Friday, October 30, 2015

Mile Week

One of the highlights of the PE semester is Mile Week. It's just how it sounds: the kids run, jog and/or walk six laps around the school, which adds up to a mile. (There's been no crawling yet. They have some pride.) Everyone does at least some running over the course of those five thousand feet.

Sometimes we go together and sometimes we invite the kids to run at their own pace throughout.
This year, Matthew ran a personal best at 6:48, and then, the next day, ran a 6:30 mile.

Legacy Projects

All eighth graders are required to complete Legacy Projects, which are left behind at Summers-Knoll to benefit the community even after our graduates are released into the wild.

The SK Class of 2016 brainstormed sixty-six potential Legacy Projects today. Here is their list.

art project
faerie door 
& garden
kids’ clubs
PE games
SK logo
7-8 archway
bake sale
false door
kids’ performance
PE storage
SK lunchbox
7-8/K-2 buddies
athletics league
(chickens & goats)
lunchtime band
pizza Fridays
SK merchandise
7-8 storage room
atrium plan
field day
playground equipment
SK pet (indoor)
slack line
bookshelf door
flora (e.g, trees)
musical composition
SK pet (outdoor)
speaker/PA system
ceiling tiles
free library
musical equipment
prop shop
SK pond
stained-glass window
charity fundraiser
greenhouse fix-up
obstacle course
rope swing
SK t-shirt & sweatshirt
climbing wall
homeroom pet(s)
older alumni gathering
SK anthem
school fix-up
trick out the bathrooms
costume shop
hoop house
older alumni handprints
SK drone
school lunches
vending machine
identity cards
SK gift shop
secret door
water fountain upstairs
electronics manual
indoor play equipment
PE equipment
SK grounds care
security system
zip line

Here is the list of our fourteen past projects:

  • Alice cast album, recorded by a student who wrote most of the music
  • alumni handprints & signatures in 7-8 stairwell
  • alumni newsletter, sent electronically
  • Culture Day, a celebration of global living
  • exchange library
  • mural in the theme of diaspora, showing movement between a dystopia and a utopia
  • mural in the dual themes of dystopia & utopia
  • mural in the theme of identity
  • raised garden beds & butterfly garden
  • service learning at Glacier Hills Center to complement the in-school work crews program
  • Skeidelberg playhouse (pictured above)
  • technology usage video
  • work crews system, in which 7-8s work with teachers & staff throughout SK
  • yearbook, debuted by the class of 2014 and now carried out by the 7-8s

Friday, October 23, 2015

SK & Reality

When working with seventh and eighth graders it is natural to worry about the program's alumni. Since few high schools look like the SK middle school, how do our students fare in the transition from our program to the myriad others in the area?

SK alums from the classes of 2013, 2014, and 2015 are presently enrolled in four different high schools in and around Ann Arbor. Recently I had the great pleasure of talking with a half-dozen recent Summers-Knoll alumni. While their experiences vary, several common themes emerged from those conversations.

1. They know who they are. 
Each of the students with whom I spoke could articulate what was easy about their transition into high school as well as what was challenging. They could further explain how they have gone about addressing the more difficult aspects of moving from middle school to high school: by making use of online trackers like Moodle and Powerschool, for example, or by updating a planner every day. They understand how to behave in class and how to game high school so that they get as much as they can out of the experience.

2. They are busy and well-adjusted, and they know what they're doing.
SK graduates all understand that every ninth grader is new to ninth grade! They have given themselves plenty of room to make adjustments in terms of workload and teacher expectations. Without exception, they have found homes in larger environments, designing lighting in technical theater, rowing crew, playing daily pickup basketball, acting, joining an anime club, or pursuing another of the many ambitious interests they developed while at SK. They have more homework, because ninth graders have more homework than eighth graders, but they are managing that just fine.

3. They understand Summers-Knoll.
Without exception, they say they miss SK, but not in a boilerplate way. Some miss the small size. Some miss the informality. All of them can articulate the lessons they gleaned here about the purpose of education and the intense planning required in a project-based curriculum. All of them miss particular teachers, but with varying degrees of fervor. And all of them are doing SK proud by asking good questions, using their carefully tended moral compasses, and diligently pursuing tough answers.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Fifty-First State

Food is love, especially when you're two hundred and fifty miles due north from home.

In the end it was decided that we would not make Cornish pasties from scratch, probably a good call given the logistics of feeding twelve children and two healthy adults, so we bought them from a shop just down the road. Pasties are more or less a complete meal, so dinner was just that along with fruit. The kids made their own lunches on Thursday night from cold cuts, bread, sun butter and fruits & vegetables. We cooked up the heartiest of breakfasts late Thursday night and had roasted potatoes, sausages, and a big omelet ready to go on Friday morning. That saved us an extra hour to two, especially because we didn't have to clean the stove--we did everything in the oven.

What did we do with all that additional time?

Three shifts of four kids apiece went out on Lake Michigan in kayaks. Nothing evokes the days of the voyageurs like watching kids dig their paddles into the cobalt Great Lake water, sun shining across the breakers, wind whipping their hair behind them. Later we went to a long soft sandy beach ten miles west of the house. We went there for sundown, and though the air was cooling rapidly, nearly all of the kids plunged fully into the cold October waters. Kaeli showed them a sandbar a little ways out and they all played there and even ventured farther out. Margaret stayed in for an hour.

Back at the house the kids played a card game while Matthew and Nik composed music for three and four hands on the piano. Then we read through the play, A Sort of Complete History of the United States of America (Abridged), together while kids roasted marshmallows in the fireplace. Some even roasted apples and oranges, just to see.

The next morning we headed further north, to Tahquamenon Falls. Here we rowed our three flagships, the Ninja, the Pina Colada, and the Heidy-Ho III, out to an island in the middle of the Tahquamenon River. We circumnavigated the island with plenty of stops to wade in the icy morning waters. Afterward, the kids ate the lunches they'd packed on the bus. We stopped off at the house to finish tidying up and to write lovely personalized thank-you letters to the house's owners.

Then we hit the Mackinac Bridge once more and travelled south. Our families greeted us back in Ann Arbor--just in time for dinner.

High School 101

High School 101 begins this week. In this program, eighth graders meet weekly to discuss their Legacy Projects--the systems, programs, and innovations they'll leave behind at Summers-Knoll--and to make plans in preparation for the wider world of ninth grade and beyond.

This week we'll review the fifteen or so candidates for the next level of schooling. Ann Arbor is blessed with many wonderful options, including conventional schools, independents, charters, alternatives, and religious schools. There is no Summers-Knoll High School, but there are several institutions that speak our language of authenticity, dynamism, and challenge.

At present, our recent alumni are thriving at Community High, Pioneer High, Skyline High, and Washtenaw International (WiHi). Our kids will also take a close look at Greenhills, Huron, Rudolf Steiner, Washtenaw Technical Middle College, and several other area institutions.

Story Time

The tools of technology have changed the look of education. Much of the 7-8s' work is done electronically, through Google Docs. They can all make Prezis. Many of the kids carry miniature dictionaries and encyclopedias everywhere. They are very adept at researching, substantiating, and chronicling work on the fly using web-based tools.

But the best innovation recent years for me has been reading aloud. By the end of the year, the fifteen of us will have read eight to ten books together--literally together, at the same pace, gathered in a small clump for storytime in a manner that would not have seemed out of place at a Stone Age campfire.

We opened the year with George Orwell's Animal Farm. This works with all three of our key themes for the year. Identity in particular is engaged throughout the book--who is a friend, and who an enemy? Who is in charge, and who is a peer? The kids were enraged by the ending, where the animals look from man to pig, and pig to man, and can no longer tell the difference. Rachel led them through some online research. Rather than being told about communism and controversy, the kids found it all themselves. They also found a 1950s cartoon, which tried to be both dark and adorable. We watched it on a Friday afternoon, and the kids actually burst into applause at the rebooted ending.

Then we read Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street. This book is a series of forty-four short portraits or life in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. The kids are writing their own autobiographical novellas (only three chapters), and these will be displayed in the school along with Tyree Guyton-inspired self-portraits.

We are just underway with Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I expect we'll read two other short novels right after this: Janet Lewis' The Wife of Martin Guerre and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Projects and Assignments

recreating Lunch-atop-a-Skyscraper-Construction-Workers-Lunching-on-a-Crossbeam)
Sometimes we wonder: what is the difference between a project and an assignment? As a school with a project-based curriculum, this is not mere rhetoric. Our recent Road Trip activity bridges the gap between the two, with an eye toward the independent Identity Projects on which the kids are about to embark. After two weeks of background study on two dozen crucial 19th-century figures (22 Americans and one each from Mexico and France), each student selected one person from the list and designed a present-day road trip that visited at least three key locations related to that person.

Construction. Students build their own projects. Projects are not simply handed down in total detail. I like the illustration above because the workers recreating Charles Ebbets' classic Manhattan photo are at a theme park. Now that's fun.

Scale. Generally speaking, a project expects more of the student than an assignment. The Road Trip had four fundamental aspects: research to identify three crucial places in the subject's life; paragraphs explaining the significance of each event and place; a visual version, like an annotated map; and a spreadsheet showing an itemized budget for the trip.

Disciplines. A project engages more than one academic discipline. Writing is English, budgets are math, history is history, visuals are art, and research crosses many disciplinary lines.

Authenticity. On the day the project was due, each student stood with his or her projects and guided visitors from the faculty and one of the 5-6 homerooms through an explanation of their trip.

Autonomy. Most projects give the student a degree of control over content. The Road Trip gives the students a great deal of latitude in selecting people, destinations, and priorities. It isn't a pure project, however--they selected from a list, rather than from the broadest frame of knowledge.

Mastery. Successful completion of this project gives the kids a handle on methods like Prezi, Google Spreadsheet and Google Maps--not because they were assigned to use these tools but because these turned out to be the best tools for the work they were doing.

Meta. The student should be able to articulate the design and rationale of the project. The open house format of the due date helped to generate this understanding.