Saturday, 6 May 2017

nueva school - learn by doing. learn by caring

The Nueva School was the last visit for Daniel Birch and I on this San Francisco Trip.  I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity and am thankful to Daniel for inviting me to join him and Maurie Abraham on this professional development experience.  Thanks guys, it has been a pleasure!  I've learnt so much and really enjoyed the stimulating conversations, the laughs and the eye-opening experience.

Maurie (L) & Daniel (R) Passionate educators and foodies!

For anyone thinking about a visit, San Fran is a very cool place with some really innovative partnerships occurring between the tech industry and schools.  I felt like it was a good fit for Hobsonville Point Schools as we continue to push the boundaries and connect with like-minded educators.

Over the past week, we have had some fantastic conversations over extremely good food and the odd margarita.  In education we often focus on creating safe and supportive learning environments for children and sometimes I think we lose sight of the importance of doing the same for our staff.  If we want to create positive changes in our schools then we have to invest in the teachers and think differently about what quality PD can look like.  I know what I've learnt on this trip is going to have a direct impact on the teaching and learning within my school.  Being able to collaborate with colleagues is invaluable.  It's especially valuable if you can warmly challenge each others thinking and share experiences.

So about Nueva...

Nueva is a private school with a junior, middle and senior campus.  Daniel and I visited the junior and middle schools.  Maurie visited the senior school.  If you are interested you can read Maurie's post here.

A bit of background from their website

Mission and Philosophy 

The Nueva School is an internationally-recognized independent PreK-12 school, serving gifted and talented students since 1967. The school is a three-time winner of the US Department of Education National Blue Ribbon Award, winner of the American Institute of Architects Award for School Design and Sustainability, recognized as an Apple Distinguished Program, appointed an Ashoka Changemaker School, a co-founder of the Common Ground Speaker Series, sponsor of the Innovative Learning Conference, and was highlighted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times best-selling author Thomas Friedman in his book That Used to Be Us in the chapter “Average Is Over.”  Nueva is located in the neighboring towns of Hillsborough and San Mateo, equidistant between San Francisco and Silicon Valley in the Bay Area of Northern California.
Nueva is a student-centered school known for its distinctive inquiry-based interdisciplinary studies, constructivist project-based learning, and its pioneering work in social emotional learning and design thinking. The school also offers specialist teachers in numerous other core and elective areas, including STEM, writing, the arts, entrepreneurship, and physical education. 
The Nueva School uses a dynamic educational model to enable gifted students to learn how to make choices that will benefit the world.
Our school community inspires passion for lifelong learning, fosters social and emotional acuity, and develops the student’s imaginative mind.

Nueva Junior School is in an old home that once belong to the Crocker Family.  The Crocker's were very wealthy bankers and building was one of their summer homes.  The building has been transformed into classrooms.  It makes for a very interesting space.  The spaces were inviting and there was a lovely, child friendly, busy mess around the school.  

Nueva aren't a purist reggio school however there were elements of this in the classes.  The outdoor spaces had been transformed using astroturf and the children get out and enjoy the fresh air as much as possible.  Some of the classes are connected although most are single cell.

At Grade 3 the classes begin to mix with increasing levels of autonomy and ability to collaborate across age groups.
Nueva Junior School

We saw some creative classroom with the use of levels.  Lots of the classrooms had raised stages and a few had bunks.  
Some of the spaces were multi purpose and changed to suit the learning taking place.  This shared space was being used for language workshops when we visited and sometimes it was used for dance classes.
Multi Purpose Flexible Learning Space in the old ballroom

Outdoor Learning Space

A dispositional curriculum was evident across the school with a big emphasis on feelings, empathy and caring.  This fits in with the design thinking approach which runs across the school.

The Stanford physical space influence was at Nueva too.  Three big spaces (makerspaces) with lots of technology, engineering and science resources were part of the middle school.

Design Class

Maker Space

Maker Space

Thursday, 4 May 2017

journey through the senses at Monte Vista

Daniel Birch and I had the privilege of visiting the stunning campus of Monte Vista and spending an entire day touring the facilities (they're massive) talking to various students and staff.  Have a read of Daniel's blog as he gives an overview of where they are at in terms of pedagogy.  This blog is going to focus on the environment at Monte Vista as it really was quite spectacular and there is an interesting vision behind it.

Steve Sharp has been at the helm of Monte Vista for 12 years and will be retiring in 6 months time. During this time he has transformed the campus into something special.  Also, he is also well-known as he was the first educator in America to put ipads into the hands of his students and that is still evident today as tech is widely used across the school.  The only whiteboard I saw was a pod of mobile boards being utilised by students.  I spoke to the students with most saying the ipad was their tool of choice.  Teachers share course material on Moodle however I did see other higher spec devices being utilised for specialist subjects or learning.

Middle School

I feel like we visited Monte Vista (translated means mountain views) during a slight 'pause'  before potentially significant transition occurs.  It was evident from our conversations that a new wave of change is about to happen under new leadership.  I'm looking forward to keeping an eye on what evolves.  My personal A standout for me was the warmth, generosity and openness of Steve and everyone at the school.  The students genuinely appeared to be happy and well supported.  We encountered the students during SAT testing time and would have expected an air of anxiety however everyone seemed to be relaxed and had the time to chat.

View of courtyard, cafe and to the mountains

Steve's vision for the school was to create 'The Kingdom' on earth at Monte Vista and what they have achieved is creating an environment that is stimulating to the senses.  To expand on this comment, it was explained to us that it was a conscious decision to build a school rich in the sensory domain.

Graduating Students


My day at Monte Vista, a journey through the senses...

To begin our day we were treated to a breakfast, alongside the students, that was something you'd expect to eat in a top-end restaurant.  Produce is organic, sourced locally from the surrounding farms & orchards and cooked by a 4-star chef.  Students are fuelled by healthy meals throughout the day and the area where they eat did not resemble any school cafe that I've ever seen.  It closer resembled somewhere in Ponsonby where you might go for brunch on a Sunday.

We all know teacher's need caffeine and there was definitely no Nescafe fine blend on-site.  For the coffee connoisseurs out there and there is a Starbucks on campus serving ever blend imaginable.  To my delight they even had decaf so I was able to keep the blood sugar levels on a reasonable keel.

They have big name brands partnering the school, which helps to explain the high end, glossy, new resources everywhere. Coca-Cola is a partner (not so healthy) but overall the taste experience food was delicious, made with love and the students came together to eat and relax which was really nice to see.  Monte Vista has a roll of 1100 students so they have staggered break-times to cater for numbers. (Sidenote:  They don't have teacher's on duty as they encourage their students to problem solve and mediate issues themselves)

I was so busy enjoying my food I failed in capturing a decent picture of the cafe but here is the smaller bistro serving area and canteen just situated off of the main cafe area.


During breaktimes local music is played on speakers across the expansive courtyard which created a really upbeat fun vibe.  Students and a few teacher's would dance along and everyone appeared to be enjoying it.   I really noticed the calm and positive atmosphere around the campus and the cafe area seemed to be a real hub.

There were lots of spaces around the grounds to sit and relax.  There was a peaceful atmosphere that made you want to not leave.  In fact, on campus a 91 year old lady still resides who attended the school as a 14 year old then trained as a teacher, worked there and then retired.

On the tour we stopped in to visit a vocal class and were blown away by some talented singers.  Performances and celebrations occur regularly within the school.  There lots of opportunities for students to be seen and heard.


Every space in this very old school has been transformed over the past 12 years.  Subject rooms had themes.  For example when taking French class you are transported into a cute french cottage.  In Spanish class, when lights are flicked on everybody is to speak in spanish, and when they're off you can switch your conversation back into english.  My literary skills do not do this justice I think a picture can tell a thousand words so have a look below at some of the space design elements shown in the photos.  In most spaces you can see sculptures of  Mustang horses.  The school has about 20 horses, stables, and showjumping arena.

Add caption
Monte Vista have a full-time designer who works alongside staff, weekends are spent fossicking around garage-sales to acquire some of the nicknacks.

American History Class

Collaborative Office Space
French Space

Beyond the classrooms the walls were adorned with artworks made by the students, quotes, sculptures, water fountain features, rugs that create textures.  Overall, it was a very sensory experience!  I feel like I've scratched the surface in summarising all of the sights.

Art students

Overall, this was a campus with wow factor!  Clearly having partners like Nike, Starbuck and Coca-help but the warmth of the people was evident.  I'm really interested in seeing what pedagogical developments happen and would love to have another visit in the future.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017 high school acting empathetically

How are we designing schooling that is meeting the needs of children beyond subject content?   
Design Tech High is doing it well.  

What is your super power?  All Design Tech High students are all labeled as gifted in one way or another.

Daniel Birch (Hobsonville Point Primary Principal)and Maurie Abraham (Hobsonville Point Secondary Principal) and I had the pleasure of visiting the Design Tech High School this morning and spending time with Julie Abraham, enrollment co-ordinator. Links to their blogs and perspectives are listed further down this blog. 


Design Tech High is located in the famous Silicon Valley and they have partnered with the Oracle Education Foundation.  Like many of the other tech industries in San Francisco, Oracle identified there was a growing concern that the recruitment of local College (University) graduates was lower than what they would expect.  In response, Oracle have realised the potential of partnering with Design Tech High and are help provide resources including people support and the funding of a new campus.

Design Tech High School, or as the students prefer to call it, is currently situated in a temporary building and it is simply stunning.  Through the doors you are warmly welcomed, the students appear relaxed and staff are open and chatty.  

Maurie (L) & Daniel (R) high is an example of innovation and a school pushing the boundaries to not only promote relevant, authentic learning experiences but is also fighting the very important battle of supporting the emotional well-being of its students in an ever increasingly anxiety provoking environment of very high expectations and education unknowns. was founded by 4 teachers who had some compelling statistics at hand that indicated a need for change to address the issues.  Some of the statistics quoted to us were, '45% of current jobs will not exist in 2013. ' 'Most of the jobs that will be available, up to 50%, will be in big data and robotics.' has developed a curriculum based on the design process at Stanford University and one that is responsive to social and emotional needs as well as developing the skill sets required to be a lifelong learner.  

It was affirming to hear the focus on those skill-sets and we had similarities between the three schools.  Remove the labels to categorise these 'dispositions' or 'habits' and we had a common language that included perseverance, resilience, empathy, tenacity ...  

The Colleges in San Fran have been stating that many of their first year students are already burnt out, are anxious and the retention has been falling.   In response, Colleges are beginning to shift their recruitment practices to allow students to present portfolios and other examples of academic success instead of solely relying on credits and test scores.  Students may not have to focus on taking additional classes to build up these points and the pendulum may swing towards depth, quality, authenticity and the 'soft skill' sets as what we heard about at high.

With my parent hat on and a 9 year old at home, it makes me wonder what New Zealand Universities are noticing about their first year students and has me questioning are our secondaries providing enough support through rethinking their academic pathways?

Like, one N.Z that is doing this is Hobsonville Point Secondary who have in place a structure that allows students to learn without additional unnecessary pressures and approaches credit acquisition differently.  I think it fantastic both schools clearly put the child at the centre of education. I can only hope other schools will learn, seeing the benefits for youth and beyond this our society.

In America there is a heavy emphasis on testing. have addressed the challenge of measuring success a bit differently. high has introduced performance tasks to help measure progress. This is a term you may have seen in the Understanding by Design Framework, Hobsonville Point Primary integrate performance tasks in our assessment processes.  

Personally, I love the way performance tasks can be tailored and personalised to the individual needs of the learner.  For example, getting the strongly dyslexic child to demonstrate their understanding of a topic through writing a expository essay is unlikely to offer them the best opportunity to show their knowledge, skills and understandings but allowing them to vlog about it, create a visual representation, build something is far more likely to meet the desired purpose.  Below are a few of the examples I saw at high that showcased the varied ways in which learning can be demonstrated.

How was the space enabling learning?  
The current physical space allowed for collaboration and like I saw at Brightworks was heavily influenced by the students themselves.  Students had a say in resourcing and teachers work alongside children.  There is a notion of, 'the content you learn today is highly unlikely to be relevant when you leave but the skills will be.'  In my opinion, that was the real celebration of this school visit.  The promotion of the 'whole-child' and integrated approach to curriculum through authentic learning.

If you are interested in heading Daniel and Maurie's perspectives make sure you have a look at their blogs.

Here are a few pictures of the space and image of what the new build will look like.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Brightworks - Tinkering School

The mission statement for the Tinkering School school is think.make.tinker which is exciting as what we know, is that students learn best when it is through doing.  

Have a read of Daniel Birch's perspective of the visit here

The Tinkering School was established as a summer holiday programme based on the notion that 'children can build anything, and through building learn anything.'  Gever Tulley founded the school back in 2006, which gained international recognition and saw the establishment of Brightworks.

Brightworks School opened it's doors in 2011, as they wondered if they could create a school that would be as memorable and hands-on as this summer school.  And so, Brightworks was established taking with it some of the best practices from the summer holiday programmes.

Brightworks has a vision of putting lifelong learning and curiosity at the forefront of a student's experience and at the heart of their pedagogical approach.  This rang true for us when we visited this morning.

Brightworks and The Tinkering School are housed in an old brick industrial building in the Mission District In San Fran.  It is a private school of approx. 80 students ranging from 5 years to 18 years. Their Summer Programmes have over 1500 students attending over the period of a year.  Parents choose this school based on their reputation and a desire for their children to engage in purposeful learning.

We had the opportunity to meet and talk to founder Gerver and Karen, Director of Tinker School at some length about the philosophy underpinning the school and practices we saw.  It was one of those conversations that will stick with me as we shared the commonality of wrestling with the tension of creating an education system that is engaging, promoting lifelong learning that will also support these kids in the various pathways that they are on.  I was also curious about just what the students would be doing...

I'm loathe to start this blog talking about the space as it can be a very surface level subject however this space was child centred and responsive.

When we wandered throughout the space we not only noticed autonomy in how and what the students were learning but the very cool feature that the kids responsively design and physically build the spaces within the building. This included the framework, soundproofing (when necessary) and adding doors etc  Also, they have to contend with earthquake specs so engineering plays a part too.  It made me think about the huge investment in the redesign of NZ schools and potential to design inspiring spaces on tight budgets if people were to think outside the box and make the most of what is already available or cheap to purchase.  It also made me think of just what children are capable of if we give them the tools and put in place some scaffolds to support them.

What we experienced at Brightworks was a truly flexible space that responds to the learning that is taking place.  Overall the space is quite full-on  however you can see the organisation behind the busyness. I saw a lot of up-cycling, clever use of nooks and crannies and the children moved around the space freely.  Not surprisingly there was a lot of doing!  I did not see many children on devices but engaged in rich hands-on learning activities. 

Students are organised in multi age groups and get the opportunity to mix across all year levels. Teachers are called 'Collaborators' and have varied skill sets from STEM to bioscience and they don't have to have teaching degrees.  What we saw was teachers working alongside students and no 'teach from the front' styles in fact I didn't notice a single whiteboard which says a lot about the way in which staff work with and don't do 'to' the kids.

Experts are called upon a lot at Brightworks as a lot of the projects require specialist input.  The students approach the experts and they have a far better chance of engagement than if an adult does the approaching on behalf.

The Saw

Every child who starts at Brightworks is inducted via 'The Saw.'  It sounds ominous but is a fantastic metaphor for the tone of the school.

You could see a 5 year old put behind this tool, taught safety aspects and experiences the joy of a commercial level cut of wood.  

The reasoning behind this practice is to start the educational journey from a place of TRUST which is embodied through the saw.  It illustrates the potential of the child and sets the tone for the relationship between collaborator and student.  It helps to make a point about the capabilities of a child, when freed from confines and the magic that can take place. 

Notice the power point placed up high.  This serves a dual purpose.  Obviously it is the safe place for the power cord but also it is their as a reminder to staff that when you have children operating powerful tools you also need to pause and think about the protocols you are following.  It is interesting that given the nature of the learning taking place across the school, injuries have been very few.

In a nutshell there are three parts to learning:
1) Exploration
2) Expression
3) Exposition

What we saw when we walked through the door was groups of children working on a project that had fallen our of an exploration phase of learning exploring water. (far more to this but summing it up here)  They were building boats that they were going to take out and sail.  They'd had to design special clamps to help them make the boats, they were full size and being painted.   Most of the children were engaged, a few had shifted their focus to individual projects they were going into.  It was refreshing hearing the perspective of the staff that it didn't matter as there is is a focus on process rather than just a polished product at the end.

The students blog about their learning experiences and record their dispositional growth e.g. collaboration, tenacity and mindsets as they work through a project culminating in a sharing of the project through an oral and written presentation.  Before children embark on largely self directed projects they present their thinking to staff who conference them through their ideas before they get the green-light.  

I think one of the biggest assumptions parents and some teacher have about self-directed learning is that their is the ability to do whatever and where-ever with loose parameters in place and limited expectations.  What I saw was high expectations and students delving into some very complex thinking and problem solving.  The teachers were 'collaborating' and facilitating learning with the children through high trust relationships.

One of my biggest take-aways from this visit was the way in which the students learned in context, the staff noticed the learning opportunities and brought in what we would call the 'traditional curriculum.'

I saw cohesion across the school with students learning via concepts, explicit teaching visible on walls, posters, through graphic designs and interpretations.

Gever Tully has some TED Talks that are available.  He's a dynamic and interesting man with a true passion about making a positive difference for children.

These were some of the questions I had posed at the beginning of the tour and some observations from this visit.

How interconnected curriculum is working?
Learning through multi-disiplinary projects the staff make the most of natural connections in a responsive manner.

What pathways are in place linking elementary, high school and beyond?
This school caters for primary and secondary in the same build.  The students work together through learning communities.  The emphasis is on students learning how to learn and think for themselves. High School students can enter Colleges through 'alternative pathways' Stanford, MIT and Berkley all offer these non-traditional entrances.

What skills, dispositions and habits are focused on beyond the traditional curriculum?
By the very nature of how learning is structured they have ample opportunities to grow dispositionally.   

Fun Fact
Brightworks is in the Mission District which has some of the best Mexican Restaurants in San Fran (and Mexican food goes very well with margaritas) !

Thursday, 27 April 2017

San Fran Professional Development

I've been fortunate, as part of my well supported professional development journey, to have visited some innovative schools and attended some of the best conferences in N.Z and wider.  What I love is collaborating with others who have similar mindsets about rethinking the possibilities of education and are actioning future focused curriculum in their various school contexts.

This evening this journey continues as I'm taking off on a trip to San Francisco that already has me excited, is likely to affirm thinking and also challenge me.  I'm looking forward to sharing some of the insights and ideas that I'll be experiencing. I've been woking at Hobsonville Point Primary just short of 5 Years now and it's timely to make the opportunity to reflect and reenergise.  

I'm heading to San Francisco with Hobsonville Point Primary Principal, Daniel Birch and we will be sharing some of the school visits with Maurie Abraham, Hobsonville Point Secondary Principal.  The schools that have been chosen are all doing interesting things with their curriculum that align to our school vision and methodologies, all have come recommended by others.

We will be visiting:

Brightworks Academy:Tinkering School


Monte Vista

Nueva School

Some of the things I'm curious about are:

How interconnected curriculum is working?
What pathways are in place linking elementary, high school and beyond?
What skills, dispositions and habits are focused on beyond the traditional curriculum?

I'm sure I'll get sidetracked, I don't want to go in with blinkers on as so often with these visits the take-aways end up being something quite different.  I'm looking forward to sharing and blowing the dust off of this blog.  😃