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Community S TO R I E S A B O U T P E O P L E A N D E V E N T S I N T H E C O M M U N I T Y
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Small school in Portola Valley is lab for innovative learning
Story by Barbara Wood Photos by Michelle Le
how to learn A pledge, in their own words I pledge to our flag, representing Creekside School. We are the pollywogs and the hawks, Who respect their friends and teachers, The environment and materials. We may not be like everyone else, But we are the best we can be. We grow together and learn together As one big family. Written by the students and signed by each student.
he tiny school, tucked into a ramshackle former insurance office at the back of the Portola Valley Village Square shopping complex, doesn’t look from the outside like a showcase for state-of-the-art 21st century education. But the parents and teachers who set up the Creekside 21st Century Learning Lab say it is just that. The school, they say, is an experiment in learning that others can emulate to teach students the skills most needed to thrive in today’s complex and fast-moving world, and in ways suited to the myriad of different learning styles children possess. Creekside has only 14 students — seven boys and seven girls — and only a fifth-grade class level. And, it may well last only this school year. A group of Portola Valley School District parents started the school when they found out last spring that one of their favorite teachers, Marcy Barton, was retiring from teaching fifth grade at Corte Madera School. They wanted to allow their children to experience Ms. Barton’s innovative teaching methods, and they wanted a place where others could see those methods in action. “We don’t want to just make a change for 14 kids. We want to make sure all kids have an opportunity for this type of education,” says Linda Yates, one of the school’s co-founders. The parents wanted “to take what some of our best and brightest teachers are doing already and showcase it,” she says. The time was also right for Ms. Barton, who started teaching in 1969. She decided in December to take an early retirement offer Continued on next page Above: Robotics instructor Kashmiri Hutcherson shows student-designed robot parts and explains how some structures are sturdier than others as students, from left, Casey, JJ and Trevor react during a class at Creekside Learning Lab in Portola Valley. Left: A Creekside student takes individual work time.
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C O M M U N I T Y
Jake: ‘We actually enjoy learning’ By Barbara Wood
ne of the most impressive things about Creekside school is the enthusiasm of its 14 students. Jake Gainey says that he fits in better at Creekside than in any other school he’s attended, especially because he feels that all 14 students are friends. “I learn a lot more stuff,” Jake says. “They don’t make us sit down and say: ‘This is what you’re going to learn about.’ We actually get to enjoy learning.” Trevor Perez says he likes the hands-on aspect. “It just makes the experience more memorable and it sticks in your head,” he explains. Samson Axe says he appreciates the fact that “at recess you can basically do what you want,” because sometimes what he wants is to stay inside working on a project. Maya Blevins says she likes that “you get to take control over your own learning. You can do the learning you want to do.” JJ Noland notes that students get to choose how they will attack a project. “We have a lot more freedom,” she says. On the other hand, Charlie Gainey says that “there’s so much more responsibility.” At Creekside, he is not treated as a child, but “as an adult,” he says. In the end, however, it may be this that matters most: “I actually get up in the morning wanting to get to school,” Charlie says. Left: Instructor Marcy Barton discusses Elizabeth George Speare’s book, “The Witch of Blackbird Pond.” Below: Creekside student JJ explores what distinquishes a robot from a machine by building a small robot in class.
from the district, and thought she would spend more time sharing the integrated, exploratory approach to learning she had adopted. In 2010, she wrote a book, called “Classroom for the Conceptual Age,” for other teachers who wanted to use some of her methods. She had been asked to speak at more and more conferences, often to standing-roomonly audiences. “People want to hear this,” Ms. Barton says. “I needed a bigger platform for these ideas, and they are ideas whose time has come.” A new way of teaching is needed, those involved in the school say, because traditional methods come from another era. “The (current) educational model was born out of need driven by the industrial revolution,” Ms. Yates says. “It’s just not relevant in the 21st century any more.” The teaching methods used at the school are not new — some are decades old, and Ms. Barton had been using many of them at Corte Madera for several years. In addition to teaching at Creek-
side, which she does for four and a half days a week, Ms. Barton has started a consulting company called ie21 to help others adopt her teaching methods. Creekside students study the traditional subjects — including math, writing, science, art, foreign languages and social studies — but as part of integrated
projects centered around what Ms. Barton calls “Big Questions.” The students’ first project was “Who Am I?” Hung around the classroom are the results of that investigation — giant posters that include information about each student, including the results of the Myers-Briggs Type
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Indicator tests that show their year— from trips to Stanford preferred learning and interact- to look at art or visit the design ing styles, plus photos, drawings school, to Jasper Ridge, and to and essays that tell the teach- Boston and Williamsburg to ers, the other students, and the study American history. students themselves, a lot about The school makes copious use what motivates and interests of technology. Each student has them. a laptop and uses the resources With the knowledge gained of the Internet continuously. from that exerAt home, if they cise, students can have time, they The parents better understand are invited to add what “tools” they to a classroom wanted ‘to take need so they can blog. Their work what some of our is saved in a digilearn,” and develop their own tool portfolio. best and brightest tal Because belt,” Ms. Yates projsays, which they ects are flexible, teachers are can use the rest of different learning doing already their lives. styles that might The current big be labeled a disand showcase it.’ question is: “How ability in another —Linda Yates, do we live in a school are simply Creekside school sustainable enviadapted into the co-founder ronment?” program. TradiLearning at the tional education school is self-diis “highly difrected, with chilferentiated,” Ms. dren taking responsibility for Yates says. their own learning, guided by “All kids learn differently,” she their teachers, whom they call says. In the class of 14, students by their first names. found they had 12 (out of the Students work with Ms. Bar- 16 possible) different learning ton three and a half days a week. styles when they took the MyersScience and art teachers come Briggs Type Indicator tests. “We in to work with the students need to create educational instion Fridays, while Thursday tutions that can be flexible,” she afternoons are devoted to “acad- says. emies,” four- to six-week-long So the teaching methods used classes in areas of special inter- at the school use “universal est such as woodworking or design” so “all kids can learn,” building Lego robots. Ms. Yates says. In order to “dissolve the walls Because the school is not part of the classroom,” more than 20 of the public school system, field trips are planned for the students do not have to take
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Above: Students Maya, left, and Piper practice a song they wrote during a poetry songwriting academy session. Right: Seth reads Elizabeth George Speare’s “The Witch of Blackbird Pond.” Below: Dressed as their favorite presidents the morning after the election, students JJ, left, and Piper learn how to write a resume.
standardized tests and classes do not have to fit the traditional schedule. Students will, however, take the Independent Schools Entrance Exam this spring. Students helped to design the school. They also designed and made a school flag, and wrote a school pledge. And it was the students who came up with the school’s name, although parents added 21st Century as part of the official name. Parents pitched in to renovate the old cottage the school is
housed in, tearing out carpeting and tearing down at least one interior wall. Parent Suki Eyre helped Ms. Barton design the school to her vision. In the “Science Room,” a former kitchen with a concrete floor, they made a flaw into a feature using floor paint. “I said, ‘Marcy let’s do something on this floor,’” Ms. Eyre says. “It’s like a canvas — what do you want to do?” Ms. Barton responded, “Gosh, if you could put the world on the floor that
would be great.” So, after five days of work, the world, complete with currents, land masses and their climates, took shape on the floor. The children can use it as a learning tool for a current project, which is about world explorers, “so it makes sense why the explorers went the way they went,” Ms. Eyre explains. Each room in the tiny school serves multiple purposes. The Reading Room, for example, has a built-in bench that can be used for reading, or for sitting at a table, and has the schools’ files underneath it. Salvaged bookshelves line the walls and a curtain allows the room to be used as a theater or to divide it into two small, cozy rooms. Because the budget was limited, “we used a lot of things that were being given away, (and) we used a lot of IKEA,” Ms. Eyre says. Ms. Eyre’s son Ned is in the school. “It is magical,” she says. “It just shows you how, without constraints, they get to follow things and they get to focus on personal interests they have. It’s exciting for the kids.” Her son, she says, is “bubblier” than he was last year, and is even doing better at topics he has
always struggled with. “Ned’s not a natural writer,” Ms. Eyre says, but with his class work, including the school blog, “it’s just getting easier and easier.” While the children say they love not having homework, Ms. Eyre says that they actually do have it — they just don’t realize it. “I don’t think they think about it the rote way they’re used to” she says. One of the joys at Creekside, she says, is the fact that the students get large chunks of time to work on projects, rather than the traditional chopped-up school day. Ms. Eyre says she hopes the experiment will not end with the school year, because she has
a third-grader who wants to experience it. Next year parents will either return their children to Corte Madera to finish middle school, or go on to a private school. The Portola Valley School District did not lose any funding when the 14 children left, the founders say, because it is a basic aid district that gets a set amount of money not based on student count. WEBSITES School website: CreeksideLearningLab.org Marcy Barton website: ie21.org Resouce list on 21st century learning: tinyurl.com/Learn-114
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Sand Hill School at Childrenâ€™s Health Council Grades K-4, expanding to grade 8
School should be fun. If you need help, call us.
At Sand Hill School youâ€™ll ďŹ nd teachers who really care and know how to teach children who are bright but struggling in a conventional classroom. We have opened a few spots in our combination third-fourth grade class! Itâ€™s easy to apply at our website or sign up for a parent visit, where parents can observe classrooms and talk with Sand Hill School staff.
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