Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Developing the BCS Educator

There is always great excitement on campus in mid-August around BCS as our students return to school...But did you know that our teachers engage in active learning for the two weeks prior to students arriving, as well?

Bullis Charter School’s (BCS) mission calls for “children, faculty and staff to reach beyond themselves to achieve full potential.” The ten consecutive days of staff development prior to the start of every school year is a unique aspect of the BCS program and exemplifies the staff’s ongoing commitment to the BCS mission.

Jessica Lura, BCS Director of Strategic Initiatives & Partnerships, believes that actively engaging faculty and staff as learners increases their professional knowledge and ultimately enhances student learning. Specific goals of this beginning of the year staff development are:
  • to build a learning community, to welcome new staff members, and to have fun
  • to dive into what it means to be a globally competent student and to build our capacity as educators so that we can support our students in becoming globally literate
  • to continue to focus on meeting all students' needs and building our content area skills
Throughout the ten days, teachers are engaged in the dual capacities of both teacher and learner. Sessions are designed and led by returning BCS staff, thereby steeping new staff in the BCS mission and culture and unifying the entire learning and teaching community.

Second grade teacher, Paige Minichiello, explains what differentiates BCS’s staff development program from other traditional teacher professional development (PD) models, "As a new teacher to BCS I wasn't sure what to expect...I always enjoyed the PD at my last school district, but found some discrepancies in the implementation of the wonderful things I learned. What I love about BCS is knowing we'll be putting these fantastic skills and ideas to use, because I've already collaborated with my team about it! It feels great to explore new technology and know my students will get to use it, too. I can't wait to help my students become globally conscientious citizens with the help of the amazing staff and parents at BCS. They are truly putting the learning needs of children first."

For staff development for the 2017-2018 school year, a variety of educational topics were presented, including developing global competency, integrating these and the Next Generation Science Standards into specialist content areas (arts, physical education, world languages, etc.), achieving vertical articulation (alignment across grade levels) for Project Based Learning units, and using data to pick areas of literacy focus so that the needs of all students are being met whether through specific technology programs, new in-class programs, or small group instruction.

In support of the global competency strand, the entire staff enjoyed a special viewing of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Prior to watching the movie, the staff was updated on global warming trends and data and introduced to the innovations and efforts to decrease man's carbon footprint since the film’s prequel, An Inconvenient Truth, was released. Casey Stanton, National Wildlife Federation Director of Education, who developed the educational materials for both films conducted pre- and post-viewing workshops (pictured at right). Teachers were treated to the newest educational resources and excited to begin integrating these into the upcoming year’s lessons. This special staff development day would not have been possible without the generous support of Dipender Saluja, Partner & Managing Director of Capricorn Investment Group, Participant Media, and the National Wildlife Federation.

Another particularly engaging event was the ‘Tech Tools’ learning challenge. BCS’s Art, Math, MakerSpace, and FabLab specialists led the staff through activities they use with students that integrate technology into the curriculum. A few favorites were:

  • Sphero – Painted artwork created using an iPad and an app-enabled ball
  • littleBits – Circuitry kit used to build something that lights up
  • Makey Makey – Invention kit that turns everyday objects into touchpads, used to build electronic pianos
  • Osmo – Game system that enables an iPad to see what's in front of it, allowing students (and teachers) to receive feedback as they use blocks and colored tiles to create patterns, tangrams, etc.
Although this was BCS founding and current middle school teacher Lisa Stone’s 14th year of participation, she still finds opportunities for growth and reflection in BCS’s staff development program. "Innovative approaches to education and the tools employed to implement them are constantly being developed, so each year I learn so much despite being a veteran teacher. Not only do we learn about these innovative approaches, but we also have time to discuss with our colleagues how to implement them, moving together as an entire staff to make the BCS student experience better with each passing year."

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Teacher's View of "Skills For Today"

April 24th - 28th is P21’s "Skills for Today" Week, sponsored by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21).  The celebratory week was designed to showcase how the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning and the 4Cs — Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, & Creativity — can empower all learners to gain the skills they need for success.

“If we want to set our children up for success in college, career, and life, opportunities to learn 21st century skills are essential,” says David Ross, CEO of P21. “The "Skills for Today" week will not only help shine a national spotlight on the importance of these skills for our students but also highlight the critical elements of a successful education in the 21st century and the resources, research, and best practices that bring these skills to the classroom.”

Bullis Charter School is one of 79 schools and school districts nationwide to be named a P21 Exemplar School. All BCS students are given numerous opportunities to develop the 4Cs and acquire the 21st Century skills they need to thrive in a world where change is constant and learning never stops.

In honor of P21’s “Skills For Today” week, BCS 5th grade teacher Jessica Morgan shared the following observations of her students exhibiting the 4Cs in the classroom, as well as her belief in the value of 21st Century skills for all students:

I had a moment this week that emphasized how much I love the creativity and drive in our students. I was doing one circle of the classroom toward the end of an assessment period in order to check how many students were still working on the test and to monitor the choices students were making if they finished early. In that one period, I saw:
  • one student silently rehearsing percussion patterns for the “BCS Fight Song” and some other music he had to memorize for band
  • one student studying lines for an upcoming musical performance
  • two students practicing drawing for personal FLGs
  • one student crafting an email to a parent to take responsibility for something that happened that day
  • one student working on a Math exemplar to practice critical thinking and multi-step problem solving before tomorrow’s test
  • one student writing up Spanish notes for practice

All of these students were completing these tasks without any prompting from me. They were thinking carefully about what they needed to do as individuals to keep making progress, and they took steps to make it happen. This is a priceless skill that will inevitably help them in all areas of life!

-- Jessica Morgan (@jessreedmorgan), April 26, 2017

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

English Language Arts

Like our math program, English Language Arts (ELA) instruction at BCS goes well beyond reading a story, answering multiple-choice questions, or writing a few summary sentences. Instead, the ELA program is carefully designed to encourage students to develop as critical thinkers and strong readers and writers, while meeting the needs of all of the school’s diverse learners with a variety of proven teaching practices.

In kindergarten, a lesson may begin with a quick review of short and long vowel sounds followed by small group “reading centers,” where students work with teachers on their reading skills and reading comprehension. The teacher stops every few pages to ask, “What have we learned so far in the story?” or “Which describing words were just used?” Recently, a kindergarten ELA lesson included a comparison of writing styles and a discussion of how a writer can use words to convey feelings, tell a story, or even teach a new subject. Science was then integrated into the lesson when students were asked to “teach” by writing true facts about a science topic they just studied.

In second grade, the teacher may incorporate the Common Core State Standard, “compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story by authors or from different cultures,” by reading to the students the classic version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Chinese rendition, Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas. While listening to the two stories, students take notes on the similarities and differences. Using their notes, the students create a Venn diagram (an illustration of the relationships between and among sets or groups of objects that share something in common) and work with a partner to develop a storyline for their own version of the Goldilocks story.

In fourth grade, students study a new historical fiction novel every three weeks in small group book clubs. Time is reserved for students to independently read their assigned books, but they must take notes on the characters, settings, and themes in preparation for their book club discussions. The book clubs are designed to help students think more deeply about the text and to make real-life connections about what they are reading.

Part of the fourth grade Common Core State Standards is to learn about multiple perspectives, and BCS combines fourth grade California history curriculum with language arts to meet this standard in an integrated and comprehensive way. As students study the Transcontinental Railroad or the Mission Period in California, they are tasked with role-playing various characters to help them understand the multitude of perspectives of people who lived in these time periods. They are also taught the correct procedures for conducting online research, including differentiating between authoritative and non-authoritative sources as well as identifying primary sources. Through this research, they begin to understand how historical events impacted people differently, and they learn that the winners are most often those who write history. This is why, as readers, they have to be mindful and think about the different sides of every story. These lessons are not about memorizing and regurgitating historical information but rather about how to understand history and literature in context from multiple perspectives and how to write an essay that thoughtfully and accurately conveys these multiple perspectives.

In fifth grade, students continue to analyze literature by creating empathy maps where they interpret how a character’s speech or action provides insight into how the character is thinking or feeling. Through these maps, they demonstrate how the characters evolve throughout a story, and they learn to employ language using phrases like “it was a metaphor for…” Students also develop their ability to concisely summarize a story by using sentences that begin with “In the beginning….,” “In the middle….,” and “In the end….” They also learn to end their literary summaries with a concluding sentence that reflects on the story and its theme.

Fifth grade students also learn how to create arguments.  An example of one of their prompts is “Should chocolate milk be served in school?” To help students develop their arguments, the teacher distributes several nutrition articles about chocolate milk. Students then create flash drafts of their argument and work with the teacher to develop plans to find more evidence for their opinion or to find an additional reason to support their claim. The teacher discusses the importance of textual evidence and tasks the students with using articles to find textual evidence to support their claims. Students discover the importance of quoting sources from their research and paraphrasing if a quote is too long.

The English Language Arts program at BCS is designed to support the school’s mission of educating the whole child. Through ELA instruction, we hope to develop students who are critical and analytic thinkers, who can examine the meaning of a text beyond the surface of its words, who can see and empathize with different points of view, who can support their opinions and arguments with evidence, and most importantly, who will develop a lifelong love of learning.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Math Instruction at BCS

With the shift to Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM), the benchmark for math mastery is no longer about simply producing a “correct” answer. Gone are the days where students are asked to fill in endless worksheets to show excellence in mathematics. Timed multiplication tests are no longer the barometer for high achievement. So one might wonder: What is this “new” math that our children are tasked to learn?

The CCSSM is not “new” by any means but rather, developed to raise the level of rigor in previous math standards to ensure that the math learning at one level builds and supports the levels above it. Still, it is not enough to have standards by which to measure our growth and understanding. As parents and educators work together to support student learning, our own beliefs about mathematics and math instruction must shift as well. Math is no longer about simply using a formula; it is about understanding how to derive a formula and then determining its usefulness. Math is no longer about the teacher talking and the student listening; it is about being an active participant while collaborating and communicating ideas. Math is no longer about predictable worksheets; it is about authentic experiences with real-time constraints. Math is no longer self-contained; it is about integration. Math is no longer about skimming the surface; it is about stretching and deepening our knowledge. So one might wonder: How do we get there?

Much like an open-ended problem, there is not just one “right” path. At BCS, math instruction is carefully designed to look and be different because we believe in meeting the needs of all our diverse learners with a variety of proven teaching practices. In first grade, a lesson begins with a short introduction to the big math idea for the day. From there, students rotate to “centers” such as “math with someone” for a joint activity, “math by myself” for independent practice, “math with the teacher” for differentiated work and “math with technology” for integrated skills practice. This style of instruction engages children in ways that allow for student choice while developing independence and autonomy all while having ample time to practice 21st century skills such as teamwork and responsibility.

In a fourth grade lesson it opens with a question: “What are the defining attributes of a triangle?” The class is silent as everyone engages in private think time. Moments later, as the teacher facilitates, discussions erupt from all corners of the classroom and a dozen ideas fill the air. Quickly, the lesson transitions to a whole group discussion led by students’ ideas. Hands shoot up immediately as children volunteer to share what they know, as well as some misconceptions moderated by the teacher. A short video follows and again, children are engaged in a discussion  and encouraged to talk about the mathematics using “I notice…” and “I wonder…” statements. A team task follows and high engagement and energy returns. The lesson, driven by student voices, builds upon students’ prior knowledge while subtly introducing new ones.

In a fifth grade class, the teacher poses a situation: “I need to paint 4 walls of a room. Each wall requires one-third of a gallon of paint. Every wall needs to be painted evenly but I am unsure how much paint to buy and I don’t like to overbuy. Find solutions to my problem. Be prepared to present your case with a written proposal supported with visual models as evidence. BEGIN!” Children quickly break up into teams of their choosing and begin sharing ideas. Across the room you can hear students saying, “I’m not quite sure how that would work but it’s worth trying.” and “What if we…?” and “Wait, how come…?” Work of every caliber is strewn across tables and in every child’s hand is a math tool of their choice: a ruler, colored pencils, unit blocks, whiteboards, etc. A flurry of activity takes over the room as children are challenged to push their understanding of fractions beyond the standard algorithm by defending their work through the use of visuals, models and alternative solutions.

At BCS, teachers understand the importance of integration with other subject areas through the use of Project-Based Learning (PBL) units. This style of learning and teaching is not for the faint of heart but if you are looking for excitement, engagement and challenge in math - this is it! Through PBL, students become adept at applying math in all situations at all times. In second grade, students are tasked to to design a new state based on their math and social studies units. Teams work together to use geometric nets to erect city buildings and businesses. They use map skills learned in social studies to create the infrastructure for roads and highways by thinking about parallel, intersecting, and perpendicular lines. All the while, students have to ensure that their work is meeting the needs of the driving question.

The math program at BCS is tethered to our mission of developing the whole child and along with CCSSM, we are raising the bar for children of all abilities to feel successful not just in math, but well beyond college and career readiness. Our approach may not look like what math looked like 20 years ago but that is OK since our commitment is about preparing children for successful futures, not the past. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Leveraging Silicon Valley Innovation in the Classroom

BCS recently partnered with Cisco to create a unique, experiential learning opportunity for our 6th - 8th grade students. The first-ever "Innovate Together" Hackathon provided our middle school students with the opportunity to work with some of the valley's leading programmers, engineers and entrepreneurs, and will serve as a model for Cisco's future work with other schools.

VP and General Manager, Jeanne Beliveau Dunn, describes the collaboration in her blog: Invest in Experiential Learning to Create a Digital Ready Workforce

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Cultivating Creativity Through Choice

At Bullis Charter School, creativity and curiosity are considered vital 21st Century skills. To help students unlock and pursue their individual dreams and passions, we offer a rich array of co- and extra- curricular classes. These ‘choice’ activities allow students to explore their own talents and interests and help to develop the whole child. Co-curriculars are held once per week during the regular school day. Each child participates in two co-curricular activities per semester and every BCS teacher is required to develop and lead two of these activities. This year, students were offered an incredible array of co-curricular courses, including picture book writing, advanced Lego robotics, ceramics, public speaking in Mandarin, and web design. Extra-curriculars are also taught by BCS’s homeroom and specialist teachers and are available to every student, but they are optional, after school activities. Extra-curriculars include everything from sports, color guard, and dance lessons to math games, chess club, and fine art classes.

A brand new co-curricular offered to BCS first and second grade students this year is called “Engineering Design with Wood Blocks.” First grade teacher Mrs. Ly created this activity and begins the class each week by telling a story about a harmonious town in a far away land called Peace Town. Everyone in this town lives together in harmony and everyone helps each other out.  However, to integrate engineering design into this activity, the story always ends with a problem that the students need to solve for the people of Peace Town. This type of problem solving develops the students’ design thinking skills. It also helps them to build empathy since they need to emphasize with the people of Peace Town and to understand the problem before they can begin to devise solutions. For example, when challenged to create ways to let visitors into the town, the students created a musical buzzer that when rung, makes beautiful music. As the children explained, “the people of Peace Town are peaceful people and want to hear beautiful and peaceful sounds.”

In Mrs. Ly’s classroom there is a dedicated “Construction Zone” where students use wooden blocks to build their solution prototypes. Although they can choose to work collaboratively or alone, once one or two students begin to construct something other kids often join in, sharing their ideas and expertise. Some of the students ask if there are more blocks they can use or other materials they can add to their creations, but just like engineers in the real world, they are instructed to create their design using the supplies on hand. The students must talk through their ideas, collaborate with their partners or teams, and include lots of detail in their planning. Using this active learning model, these young students have built some amazing structures. Their creations remain unaffected inside the construction zone throughout the week and every Friday the students clean up the area and start all over again on a new structure. The students also write in
their journals about what they have built and why, and they can refer to pictures Ms. Ly has taken during their building session to help remind them of what they built. This encourages them to include lots details in their writing and reflections.

The students have developed a real passion for their design and building co-curricular and it is obvious that they are having a great time working with friends, collaborating, and problem solving. After the first session, students asked Mrs. Ly if they could stay after school and keep building. One student even asked if it would be possible to stay and build if his mom came in to supervise. Clearly, these young engineers are just getting started!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

BCS Mandarin Program

BCS’s World Language program, available to all students K-8, was designed to support the school’s mission to graduate students who are confident, global citizens.  Mandarin and Spanish instruction are offered to students several times per week and much of the core content, traditionally taught in English, is integrated and reinforced in these language classes. 

BCS educators researched the benefits of many world languages before deciding to offer Mandarin instruction at the elementary level. Almost 900 million people worldwide speak Mandarin, making it a prominent language in both eastern and western cultures.  Research shows that children benefit from learning a tonal language like Mandarin at an early age, as it helps develop musical ability and pitch.  In addition, learning a non-alphabetic language activates different parts of the brain as young learners process the characters and develop visual-spatial analysis.

At BCS, all Mandarin teachers are native speakers and bring with them a deep knowledge of the language and culture.  By utilizing technology such as podcasts and on-line collaboration tools, the Mandarin team is able to provide differentiated instruction for all students, whether they are beginners or native speakers and whether they enter the program at kindergarten or middle school.

Public speaking is an important feature of the BCS Mandarin program. Students are required to present to their class at the end of every learning unit, reinforcing their learning and providing numerous opportunities to practice speaking Mandarin. The students’ regular homeroom teachers say that these presentations really help the students improve their public speaking skills, and build their self-esteem and confidence. Please enjoy some of these Mandarin presentations below!

Kindergarten students share the names of shapes:

Second grade students role-play how to buy and sell fruits.

Fourth grade students produce a Chinese shadow show, which supports their study of zoo habitats.

Fifth graders role-play ordering food in a Chinese restaurant. The students developed their own scripts and printed them in Chinese characters.