Summer Fun With Math

Ellena-BlogI hope everyone is having a wonderful and relaxing summer! The warmer months are a great time to lounge by the pool, travel or catch up on reading — but they also provide a great opportunity to incorporate some math into your summer fun.

Working our brains over the summer helps keep us sharp and ready to jump back into classes this fall. Think of your brain like a muscle — you want to give it plenty of exercise so it stays strong. Take a look at the suggestions below: these non-traditional activities will strengthen your mathematical reasoning skills and hone your creativity, while giving you (or your daughter) hours of summer fun!

Structure-Building Competition: Challenge a friend or sibling to see who can build the tallest/craziest/strongest structure with a designated set of materials. My personal favorites to use are toothpicks and mini-marshmallows, but you can also use building blocks like popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners.

Logic Puzzles: For your next long car trip, get a book of logic puzzles like Sudoku, KenKen, or magic triangles. You can even print them out from sites like this one.

Water Balloon Math: Water balloons are a great way to stay cool during the hot summer months. Why not also learn some math while you’re at it? In your yard, lay down a bunch of hula hoops and mark each one with a (preferably waterproof) number. (One easy option: tape construction paper to wooden skewers to serve as “flags” staked in the ground.) Prior to filling each balloon, choose a math fact to solve — like 6 x 7, or a more complex problem like 2(6 – 2) – 4(7 – 6). As you pick up each water balloon, solve the math problem and then throw the balloon at the appropriate hula hoop. For a more exciting experience, you can pin the numbers to each player’s shirt and then (lightly) toss the water balloons at each other!

Balloon Magic Trick: This suggestion is a bit more scientific than mathematical, but is sure to amaze. In a dish, mix together some salt and pepper. Then blow up a balloon and rub it in your hair until your hair starts sticking straight up. Next, carefully hold the balloon over the salt and pepper mixture. Pretty cool, right?

Make a Picture Using DesmosDesmos is a wonderful online graphing tool. It is easy to use and they even have a free app for math on the go. You can get creative and make some amazing pictures using math! Here are a few examples.

Elena Bertrand, Upper School Math Teacher

Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM

Mariandl 150It has been a little over a year since we hosted our first Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM conference, and we are busily preparing for a follow-up symposium, which promises to be as engaging as the one we hosted in 2015. I wish I could say that in this past year, as a society, we have made great strides toward our goal of “fixing the leaky pipeline,” an analogy that has become the predominant one for the advancement of girls and women in STEM.

We left last year’s conference excited and hopeful, many of us energized to do more. And we did, in our corners of the world.  A connection between our Agnes Irwin STEM Club and a group of girls at a local public school sprung up from our endeavors; many of our girls in the Lower and Middle Schools have benefited from the wonderful resources available through nearby Villanova University, and, of course, we are tremendously grateful for our partnership with the august Franklin Institute, where we are hosting this year’s conference.

We left last year’s conference excited and hopeful, many of us energized to do more. And we did, in our corners of the world.

But despite this and, I hope, many other wonderful connections made through the networking opportunities available at our event, there is still work to be done. And it is our hope that in a few weeks, we will make additional strides toward the outcome that we all seek: to attract and maintain robust numbers of women in STEM fields.

An in-depth survey of last year’s participants brought to the forefront the desire, on the part of the overwhelming majority, to grapple with the question of sustainable culture change. It is an unfortunate reality that in schools, in higher education and in the workforce, institutional cultures and society at large still push girls and women to the margins of STEM fields, resulting in a gender gap that is closing only very slowly.

Last year’s participants wanted to know how to create pervasive and lasting cultural change. Throughout the 2015 conference, we discussed three themes that we understood to make a significant positive difference in the advancement of girls and women in STEM: teacher training and curriculum design, role models and mentors, and partnerships. These themes still hold true today; what we are setting out to do in a few weeks is to bring these themes together to move closer to creating lasting change.

Last year’s participants wanted to know how to create pervasive and lasting cultural change.

This is the reason that at our upcoming conference, we will heed the call from last year’s participants and discuss sustainable culture change. Research has shown that there are many “islands of change” that have had positive effects in schools, but that these islands are not easily turned into “continents.” For true and sustainable cultural change to occur, we must move beyond what happens in a single classroom, department, school or corporation and scale the change so it becomes part of a new culture in which we close the STEM gender gap (Hargreaves &​ Goodson, 2006).

So let’s come together in a few weeks and do just that: let’s learn about the effective measures that have been implemented in K-12 schools, higher education, out-of-school programs, and the corporate world. Armed with this inspiration, let’s work together, across the silos of our professions, to change culture in sustainable ways. Let’s not just plug the pipeline that leaks girls and women out of STEM fields, let’s build a better one.

If you are up for the challenge, please do join us.

Mariandl Hufford, Assistant Head of School at Agnes Irwin & Director of the Center for the Advancement of Girls

See more posts from Mariandl at the CAG blog

Understanding the Middle Schooler Mindset and Fairness

Lynne 150“It’s not fair!” Have you heard these words uttered by your middle school daughter in recent months? We hear it at school from time to time, and frankly, we expect to!

Fairness is an important issue to early adolescents. Although middle school girls can be somewhat reactive at times just on general principle, it’s been my experience that the “it’s not fair” complaint typically stems from one of the following four perspectives:

1. Fairness is interpreted by many adolescent girls as “sameness” or “equality.” In fact, though, it is not fair to treat all siblings in the family the same, as if they were cookie cutters of one another, or to have equal expectations for 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds … that would be very unfair.

2. Some middle school girls have only recently discovered the fallibility of the adults in their lives. Some are disappointed by that discovery, some are empowered by it, but many go through at least a period of feeling they can be adults better than the adults themselves. This feeling can lead to a subsequent belief that they, the adolescents, are truly the ones qualified to make judgments, determine fairness, and “keep score.” Sometimes this is true; sometimes it is not.

3. Along with a middle school girl’s growing ability to think abstractly and make conjectures comes an ability to see the “grey areas” in many situations. Interestingly, those instances where she perceives the grey are often those where the adult is convinced it’s a clear-cut, black-and-white issue, or vice versa! This difference in perceptions can easily lead to questions of fairness.

4. Finally, for many adolescents, “That’s not fair!” translates as “You didn’t hear my side.” Girls who are wrestling with issues of right and wrong or fair and unfair wish to be heard. They may not end up any happier about the decision in question, but they are capable of a conversation that elicits understanding by all parties.

It can be frustrating to hear complaints of unfairness, and sometimes, of course, the only response available is, “You’re right. Sometimes things aren’t fair.” However, seeing “fairness” through the eyes of an adolescent may help you understand the source of the complaint and may, on occasion, help diminish the parental frustration just a bit. After all, that’s only fair.

This article was first published as a letter in the book Be the Line: Thoughts on Parenting an Adolescent Girl, a compilation of weekly missives written by Middle School Director Lynne Myavec during her decade-long tenure at The Agnes Irwin School. The book was published in 2015, by The Agnes Irwin School.

How To See Your Selfie: Developing Leadership Identities in Girls

Wendy HillDespite the fact that women are attending college at higher rates than men and comprise 57 percent of the workforce, we still live in an America where there are more CEOs named “John” than all the women leading major U.S. companies combined. Surprising? Perhaps. Disappointing? Absolutely.

Much has been written about the glass ceiling’s impact on female leadership, and with greater emphasis today on gender equity, one could argue that the dearth of women leaders is just a bias of older generations. Isn’t it only a matter of time before as many women leaders answer to Joanne as to John? Surely, younger generations express less gender bias about leadership.

Developing Leadership Identities

Alas, a recent report entitled Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, conducted by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University, shows that gender bias is commonplace among teenagers. Its research suggests “that teen girls both hold biases and suffer from biases that may corrode their relationships and sense of justice, sap their confidence in their leadership potential, and dampen their desire to seek leadership positions, especially in high-power fields.”

The Leaning Out report, based on surveys of nearly 20,000 teenage girls and boys, recommends that girls interact with strong female role models, solidify their self-confidence, and participate in leadership programs. One avenue to developing a powerful sense of self and strong confidence is through identity development, a critical process that takes place during child and adolescent development. Who are you? What are your values? Answers to such questions form the foundation from which a person’s ambitions are launched.

One avenue to developing a powerful sense of self and strong confidence is through identity development.

Helping girls incorporate “I am a leader” into their identities has been an important focus at Agnes Irwin and is in keeping with our mission “to empower girls to learn, to lead, and to live a legacy.”

Leading in Lower School

For example, we have developed a leadership program for girls in our Lower School, which was recently highlighted by the National Association of Independent Schools. Unlike many leadership development programs that focus on skills, the purpose of our program is to foster, refine, and elevate leadership identities in young girls. The reason we chose to focus on identity, rather than skills, is because it is important for girls to see themselves as leaders. Unlike a set of skills, leadership identity is more likely to carry into adulthood because it is ingrained into how a person defines herself.

“Know Thy Selfie”

A new Middle School program developed by our Center for the Advancement of Girls for fifth- and sixth-grade girls also targets leadership identity. Our first session, held in October, was titled “How Do You See Your Selfie?” The blogger Dominic Basulto asserts that “selfies” are in keeping with the self-knowledge and exploration that occurs during the painting of a self-portrait. He suggests that the selfie “is the modern-day, technological version of what the ancient Greek philosopher Plato referred to as ‘Know Thyself.’” In essence, Plato posited that understanding the world can only begin by understanding ourselves.

That process — of developing an internal understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, values and aspirations — is an important part of adolescence. Is that why taking selfies is such a rage among tweens and teens? What’s happening, Basulto argues, “is that smart phone technology is giving us unique insights into what makes us human by giving us the power to document every moment of our lives.”

At my school, we have used the digital analysis of a “selfie” as the foundation; through various interactive projects and engaging discussions, we help girls develop their leadership identities and the self-confidence to see their strengths through their digital self-portrait. We strive to help girls articulate who they are, what they believe, and how they can be effective leaders in their communities.

We strive to help girls articulate who they are, what they believe, and how they can be effective leaders in their communities.

The next session of our Middle School leadership program, entitled “What Do You Want on Your Pizza?” will take place on Saturday, Feb. 20. The title is based on a story that clinical psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair tells about asking girls of different ages what kind of pizza they want. According to Steiner-Adair, if you ask a 10-year-old girl, she will say enthusiastically “double cheese and pepperoni.” Ask a 13-year-old girl, and she will say, “I don’t know.” A 15-year-old will say, “whatever you want.” The decline in self-efficacy and confidence is apparent. Our program is designed to help girls maintain their assertiveness and agency as they mature.

Female leadership is intimately tied to developing strong identities and to empowering girls to find and use their own voices to advocate for themselves, others, and issues about which they feel passionate. Wouldn’t it be nice if your 15-year-old daughter took a striking selfie while she emphatically pronounced that she wants a pizza with everything on it? Now that’s a selfie worthy of posting.

Dr. Wendy L. Hill, Head of School

Project-Based Learning Begins In Preschool

Kathy Seaton 150Remember when school meant learning complicated mathematical equations or memorizing the periodic table? At some point, you discovered that a calculator can instantly provide the answer to equations, and that the Internet offers atomic weights with a click of the mouse.

Conversations about 21st century skills are encouraging educators and parents to reconsider how children will become successful learners, able to utilize technological advances in an ever-changing global environment. Our complex world requires less memorization and more development of critical and creative thinking, and our children must learn to recognize new challenges and find novel solutions outside the conventional paths of the past.

Unlike the emphasis on memorizing facts and concepts that historically has driven curriculum, schools now look for better ways to help students take initiative for their own learning and discover ways to integrate knowledge from several subject areas.

Our children must learn to recognize new challenges and find novel solutions outside the conventional paths of the past.

Educational research suggests that among the most effective methods for equipping students for this type of thinking is project-based learning. With this approach, students undertake an in-depth investigation of an area of the curriculum, either as individuals or as part of a group. Learners select questions to explore, engage in personal research, experiments and other hands-on experiences, and develop ways to document and share what they have discovered with others. Teachers serve as guides rather than directors.

It is easy to imagine an Upper School student designing a scientific project related to an ongoing interest in genetic testing, or a group of Middle School students joining together to examine life in medieval times.  For PreKindergarten teachers, the question we ask is: How are preschoolers able to begin developing and utilizing these skills in the early childhood classroom?

Unlike work with themes or units in which teachers present preplanned lessons and activities, project-based learning encourages children to identify their own interests, design their own learning experiences and choose their own methods of sharing information. This type of learning is both child initiated and directed. Children choose how much time to look for information, the direction of the project, and their own ways of integrating and presenting ideas. Some may copy words or phrases, make simple drawings or develop models with building or art materials.

This type of learning is both child initiated and directed.

Over the past few years, my PreK students have selected an animal to study for one of their first project-based learning experiences. The girls visit the Lower School library to examine picture books and beginning reader books about animal residents at the Philadelphia Zoo. Each student selects a mammal, bird or reptile. Initially, we developed questions for the girls to research, but now we encourage our students to raise their own questions about what to include in their projects. Using books, videos, toy animals and other resources, students work with teachers to discover and write down information specific to their project.

In the classroom, toys — including plastic animals, blocks and Duplo — permit the girls to build habitats and create dramatic scenes about their animals. At the writing center, stencils and word lists encourage book and poster making. Animal puzzles with 12 to 100 pieces help illustrate the variety of animals living in specific environments such as the African plains or the Arctic Circle. Songs, stories and movement games foster interest in animal characteristics.

Different art media enable the girls to paint, draw, or mold models of their animals. A field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo enables the girls and their families to see the actual animals they’ve chosen to research. It is satisfying to hear the excitement as they discover a friend’s animal. Little voices call out, “Quick, come here. It’s your giraffe!”

Back in the classroom, the girls produce a script about their animals. With teachers’ assistance, they use an iPad to record their oral animal reports along with the pictures they painted. Making this video available to classmates and parents on our webpage encourages the girls to expand their knowledge of not only their own animals, but their classmates’ animals as well.

Encouraging Project-Based Learning at Home

Parents are able to foster this type of learning at home by using some of the following techniques:

1. When your child asks questions about a topic or develops an interest in a new subject, take a trip to the local library and examine resources among the nonfiction books.

2. Read text aloud and encourage your child to examine pictures, to help stimulate her interest in making a list of further ideas or questions to be explored.

3. Use YouTube and other Internet sites to help your child examine all kinds of information related to the topic.

4. Offer materials for making models, posters or booklets about what your child has discovered.

5. Set aside a special time for your child to share the project with family members, friends, or neighbors. It need not be more than a few minutes, but include the opportunity for the child to field some questions about her learning. This offers a wonderful opportunity to practice speaking in front of a familiar audience and learn that there may be questions that require additional research and discovery.

Kathy Seaton, Agnes Irwin PreK teacher

World After World: Books for 2016

We live our lives in and through stories. “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth,” Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. “What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. … An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.”

We asked Agnes Irwin teachers and staff to share with us some of their favorite reads from 2015. What book made an impact on you, educated you on an important subject, had a good message, or was just a really great story? Below, 23 teachers and staff members share their best recommendations for the new year.

WakingUpWhiteWaking Up White
Debby Irving
Waking Up White is an inspirational book that educates and propels the reader to self-examine and act with greater consciousness for the improvement of social equity. The book opened my eyes to the evolution of policies that led to systemic racism, and made me aware that, through my daily actions, I can help change the course of racism.”
— Esperanza Abadi, Upper School French teacher

SalvageTheBonesSalvage the Bones

Jesmyn Ward
“I often call this book one of my all-time favorites, Faulkner meets Hurricane Katrina. What I mean is, the prose in this novel is rich, elegant and deeply southern. Take that and pair it with an impoverished family facing a looming catastrophe. Oh, and it’s a dog book, too.”
— Hillary O’Connor, Upper School English teacher

Flavia2The Flavia De Luce Mysteries
Alan Bradley
“These books follow 11-year-old Flavia De Luce, who lives in a small village in England in the 1950s, as she uses chemistry to solve mysteries. Not only are the mysteries well-crafted and so original, the stories are hilarious. From a groundskeeper who helps her solve mysteries to a housekeeper who can’t cook, the series is full of colorful and relatable characters. Flavia is terrorized and terrorizes her older sisters and she tries to form a relationship with her English father as the family attempts to keep the family manor up and running. These books are so amazing and I constantly stalk the internet waiting for the next one to arrive.”
— Dr. Sarah Eckert, Upper School history teacher and CAG research associate

JustMercyJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Bryan Stevenson
“People have revered the fictional character Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who bravely defended an innocent black man in To Kill a Mockingbird. As the author of Just Mercy points out, people tend to overlook that Finch did not successfully defend the falsely-accused man. This book chronicles Bryan Stevenson’s work defending innocent people sentenced to die on death row, children in adult prison, and others, using the case of Walter McMillian as the thread that runs throughout.

Stevenson, compared to Nelson Mandela by New York Times writer and author Nicholas Kristof, is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal practice committed to fighting for children in adult prison, prisons and sentencing reform, and the issues connecting race and poverty. Why read it? Because it will remind you that everyone — every single person on this planet — is more than the sum of their parts and deserves compassion. As Stevenson writes, ‘The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent … It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.'”
— Donna Lindner, Lower School Director

“Anyone interested in truth and redemption should read this book. It compels us to look at our broken justice system and how those who are poor, and people of color, are treated so vastly different. This book is toted as the non-fiction, modern day To Kill A Mockingbird. A riveting read!”
— Kim Beamon-Morton, Lower School counselor and teacher

MarriageofOppositesThe Marriage of Opposites
Alice Hoffman
“The opposite of what, I wondered. I was intrigued by the title and once I started reading this novel, I couldn’t put it down. The story casts a wide lens and spans three generations over a period of 70 years. Rachel Pizzarro, the heroine of the novel, lives on the Island of St. Thomas in the West Indies. She is part of a Jewish community of folks who had escaped the European inquisition in the early 1800s and then settled in St. Thomas.

A basic premise of the book is the examination of one’s ethnic identity while coping with the pulls and tugs of a life fully lived. Always looming in the background is the stuffy rigidity of some of the seemingly-principled characters in the community who carry their own prejudice and hypocrisy. The ultimate message is that no one is immune from transmitting a potentially nasty judgment. I admired Rachel’s spunk and forbearance and I also liked reading how she embraced everything the island had to offer: the vegetation, the wildlife, the colors of the sea and sky, the weather. The fictional character of Rachel is loosely based on the life of the mother of the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.”
— Rita Davis, French Department chair

MeBeforeYouMe Before You
JoJo Moyes
Me Before You is a heartbreaking romantic novel. A girl in a small town needs a job to pay for college so she finds work taking care of a recently-paralyzed man. It brings two people, who couldn’t have less in common, together. She forms a strong bond with him and finds herself asking what to do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart. It was a great book.”
—Cheryl Kalodner, AIS Shop Manager

AlltheLightWeCannotSeeAll the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
“While the story this novel unfurls is compelling, for me, it was the vivid character development of the young children in France and in Germany during the 1930s that was unbelievably powerful. Seeing the tumultuous European world through the eyes of Marie-Laure and Werner helped me remember that children’s worlds can be wondrous and hopeful, even amidst the most dire circumstances.”
— Jenn Fiorini, Dean of Students

“The writing is gorgeous, without slowing down the story, which is set in occupied France during World War II. The plot is compelling, but what drew me in were all the forms of ‘light’ that sustained the blind heroine and others through terrible times.”
— Louisa Mygatt, Middle School history teacher

100YearOldManThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Jonas Jonasson
“I really enjoyed this book — recommended by our lovely librarians! The writing style was subtly funny and reviewed a bit of history in the form of flashbacks in addition to a story happening in the present. In short, everyone is looking for this 100-year-old man, who is tired of his nursing home and runs (or, more like slowly walks) away and goes on an adventure. As he goes, he thinks back on some of the events from his full, fascinating life.”
— Emily Brennan, Upper School math teacher

ArtofHearingHeartbeatsThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Jan-Philipp Sendker
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a love story set in Burma and imbued with Eastern spirituality and fairy-tale romanticism. Great story, fascinating characters, a bit of mystery, and really well-written.”
— Lynne Myavec, Middle School Director

H is for HawkH is for Hawk
Helen MacDonald
“This is a beautifully written book that is too complex to sum up simply. It is part grief memoir, part nature writing. You will learn about falconry, the biography of author T.H. White, and British chalk-cult mysticism. But all of that is secondary to the intimate portrait of the author, who lives in self-imposed exile with the tangle of her grief, and finds beauty in the instincts of a bird of prey.”
— Julie Diana, Head of Libraries and Academic Technology

BoysintheBoatThe Boys in the Boat
Daniel James Brown
“I recently read The Boys in the Boat, which follows the University of Washington men’s crew team during the 1930s and ‘their epic quest for gold at the 1936 Olympics.’ The book interweaves stories about the personal challenges of undergraduates during the Great Depression in the Pacific Northwest, the intricacies of crew and the athleticism and strategy of the sport, the history of World War II and Nazi Germany, and the excitement of Olympic competition. I found the book compelling on many levels: the power of the personal stories of the athletes and coaches who showed such courage and resiliency, as well as the insights into the challenges of the era, both regionally and in the context of world history. This was a book that I couldn’t wait to read, but also didn’t want to end.

Disclaimer: I am an alumna of the University of Washington and so felt a special connection to the story. While I was a graduate student, I conducted research on the waterfowl that nested along the shores of Lake Washington adjacent to the UW campus. I kept my research canoe moored to the docks of the UW crew house. In the early mornings when I was conducting my research, I often was lucky enough to be on the lake at the same time as the crew teams. To see them row with such rhythm and teamwork through the sparkling waters of Lake Washington with Mount Rainier as a backdrop was memorable.”
— Dr. Wendy Hill, Head of School

OnlyTimeClifton Chronicles
Jeffrey Archer
“This epic tale of Harry Clifton’s life was entertaining, relaxing and the kind of book you couldn’t put down. A dock worker in Bristol, Harry never knew his father and expects to work at the shipyard, until a gift wins him a scholarship to an exclusive boys’ school, and his life will never be the same again. There are six books and many unexpected plot twists. The author weaves in historical references through the entire series. Sometimes it is really difficult finding time to read for pleasure. This really pulled me in, and let me immerse myself fully and totally into the characters’ lives.”
— Susie Hagin, fourth grade teacher

AlchemistThe Alchemist
Paulo Coelho
“People should read this book because it can help to cultivate an excitement for world culture and travel, but more importantly it can help to keep a healthy perspective on life.”
— Liz Ortiz, Middle School Spanish teacher

HelpThanksWowHelp, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
Anne Lamott
“In these unpredictable and chaotic times, it seems to me that simple prayer is a salve one can use anytime and anywhere. In another text, I read that prayer is the medium of miracles, and our world could use quite a few miracles!”
— Leslie Hahne, Middle School English teacher

BriefHistory7A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James
“It’s a difficult one to describe but easily the best thing I read this year. In fact, James just won the Booker Prize (UK’s national award for literature.) The book is a sprawling multi-narrator story set in Jamaica during the political upheaval in the 70s and the main focus is the attempt on Bob Marley’s life. James never names him as Marley but only refers to him as ‘the Singer.’ It delves into very specific political events and leaves you knowing more about Jamaica that you could imagine. It’s written in Patois and standard English, really a remarkable feat. It’s long though — 700 pages. It’s a tough read but impeccably done.”
— Brian Baillie, Middle/Upper School English teacher

MotherforChacoA Mother for Choco
Keiko Kasza
“This is my favorite children’s book. Choco wishes he had a mother, but who could she be? He sets off to find her, asking all kinds of animals, but he doesn’t meet anyone who looks just like him. He doesn’t even think of asking Mrs. Bear if she’s his mother — but then she starts to do just the things a mommy might do. And when she brings him home, he meets her other children — a piglet, a hippo, and an alligator — and learns that families can come in all shapes and sizes and still fit together.

I used to work for a teen parenting program in Boston, and we had a relationship with the local library to encourage early literacy. At one of our staff meetings, the librarian brought in a number of books, at the end of the reading of A Mother for Choco, we were all in tears. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. The program really highlighted the importance of early reading to children. When the teen moms read to their infants, you could see the babies focus in on the colors in the books and the bonding between mom and child was reinforced.”
— Kim Beamon-Morton, Lower School counselor and teacher

InventionofWingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
“This is the book I read in 2015 that made the greatest impact on me. It is a novel of historical fiction set in the early 19th century which is narrated by a slave girl (a fictional character) and by her owner’s daughter Sarah Grimke (a real life figure) who was an abolitionist and suffragette. Their lives are intertwined as each of them battles oppression and searches for individual freedom. Beautiful imagery and depiction of the courageousness of women of this time.”
— Linda Janelli, Middle/Upper School receptionist

WonderPalacioWonder
R.J. Palacio
Wonder is about a sixth grade boy who was born with severe facial deformities. He endured nine massive surgeries before he was 12 years old, and his face is still not right. Due to that, he has been homeschooled, but his parents decided it was time for him to go to school. They found what they thought was a sensitive private school. The book is very sensitive, told from a different point of view in each chapter, often of the same event or time period. It is very thoughtful and really makes you wonder what it would be like for Augie and for his classmates. There are some difficult times, but in the end, it is remarkable the changes that each character makes. Wonder was on the NYT best-seller list simultaneously for adults and for youth for several weeks when it came out. The author decided to write the book when she and her young daughter encountered a severely deformed child at a coffee shop. Her daughter had a difficult time with it, and she wondered how it must feel to be the boy, who everyone shies away from. You will have a much better idea of how that boy would have felt after reading this book.”
— Pedie Hill, fourth grade teacher

MartianThe Martian
Andy Weir
“I loved this one and haven’t seen the movie (currently in theaters). Geeky main character with science factoids all over. Lots of my family read it over the holidays at our big gathering. Even my literary niece who works at The New York Times liked it! My brother read it in a day. Fun book.”
— Jeff Harlan, Middle School English teacher

NightingaleThe Nightingale
Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale tells a moving story about two sisters living in Nazi-occupied France who cope with the challenges of the war in very different ways. It gave an interesting perspective into life in France during WWII and demonstrates the power of one person to make a huge and lasting impact on the lives of others.”
— Elena Bertrand, Upper School math teacher

Humans of NYHumans of New York
Brandon Stanton
“I received this as a gift from a student. I usually gravitate with a real appetite for historical fiction (and some historical non-fiction) and in some ways, Humans of New York is historical non-fiction in the 21st century. It is a pictorially-rich, street-wise ‘narrative’ of human snapshots of New York humans, ‘detained’ for a moment in time in their life’s continuum by the author, and captures some of the most profound, spontaneous nuggets of human experience. It is a quick read, but you find yourself paused, prompted by a particular photo or its brief narrative to ponder one’s own existence. A fascinating compendium that fits in the hands and schedules of any of us humans in the 21st century with not a lot of time but always consciously and subconsciously thinking about what others are thinking and experiencing.”
— Cathy Lynch, Middle School history teacher 

BurrBurr
Gore Vidal
“This is one of the better works of historical fiction ever written. It takes a thoroughly contrarian view of early American history, putting major historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in a distinctly different — and more scathing — light than you see in the course of your standard history text. Vidal was also a sharp and insightful writer, which makes an enormous difference. Highly recommended.”
— Sean McCormick, Upper School history teacher

Design Thinking: Reimagining Some Essential Questions

Joanne 150I was walking on our campus the other day and was stopped in my tracks by the stunning topiaries created by our sculpture teacher, Terri Frock. In anticipation of Dr. Jane Goodall’s fall visit to our school, Terri posed an artistic problem for herself and our community, which involved designing and constructing a large outside installation that would capture Dr. Goodall’s life work and her message about making a difference in this world.

Not only did these works of art create for me a sense of wonder, beauty, and balance in an otherwise hectic day, they also tugged on me to consider the foundation and motivation for this elegant project, which had the power to transform a moment in such a visceral way.

What, I wondered, inspired Terri to breathe life into these chimps; to shape her aesthetic, creating art that looks back at the viewers, rather than the viewers simply looking at the art; to suggest their connection to each other and to humans; to illuminate some fundamental truths about us and our relationship with our planet. Her art illuminates the theme that people are responsible for their part of the whole — stewards of their place in the world, and accountable for their interactions with it.

Her art illuminates the theme that people are responsible for their part of the whole.

This creative problem, the several-month process involved in creating the life-size chimpanzee topiaries, and the final product, which continues to inspire more questions and possibilities for discovery, it seems to me, is at the core of design thinking.

As Terri talked with me about the catalyst for and ultimate development of her piece, the connections between it and the current design thinking work being done at Stanford’s d.school, Drexel, and Yale also stopped me in my tracks. In fact, her sculpture seemed in perfect harmony with the basic tenets of those models — with the essential design challenge of a real-world problem or question, the need for innovation, and the courage to try and fail.

Chimps
Art teacher Terri Frock stuffs wire chimpanzee sculptures with moss.

Not only in taking the risks necessary to re-make curriculum, but also to reframe pedagogy, these design thinking models offer us much needed exemplars of what it means to create an overall educational program that will be responsive to our students’ needs as they inherit this increasingly complex world. These innovative structures fully support the kind of preparation necessary for our students to grapple with those real-world problems in a creative and thoughtful way, bringing all their academic, social, and emotional skills to bear in each new situation.

Daily, we are bombarded by research and media pieces telling us that today’s students look like this: exhausted from doing too much meaningless homework and stressed by the overwhelming expectations that come at them from all quarters. And their landscape looks like this: cluttered with technology and the demands of staying apace with social media — leaving our students isolated in the midst of constant connection and hungering for meaningful relationships to each other and their world. We seem to be sacrificing the relational on the altar of the digital.

We seem to be sacrificing the relational on the altar of the digital.

I think that all vectors are pointing to the need for independent schools to reconsider the kind of educational change necessary for our students to be successful, and this generation seems uniquely ready to absorb the messages coming from the design thinking world. Placing this kind of thinking at the center of our teaching and learning calls on us to provide a different, more engaging educational journey for our students, one with a more expansive architecture; it also allows students to develop a different understanding of their world, leading to a more secure future in these uncertain social, economic, and globally connected times.

This way of knowing, thinking, seeing, learning, and responding seems especially suited to adolescent girls. Long-standing research, beginning with Carol Gilligan’s work, supports the notion that girls learn best through collaborative problem solving, experiential processes, discussion, trial and error, and discovery-based initiatives — with authentic challenges as the foundation. They respond to and understand their world through relationships — almost instinctively approaching complex problems with some fundamentals of design thinking, including improvisation, adaptability, and empathy.

We need to respond to the clarion call of design thinking models to transform our schools through this new way of imagining the learning landscape, of developing content, and of understanding pedagogy. The potential for comprehensive, meaningful, and powerful change resides in rethinking the essential questions that we ask and re-envisioning the myriad ways in which we could deliver program — program that is specifically attuned to, in Gilligan’s words, “women’s ways of knowing.”

Joanne Hoffman, Upper School Director