Violence Prevention: A Lower School teacher’s call to action

By Marion Dear, 5th grade teacher


What does sexual assault have to do with a Lower School teacher? My answer: just as institutionalized racism is a form of bullying, so is sexual assault. Bullying is defined as harm done repeatedly, when there is a discrepancy of power. In July, I trained at a Greendot Institute held in Arlington Virginia.  The Greendot Program is a method of community mobilization that addresses sexual assault and it is applicable to other forms of bullying.   This method fits directly into our Olweus anti-bullying program already in place in the Lower School. Our students already know that the main characters in a bullying scenario include the bully, who has most of the power, the victim, on the receiving end of the harm, and the bystanders, who are aware of the situation but are not actively participating in the harm. This last group is the largest group and where most people find themselves. The Greendot Program is a call to action for the bystander group.

Now for some color coding. Imagine a map of the U. S.. Every time someone inflicts harm on another person, we mark a red dot at that place. As more people are harmed, red dots increase, and eventually they start to cover the map. We often see this this type of visual dot scenario, when we are tracking outbreaks of illnesses or disease. Now, imagine that every time a harmed person receives help and recovers, we mark over the red dot with a green dot. As the instances of help increase, eventually all the red dots are covered up by green dots. Harm is eradicated. Our goal is to teach our students to take care of each other and fill their community with green dots.

There is two types of green dots, reactive and proactive.  A “reactive green dot”, is an action a bystander takes AFTER a harmful behavior. Imagine this. A student sees someone getting teased on the playground or not included in a game of Foursquare. Later at lunch, that student checks in on his/her classmate and says, “Are you OK?”  This simple action is a reactive green dot.  An even more effective type of behavior is a proactive green dot, intended to prevent the harm from occurring in the first place. An example of this, using our recess scenario, might involve recess duty teachers clarifying that games like Foursquare must include everyone who wants to play. Exclusion is not tolerated at recess. As a teacher I have posted the following proactive green dot statement in my classroom:

“No one has to do everything, but everyone has to do something.”

I explain the poster to my class. It is a call to action, telling bystanders that they should not stand by, when they see harmful behavior. They must act. I am also telling any potential bullies that harmful behavior is not tolerated in my classroom community. At the end of this blog post, I will ask each of you as my readers to join me in creating proactive green dots throughout our community here at Westtown.

There are obstacles that prevent us from intervening when we see harm, and the Greendot Program gives us strategies for overcoming them. Many of us are simply afraid to intervene if we witness harmful behavior. We fear for our safety. We learned that, despite this understandable obstacle, we can still intervene with a green dot when we see harm. These strategies involve three different approaches, called direct, delegate, and distract, or the 3 D’s for short.  Direct intervention involves confronting the bully and  telling him/her to stop. This is the least common type of green dot, because it takes  some guts. If you are standing up to a bully, you probably need to be confident in your physical strength. I know I rarely am, and in all honesty, this strategy is the one I am least likely to employ. The second strategy involves delegating or finding help. We tell students to get a teacher when things heat up and get out of hand on the playground. They do. They are acting out a green dot by getting help. Calling 9-1-1 is another example of  delegating a green dot. Delegating works, because it stops the harm. The third type of green dot involves distraction. The bell ringing to signal that recess is over will stop a bully in his/her tracks. So will this, “Excuse me, can I borrow your cell phone? Or, “What is snack today?” This can interrupt the process of harm just enough to keep it from progressing. The favorite distraction for the college trainees at my conference involved spilling your drink on someone. Each of us had to reflect and determine which type of green dot intervention we might be most likely to use, direct, delegate, or distract. Practicing bystander intervention in our heads in hypothetical form prepares us for for situations when we must act out green dots in real life. Sometimes, a harmful situation calls for a combination of these three strategies. This is fine, as long the harm is stopped.

Now, dear reader, I will ask you for help. Remember the map with red dots and green dots? We want to cover our community with proactive green dots, before red dots have an opportunity to occur. Please, join me in making this happen at Westtown, with your very own proactivgreen_dote green dot.  If your answer is, “Yes, I am on board,”  then let me know and I will send you a copy of this green dot poster. Post it in your classroom, and explain it to your students. Know that many colleges are adopting the green dot program as part of their freshman orientation. We can, likewise, teach our students to stand up and strengthen this community by starting right here on campus. We have an opportunity to further define what we so often call “safe space” at Westtown. Thank you for considering my request.  I hope I hear from many of you!


Posted in Friends Schools, Leadership | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Action Based Education, Collaboration, Design Thinking, Friends Schools, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.”

Posted in Action Based Education, Collaboration, Design Thinking, Diversity and Inclusion, Ecology, Friends Schools, Global Education | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Action Based Education, Collaboration, Ecology, Friends Schools, Visual Arts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Collaboration, Friends Schools, Professional Development | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Continue reading

Posted in Diversity and Inclusion, Friends Schools, Professional Development | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment