Kristin Street: the joy of tinkering

Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 9.57.05 AMWhen Moses Brown School visual art instructor Kristin Street learned she’d be part of the 2014-15 faculty cohort program, the 35-year veteran teacher confessed to “a bit of panic at being in the limelight… would I meet the expectations of my peers, my students, myself?” She realized it was also a golden opportunity to try a new approach. “I like to change things up,” Kristin says, “to experiment with new curricular ideas and gauge how the students will respond.”

Kristin is fascinated by the “maker” movement. “The maker approach is technological and creative,” she explains, “similar to both scientific research and creating art: asking questions that lead to more questions. Students need to identify and solve problems, flex their creative muscles, communicate effectively and think critically. Fortunately, the maker movement draws on the human inclination to learn by doing.”

DSC_0010For her cohort project, she put students at the center of the process. She introduced a new elective, Tinker, Tailor, Maker: “This course will focus on tinkering activities involving Arduino [an open-source electronics platform], electricity, magnetism, force and motion. If you want to take things apart and build art that’s part science, part technology, this is the course for you.”

Students began with cannibalizing toys and creating new ones with the components. The next big project launched from the driving question “How can we incorporate a safety feature into an accessory or garment, using a variety of technologies and materials?” Students chose everything: the product to create, whether to work individually or in teams, how time and work should be allocated, and rubrics to evaluate their progress and collaboration. Kristin says: “I wanted to build in time for failure, contemplation and reflection, with real evaluative touchstones along the way.” One team built a runner’s safety vest with an active signal to warn approaching drivers. They fine-tuned materials and triggers through several prototypes. Students graded themselves and each other collectively, using the rubric they’d created to evaluate teamwork, originality, time management and artistic merit. “I really kept quiet,” Kristin laughs, “and they were brutal in their expectations and assessments!”

P1060484And how did the students respond to the new approach? Kristin notes that while her older students were comfortable with the idea of iteration, younger students were frustrated that success didn’t come in the first round. Broadly speaking, she also felt that students with lots of arts experience were more willing to tinker than those who identify more with science and math. “Experimentation has always been an inherent part of working in an arts classroom,” Kristin says. “Trial and error is not a process that is comfortable for many of our students. We try to encourage them to embrace failure as valuable, even a requirement for success.”

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Maureen Berger: charting new routes to language learning

Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

IMG_20150505_143921 In her fifth year on the faculty, upper school French teacher Maureen Berger planned to dedicate her cohort project to developing a student exchange between Moses Brown and a school in France. “For certain languages that aren’t so common in this country, language learning can seem too theoretical to students,” Maureen says. “We rely on trips to immerse our students, and exchanges are the ultimate goal.” The complexities of planning an exchange, however – selecting a peer school, agreeing on international logistics, selecting students to go, recruiting MB families to host French students – made the exchange a long-term endeavor. Maureen adjusted her cohort project to concentrate on bringing two French curricula to fruition.

First, she developed the Language Learner’s Passport as a way to measure student competencies throughout upper school. Inspiration struck Maureen when she attended a summer teaching institute in France, and encountered the European Union’s model of language fluency classification. “The European teachers made so many references to ‘B2-level’ or ‘C1-level’ students,” Maureen recalls. “European language textbooks are much more standardized than ours. Clear levels of proficiency are a necessity in securing work permits in EU nations. If a Spanish accountant wants to apply for a job in Munich, for example, she takes a German placement test to demonstrate proficiency.” This got Maureen thinking about the variability of language learning in the U.S. MB’s French 2 supports different competencies than Hope High School’s French 2 does, for example. “In high school, there’s a wide range of language skills, not always aligned with age and experience,” Maureen explains. “Some students may be near-fluent French speakers, but face significant challenges writing in French.”

IMG_20150505_143544The passport encourages students to take ownership of their skill development. A series of pages codifies specific competencies in receptive skills (listening and reading) and productive skills (conversing, discursive speaking and writing). A novice can “use expressions and simple phrases in order to describe where I live and people I know,” while an advanced student can “present clear, detailed descriptions on complex subjects, integrating allied themes, developing certain points and terminating my talk in an appropriate way.” Teachers stamp the passport as each level’s skills are mastered. “My AP students were the guinea pigs,” she said, “and they love incentives.” (French chocolate, perhaps?) Next year, she plans to introduce the passport to her freshmen to use throughout upper school.

Maureen calls her second new curriculum “directed dialogues.” One of the most daunting sections of language AP exams simulates conversation, requiring students to listen to questions and record their responses in a prescribed time period. “This is often the most nerve-wracking part of the test,” Maureen says. “Inevitably the machine cuts you off in the middle of a sentence. Everyone gets rattled!” To give students at the lower and middle levels a chance to assess their conversation skills, Maureen developed scripts supporting the textbooks’ themes, recruited “actors” and timed appropriate prompts and responses, creating the system to assess students’ spoken competency. Ideally, the process is comfortable and familiar by the time students encounter it on the AP exam.

Both new curricula can be replicated throughout the World Languages department. “The more tools we can give students, the more they can direct their own learning,” she says.

 

 

 

Why use parodies to teach history?

By Anne Landis, Upper School Humanities

I come from a musical family. My mother, a Juilliard-trained singer, and my father, blessed with a musical aptitude but no musical training, made certain that my sister and I had many opportunities to enjoy music. We sang in church choirs and a cappella groups in high school and college. My later singing career was limited to a few casual Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and singing to my children.

When I was at Chatham College in Pennsylvania, there was an event called “Song Contest.”  It was great fun for a women’s college—each class competed in three categories: a serious song, a lighter song, and an original song. I wrote an original song—a parody to mock the antiquated rules of the college to the tune of “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. As freshmen we came in second, and when I returned for my 25th reunion the choir sang it for the alumnae.

My parents wrote me a great parody for my 50th birthday, and my relatives, sister, and I wrote one for my mother’s 80th birthday. But, my recent career in writing parodies was rekindled when I joined a group called The Raging Grannies, an international group of women “of a certain age” who use parodies (for people to sing along) to protest war and injustice at demonstrations. We wrote songs about the Iraq War, health care, climate change, poverty, and my favorite was about the 2008 election (naming many Rhode Island towns in the process) to the tune of “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys. In 2012, I updated the song for one of my classes to emphasize the importance of voting and accompanied myself on poorly played ukulele.

The class asked for more songs, so I complied by composing songs for my 20th century class: Mussolini is presented to the tune of “I’m A Believer”: I’ve just met a man they call Il Duce… Stalin becomes the Man of Steel to the tune of “I’m Henry VIII, I am”… and the causes of World War II are listed to the tune of “Route 66.”  Last, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping are serenaded to the tune of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Next year, 9th grade history with more up to date songs…but definitely NOT anything from Frozen.

Collection effort will help children in local communities access books

By Maureen Nagle, Middle School EnglishMo

Did you know that in high-income homes in the U.S., children have access to approximately 200 age-appropriate books to enjoy? In middle-income homes the average is about 60 books. In lower-income homes, 60% of children have access to zero books.

During the week of our MB Book Festival, Paige Clausius-Parks, the Assistant Director of Pawtucket-based Books Are Wings, visited our middle schoolers during our weekly Meeting for Worship to share these figures and inspire us to help other young readers through a fundraiser and book drive. A group of our eighth graders then presented to our lower school students about the program, which led to a middle school-lower school collaboration that collected close to 600 books and over $350 dollars. This effort will help to ensure that students in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls elementary and middle schools will enter summer break with books to enjoy. During the months of May and June, Books are Wings volunteers will be holding “book parties” in these schools for students to enjoy reading-related arts and crafts activities and then choose two books to take home with them.bookwithwingsdrive

Research has shown us that when children who do not read over the summer return to school in the fall, they lose two entire months of instructional time while having to re-learn forgotten material. We are so proud of all of our middle schoolers for sharing their love of reading with others and helping other kids grow their own love of reading.

#everybookcounts

Tony Pirruccello-McClellan “finds science in anything”

Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

Tony Pirruccello-McClellan on the Yellowstone National Park environmental service TRIP

Tony Pirruccello-McClellan on the Yellowstone National Park environmental service TRIP

Resilience is a hot topic in education. At Moses Brown School, teachers and parents recognize that recovery from setbacks is a critical skill for students to master now, before they confront bigger challenges in college and in adult life. STEM and arts curricula embrace an iterative process of attempts, failures and new approaches, scaffolding student perseverance and grit. Even teachers hit bumps in the road: middle school science teacher Tony Pirruccello-McClellan had to chart a new course when his faculty cohort project met an unexpected dead end.

He’d planned to mentor San Miguel School’s new science teacher, a recent college graduate, sharing curricula and trade secrets from his own 29 years of teaching and even bringing their students together for collaborative study. “After some fits and starts, though, it was clear that the new teacher simply couldn’t engage with all I’d planned,” Tony reflected. As a volunteer in an underserved school, he was simply stretched too thin.

Tony grappled with how to redirect his cohort project, and decided to double down on his own curriculum. “I really enjoy the curricular development aspect of teaching,” he says. “Discovering new ways to model, demonstrate or test an idea is one of the best parts of the job. We can find science in anything. We just have to look.” Recent new curricula include the Yellowstone Wolf Project, which connects to students’ study of Never Cry Wolf in English class and feeds into the Yellowstone summer environmental service trip; and the Rube Goldberg Project, where students build outlandish machines to demonstrate laws of physics. “The Rube Goldberg seed was planted in January, and by April the new unit was ready to go,” Tony says. “It took creativity, communication, collaboration and planning – and a leap of faith. As a professional development experience it was invaluable.”

Tony has also pursued curriculum development through conferences and travel. At the National Science Teachers’ Association conference in Chicago, he gathered ideas from workshops on 3D printing and iPad use in classrooms. A highlight was New England Ocean Science Education Collaborative’s Ocean Literacy Summit in Woods Hole in the fall. “It took me back to my college experience, a SEA semester at Woods Hole aboard the Westward,” Tony recalls. He looks forward to NEOSEC’s June conference in Newport. “There may be a way for our middle school to work with the Oliver Hazard Perry, a 200’ tall ship, and later to connect the resources of MB’s new Maritime Education Center with our science curriculum.”

Tony’s faculty cohort project has followed multiple paths, rather than the one he’d planned – with immediate benefits to his middle school colleagues and students. “When I started teaching 29 years ago, I chose the middle grades as a stepping stone to the high school,” he laughs. “After a few years of teaching students grades 5-12, I discovered that I was a middle school teacher.  I’m totally comfortable with the notion: whenever I’m with kids of this age, I’m in the right place.”