Head Notes - Dr. Barbara Gereboff's Blog


The Bulletin Boards Speak

On rainy Wednesday, I wandered down the upstairs corridor stopping to read the bulletin boards.  Bulletin boards are a window into how a school approaches education, and I was curious about the story that our boards told.  Our boards spoke of opportunities for deep and high level thinking and of differentiated instruction. 

When we speak of high level thinking (or critical thinking), we mean the expectation that education will engage facts and not simply require memorization of decontextualized facts.  Critical thinking also means that students can develop well-reasoned arguments, they can determine what evidence is effective in building an argument, and they know how to determine different perspectives. 

The third grade bulletin boards demonstrated data arrays.  Students learned different ways to display data (about siblings, about colors, about gender preferences for different colors) and they used data that was relevant and interesting to them.  They conducted surveys of students and faculty.  (Now I know why a few third graders stopped me on the playground last week to ask me about my favorite flavors and colors!).  Our third grade displays clearly gave them a chance to experiment with different types of data and to think about the displays that best suited their data and their presentation goals.  

The fifth grade bulletin boards exhibited projects about famous women who made their mark in STEM.  In this exhibit, students presented information (facts) about their chosen character and then they had “to evaluate” (one of the highest orders of thinking) their character.  The evaluation couldn’t be a simple “I liked person x because she did y”.  They responded to this section with multi-paragraph statements and with careful support for their evaluative statements. 

What about differentiated instruction?  Differentiated learning means that the pace, level, or kind of instruction is responsive to individual learners’ needs, styles, or interests.  All the bulletin boards showed this to some extent.  The depth of some student’s essays or the topic selections showed differentiation of output.  The most stunning example of differentiation appeared on a sixth grade bulletin board that displayed the sixth grade science unit on the Life Cycle of a Rock.   Students were asked to depict the cycle using a cartoon story-board.   There were a variety of ways in which students told this story.  One student chose to tell her life cycle in a poem rather than a narrative storyboard.  I’m including her poem below because it represents all that is described above:  high level thinking, and a perfect example of differentiated instruction.  It also represents the sort of excellence that we promote.

My Life on Planet Earth
By: Lea

Lying on the earth, lying in the soil
That is my life
I watch the earth move around, constantly moving, pushing
Pushing me into the ground
When pressure occurs, I am pressed with my friends
into a life underground

Years will pass
decades in my eyes
but alas, I am not to stay
My magma swimming to the surface
caught in the excitement

As my home erupts, I am spewed
airborne, through the clouds
I come to a jarring stop
cooling slowly into hard rock

Over years, decades, centuries
an era passed
slowly, my body floats away
as I erode

I continue to erode
I am losing myself
In a world where I am disappearing

Pressed Down
deja vu
I meet my past
Looking into my future
I will sit and wait
For my path to reveal itself

Tectonic plates shift
sounding like a haunted house
Life waits for no one
I am following a new path, a volcano

I begin to heat, then cool
Magma crystallizes
I am looking in many directions
at myself
a crystal.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G


Winter to Spring Transformations

If I were to label the week with one word it would be “transformative”. That change from winter to spring (although not so dramatic this year) may have had something to do with it. Among the transformations noted this week were the new leaves on our mulberry tree that the second grade planted last year.

But on Tuesday, I experienced another transformation. On that morning, fifth graders walked through the gate with their catapults. No two looked alike. Some were decorated with leopard-skin paper and glitter. One had working lights. Some were multi-colored and others were raw wood. There were rubber bands of assorted colors connected to a wild array of levers - mixing spoons and plastic spoons dominated.

By 1:00 p.m., fifth grade parents took their seats in the ulam gadol. Students filed in and placed their catapults on a long table and took their seats in the first row. Their teachers had marked off with tape an area on the floor in which the catapults would discharge their ping pong balls. Two staff members were in place to judge – marking and labeling where the balls landed.

This was a very serious contest. The winner of last year’s contest came forward with her catapult from the previous year to demonstrate the technique. One of the teacher’s also demonstrated with her homemade catapult. Finally each student took his/her turn. Students and parents were silent as each student came forward and then cheered their classmate’s success. The paparazzi were in force – a whole bank of parent photographers, the resident school photographer and the school social media photographer. They photographed every moment of this event. When the contest ended, with a winner and two runners up, everyone politely gathered around the winning catapults to study why they were successful.

Why label this transformative – isn’t it just an ordinary Wornick design-thinking STEM project? This is a class that has built up a reputation over the years as unruly. Some members of the class are used to shouting out and talking over others. Others blurt out hurtful comments to their peers. Much work has been done this year to turn it around, and there is work still to be done. But on Tuesday, they completely turned it around. Every student sat for an hour and a half and really participated and cheered on their peers. Their behavior was stunningly appropriate. It wasn’t just because their parents and other staff were present – because in the past, that didn’t always make the difference. On Tuesday, something happened – a result of careful teaching and work from this year – these students truly “turned themselves around”. It was a sight to behold, and I now am sure that they will graduate in the near future to become the sort of A+ people that Wornick produces.

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.


Good Guys/Bad Guys

I met with a group of second graders this week who were being reprimanded for recess play that was leading to some hurtful behaviors.  I asked them to explain their game to me – they called it good guys/bad guys. One group was the good guys, the other group was the bad guys and their goal was for the good guys to conquer the bad guys. It wasn’t just guys – there were girls in the group too.  I asked how the groups were determined – they said that they just always were in those two groups.  I asked what did the different guys do to earn the “good” or “bad” title.  Their response – “nothing, they just are.”  I asked if someone could change from one group to the other.  The response – “no”.  

This conversation was disturbing – not for the good/bad dichotomy.  In a young person’s world, and certainly in our poorly nuanced national dialogues, the world appears divided this way.  My concern was different – I was disheartened by the thought of children locking each other into “good” and “bad” roles.  And I was concerned that they were using those labels to justify wrestling only one group to defeat.  They now know that this game is no longer allowed at Wornick and I know that we have some important work to do around these labels and concepts. 

Together we brainstormed other types of play that they could engage in during recess.  Among many games, I proposed the following: I or their teacher, would give them a scene prompt before they went to recess and then they would enact a scene during recess.  We imagined a scene with a dragon in a corner of the playground.  I thought that would be fun – and for a few minutes the guys were with me pretend-talking to the dragon.  Unfortunately, within a couple of minutes, they decided that this was not going to be fun. 

As I pondered their reaction, I recalled a conversation with a parent a couple of weeks ago.  She introduced me to the world of LARPing (Live Action Role Playing).  It seems that a number of our older students participate in this activity.  These are weekend adventures staged in parks throughout the Bay area where a leader (often a teacher) provides an opening scene and trunks of costumes and props. The participants (students of all ages) create and enact a story that develops throughout the day.  It sounds like fun and I really thought that my second grade guys would run with it. 

My childhood was about imagining whole worlds outside.  My front porch on my childhood house morphed into pioneer cabins, an apartment building, a shopping center.  The walkway in front of several houses and the grassy front lawns and unfenced backyards were plains where cattle roamed and my friends and I rode our pretend horses – always Palominos. In the winter, we built forts on the lawn and played out various dramas – sneaking people in and out of our forts.  I recall whole days of playing imaginative stories with my neighborhood friends.  

I have similar memories of my own children entering imaginative worlds during long summer days and weekends.  One of my favorite stories that I’ve retold a often is of my oldest son, Avi, when he was about seven or eight.  He was playing in our backyard by himself.  He was in full baseball regalia – a Red Sox helmet, gloves, Red Sox t-shirt.  He was swinging his bat, running bases all by himself.  At one point I looked out the window and noticed that Avi was sitting on the ground - bat on his side, head resting in his hands and looking a bit dejected.  I walked over to him and asked him if everything was okay.  His response, “The other team is up at bat.” 

Imaginative play is a critical feature of a child’s cognitive and social development.   Among the documented benefits are increases in language usage, perspective-taking, empathy, reduced aggression, problem solving and creativity.  Creativity is at the core of imaginative play as children develop scenes and characters “de novo”.  

One of the side benefits of imaginative play is the development of personal resources to cope with adversity.  When confronted with failure, a child who has a developed imagination can entertain possibilities.  S/he can understand that a particular failure is not a dead end.  

We expect preschoolers and kindergarteners to get lost in their imaginations.  We provide dress-up, kitchen and work centers for these young ones and we invite them to use these spaces as they see fit.  But what about children who are a little older?  Do we give them opportunities for imaginative play.  Do we laugh at the play or do we encourage it?

The biggest “I wonder” that emerged for me this week was - I wonder if children beyond kindergarten age are still capable of creating imaginary worlds on their own.  Do they need to pay for a program like LARPing in order to engage in such play?  Do they need adults to provide them with the prompts to play?  Is it only through organized drama opportunities that older children get to enact imaginary scenes?  I’m curious – I would like to hear your examples of your children’s imaginary play.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G


Line Leaders

Do you know what a line leader is?  In early elementary classrooms throughout the United States, it is the child assigned each day to be at the front of the lines when the class exits their classroom or lines up after recess.  We need line leaders because if we weren’t to assign it, there would be a scramble for “first place” throughout the day.  Without line leaders, the toughest, pushiest child would always lead the line.

The bigger question around this idea is – why do some kids feel compelled to push their way to the front?  Renowned educator, Alfie Kohn argues (in No Contest) that this is the result of toxic competition in our society – of the race to win or to be first.  He argues that the emphasis on competition makes us all losers trying to “beat out our friends.”  He acknowledges that his stance sounds un-American, but he feels that his earlier position of qualified support for competition is wrong.  He argues that competition is inherently destructive in that one person succeeds only if the other person fails, and he believes that there is no place in schools for this sort of thinking. 

Kohn represents one side of the debate about competition, and he brings solid research to support his argument.  The other side of the debate argues that competition drives people to perfect their skills.  But does it?  Research argues the opposite.  Setting objective standards and having a person reach it is motivational, but pitting a student against another generates hostility.  Studies have shown that children who compete frequently are less empathetic than others and are less generous. 

So how do I reconcile this thinking with the fact that we enter our students in the school, county and state Science Fairs, or that we run a competitive athletic program.  I would argue that competition in and of itself is value neutral.  It becomes negative or positive by the way we “use” it – how we talk about it to our students.   If our children’s sense of self-worth is connected to “winning” then competition does become a destructive force in a person’s life.  If competition narrows a child’s ability to try out different activities just for fun, then it is does have negative connotations.  Some recent studies have noted that competition with cooperation (i.e. team sports) has a beneficial impact on children’s social emotional well-being. 

In October when I discussed the common thread among the Noble Prize Winners, I noted that none of these people worked ceaselessly on their various projects in order to win the Noble Prize.  They clearly were just plain passionate about and absorbed in their work.  It is passion and grit that drives success, and this may or may not be acknowledged by a prize or a win.  I think the focus on competition is a red herring.  Instead we should be finding the ways to inspire and to drive passion.  It is about finding that growth mindset – that inner locus of control. A competitively won prize might be the by-product of that passion but the prize should never be the ultimate goal -  and we are really proud of our passionate young scientists who really placed at the County Science Fair.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G


What to Teach?

Do you ever wonder how a school decides what should be taught each day? Most people assume that the state standards or the Common Core list what should be taught and that schools determine how to deliver that curricula. Some assume that the accrediting organizations set the curriculum. Neither assumption is correct. The story is actually far more complicated. The state and Common Core standards are written in general terms without designations as to amount of time or depth of understanding that needs to be achieved in any one area. Accrediting organizations don't proscribe curriculum, they want to see that a school develops a robust curriculum in keeping with the school's mission. In many schools, the curriculum gets built as it is enacted every day in a classroom – as teachers write and plan their lessons with a nod to state or Common Core standards.

Three years ago our staff engaged in the process of mapping our curriculum using a cutting edge design model called Understanding by Design (UbD). In mapping the curricula, we designate lessons, assessments, timing to meet grade level standards. We also look at a subject area or objectives from kindergarten through eighth grade making sure that items spiral year to year. We are lucky to be living at a time when excellent software makes this all so transparent. We can easily see duplications and unmet areas. What is most exciting about curriculum work is that it challenges everyone on staff to become reflective, continuously justifying the teaching of any particular unit.

What distinguishes UbD from other curriculum design models is that the work is focused on understanding and on the long term transfer of understanding. What is so new about a focus on understanding? Historically, American education has focused on knowledge acquisition and not on understanding. Knowledge is about facts. Many facts are important to know; however, facts are quite useless and are unlikely to be stored in long term memory when they are not imbedded in broader understandings. In the UbD model, we define understanding as how we make meaning of and organize our facts. It is an inference from facts or a conclusion based on facts and prior experiences and beliefs.

The UbD model begins with figuring out an enduring understanding. An enduring understanding is a statement that summarizes important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. They are understandings that will be revisited over a lifetime. An example of an enduring understanding in social studies would be: Topography, climate and natural resources of a region influence the culture economy and life-style of its inhabitants. An example from mathematics could be: numbers are abstract concepts that enable us to represent concrete quantities, sequences, and rates. This would be an enduring understanding in kindergarten and first grade. The social studies example is the enduring understanding used in third and fourth grade social studies at Wornick.

The task of our staff is to go from an enduring understanding to something we call essential questions. These are generative questions that are raised by the enduring understanding. Using our social studies model, essential questions might be: what is topography, what are natural resources, what do we mean by “influence a culture”, how is life-style affected by climate, natural resources, etc. Parents see the result of this particular set of essential questions in the Ohlone project in third grade and in the Missions project in fourth grade.

The next step in curriculum development is to figure out what skills and knowledge need to be accessed in order to answer the essential questions. As the teachers look at these items, they also look at which of the Common Core standards are met by these questions. In the social studies example, the students would need to have rudimentary knowledge about topography, climate and natural resources. It is possible that a grade level may have one or two enduring understandings for the entire year for a particular area of the curriculum. Embedded in the lessons connected to the few enduring understandings for the year are dozens of Common Core standards that need to be taught a) to meet the standards, b) to clarify the enduring understanding, and to answer the essential questions.

The third step in this process – assessment – has conferred the affectionate title of “backwards design” on UbD. This step answers the question “how do I know that the students have mastered this enduring understanding for this class?” The “backwards” nickname derives from the fact that in typical classroom and traditional curriculum planning, lesson planning precedes assessment. In UbD, the lesson is the last item created. First we need to know what would qualify as evidence that the enduring understanding has been mastered.

Curriculum work at Wornick takes place all the time – during in-service days, after school, in staff common planning times and during the summer. It is a very long process and it does require yearly rethinking. It is the lifeblood of a school. And the way we do it means that our teachers are always reflecting and rethinking.

Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. G