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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SXSWedu — A Great Place for Educators

By Oscar Sosa

In March, I had the opportunity to attend the South by Southwest Education Conference and Festival (#SXSWedu) in Austin, TX. The SXSWedu is a component of the South by Southwest (SXSW®) family of conferences and festivals that includes SXSW Music, Film and Interactive. Don’t worry, our PD funds were not used for the Interactive, Music, or Film festival! The SXSWedu is a week before Austin becomes the destination for partygoers, techies, and music aficionados worldwide. The education component of the conference is an amazing opportunity to engage in sessions, workshops, hands on experiences, and networking among other educators committed to the  future of teaching and learning. While it may be easy to consider this a “warm-up” to the larger SXSW festival, it is important to note that the #SXSWedu conference is one of the top learning and innovation conferences available. From my experience, this was immediately evident from: the quality of sessions and presenters (think TED talk quality), the variety of formats available (see image below), and the powerfully inspiring keynotes. As the organizers of the  #SXSWedu put it, the conference is “inspired by a diverse lineup of visionary speakers, compelling sessions, and networking opportunities.” Continue reading

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By Nancy van Arkel

While working on a project for 6th grade history, a student was frustrated that the Explain Everything app wouldn’t let him re-arrange his slides the way he wanted them. Instead of giving up, he found the support section of the site and sent an email. From their response, he learned that Explain Everything knew about the bug and would be correcting it in about a week. The next morning when Teacher Alicia Zeoli, one of our technology integrationists, asked if he wanted help with the work-around we had discovered for the bug, he said his project was complete. Not only had the company fixed the bug the previous night, but also they sent him an email to let him know so he could complete his project.

A few days later, T. Alicia was at EduCon, a national conference for educational technology, and she happened  to meet Reshan Richards, the co-founder of Explain Everything. Full of gratitude for the company’s responsiveness, she shared this story. Curious, Reshan asked to see the projects and Alicia happily shared them him (and took a selfie of the two of them together to show the 6th graders). Reshan was so impressed with our students’ work that he offered to talk with the students using Google Hangouts and asks to use their projects as examples on Explain Everything’s media site.

Education is about so much more than accumulating knowledge these days, and this story exemplifies some of the skills our students are developing – using technology as a means of synthesizing and presenting information, identifying problems and possible solutions, considering a variety of resources that might help solve a problem. Critical to this story, however, is the human element – the courage to ask for help, the responsiveness of both teachers and outside tech support, the connections that are later made in person, the use of technology as a means of connecting us across vast distances.

Want to know more? Here’s the project: As part of a unit on Vikings in T. Sue Gold’s history class, sixth graders studied Norse gods and goddesses. Each student chose a character from the Norse pantheon and researched the character’s role. Students sketched their gods, giants, humans or animals, and then animated their drawings using Explain Everything. Students brought their character’s myth to life and were able to teach their classmates about it in a visual, creative way.Click here to see the animations.

Kudos to 6th graders, T. Sue, T. Alicia, Reshan Richards and the Explain Everything team!

Watch a few minutes with the students and Reshan

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Reflections on Race from NAIS 2016 National Convention

By Whitney Suttell

The theme for this year’s NAIS annual conference was “What’s Your Story?” While I heard many different stories from both individuals and schools, Bryan Stevenson’s keynote address was the most moving story of the conference.  Stevenson spoke about his work with the Equal Justice Initiative and his fight against mass incarceration. A masterful teacher and story-teller, Stevenson spoke about four steps to change the world. He told us the first thing we must do is to “get proximate.”  We can’t solve problems that we aren’t willing to see and experience up close.  He urged us to get close to people who are suffering, to places where oppression is present.  The second thing he said, is to “change the narrative”; we have to stop being a society that reacts out of anger and fear because it is anger and fear that lead to violence and inequality.  Stevenson’s third step to creating change was to remain hopeful, even in the face of overwhelming odds.  Finally, Stevenson urged us to do uncomfortable things.  

Stevenson’s steps for change resonated with me both in terms of what I teach and in how I teach.  I teach about social justice issues and frame my history classes around the theme of creating change.  I hope my classes are about getting proximate to things that have remained hidden or at a distance.  I want my Peace and Justice class to understand the sacrifices Cherokee leaders made to try and negotiate a claim to the land they had lived on for centuries.  I hope that in presenting the ways colonized peoples fought against their colonial oppressors I change the narrative that my World History students have about white dominance.  When I teach about the system of racial oppression, I emphasize that if racism is a social construct, there is hope that we can de-construct it.  And when I ask my students to look inside themselves and see the ways they experience privilege and disadvantage, I know I am asking them to do something extraordinarily uncomfortable.  

When I reflect on Stevenson’s talk, I also think about my own story as a teacher.  I know of no other way to meet my students’ needs than to get close to them, to see them for who they really are.  I also have to be willing to change my own narrative about students.  I have to be aware that I am susceptible to stereotypes and to unconscious bias and be willing to change the culturally-informed narratives that sometimes lie buried in my subconscious.  I don’t think one can be a teacher for very long without being hopeful and it is my genuine hope for the future, grounded in my admiration of my students that makes my work meaningful.  Being hopeful gives me the courage to do uncomfortable things, knowing that my discomfort usually makes me better equipped to support my students.  

I think many of us listening to Stevenson were ready to quit our jobs and go join the fight against racial oppression.  In many ways, teaching at an elite private school feels like the very definition of privilege and I left Stevenson’s talk worrying that I wasn’t “doing enough.”  I have been teaching Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence to my Peace and Justice students and today we discussed Gandhi’s conception of “duty.”  Gandhi believed that “at every moment every person was aware of some basic need in the world that that particular person could help to meet.”  I am grateful for Stevenson’s advice for how to change the world and for the reminder, from Gandhi and my Peace and Justice students, that my duty is to help my students understand their world and give them the tools they need to change it.

(If you are interested in learning more about Bryan Stevenson, you can check out his book, Just Mercy, or his TED talk here.)

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