch on themes that are still meaningful today, and it’s exciting to help students make the connection between the ancient past and the modern day.”

Think that a 2,400 year-old play might be too dull, dry, or inaccessible to the modern teen? Think again! Kyle’s versions of these classics are nothing if not irreverent.

One of his strategies in making the connections between ancient times and modern day crystal clear is to pepper the adaptations (which he often translates himself) with current references and jokes.

Even more striking is how Kyle transforms the plays into musicals by incorporating music from the 20th and 21st centuries. The 2006 production of Plautus’ The Pot of Gold featured songs with music from the 1920s and 1930s, including “Falling in Love Again,” “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round,” “I Wanna Be Evil,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.” The 2007 production of The Fall of Troy was a tribute to the music of the 1980s, with songs like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Whip It,” and a dance number from Thriller.

“It’s fun to reinterpret the songs in a new context,” Kyle says, “and the students enjoy the contrast.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Scott Jacks, Founder, Former Board of Trustees Co-Chair and Alumni Parent, Lends His Perspective on 15 Years at The Willow

“If I had it to do all over again, we would go to The Willows.”

Scott Jacks has worn many hats at The Willows – founder, parent, Board of Trustees member and Co-Chair, alumni parent and more. He served on the Board of Trustees for 15 years until last year. Scott remarks, “I have been at The Willows for all the Capital Campaigns, acquisitions and building, including the gymnasium. But the most challenging time was the very beginning when we were trying to promote the school without a location.”

Scott recalls that when the founders decided to start the school as a group, they did not have a site. “We had a presentation for prospective teachers by Lisa and her teachers at what is now the W Hotel in Westwood. I was certainly anxious at the beginning. Everything had fallen apart at our other school in February. The timing was dreadful because we were too late to apply to any private schools. So, we gathered prospective students and families to present the school to them.” He describes the scene as optimistic but urgent. Lisa and the founders talked to the audience. Teachers had tables set up with what they were going to teach. “At most schools you apply and review applications, but we were a bit like ‘bring us your students’. We needed students. Fellow founder Mark Solomon made an impassioned plea and we were on our way.”

During this time Scott remembers that in July, founder and parent Ellen Cohen called him and said, “come over to 8509 Higuera – this is the place!” It was a large industrial building. “We had no time for a CUP. Culver City issued a temporary permit and we were on our way. Michael Lester, another founder, and I were creating and revising budgets and finally we opened with 98 kids. The doors were opened. It was amazing! We were worried but it all happened. And now look at us”

Scott points out that what began as a little start-up out of necessity has now grown into an extremely successful educational program with alumni students graduating from the finest colleges and becoming successful adults. He feels the present opportunities to enhance the campus and the buildings are exciting, and he is proud to have played a part in establishing this lasting educational legacy. Scott’s son Greg Jacks, Willows Class of 2004, had his own vision of The Willows at a young age. In the 1997-98 Willows yearbook, in response to the question “What would you do if you were Head of The Willows?” Greg responds, “Have a rollercoaster here and DK-college and an arcade or park.”

There may not be a roller coaster or arcade, but when Scott steps onto The Willows’ current campus, he feels pride. “When I think of that first year, what we went through, how dicey it was at times, and when I walk on this campus now, I scratch my head. It’s truly remarkable. And then I feel a huge sense of pride at being part of it.”

“There never was a day that my kids cried or said they didn’t want to go to school. That speaks worlds. That speaks to everything”, Scott emphasizes. “Our kids developed as individuals at The Willows. If I had it to do all over again, we would go to The Willows.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

2001: Take a Bow

Did you know there’s a theater in Culver City dedicated to preserving the art of the Great Broadway Musical? Its playbill has included Anything Goes, Damn Yankees, Grease, West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors, Guys and Dolls and a host of other classics—and each season you can count on this theater to showcase the best and brightest in new talent. 

It’s The Willows’ theater, of course—and since its 2004 opening this stage has been home to numerous standing-room only plays performed by students across the grades.


“Giving Our Regards to old Broadway”
Broadway has been part and parcel of The Willows’ program since the School’s earliest days, long before the beautiful 200-seat theater opened its doors. One reason: Head of School Lisa Rosenstein loves musicals. “I think my love for Broadway musicals may have had something to do with this tradition,” Lisa says. “The music is wonderful, and the stories are fantastic. It’s a great opportunity to introduce our students to an important part of American cultural history.”

The First Musical
Interestingly, the very first Willows musical was actually an original production. The show, entitled Heritage, was a unique collaboration among the eighth grade performers and Ali Mandelbaum, the music teacher at that time. As part of their study of immigration to the United States, students researched the stories of their own families’ journeys to America. These stories were the starting points for monologues told from the perspectives of the students’ ancestors as well as music composed by Ali.

Since that first production, most grades in the middle school have mounted a musical production each year. “Not every school makes the effort to include every student in a grade-level production,” says Liza Monjauze, director of many of The Willows’ shows over the years. “Of course, not every student wants to be on stage, so we find ways for everyone to be involved in a meaningful way, whether it’s running a follow spot, painting scenery, or running the sound board. The point is for everyone to take part—it becomes a team effort and a shared experience they will always remember.”

Graduation Musical
A unique Willows tradition is performing a play as part of the 8th grade graduation. Each year, the 8th graders perform for their assembled friends and family, usually an abridged version of a well-known production, followed by The Willows’ traditional graduation ceremony.

“The process of coming together for one final group project is incredibly meaningful,” notes Lisa. “It’s the last thing they do together as a class, and their performance is a wonderful gift to the rest of the school community.”

Elizabeth Rich, ’05, who played Audrey in her class’ production of Little Shop of Horrors remembers, “It was a great way for us to bond as a group before all going in our own separate directions.”

Dash Nathanson, ’05, also a Little Shop castmember, manipulated the arms of the giant man-eating plant featured in the show. “I remember there were so many distractions at the end of the year, but this was a fun project that we could all focus on.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The 21st Century Library

In the age of the Kindle and the e-book, is the library about to become a relic of the past?

As far as Willows librarian Cathy Leverkus is concerned, the answer is a resounding “No!”

“There will always be a place for traditional books,” says Cathy. “Digital books are wonderful, but they can’t always match the tactile experience of holding a beautifully illustrated book in your hand and turning the pages.
“You can’t underestimate the wonderful things that happen when you flip through a book and just happen across something that captures your imagination or causes you to think about something in a completely new way.”

Keeping Pace with Technology
That said, The Willows’ library is keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change. In addition to the thousands of printed volumes on its shelves, the library offers audio and video to students, as well as access to numerous online databases and encyclopedias. The library is also purchasing e-books and researching which e-reader would be best for library use.

1-1 Laptop Resources
When the Middle School established the 1-1 laptop program in the fall of 2008, the library’s digital resources became even more vital. “Middle school students are using their laptops for everything,” notes Cathy. “It’s more important than ever that we equip them with tools to use online resources wisely.”

Hi-Tech Reading
Hi-tech has infiltrated the library on a smaller scale, too—one of the latest “hot items” on the Willows library shelves has been the PlayAway, an audio player that looks like an iPod but that plays a single audiobook. “They’re flying off the shelves,” Cathy says. “I’m so glad – it’s just one more way to get kids excited about reading.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Read, Relax, Dream . . . and Learn!

Learning in the Library!

The Willows library is certainly a place to read and relax—but it’s also most definitely a place to learn.

Willows librarian Cathy Leverkus loves the fact that the library has enough table space to accommodate an entire class of students for research and project work. “I love incorporating art into the library lessons I teach,” she says. “We have ample space for all kinds of hands-on activities.”

This is no accident. From the very beginning, Cathy explains, her passion has been to ensure that Willows students have the library and research skills necessary to be successful learners.

“When The Willows first opened, I was just a consultant,” she says. “My job was to automate the library. But almost immediately, I became excited about the opportunities to educate students to make the most of the library. Luckily, I convinced Lisa Rosenstein that we needed to have classes that dealt with library skills and research.”

The result? Weekly library classes for DK and up! In the library, students explore new literature and experience the joy of reading, but also learn to use the library’s resources to answer their questions regarding the world around them.

This process, called the I-Search, has become an integral part of learning at every grade level at The Willows. Cathy explains the principle behind the I-Search, which focuses on the student’s own questions about a topic (hence, the “I” in the title):

“Traditional research projects, like the ones we did as children, involved opening an encyclopedia, copying down facts without regard for whether or not they were interesting or relevant, and regurgitating them in an essay or an oral report.”

“With the I-Search, the first step for the student is to identify the specific questions that he or she has about the topic. Then, the student seeks out resources to answer those questions, with a focus on evaluating the resources themselves: Are they credible? Are they useful? Are they relevant?”

“This is possibly one of the most important lessons students take away from the I-Search process. In today’s world, with access to an unlimited range of information from the Internet, students must know how to separate the good resources from the bad.”

An additional step of the I-Search involves taking the time to reflect on the research process as a whole: What did the student learn about the topic? Also, what did he or she learn from the process?

Cathy points out that the I-Search appears different depending on the age group involved. Second graders who study ocean creatures, for example, identify a few questions they have about a specific animal and then use picture books and simple nonfiction books to find the answers.

On the other end of the spectrum, eighth graders spend a trimester and extra classes doing an I-Search project on a topic of their own choosing that culminates in a 5-7 page paper with citations, a hands-on project, and a presentation to the class. Topics and presentations have run the gamut over the years, from a project on neuroscience with a presentation featuring a dissection of a sheep’s brain, to a project on the history of chocolate, with a presentation that included tasty treats for audience members.

“Our main goal,” says Cathy, “is for the research process to be meaningful. The I-Search can be a powerful tool for feeding students’ passion for learning.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

2000: A World of Books!

How many books does it take to make a library?

That was the big question back in 1994, when The Willows was faced with the challenge of assembling a school library – from scratch.

“Our first library consisted entirely of donated books,” remembers librarian Cathy Leverkus. “We started with 2,400 volumes—and most of them were fantasy! This was just prior to when the Harry Potter books were first being published and the fantasy genre was coming into its own. As a result, the collection was a little lopsided at first, but over time we were able to even things out.”

Building and stewarding The Willows’ library became Cathy’s challenge. She witnessed the collection grow dramatically over the years - literally tenfold - to the current count of 24,663 volumes. Today, the Willows library is so much more than printed books; the library now includes audio, video, and online resources.

 Coordinating with Curriculum
One of Cathy’s challenges over the years has been seeking out resources that dovetail with the thematic units in each grade. From picture books about insects for first graders to Civil War primary resources for eighth graders, Cathy strives to select items that will be both relevant and accessible for every age group. “It has been a true collaboration with the faculty,” notes Cathy. “I rely on them for information about what they need and what works best with the students.”

Have books, will travel!
While many librarians might be jealous of Cathy’s role in building The Willows’ library, most certainly would not envy the accompanying growing pains: Cathy has moved the entire library five times over the past 15 years. The library started in the current DK classroom, then moved to various rooms in Willows I and even to a trailer on the yard!

“To be honest, I don’t even remember all the places the library has been,” laughs Cathy. “I don’t think I would have survived the moves without the help of the parent volunteers, who packed and unpacked box after box.”

The library has remained in its current locale in Willows III since the building opened in the fall of 2000. After ten years, Cathy is still appreciative of all the space has to offer.

“I love the fact that the library is large enough for the kids to come in, and lounge and be comfortable reading,” Cathy says. “We can fit an entire class of Lower School students on the floor for a read aloud, but it still feels like a cozy, intimate space.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Community Service Learning - All Year Long!

School-Wide and Individual Class Community Service Learning!

In addition to ongoing school-wide projects, each class at The Willows participates in a year-long community service project. Teachers partner with parent volunteers from the Community Service Committee to identify appropriate and meaningful projects for the students. “We try to be very thoughtful about the projects that we choose,” explains Lower School Director Terri Baird. “We want the community service to be developmentally appropriate, so children can feel like they’re helping out and having an impact.”

In many cases, classes seek projects connected directly to their curricular learning. Fourth graders, for example, learn about California’s native species and endangered animals – so it makes perfect sense for them to fundraise for Wildworks, a local organization caring for injured or homeless animals.

“It’s great when the projects themselves are fun, rewarding, and meaningful,” says Terri. “But really, our biggest goal of all is to foster a lifelong commitment to service. If we can get our kids in the habit of helping others now, we’re halfway there.”
Take a closer look at some of the grade-level service projects that Willows students have participated in over the years:

DK: Cleaning out the Closets! Clothing Drives for Operation USA
DK students collaborate with Operation USA, an aid organization that provides assistance to grassroots organizations around the world. DK students have visited Operation USA’s office just down the street on Hayden Avenue and continue to conduct clothing drives on their behalf.

Kindergarten: Baked Goods become Backpacks for St. Joseph’s
Kindergarteners partner with St. Joseph’s Center, which provides aid and resources to needy families in the Los Angeles area. Each year, the children hold a fundraiser, selling items ranging from smoothies to baked goods, using the money they earn to buy backpacks and blankets for the center.

First Grade: Spreading the Love of Reading - from your library to theirs!
Over the years, Willows first graders have collected thousands of books from Willows families for donation to charities that redistribute them to needy readers. This year, students collected gently used books for BookEnds, an organization that recycles children’s books through student-run book drives and places them in schools and youth organizations in need of books.

Second Grade: Saving the Oceans
Second graders traditionally seek service projects that tie into their thematic study of the oceans. Last year, students raised money to support Meals for Seals, an organization that is a part of the Pacific Marine Life Foundation and focuses on rehabilitating injured seals on the Southern California coast.

Third Grade: Trailblazing for PATH
Third graders are the standard-bearers for the PATH lunch program, a Willows service tradition. Every Wednesday morning, students collect the lunches Willows students are donating to PATH; these lunches are delivered later in the day to the PATH facility and distributed to PATH residents, who use them when going out for job interviews.

Fourth Grade: Working for Wildlife
In conjunction with their study of California’s native plants and wildlife, fourth graders support Wildworks, a local organization that cares for injured or homeless animals. Each year, students welcome a Wildworks representative who explains the organization’s mission and brings animals for the children to meet.

Fifth Grade: Each Penny Counts!
In previous years, the fifth grade has partnered with Pennies for Peace, a nonprofit organization that creates educational opportunities for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Students placed containers throughout the school so classmates can bring in their own pennies to donate.
Middle Schoolers: Buddying Up at the West Side Children’s Center

For many years, The Willows’ sixth graders have volunteered their time at the Westside Children’s Center, a full-service care center for vulnerable preschool-aged children. Sixth graders visit the center once a month to work and play with the children. In recent years, middle schoolers have increased their commitment to the center with other student groups, such as the Middle School Choir and the drama elective, visiting regularly for special performances and presentations.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

1999 - The Willows Reaches Out!

It’s Tuesday night. Across Los Angeles, Willows students are packing not one, but two lunches for the next day. First a sandwich! Then an apple! Maybe a cookie for dessert! The next morning, both lunches make their way to The Willows. One lunch stays in the backpack for lunchtime; the extra goes in a bin just outside the classroom door.

This Tuesday night “extra lunch” routine is a tradition for many Willows students. They’re packing the extra lunches for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a non-profit organization that The Willows has partnered with since 1996. The lunches are delivered every Wednesday to the PATH facility in West Los Angeles, and PATH employees distribute them to individuals living at the facility, who are going out on job interviews and gradually working their way out of homelessness.

“Community service and service learning have always been integral parts of The Willows experience,” explains Head of School Lisa Rosenstein. “In The Willows’ early days, we wanted to find an ongoing project that offered kids a regular opportunity to do something tangible to help others. Every child can make a lunch – and we’ve found it to be a great way for kids to learn that there are many different ways to reach out.”

Every Thanksgiving, The Willows community also comes together at their annual Community Day to help PATH. Students bring in donations of travel-size personal care items – soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste – and the children gather with their book buddies in every classroom to assemble toiletry bags that are delivered to the PATH residents.

“There’s a great vibe in the building on the morning of our Community Day,” notes Lower School Director Terri Baird. “The kids love getting together with their book buddies, and as they decorate and assemble the toiletry bags, they can see the results of their hard work. It’s also a great reminder to the kids to be grateful for all the day-to-day routines that they may take for granted, like being able to take a shower or brush their teeth.”

Over the years, The Willows has reached out to the community with a number of school-wide projects. The Willows has partnered with Magnolia School, a nearby public elementary school, on many occasions. Service projects have included a “dictionary drive” to supply new classroom dictionaries, mural-painting for exterior building walls on the Magnolia campus, and establishing a garden. “The focus on hands-on activities has been a great way to bring together current students, parents, and alumni, with projects where everyone can contribute,” says Lisa.

The Willows has also made a concerted effort to reach out to nearby Culver City. “From our very earliest days, Willows kids were participating in the annual Ballona Creek cleanup,” remembers Terri. More recently, The Willows has joined with Culver City to support the Police Department’s Juvenile Diversion program, an innovative, highly successful, hands-on program that helps mentor at-risk teenagers. The Willows’ Tech Department is also helping to coordinate donations of old laptops to the Culver City Police Department, who distributes them to needy families in the area, to the Culver City Youth Center, and to nearby Farragut Elementary School, which is part of the Culver City School District.

Community service is personal at The Willows, even when the school is reaching out internationally. In response to this winter’s tragic earthquake in Haiti, two Willows parents helped to coordinate the “Ten Things for Haiti,” project, in which Willows families brought in staples and essential supplies to be transported to Haiti, including rice, beans, and baby formula. “Watching The Willows community come together to help others is both inspiring and gratifying,” says Lisa Rosenstein. “It sets an incredible example for our children in terms of what it means to be a citizen in our global community.”