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Giddens View Blog

The Giddens Approach to Teaching and Learning
Amy Bresslour

What does an academically deep education supported by social/emotional learning and infused with justice look like? What does this approach to teaching and learning mean for each and every child who enters our door and then graduates years later to middle school? As the Head of School at Giddens, these are questions I frequently consider.

Head of School speaking at a school event.

I recently revisited writings by Dr. James Banks, the founder, and director of the nationally recognized Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington. He remarks that education should enable students to acquire the attitudes, knowledge, and values needed to know, to care, and to act to make the nation and the world more democratic and just.

At Giddens, our faculty make this ambitious vision of education come to life each day in every classroom. We do this by knowing each and every student. We engage students in academic opportunities that support them to reach toward their potential and to develop a deep understanding of each subject matter. We integrate those opportunities with questions of justice while attending to each individual student’s social and emotional needs and strengths.

Our students learn to think like scientists, like mathematicians, like writers, and like artists. Our students learn to ask questions about fairness, about access to opportunities, and about equity. Our students learn to know themselves, to understand their own perspectives, and to respect the perspectives of others. Our students engage in knowing, they engage in action, and they engage in caring.

Our entire school—faculty, students, administrators, trustees, parents, and alumni—are engaged in work that ensures Giddens is a diverse community, committed to this vision. We recognize that diversity, in all of its forms, is essential to supporting our students to thrive individually and as part of a broader community. With experiences that bridge across lines of difference, our students leave Giddens with the knowledge and skills to embrace the world we know and reach toward the world we hope for.

Visit Giddens School

I look forward to your engagement with our community as you consider Giddens as a great place for your child to grow and thrive. Despite the challenges of opening our community to you while we are managing the risks of the pandemic, our goals remain the same--to provide you with opportunities to view Giddens’ teaching and learning in action and to show you engaged and passionate students who love being at school. My hope is that you will see students who exercise critical thinking and who are becoming individuals within a community of learners who know, who do, and who care. 

Morva McDonald, Ph.D.
Head of School
The Power of Partnership
Dr. Morva McDonald

Many of you have asked me, “How did we get here?” or, sometimes more directly, “Why exactly are we doing this?” I’m grateful for these questions, and for this opportunity to share with you a bit of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Both of my children, Simon ‘15 and Sadie ‘18 attended Giddens and this year they entered high school and middle school respectively. Always, but particularly, in this moment of transition, I am grateful for the foundation that Giddens provided. Giddens grounded them academically. Giddens set the building blocks that have allowed them to be who they are. Giddens helped them not only see, but understand, the importance of community, of diversity, and of standing up for their own sense of what is right. For me, the essential reason for Giddens to secure its own home is so that other families and children have access, well into the future, to the same educational opportunities as Simon and Sadie.

To ensure such a future, we count on the power of partnership. To say that the decision to invest in a new facility was not made lightly is an understatement. In 2016, Giddens and Lake Washington Girls Middle School each separately faced multi-million dollar investments to upgrade the 100+-year-old buildings that we lease from the Archdiocese of Seattle. Faced with these and other costs, the schools discussed, planned, deliberated, and ultimately seized an opportunity to bring two socially and economically diverse schools together under one roof. As partners, we will share core services (gymnasium, lunchroom, common and outdoor areas, upkeep), together we will amplify our common commitment to social justice, and we will ensure an exciting long-term future for both schools.

After initiating the project and in parallel with fundraising efforts from philanthropic individuals and organizations, we envisioned a campus that would become home to two other like-minded nonprofits. With excitement, we engaged JazzED and Capitol Hill Housing. They purchased a portion of the original parcel and are collaborating to develop the space adjacent to the schools for music education and affordable housing. While this sale helped us to fund our construction project, when we step back and consider the future, what we can see is a rich, vibrant campus of organizations that will serve children and families in the immediate community and beyond.

Partnership is powerful. We couldn’t nor would we want to go it alone. Sharing our combined resources – financial, material, and intellectual – allows us to deepen, expand, and sustain our reach. It enables Giddens to stay true to its values of equity and access and diversity and inclusion. When I imagine a future, I am excited by a reality in which families ten years from now and beyond can choose Giddens and be assured that their children will thrive in a school committed to the idea that being educated is to be known, seen, and understood as someone who knows, who cares and who does.

Why multiage classrooms?
Dr. Morva McDonald

Teaching to the whole child, inclusion, and diversity are three of the foundational principles that guide the Giddens' academic approach. This approach integrates the learning of:

  • subject area content
  • each student's social and emotional development
  • and the development of social justice perspectives

Anchored by these principles, we intentionally decide to organize the elementary school years into multiage classrooms (K/1; 2/3; and 4/5). In doing so, we recognize that children grow and change at different rates, with different strengths and abilities. We embrace these differences as teachers plan instruction and assessments that expect and celebrate diversity within our classrooms.

In our multiage classrooms, opportunities for students to learn in small groups is based on specific assessments of their learning and not simply based on age or grade. This supports students by providing instruction based on their own needs or strengths. Research on multiage classrooms suggests that students in these environments are more likely to be valued for their intellectual individuality. There is less reliance on labels to describe more advanced or less advanced students. Students also feel less competition as opposed to a traditional classroom environment because the expectation of the teachers and the students is that everyone is at different levels. Our daily experience with our students reflects the findings of this research.

In our multiage classrooms, children have a range of peers of various ages to form relationships with, supporting their skills in friendship, collaboration, and problem-solving. With this greater span of difference comes a greater capacity for empathy development. These opportunities from year to year reflect our commitments to encourage students' social and emotional development.

The development of social justice perspectives is also strengthened in multiage classrooms. In such classrooms, all students have opportunities to lead, to some times follow, to sometimes be experienced, and to sometimes be new. This pattern of interaction supports students to understand the feelings of others as they learn to traverse different ways of being. The ability to put themselves into another's shoes is nurtured through ongoing awareness of what it was like to venture into an unknown grade band and by the experience of becoming a veteran in the same grade band.

Our model of grade band learning provides children with a multiage experience, whether they retain the same teacher over two years or they experience a new classroom community. The principles of diverse skill exposure, interaction with a range of individuals, and a pattern of leadership opportunities are in place throughout the grade band. The multiage approach, along with a two-year cycle of academic content, social-emotional learning, and social justice development provides children opportunities that cannot be found in other environments. A multiage classroom allows each child to develop their diverse skills within a broad range of learners, helping them to be well supported in their areas of struggle and to find authentic joy in their areas of success.

Morva McDonald
Head of School

Giddens View
Dr. Morva McDonald

Walking from the parking lot into school this week I noticed the crocuses poking their way out of the earth searching for sunshine and warmth. I hope that mid-winter break has offered you and your family some time to slow down, enjoy each other, and have an adventure.

The faculty and staff at Giddens are excited to welcome you back to school on Monday. There are a few upcoming events. I hope you are able to join us.

  • Monday, February 27th – Open Community Forum. A Board of Trustees and School Leadership and Staff sponsored event. Register for childcare.
  • Monday, March 6th – Early Bird Ticket Deadline for the Auction. Tickets can be found on our website. The auction is a great way to build community, connect with other families, and raise much-needed resources to support teaching and learning at Giddens.
  • Wednesday, March 8th – Windows on Giddens will be a family fun and interactive evening.
Every year as part of professional development activities and as spring emerges, I meet with staff to assess their plans and career goals for the upcoming academic year. Through one-to-one meetings with every faculty member, I'm pleased to share that I anticipate a significant return rate from teachers and specialists with each grade band anchored by long-term Giddens' veteran teachers. Every individual teacher has personal career goals along with family and personal obligations. While I hope that Giddens is the right place for all, every individual has their own goals and trajectory. Faculty and I are continuing these conversations to make final determinations and I will share updates to staffing in April and again in June.

Additionally, in May, we will be sending all families, as we did last year, a class placement input form. This form aims to provide every family with an avenue for providing thoughts on how we can continue to support every child for the upcoming year.

As children and families move through the school, we understand that moving up to the next grade-band can sometimes bring uncertainty and excitement of change. We hope that if your child is in PreK, 1st, or 3rd grade, you'll join us to talk, ask questions, and learn about what to look forward to and expect at the next level. If interested in attending, please mark your calendars with the following dates:

  • April 19th 5:00 to 6:00 for Pre K and 1st
  • April 26th 5:00 to 6:00 for 3rd grade
Enjoy the weekend and see you on Monday!

Morva McDonald
Head of School

Giddens View on SPARK Projects
Rachel Donnelley

How do you ignite a passion for lifelong learning and social justice engagement? With a SPARK (project), of course!

SPARK Projects are inquiry-based learning experiences that place science and social studies content knowledge side by side with social justice topics. Students are encouraged to develop questions, theories, and strategies as they engage in interactive learning experiences. These projects provide a framework for integrated learning, encompassing multiple subject areas and encouraging students to make connections in order to apply their knowledge.

The journey toward SPARK Projects began last spring, as the Giddens School instructional leadership team engaged teachers in the question: "How do we intentionally weave social justice topics into our science and social studies instruction?" Pondering this question took us on a journey, exploring many teaching practices and structures. Our ultimate goal was to promote our mission, assuring that students were thinking critically while gaining relevant knowledge and skills in a social justice context. We considered existing models that promote student engagement with deep questions, including Project Based Learning, the Inquiry Based Teaching model promoted by International Baccalaureate schools, and Experiential Learning. Ultimately, as is often the case at Giddens, we decided to blaze our own trail, taking the best of these models with us, and SPARK Projects were created.

Throughout the summer, teaching teams met to develop content for these inaugural projects. They considered developmentally appropriate content in social justice, equity, and advocacy while relying on established standards for grade band appropriate content. In addition to assuring that projects would complement the Common Core State Standards, teams also considered the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the C3 Social Studies Framework in developing topics and experiences. SPARK Projects are thoughtfully designed to both increase academic knowledge that meets these high standards and increase student engagement with the complex world around them.

The development of student engagement through exploration, questioning, and theorizing is also an essential element of SPARK Projects. Students are prompted with complex ideas, phenomenon, or problems that form the context for their learning. Rather than teaching a social studies unit on "Government and the Election," our second and third graders are engaged in their "Democratic Decision Making" SPARK Project during which they experience the trials and tribulations of setting up a community based in democratic principles. Students actively engage with the tensions that arise in this process, developing both empathy for the complexity of running a country and a critical eye toward how to improve communal decision making in their world.

I hope you'll join Dr. Morva McDonald, Head of School and Rachel Donnelley, Director of Teaching and Learning on Thursday, September 29th from 8:45-9:30 in the Library for our first Giddens View Live of the year. We will explore additional examples of possible SPARK Projects and share more of the thinking behind this innovative learning model. I look forward to seeing you at 8:45 in the Library. For those who can't make it in person, we'll post a video on the Family Portal of the Giddens website.

Talking to Children about Tragedy
Dr. Morva McDonald

Dear Families,

Today's events in Orlando are such a terrible tragedy and like all those across the nation our thoughts and hearts go out to the families and friends impacted directly by this act of violence. In light of these events, we wanted to reach out to support you with any conversations you may be having with your children. Some families may choose to limit their children's exposure while others may choose to share and talk about them directly. Regardless, we know that many of us are likely struggling with if, how, and how much to talk about it and wanted to share the following resources. The following guidelines are adapted from the Mayo Clinic:

When a tragedy — such as a natural disaster, mass shooting or terrorist attack — occurs, it can be hard to talk to your child about what happened. How do you explain it? How much will he or she understand? Find out how to start the conversation and what you can do to help your child cope.

Do I need to talk to my child about a tragedy?

Talking to your child about a tragedy can help him or her understand what's happened, feel safe and begin to cope. If you don't speak to your child about a tragedy, there's a chance that he or she might hear about it elsewhere.

How do I start a conversation with my child about a tragedy?

Take time to think about what you want to say. If possible, choose a time when your child is most likely to want to talk, such as before dinner. Ask your child what he or she already knows about the tragedy — and what questions or concerns he or she might have. Let your child's answers guide your discussion.

How do I explain the tragedy to my child?

Tell the truth. Focus on the basics, and avoid sharing unnecessary details. Don't exaggerate or speculate about what might happen. Avoid dwelling on the scale or scope of the tragedy.

Listen closely to your child for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears. Provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you're there for him or her. Reassure your child that what happened isn't his or her fault.

Your child's age will affect how he or she processes information about a tragedy. Consider these tips:

  • Preschool children. Get down to your child's eye level. Speak in a calm and gentle voice using words your child understands. Explain what happened and how it might affect your child. For example, after a severe storm you might say that a tree fell on electrical wires and now the lights don't work. Share steps that are being taken to keep your child safe and give hugs.
  • Elementary and early middle school children. Children in this age range might have more questions about whether they're truly safe. They might need help separating fantasy from reality.
  • Upper middle school and high school children. Older children will want more information about the tragedy and recovery efforts. They're more likely to have strong opinions about the causes, as well as suggestions about how to prevent future tragedies and a desire to help those affected.

How might my child react?

After a tragic event, your child might experience a range of emotions, including fear, shock, anger, anxiety and grief. Your child's age will affect how he or she handles the stress of a tragedy. For example:

  • Preschool children. Children in this age range might have trouble adjusting to change or loss. They might become clingy or mimic your emotions. Some children might also revert to wetting the bed or sucking their thumbs. Avoid criticizing your child for this behavior.
  • Elementary and early middle school children. Children in elementary and early middle school might have nightmares or other sleep problems. They might fear going to school, have trouble paying attention in school or become aggressive for no clear reason.
  • Upper middle school and high school children. Older children might deny that they're upset. Some children might complain of physical aches and pains because they're unable to identify what's really bothering them. Others might start arguments or resist authority.

These reactions are normal. However, if your child continues to display these behaviors for more than two to four weeks, he or she might need more help coping. If your child has experienced previous trauma, remember that he or she might be at greater risk of a severe reaction. If you're concerned about your child's reaction, talk to a mental health provider.

What can I do to help my child cope?

You can take steps to help your child process what happened. For example:

  • Remain calm. Your child will look to you for cues about how to react. It's OK for children to see adults sad or crying, but consider excusing yourself if you're experiencing intense emotions.
  • Reassure your child of his or her safety. Point out factors that ensure your child's immediate safety and the safety of the community. Consider reviewing your family's plans for responding to a crisis.
  • Limit media exposure. Don't allow young children to repeatedly see or hear coverage of a tragedy. Even if your young child is engrossed in play, he or she is likely aware of what you're watching — and might become confused or upset. Older children might want to learn more about a tragedy by reading or watching TV. However, avoid repetitive loops of news information once you have the facts. Constant exposure to coverage of a tragedy can heighten anxiety.
  • Avoid placing blame. If the tragedy was caused by human violence or error, be careful not to blame a cultural, racial or ethnic group, or people who have mental illnesses.
  • Maintain the routine. To give your child a sense of normalcy, keep up your family's usual dinner, homework and bedtime routine.
  • Spend extra time together. Special attention can foster your child's sense of security. Spend a little more time reading to your child or tucking him or her in at night. If your child is having trouble sleeping, allow him or her to sleep with a light on or to sleep in your room for a short time. Extra cuddles might help, too.
  • Encourage the expression of feelings. Explain that it's OK to be upset or cry. Let your child write about or draw what he or she is feeling. Physical activity might serve as an outlet for feelings or frustration. If your child is acting out, explain that there are other ways of coping.
  • Do something for those affected by the tragedy. Consider ways that you and your child can help victims and their families. You might take your child to your place of worship or write thank-you notes to first responders.

What else can I do?

It might be the last thing on your mind, but caring for yourself after a tragedy is important. Pay attention to your own feelings of grief, anger or anxiety. Lean on loved ones for support or talk to a mental health provider. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet and stay active. Taking care of yourself will enable you to care for your child and serve as a role model for how to cope.

Please let us know if we can support you or your family during this tragedy.

Kind regards,

Dr. Morva McDonald
Head of School

Student Assessment at Giddens School
Rachel Donnelley

How do you know what someone else knows? You might ask them some questions, to determine their ability to communicate their knowledge. You might observe them closely, watching to see if they demonstrate their knowledge through their actions. You might even give them a task, checking to see if they can apply their knowledge in a specific situation. This is assessment, and teachers do it a thousand times a day, often in subtle ways, to help them make appropriate instructional decisions.

Strong instructional decision making is core to the work of ambitious teaching. All day long teachers make thoughtful choices about what to teach students, where to push or support individual students, and how to deliver content. Assessments that give them insights into what students know and are able to do play a central role in assuring that this decision making is well-informed, responsive, and intentional.

Many people, when thinking of assessment, envision students sequestered at tables with number two pencils filling in bubbles. In truth, it is a much more dynamic, multi-faceted process. Teachers engage in conversations with students, listen in as students talk with one another, and observe closely as children work or play. Sometimes, they present them with situations or questions that ask the students to share their knowledge in a specific way. In these ways, teachers are able to gain clarity into what is known, so they can help a child take the next steps on their learning journey.

At Giddens School, assessment is an ongoing process that helps us assure continual improvement for individual children, and for the school. By seeking continuous feedback on what our students know and are able to do, we are able to make decisions focused on improvement. Assessment at Giddens takes many different forms, including:

  • A second-grade mathematician taking a pre-test before beginning a unit on Geometry, to share what they already know and allow the teacher to adapt the curriculum to meet their needs.
  • A fifth grader presenting research to their class about an inspirational leader
  • A preschool child sorting a group of objects by color.
  • A kindergartner reading a short book aloud to the Literacy Specialist.
  • Fourth-grade students huddled around individual laptop computers taking a standardized test.
  • Prekindergarten children coming up with words that rhyme with cat.
  • First-grade students counting by 10's around a math learning circle.
  • A multi-grade group at recess determining how many buckets of water they will need to fill the hole they have dug.
Each of these assessments requires a talented teacher to make sense of the data gathered. Some are formal while others are disguised as play, but each of them provides us insight into what is happening in the brain of a child. Armed with this knowledge, teachers can build the scaffold to help them take their learning to the next level.

I hope you will join me this Thursday, May 26th at 8:45am or 2:00pm to learn more about assessment at Giddens School. We will take a look at some of the formal assessment tools used in the school at a variety of grade levels and learn more about how information is gathered from informal assessments. We will also consider how the data collected from assessments is used to support individual student learning, as well as to shape the direction of the school's teaching and learning. See you there!

Best wishes,

Rachel Donnelley
Director of Teaching and Learning

Sciesmic and Water Safety
Dr. Morva McDonald

Giddens Families,

Over the summer, you might have seen articles in both the New Yorker and Seattle Times about the threat of a major earthquake in the Puget Sound region. This morning, The Seattle Times released a Special Investigative Report about seismic neglect.

At Giddens, the safety of students is very important and we want you to be aware of the steps we've taken to ensure your child's safety if such an event were to occur. The majority of the Unreinforced Masonry Buildings (URMs) in Seattle, including 620 20th Ave S, are identified in the article. The City of Seattle has proposed a program that will require building owners to seismically retrofit buildings with URM bearing walls. Given our building's URM status, we are currently in conversations with our landlord, the Archdiocese of Seattle and St. Mary's Church about a voluntary retrofit.

In academic year 2005-2006, St. Mary's Church conducted a seismic assessment. Following that assessment seismic upgrades were made focusing on providing more safety at the primary exiting paths from the building. As part of that scope of work a new roof diaphragm was installed, the parapets were tied back to the roof, the attic floor diaphragm was fastened to the roof deck and gable walls, areas of weak brick and stone were re-grouted, statues and architectural elements were connected back to the building and the existing masonry chimney was lowered. We also installed a valve that automatically shuts off the gas if an earthquake occurs and added ties to keep the light covers from falling.

Our current lease with the Archdiocese concludes July 1,2018 with several options for extension. Our Board of Directors along with our Facilities Committee is actively looking at all options. Seismic safety is a key consideration as we consider Giddens future facility needs.

In addition, given national and local news about lead in drinking water, there have been inquiries about water quality. In terms of water quality, we originally had our water tested for lead in 2005. Given recent local news events, we re-tested the water throughout the main building, outdoor classrooms, and annex offices for the presence of lead in April 2016. No lead was detected in any of our samples.

In addition to structural review, we conduct quarterly disaster drills and monthly fire drills, so that the students and staff are well practiced in safety matters during earthquake, fires, and lockdowns. Please don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.

Best wishes,

Dr. Morva McDonald
Head of School

Giddens View
Dr. Morva McDonald

While we approach the end of the year and the end of my first year as the Head of School, I am aware how quickly time passes. I can see how much our students have grown and learned in such a short time and how quickly they will be moving on into middle school, even for those in preschool.

Recently, I've been reading up on recent research on the experiences of adolescents in middle and high schools. This may seem like a strange pastime for the head of an elementary school, but it's been profoundly helpful for me as I shape my own thinking about what it is we're preparing Giddens students for and how we prepare them well.

In the last decade or more, the laser light focus on grades, test scores, and rote learning has stressed out many of our students and left others marginalized. We see the negative impact mostly during students' high school years. For example, research indicates that 80 to 95% of high school students admit to engaging in some form of cheating. We sometimes think of this as an issue for students struggling to perform. While some studies find that cheating is common among students with lower academic performance, other research indicates that cheating is also prevalent among high-achieving students. For instance, studies focused on students in advance placement find that AP students are aware of their peers cheating, and admit to sometimes cheating themselves. Cheating isn't the only concern. Studies indicate that, as we as a culture race toward "success," higher numbers of high school students are overwhelmed, overburdened, disengaged, and underprepared.

While these research findings about the experiences of high school students are disheartening, they do give us a good deal of insight into the relationship between socio-emotional development and intellectual development. It turns, unsurprisingly, out that the two go hand in hand: focusing on academic rigor at the expense of socio-emotional development runs the risk of setting our children up to sacrifice their integrity as well as sacrifice their opportunities to learn through authentic experiences.

As this year has progressed, I've come to better understand how at Giddens we think of intellectual development and socio-emotional development as two sides of the same coin, but we're not the only ones approaching education this way. In fact, reformers working at the high school level are thinking along the same lines. Challenge Success an organization that's focused on supporting high schools to be stronger, healthier institutions identifies the following strategies as central pillars of High schools that reduce stress and improve academic success:

  • Emphasize mastery of learning rather than performance or grades
  • Establish a climate of care in classrooms (and I would add school-wide)
  • Implement multiple forms of assessment of student learning
  • Focus on depth of understanding over breadth or speed of attaining information
And Challenge Success is not alone in pushing for reforms that more tightly knit together academic rigor and attention to the whole child. In fact, education reformers working within the highly academic achievement oriented world of advanced placement have begun transformation projects within advanced placement courses that are organized around these same principles. Recently,The Seattle Times shared evidence from a partnership between the University of Washington and Sammamish High school focused on revising advanced placement courses found that students in the non-traditional, hands-on, project based AP courses did as well as and sometimes better than those students in the traditional courses that focus on rote memorization and individualization.

Giddens has a long history as a school committed to academics and learning, social and emotional development, and justice. We are excited about our past efforts, and see ourselves well grounded in our approach rather than swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other. As we begin to plan this spring for next year, we will begin to reignite our efforts at inquiry based and project based learning.

At the Giddens View Live on April 28th at either 8:35 or 2:00, I invite you to come join in a conversation with me about Giddens and to think toward the future of what's next for your own student and what your hopes are and to talk with us about our successes, our challenges, and our aspirations. Our aim as a school is to prepare students to engage fully in the world intellectually, emotionally, and with integrity. Our last Giddens View Live of the year is on May 26, 2016 we will be sharing the work we have accomplished this year in assessing student learning.

Best wishes,

Dr. Morva McDonald
Head of School

Giddens View on Conferences
Dr. Morva McDonald

As spring nears, family/teacher conferences are taking place across the United States. Whether the school is public or independent, in rural Mississippi or urban Washington, teachers invite families to school to talk about their child's experience and progress in school. These meetings are akin to the annual doctor's check up—not an emergency, not a special visit to the doctor's office, but rather a routine opportunity to connect and check in. It is a time for teachers and families to talk about a student's progress and develop plans to support continued learning.

At Giddens, our goal is to help families understand each child's social and emotional growth, as well as their academic progress. It is also our goal to learn from families about new interests or challenges that may impact their child's experience at school. In this Giddens View, we highlight what you can expect from family/teacher conferences and offer ideas for how you might make the most of them.

Giddens teachers use principles of ambitious teaching to make decisions about instruction. One of those principles, understanding students socially, emotionally, and intellectually, guides our conversations with families during conferences. In these meetings, teachers will highlight the strengths and challenges your child demonstrates as they move through their school day. This might include highlights about their ability to negotiate conflicts or their resistance to persevering through a particularly difficult academic task. Teachers might share anecdotes of particular moments when they observed your child turn a "razzle frazzle" into a "razzle dazzle."

In family/teacher conferences, we aim to give you a window into your child's life at school. To support you in understanding where your child is academically, we will leverage work samples, such as an excerpt from a story they are writing, pages from their math journal, or a copy of the book they are reading with their book group. It's important to us that you walk away with a better understanding of your individual child's growth from the beginning of the school year until now. We also hope you will have a greater understanding of the concepts and skills they will be working on, with the guidance of their teacher, through the end of the year. This is a lot to cover in about 30 minutes! Please know that if additional time is needed, your teacher will schedule that with you for a different day. Schedules on conference days are tight and teachers aim to be respectful of everyone.

Although conference times are limited, we encourage you to come to the conference with your own questions or thoughts to share. For example, in terms of social/emotional development, you might ask:

  • In what structures does my child feel socially confident?
  • Which peers do they choose to spend the most time with?
  • How do they spend recess time or free choice time?
  • How can I support their social growth outside of school?
To learn more about your child's academic learning, you might ask:
  • How does my child approach academic work times?
  • How do my child's skills compare to grade level expectations?
  • When my child is struggling, what is effective in supporting them?
  • What is my child's greatest strength academically?
We are also really looking to gain an understanding of your experience of your child at home. What kinds of activities are they doing outside of school? What is the pace of their afternoons, evenings, and weekends? What do they say when they talk about school? What kinds of things are they looking forward to in the coming months? A deeper understanding of these aspects of your child's life can help their teacher do the important work of adapting instruction to meet their individual needs and interests.

As the conference comes to a close, your child's teacher will likely share their goals for your child as they move through this spring, summer, and even into the next school year. This might inspire questions about your child's best classroom placement for next year. I encourage you to focus on general questions such as: "What qualities in a teacher do you think work well for my child?" or "What aspects of the classroom environment help my child to be successful?" rather than specific inquiries about particular teachers. We are still early in our planning stages for the 2016-2017 school year and it is too soon to know what the make-up of each teaching team will be. We do value the importance of your input to the class placement process. Later this spring I will be sending an email seeking information from you as we consider these important decisions.

A few thoughts about class placements: every year, as we begin the class placement process, we step back and look at each individual student in the school in order to create the most diverse, balanced, and productive classroom cohorts. Some students in our elementary grades may stay with their teacher and "loop" for a second year, others may be ready for a new perspective or peer group. There are a multitude of factors that we consider in this process including teacher perspectives, the range of academic abilities represented, the racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of any given class, the social and emotional relationships of students, and family input. To support equity and transparency, I am hoping that directly seeking this family input through email later this spring will allow everyone the opportunity to offer their perspective. Please remember, input from families is only one factor in our class placement process. It is also my hope that in knowing this opportunity is available, the spring family teacher conference will be a time to focus on the remainder of this year and the learning of each child. We are looking forward to conferences with you on March 25 or April 8, 2016.

Please join me for the Giddens View Live event on Thursday, March 24 or8:35am or 2:00pm as we consider additional strategies for a productive family/teacher conference.

Best wishes,

Dr. Morva McDonald
Head of School

Giddens View: Learning through Play
Rachel Donnelley

At our recent Design Thinking Night, pre-kindergarten families huddled around a structure built from blocks on the carpet in Samara's room. They considered the problem these blocks represented: "How can we help people in wheelchairs navigate neighborhood construction?" Ideas flowed! From the imaginations of these children and parents, ramps were constructed from old CDs, a series of cardboard alternate routes arose, and even a zipline towered over the obstacles. Smiles were abundant and an impressive mess was made, but there is no question that there was also an abundance of knowledge gained and significant memories made.

Design Thinking Night is an opportunity for Giddens School to showcase the powerful learning that emerges from collaboration and creativity. This type of learning is not limited to a single night, however. It takes place every day as children move through the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds of our school. We often call it, "playing."

When children play, they engage in authentic and creative problem solving to deepen their understanding of the world around them. It is well accepted that play is essential in helping children of all ages to learn about social interaction and navigating friendships. The importance of play to support more traditionally "academic" pursuits is often discounted. This leads to a decrease in opportunities for play as children get older.

However, combining play with academic skills offers an important link to their application and aids in their retention. A first grader who meticulously creates labels so visitors can know which animals are in the Lego zoo they created develops an understanding of the importance of clear penmanship and accurate spelling. Third graders flying paper airplanes down our wide hallways think deeply about mathematical concepts in geometry and measurement, as they face real life engineering dilemmas. Each day, children from preschool through 5th grade engage in complex learning of academic skills, along with developing social-emotional and social justice dispositions, as they navigate our engaging playground.

At Giddens, the opportunities to learn through play do not stop with the children. We are working to enrich our adult community with a playful perspective as well. Adults are rarely asked to play as an aspect of their learning in professional contexts. This is changing, however. Research in creativity and innovation has emerged that point to the importance of flexible thinking and maintaining a playful perspective into adulthood. You might see evidence of Giddens teachers and staff coloring on puzzle pieces, dressing up for silly videos, or participating in any number of other laughter-inducing activities.

"Play is our brain's favorite way of learning," wrote the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. Evidence of this exists across the animal kingdom. As humans, we are intrinsically motivated to play together, with even the youngest children actively seeking to explore their world. Connecting this motivation to the behaviors and skills we want to foster in a school environment makes sense. Valuing play as an essential component of developing knowledge is key to fostering a true love of learning.

Morva and I invite you to come play and learn with us next Thursday, February 25th at one of the Giddens View Live sessions, being held at 8:35 a.m., 2:00 p.m., or 6:00 p.m. We will have a chance to practice what learning through play can look like for adults, look at more examples of how children are solidifying academic skills through their play, and the importance of play in education beyond 5th grade. I also encourage you to find me on the playground most days during afternoon pick-up. I am always happy to connect with you and share my insights into the learning taking place as children engage in the work of play!

Rachel Donnelley
Director of Teaching and Learning

Giddens View on Learning Services
Dr. Morva McDonald

At Giddens, our mission is to support, appreciate, and engage a diverse community of learners. We strive to build a community that is diverse in a number of ways: diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and culture; diverse in socio-economic status; diverse in family structures; and diverse in terms of students' academic, social, and emotional needs. We make programmatic, financial, organizational, and instructional decisions to support and live out this commitment.

In this Giddens View, I will articulate our best thinking about offering an inclusive academic program in which we aim to meet the needs of a heterogeneous group of learners. Academically, we strive to meet the needs of a range of students –including those who need additional learning support as well as those who need academic enrichment in specific content areas. I hope that you will join me at any of our three Giddens View LIVE! sessions on Thursday, November 19th at either 8:35, 2:00 or 6:00 to dive more deeply into this topic.

A dominant view is that "inclusive" schools or programs are really programs that aim to engage special education students in general education classroom environments—essentially the view is that inclusion is all about "helping" the special education students. The less dominant, but more researched and evidence- based perspective is that "inclusion" is really about all students regardless of need, and that "inclusion" supports all students academically, socially, and emotionally. At Giddens, we are committed to the latter and we are building systems of support for a wide range of learners.

The framework I describe below is the backbone of our approach. This framework highlights the importance of participation in learning.

  • First, relationships among students are key. These relationships, often developed in classroom contexts, are reciprocal. They develop students' skills to negotiate and problem solve. They require individual students to listen, communicate, and advocate.
  • Second, students' sense of membership in their classroom community—the intellectual community of learners—is fundamental to keeping them engaged in the work of learning. Pulling students out of their primary classroom often negatively impacts their view of themselves as learners, and weakens their ability to participate in the intellectual life of learning with their peers.
  • Finally, in our approach, we focus on supporting students to develop theiridentities as learners. We want them to build identities as mathematicians, writers, readers, scientists, and so on. This identity formation must go hand in hand with the acquisition of skills – I know I am an author because I skillfully write (in a developmentally appropriate way, of course!).

The simple graphic below represents the cornerstones of our approach.

Participation in Valued Roles, Activities, and Classroom Settings

Our Giddens teachers, who uphold the principles of ambitious teaching, organize learning opportunities for students in ways that attend to their relationships, membership, and identities, while at the same time addressing the specific learning needs of individual students. In addition to classroom teachers, this year for our elementary (K-5th grade) program, we have restructured our learning services support team to implement an inclusive approach that prioritizes students' participation in learning. What does this look like?

In literacy, this means that each day Laura, our literacy specialist, is pushing into the elementary grade classrooms to engage students in small group work focused on specific literacy skills. This allows both her and the classroom teacher to differentiate small group literacy instruction to address students' range of skills. For example, in a 2/3 classroom, Laura may be working with a small group on decoding multi-syllabic words while Sharon is working on vocabulary development in a non-fiction text. All this time, other students are working independently on related tasks at centers or deeply engaged in independent reading. In addition to this push in approach, Laura is pulling out small groups of students in the afternoon to provide additional support. In these narrowly focused groups, Laura is targeting specific skills such as reinforcing specific vowel patterns or focusing on comprehension strategies so that students can increase/improve their participation in the intellectual life of their classroom community.

Our approach in mathematics is similar. Kenneth collaborates with classroom teachers and pushes into K-5 math sessions to engage in targeted work with students. This work takes many forms, including supporting students struggling with a particular math concept, offering additional challenge tasks to students looking to extend their thinking, or collaborating with teachers to develop math learning experiences that are responsive to their specific, diverse community of learners. Kenneth is also helping us to bring mathematics thinking outside of the classroom environments, with weekly challenge problems and math "hangouts" to encourage all students.

We have been implementing this inclusive approach since the middle of October. Thus far, we have found this approach enables us to address the range of learners in classrooms without risking students' sense of belonging and participation in their classroom community. We have found this approach helps students see and understand that all of the students in their classrooms, including themselves, are learners and can learn even when learning is challenging. We are also developing students' deep understanding that appreciating diversity includes being aware that people learn in different ways and at different paces.

In addition to being more aware of diversity in learning, students become stronger advocates for their own learning styles. We hear them confidently say "I need more time to practice this" or "This is something I really understand." Their building self-knowledge of how they learn best – and the ability to ask for what they need- is an important skill for success in middle school and beyond. This awareness of diversity in learning reflects our school's academic goals and our social justice mission in a relevant and tangible way.

Best wishes,

Dr. Morva McDonald
Head of School

Giddens View: Educational Experience
Dr. Morva McDonald

"How was your day today?"
"What was your favorite part?"
"Anything surprising?"

To many of us, this is a familiar dialogue, whether it occurs during the car ride home, at the dinner table, or at bath time. Children spend a lot of time at school and as parents, we want to have an understanding of their experience, their ups and downs, their friendships, and their learning. From our perspective, this dialogue also highlights a challenge we face as a school: How do we communicate with families in ways that help you have a window into your child's experience, and also support you to develop a broad understanding of the educational experience here at Giddens.

This month in the Giddens View, I'll first highlight the various venues we have to communicate with you about the "goings on" of school. Then, I'll briefly give some examples of what you might look for during morning or afternoon drop off to give you a window into your child's experience. We will explore more strategies for learning about your child's day as well as specific strategies for supporting them in reading and math at home at the Giddens View Live on October 22nd at 8:35, 2:00 or 6:00.

As you may recall from the last Giddens View, one of the principles of ambitious teaching is that we aim to develop an understanding of your child socially, emotionally, and intellectually. We know that our work with students is only better when we are in conversation with their family. Each summer this conversation begins anew with the home visit from your teacher. This is just one example of how we strive to build an understanding of your child and your family in ways that build a bridge between home and school.

In addition to learning from you about your hopes and dreams for your child each year, we continue to communicate with you in a variety of ways. You can expect to hear from us regularly about what is happening at Giddens in the monthly Giddens View, weekly Current Happenings e-Newsletter, and bi-weeklyGrade Band Newsletters. You can also expect to learn about your individual child during parent teacher conferences and progress reports. Never hesitate, however, to ask your child's teacher about how things are going.

For some of us, even though we've spent years in them, classrooms can be daunting places. At Giddens, your child's classroom belongs to them and to you. Classroom walls and shelves offer another window into your child's daily experience. Here are some ways you might look through that classroom window:

  • Ask them to show you the classroom library and highlight two of their favorite books
  • Read the morning message or note, these often communicate about something that happened or is going to happen
  • Check out the daily schedule to find out which specialists they have that day
  • Notice the posters around the room, and ask your child to share their meaning with you
  • Invite your child to be a tour guide. Ask them for a tour of the classroom and have them point out the things that really matter
At Giddens, students are responsible for their learning. As developmentally appropriate, in many classrooms, students have math, writing, and science notebooks. They might have their own reading book basket. In the moments before or after school, feel free to ask them to show you their learning work.

Our windows and doors are open. Please continue to reach out to us with your questions and wonderings about teaching and learning here at Giddens. Come join us at the Giddens View Live to talk with each other about how we can learn more from our children than "school was fine."

Best wishes,

Dr. Morva McDonald
Head of School