Computer Science in Lower School

By Colby Van Alen

Getting coffee one day I ran into a Westtown graduate and she asked what I’ve been doing since school let out. Computer science work at school was my response. “What, really? In First Grade? That is great since I didn’t take a computer science class until my first year of college. These kids will have such an advantage!” I agree!  

A group of Lower School teachers met this summer to better refine our computer science program. As a part of that work, we agreed that at Westtown computer science teaches students problem solving, collaboration, analytical and presentation skills, and fosters deeper thinking. Students learn these skills through device practice and programming, exploration of ethical and responsible behaviors, and problem solving opportunities across all content areas. Our computer science curriculum teaches students to consider the community, global, and ethical impacts of technology and supports Westtown’s mission to develop stewards and leaders of a better world.  

Computer science begins in PreK and is taught through Fifth Grade. But how it’s taught is what makes it such a seamless addition to our curriculum. Our students are eager to learn, we all know that; bringing computer science into the classroom allows them to have exciting experiences where they are making everyday connections. It is about so much more than coding! We began with and found it to be a valuable tool for teaching vocabulary and basic coding through videos and lessons. Now we have branched out to so much more – Dash and Dot robots and a variety of classroom games Q-Ba-Maze and Cool Circuits and the list is growing.  We are also teaching students to think algorithmic-ally.

Do you know the definition of an algorithm? Our first grade students will define it for you. They have discovered that almost every activity they perform is an algorithm as it’s “a series of steps to complete a given task.” When coding with Dash using Blockly they are learning the framework for future programming. Along the way, there are roadblocks that they need to navigate along with a variety of “life lessons.” Understanding compass points, for example. has always been a bit difficult for our youngest learner but this year when programming Dash to move around the world rug between North and South America the students made the connection and followed up with taking action –  “T. Colby, we need to move our rug now too as it’s not placed in the right position to face North.” And then an a-ha moment with the fact that Westtown is called Westtown for a reason. “We get it now! Westtown is West of the city of Philadelphia.”

Persistence is another key vocabulary word introduced this year and it’s one that I believe we always expect from students yet we don’t always name it such so that when an activity is complete the student knows they were persistent. Not all of our work with coding, algorithms and computational thinking even includes a computer. One task requiring persistence and algorithmic thinking was to design and build a structure, using 30 toothpicks and 30 spice drops, that was strong enough to hold a heavy book. Building a structure out of set materials with no given directions was a bit overwhelming at first and not unlike writing code. After much experimentation and failure, enthusiastic shouts could be heard as students figured out the steps necessary to complete the task. Success occurred! Persistence paid off!

And why are we teaching computer science as young as PreK? We have a responsibility to prepare our students with the necessary level of knowledge, skills, and experience to compete in a technologically advanced, globally competitive marketplace. Through computer science, we develop the confidence, persistence, and tolerance for ambiguity necessary to approach problems in a technologically sophisticated world.


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Realizing our Vision: Educating to our Mission

20160524_15571820160524_14364220160524_151611Westtown School graduated its first cohort of students who successfully completed our Deep Dive Certificate Program.  Starting six years ago I clerked two different committees over four years and worked with a number of other wonderfully creative and committed teachers and administrators to ask the questions and find the answers that helped create the program that led to this first for Westtown. These students have woven together projects across their curriculum, participated in experiences outside of the academic program, and created capstone projects that allowed for integration of what they were learning and thinking about their areas of interest. The three Deep Dive Certificates currently offered are in the areas of Global Leadership, Leadership for Sustainability, and Leadership in Social Entrepreneurship.

Molly is one of the this first cohort. She drew upon her experiences as the daughter of a New Jersey oyster farmer to spur her interest in sustainability. Using data gathered by HABCAM she accessed through Rutgers University, she looked at predator prey relationships of sea-stars, whelks and scallops as a part of her work in Applied Scientific Research. A member of Westtown’s Green Coalition, for one of her Deep Dive projects she helped create a list of companies committed to sustainability. This list was shared with Westtown students in time for them to do their December holiday shopping. She wrote a paper on logging in the Amazon for her Latin American History class and presented articles on Nuclear Energy for another class. Her capstone project was a two week internship with the San Francisco Estuary Institute. In her final presentation, she reflected on the ways in which she connected experiences in her religion elective  with topics she was exploring in her science classes and with her experience working with Project PORTS at her home in Cape May. Her learning had meaning to her, her family’s livelihood and the communities she hopes to support as an adult. Over the two years she was creating interpretations for herself and building evidence based arguments to support her beliefs and scientific findings.

Originally, the Deep Dive Certificate Program was just an idea of creative teachers. We asked ourselves how we might create spaces and a structure that would support students who had questions and interests that were bigger than a single paper, class, discipline or experience. We had all read Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap. We knew that Pat Bassett’s skills and values had deep resonance for us and our school’s mission. Further, I had just co-clerked a two year study to better shape what we meant by being a global school offering a global education. My Upper School colleagues working with my Lower and Middle School colleagues asked how our oldest students might experience their education in ways similar to the more holistic and less siloed environments of their younger peers. Equally important, we asked how we might do this within our existing rich curricular and co-curricular offerings. We admitted to ourselves that what we were creating would appeal to a subset of our students. Being a Friends’ school committed to equity we had to consider what this might mean. We also had to accept that in some cases, the students best suited and potentially most interested in this sort of sustained experience, might not be the early emerging academic “stars” of ninth and tenth grade. We needed a process that welcomed any interested student. This first cohort has proven out these truths. Only ten percent of the class of 2016 was ever interested in the program. Not every student who started it as a junior completed it. One of the students who managed to take every advantaged this program offered for her growth and exploration was not not an obvious candidate when she insisted she would participate. In her final presentation she told us that

“If you had asked me at the end of last year what I was going to do when I grow up, I would have said “oh, I’m going to be a business woman.”  I chose to do the certificate of Entrepreneurship for Social Change because I want to change the world. Hi, I’m Hannah, and I think big.”

As I sat and listened to these students presentations this past May and have since read through their papers, reflections on experiences, and other documents in their portfolios, I take great pride in what we have created. I know that by focusing on our mission and seeing our students as partners and co-creators in their education we have set in motion a scaffold to hold and foster our students as change makers….”stewards and leaders for a better world.”

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Elementary Digital Magic

What happens when you invite film maker Rich Hoffman to help IMG_3996 IMG_3999Primary Circle and First Grade students make stop animation films? You get a kind of magic tailor-made for our youngest learners for whom the world is a wondrous place for creation and expression.  Teacher Jeff Waring, his students, and Rich worked together to develop the stories and props and solve problems of timing, movement and overall production. Each class produced a unique film.

Rich was the 2015-2016 visiting artist. This wonderful annual program introduces students to people who devote their lives to artistic creation. Students are invited into the artists’ processes and mediums. This is yet another way in which Westtown students make age-appropriate connections with the lives of people beyond the classroom.

The films the students created are called Garden Magic and Seeds of Empathy. We hope you will enjoy watching them as much as the students enjoyed making them.

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When a Debate Is an Opportunity for Improving Collegiality

Keyboarding vs Cursive

Oscar Sosa

Recently, the Lower School faculty devoted a faculty meeting to debating whether or not teaching cursive was worth the time it takes in the program. Teachers were divided into four teams and sent out to research the role and place of teaching cursive in the curriculum. Two teams had to argue against teaching cursive and two teams had to argue for it. Included in the process was a survey of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students and colleagues in the Middle and Upper Schools. With lighthearted combativeness the two sides squared off. All of the usual arguments against cursive were offered: students in the high school are never asked to write in cursive as so many of their peers are international and never learn to read cursive, key boarding is faster and helps kids output keep up with their brains, it’s a tool and now we have better tools, we have added so much to the program that this seems like something that could go. The arguments for keeping teaching cursive included those about the need to be able to read different forms of script including letters from grandparents and archival material, the importance of developing fine motor skills, the powerful ways in which cursive writing develops the brain and helps students see words as a collective of letters. The brain research seemed particularly compelling. One team argued that keyboarding versus cursive writing is a useless and false opposition of two different things and that both have value.

Lower School students reported decreasing interest in and facility with cursive writing over time. Third graders (the year cursive is taught) felt the most comfortable and used it most consistently. Each successive grade reported less facility with cursive and less inclination to use it as a means of written output. This led to the fruitful part of this light-hearted debate and to an airing of the real concern. Third grade teachers are responsible for taking the time to teach cursive to students. This is time they don’t have for other things. They are happy to teach cursive, if it remains a valuable skill students are using as they move up through the grades. Teachers of the upper grades had never thought of the impact of their individual decisions to not require students to use and practice cursive on the students’ fluency in writing in cursive. If it’s not going to be used, then it feels like a waste of time. If students are going to continue to use it, to grow in fluency so that the benefits of writing in cursive are developed and students come to see cursive as a wonderful way of organizing and communicating their thoughts, then taking the time to teach it in 3rd grade is time well spent.  The value for 3rd grade teachers is related to the value given by teachers in the upper grades. 

In the end, the decision was made to continue teaching cursive for the time being. Fourth and 5th grade teachers will incorporate more cursive assignments to support practice and skill building.

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Notes from the White Privilege Conference, Philadelphia 2016

By Marion Dear

Themes from the White Privilege Conference in Philly 2016

  • White privilege defines “normal” as white (and Christian, of European heritage,  and heterosexual). White privilege marginalizes the many people and  students  who do not fit these categories.
  • White privilege also damages whites with an inflated view of their ability.
  • Many whites were raised to be “color blind” meaning that it was impolite to talk about race. The subject created discomfort. Currently, there is a belief that whites especially need to break this code of silence to become “racially literate.” This pulls people and students of color into our community from the margins. Racial literacy makes us whole.

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Where Did Your Salad Come From?

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Lower School students harvested the lettuce served to their schoolmates in Middle and Upper School. As a part of their Forest to Farm program first grade students went to the mini farm and harvested greens and radishes. These were on the salad bar in the Dining Room the same evening.

They tasted the lettuce, too.

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