Friday, January 22, 2010

Growing by Leaps and Bounds: Willows II

A typical 15 year-old looks strikingly different from his or her infant self – and The Willows is no exception.

Visit The Willows’ campus today and you see the art, science, and tech rooms in Willows II, the library in Willows III, the gym and the theater in Willows IV. These all play a vital role in each current student’s day – however, none of these existed in The Willows’ earliest days.

“It (The Willows) was small, but it was cozy!” remembers Lower School Director Terri Baird. “Our first year, we started with 92 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. There were individual classes for DK, kindergarten, first, second, and third grades, and a combined fourth/fifth grade class.”

From the School’s founding in 1994 until the fall of 1998, Willows I (which currently houses DK-2nd grade, plus administrative offices) was all the campus there was: six classrooms, the library, administrative offices, a staff lounge and the atrium. That was it!

“We had our all school meetings and our holiday singalong in the atrium,” recalls curriculum coordinator Carol DeNardo. “We also held our ‘museums’ in there, when we put together displays for the parents at the end of our thematic units.”

In the next couple of years, enrollment grew. Beginning in the 1996-97 school year, each fall, The Willows welcomed two classes of kindergarteners – which meant that as each year progressed, one of the grades added a whole new section of students.

“It was a tricky proposition,” says Lisa Rosenstein. “In year two, we added a kindergarten section. In year three, we added a first grade section; in year four, a second grade section, and so on. The danger with such fast growth is that in hiring so many new teachers, you can lose the essence of the school’s culture and mission.”

The Willows’ model for two teachers per classroom evolved as an answer. “With two teachers in one classroom,” explains Lisa, “they would have at least one year to work together closely, establish the curriculum, and build a collaborative rapport. Then, when it was time to add a section, the two teachers could split off into their own classrooms but still know each other and the program well enough to hold onto the team teaching model.”

The growth of the student body was outstanding news; where to put all the students was the question. “Before the end of our first year, we were searching for extra space” notes Lisa. “We knew that before long The Willows would be bursting at the seams.”

And the seams were bursting!
By the fall of 1997, The Willows parked two trailers on the playground: one to house the brand-new middle school (which consisted of 34 students in grades six and seven) and the other for the School’s library and first tech lab.

“The trailers were leaky,” Terri remembers, “and got crowded, but we made the best of what we had.”

Hope was on the horizon!

In 1996, The Willows leased a property just behind Willows I on Warner Avenue. Architects drew up plans, and The Willows embarked on the arduous process of building out the old warehouse on the site. “I remember that groundbreaking,” recalls Greg Blum ’98, one of the first students in the middle school. “All the kids got to take turns hitting the side of the old warehouse with a sledgehammer!”

Space at last!

In the fall of 1998, Willows II opened, boasting seven new classrooms, a huge multi-purpose room, a tech lab, a science lab, and an art room with a specially designed sink. “Once the art room was built, I loved being able to put up displays and create an atmosphere for the students to walk into,” says art teacher Susannah Funnell. “Our tradition of starting each semester with a still life celebrates the space we have for exciting installations and construction.”

Back then, Willows II was home to 3rd-5th grade down one hallway, and the middle school down the other hallway. “We were so excited to be in the new space,” remembers Jane Lewine, who taught 3rd grade with Erin Sullivan that year.

Chess anyone?

When they first set up their room, Jane noticed a 3 foot-by-3 foot cement square in the center of the classroom floor – an odd remnant from the construction process. Rather than trying to mask it, they repainted as an oversize chess board, and that fall, all their third graders learned how to play chess, using game pieces they created with Susannah in the beautiful new art room.

Twelve years later, you can still find that checkerboard on the floor (it’s now a middle school classroom) – a fun reminder of Willows II in its earliest incarnation!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Walking in Paul Revere’s Footsteps: The Fifth Grade Visits Boston

In the spring of 2008, The Willows’ 5th grade embarked on a brand-new adventure: a five-day trip to Boston, Massachusetts.

The brainchild of the fifth grade teachers, the trip fit perfectly with the 5th grade study of the European settlement of North America, the Colonial period, and the American Revolution.

Every fall for years, The Willows’ fifth grade had welcomed a “Guest Pilgrim” to their classroom. A costumed historical interpreter from Plimoth Planation, a living museum in Massachusetts that recreates the village of Plimoth in the late 17th century, visited and talked with the children about life during his time period.

“The students loved the Pilgrim visits,” says fifth grade teacher Jane Lewine, “but we always imagined how wonderful it would be if our classes could see Plimoth Plantation for themselves and have a much deeper understand of colonial life in New England.”

With the assistance of a former Willows faculty member now living in Massachusetts, the team planned a trip to Boston that dovetailed with their yearlong curriculum. The journey included a walking tour of the Freedom Trail; a kayak trip down the Concord River past the Old North Bridge; a visit to Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum depicting American life in the 1840’s; and, of course, a trip to Plimoth Plantation.

“The kids loved it,” says Jane. “One of the absolute highlights was the kayak trip. It took forever, but with aching arms and huge smiles we arrived feeling strong, brave, and incredibly accomplished.”

Seventh grader Louie G., ’08, who went on the first trip, agrees. “ I loved the Boston trip! It was great that we were studying the pioneers of our country, and we were like the pioneers for the trip. I especially liked Sturbridge Village, with all the old buildings - it was just like a cool rendering of an old New England village. It felt like I was actually there, back in the time period.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

Rolling Down the River: The 8th Grade on the Colorado River

For many years, the traditional end-of-year excursion in the 8th grade has been the famed Colorado River Trip, a completely self-supported journey down the Lower Colorado River.

Students paddle approximately 35 miles down the river in two-person canoes, transporting their own food and gear throughout the journey.

The trip can be strenuous, with the hot desert temperatures (often as high as 100ºF in mid-May) daunting, but the beauty of the surroundings and the excitement of the challenge make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“The trip is really a culmination of the eighth graders’ entire Willows experience,” notes Middle School Director Doug Klier, who has chaperoned the trip for nearly a decade. “They’re away from the distractions of their everyday lives, and they have a final opportunity to bond as a group and reflect on the experiences they’ve shared over the years. It’s really incredible.”