Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Field Guide to Campus Trees

You could say that the idea for Penn Charter’s eBook, A Field Guide to Campus Trees, grew organically.

The project, a student-published, multimedia electronic book now available on iTunes, sprang from the initial collaboration of art, science and technology teachers seeking to combine the disciplines of science, mathematics and fine arts, and expose students to 21st century tools for expression and content creation.

With the support of a Penn Charter VITAL grant, the teachers explored how Upper School students could create media-rich resources that could be shared with younger students. The first product of that VITAL collaboration was The Philadelphia Bestiary, an eBook about animals that was rich with artwork, podcasts and video, all created by ninth grade students based on their research and visits to animals at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The Bestiary project was such a success in interdisciplinary learning and self-publishing that teachers looked for another theme with some of the same elements. For their second venture, they took a look at the ninth grade science curriculum, specifically the plant genetics project in Biology. And they took a look out the window.

Penn Charter’s beautiful 47-acre campus provided an accessible, rich source for A Field Guide to Campus Trees, a second eBook, now also available on iTunes. The project made connections among plant genetics, weather patterns, mathematics, digital animation, design, audio recording and the fine arts.

The completed eBook, which students worked on for their ninth grade year, is a series of photographs, drawings, cyanotypes, radio plays, and one-minute animations with sound scores that illustrate each tree and the weather it experienced in a 24-hour period. For this enormous, multilayered project, students used Toon Boom Animation, GarageBand, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere.

The ninth grade student authors, the Class of 2017, began with a visit to Awbury Arboretum, where they explored elements of art and design through botanical and landscape studies. They made sketches, relief rubbings, photographs and sound recordings. They explored color, light and shadow, texture, form, positive and negative space, and photographic concepts such as depth of field and camera angles.

Back at PC, students each chose a tree on campus. They studied, identified and photographed the leaves, bark, buds and fruits; made drawings; and created graphic designs and cyanotypes for the eBook.

Science teachers showed them how to collect weather data from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration website. Snow, rain, wind, sunrise – it’s all recorded hourly by longitude and latitude. So the students determined the longitude and latitude of each tree and translated 24 hours of weather data into 720 frames of digital animation, which equals one minute of animation. (Yes, there’s math, too!) Think of it as a creative weather report.

Students wrote and recorded sound scores for the short films, using found objects, instruments and help from friends who performed the music, along with digital sound effects.

They also wrote and performed a radio play for each tree – an imaginative voice-over as if the tree is telling its story.

Grace Eberwine wrote a radio play for a white paper birch along the bus lane: “... I cherish every breeze that comes my way. I also enjoy seeing all the little kids that wait for their busses at the end of the day. Yet they always pick at my bark. They don’t do that to any of my sisters, though, so why me? It really hurts when they do that, and it takes time to grow back.”

The teachers have moved on to other innovative projects, many of which are informed by what they experienced with the two eBook projects. The student authors, now seniors, will graduate this June, on the back patio, near the American Beech.

Enjoy the free download of the Class of 2017 eBook, A Field Guide to Campus Trees, available on iTunes.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Ethics Bowl: Civil Civic Discourse

A rookie team of Upper School students competed impressively in the regional Ethics Bowl, advancing to the quarterfinals of the competition among students from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The National High School Ethics Bowl NHSEB competition focuses on 16 case studies, released in September, which the students can research and consider. However, they are not permitted to have any notes during the actual competition and they don’t know in advance which case will come into play in any particular round. As examples, one of the case studies dealt with virtual and augmented reality and another dealt with white privilege.  

The students gathered at Villanova University on Saturday, Nov. 19, and Penn Charter went 2-1 in the morning competition, losing to Radnor but victorious over Wilmington Friends and Camden Catholic High School. Those two wins put PC in the quarterfinals, and Penn Charter finished seventh overall of 18 teams. A great job for the first time out! 

Upper School social studies teacher Ed Marks is the faculty advisor and coach of the team, and he also was a first-timer at the Ethics Bowl. “We were the only rookie team,” Marks said. “I felt a bit like the blind leading the blind. Fortunately, the Penn Charter kids took ownership of the day and totally distinguished themselves.”

The (NHSEB) promotes respectful, supportive, and rigorous discussion of ethics among high school students nationwide. “It was gratifying to see high school students engage in civil discourse around ethical dilemmas,” Marks said. “There’s hope for the future!"

Advancing critical thinking skills, one of the goals of our Strategic Vision, is at the heart of this new activity. The Ethics Bowl competition enhances learning and leadership opportunities for Penn Charter students and also syncs with Goal 1 of our Strategic Vision, which calls on us to "model and teach integrity, truth-telling, conflict resolution and ethical choices.”

Marks said it also advances excellence in teaching, Goal 3 of that Strategic Vision. "I do consider myself a life-long learner and this activity helped me to scratch that itch and also collaborate with students."

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A New Stop on the Washington D.C. Field Trip

This year, the eighth grade added an exciting stop to its annual trip to Washington, D.C., stepping through the doors of the brand-new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The museum had been open to the public for only four days when Penn Charter entered to tour its unrivaled documentation of African American life, history and culture. Early critics have praised not only its collection but the architecture of the bronze-colored structure – wrapped with lattice work that pays homage to ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans – and the symbolic importance of its position on the National Mall, between the White House and the Washington Monument.

“The biggest takeaway for our students,” social studies teacher Josh Oberfield said, “was understanding the importance of being recognized as a major influence, a building block – literally builders – of this country, and appreciating that.”

PC eighth graders visit Washington, D.C. each year, touring tour the U.S. Capitol, Library of Congress, Supreme Court, various monuments and assorted Smithsonian Museums. They have light-hearted fun, too, including a trip to the bowling alley.

Back in the summer, when she began planning this year’s trip, Middle School mathematics teacher and eighth grade advisor Jen Ketler wanted her PC students to be among the first to visit the new museum. Combining patience and persistence, Ketler visited the museum website daily so she could swoop in at just the right moment to secure tickets for all 84 eighth graders.

Imana Legette, PC director of diversity and inclusion and a Middle School social studies teacher, said adult visitors complemented the PC students for their attentiveness and respect.

“They really took to heart what they were seeing. No matter the race and ethnicity of the student, they felt the power of the museum,” Legette said. “Adult strangers commented that they were so glad young people were there and taking it so seriously, because they had lived it.”

The Nation, in a story about the import of the new museum, explains how the it has been added to the itinerary of the traditional field trip to the nation's capitol for many schools – and highlights the PC students' visit to make the case. 

Another meaningful addition to the trip included, on the first night, service work with PC Overseer Mark Hecker OPC ’99 for On the Same Page UNITED; the project supports juveniles incarcerated in adult prisons by sharing their poetry and short stories with individuals outside prison. PC students read and then added – writing in colorful ink on the page – praise, encouragement and contextual comments for the incarcerated boys.

Viewed through the lens of the new Strategic Vision, both experiences advance the goal to deepen our identity and actions as a Friends school, and our students' understanding of Quaker values of equity and justice.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Inspiration, Intention for Our Quaker Practices

by Megan Kafer

As a birthright Quaker, I often have a hard time thinking of how I know about Quaker concepts. Growing up in and amongst Friends communities, Quaker ways were “caught” not necessarily “taught,” as goes the phrase. When Brooke Giles and I were granted two days this summer to work on a Worship Sharing Guide for Lower School, I was eager to dive into the history of Worship Sharing, as it was something I knew nothing about.

Rachel Davis DuBois
My research sent me down an unexpected path, leading to a figure in Quaker history I had never met before. It started with a 1969 article in the Friends Journal about Claremont (Calif.) Meeting’s experience testing out a new theory in building community. The group was inspired by an April 1963 Friends Journal article called “Quaker Dialoguing” written by Rachel Davis DuBois. Following the guidelines set by Dubois, Meeting members met once a week for six weeks to consider “how to raise the level of spirit in our meeting for worship.” The article raved about the increased feeling of togetherness and quality of relationship between members after the sessions ended. This idea of individuals sharing and noticing the differences and commonalities among experiences was the spark that led to the practice of Worship Sharing in Friends Meetings.

Once I finished researching the basics of Worship Sharing, my attention diverted to Rachel Davis DuBois. Intrigued by DuBois’ theories about community building through discussions about our differences, I began reading more about DuBois’ history. Who was this woman who seemed to be so ahead of her time? What was her background, education, religion? I found more articles, papers and pamphlets by DuBois, all of which were discussing exactly what the Lower School Quakerism Committee has been looking for in redesigning our Worship Sharing. How can a diverse community create a space for all (young and old) to have a voice that is encouraged, respected and reflected?

When she began her career in the 1930’s, DuBois had little to no example about how this could be done. She did, however, have her faith and practice as a Quaker. Counter to the philosophy of the time that promoted ethnic assimilation in schools, DuBois was among the few educators preaching that differences should be celebrated. Over a long and distinguished teaching career that included schools in New York City, Chicago and West Germany (on behalf of the U.S. State Department), as well as relationships with thinkers and leaders like Margaret Mead, Jane Addams, George Washington Carver and W.E.B. DuBois (no relation), DuBois developed a teaching technique called Group Conversations. This widely copied technique uses a common experience for people to learn about each other's customs. In the late 60s, DuBois adapted these “Conversations” for Friends and began touring the country sharing the technique.

Learning about DuBois as a Quaker, a woman, an educator and a pioneer in interfaith and interracial dialogue, I felt inspired to begin our work forming a Worship Sharing Guide for Lower School. Our hope is that the guide will act as a resource for faculty, who lead the monthly Worship Sharing Groups, and that as a Lower School community, we hold an intentional, sacred space for our voices to be heard, understood and treasured.

Megan Kafer teaches pre-kindergarten at Penn Charter.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Learning Experiences Beyond the Classroom

American Studies Academic Walks through West Philly


For students in Upper School American Studies, exploration of the novel Disgruntled by Asali Solomon broke free of the traditional classroom, expanding to the streets of West Philadelphia.  

For two years in a row, each class of American Studies students read Disgruntled during the summer and the author visited the class in the fall to participate in discussions of the book. Solomon, who grew up in West Philadelphia, “elevates West Philly to be a character in the novel,” said co-teacher Lee Payton. “We asked our students to explore their neighborhoods, to investigate it through writing, and their investigations are a springboard to discuss Disgruntled.”

This September, the class walked through sections of West Philadelphia to experience locations Solomon describes in the novel. They checked out Koch’s Deli and the Green Line CafĂ© at 44th and Locust, Henry Lea Elementary a few blocks west, and walked toward and away from the University of Pennsylvania campus to observe the physical, architectural and demographic changes as they walked. 

“The walks are a physical manifestation of what we do in the classroom,” Payton said. “Seeing the neighborhoods, what is there versus not there in each one, helps us discuss different perspectives, what [our late colleague] Cheryl Irving and I termed ‘conflicting realities.’”

“It’s important for students to have academic experiences beyond the classroom,” Payton said.

Co-teacher Shahidah Kalam Id-In said exploring a neighborhood can be a learning experience just as valuable as a classroom lesson. “We want our students to experience learning uncoupled from that," she said.

American Studies is an exercise in interdisciplinary teaching and learning. English texts support the history and current events taught as part of social studies, and classroom discussions of those texts center around their cultural influences and implications. 

“The focus of the course is to examine American culture through the lens of literature and history,” Kalam Id-In said. “Using critical inquiry methods from both disciplines allows us to develop a ‘reading’ of the world that impacts the intellectual and personal lives of our students.”

Monday, October 3, 2016

A VITAL, New Ninth Grade Seminar Series

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Ninth grade vector designs that were laser cut in the PC IdeaLab
Karen Campbell, Judith Hill, Michael Moulton and Debbie White worked this summer with funding from VITAL to create the new first-quarter ninth grade seminar series that combines disciplines to help all ninth graders become super savvy with learning skills, wellness topics, research ability and technology use.


Tech Savvy
Working on their technology skills, students have moved from setting up their school laptop for wireless and printing, to accessing the PC Hub, to creating increasingly more complex schoolwork documents in a cloud-based document system. Their latest work included collaborating online to create scalable vector graphics (SVG) files to send to the PC IdeaLab’s new laser cutter.


Wellness Savvy


A lesson on Stress Management begins with a high-pressure/low-stake, single-elimination tournament of Slap-Jack. This icebreaking activity does a great job getting students to experience some of the physiological signs of stress (shaky hands, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms…). The discussions continue with why we experience stress, identifying signs and positive healthy ways to cope with stressful situations. "Slap Jack Video"


Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk  “How to Make Stress Your Friend” challenges students to view stress as a good thing and to trust themselves that they can handle life’s challenges.


Learning Skill Savvy
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Students planning a week in the life of a PC ninth grader.
The foundation to this portion of the class is understanding how we learn using the latest research on adolescent development and 21st century learning. Using surveys, reflection and critical research, each of the students will have a clear sense of who they are as a learner and what they need in order to maximize their potential in school. Once students have this information, we move on to practical tools and habits for success. Sessions on planning, organization tools and tricks (tech and no-tech) and goal-setting start the quarter and we will round out our time with note-taking strategies and effective studying. In each meeting there is time for planning as well as questions on anything from navigating the Hub to managing positive teacher/student relationships.


Research Savvy
In October, students will explore the library and build research skills that will come into play in their coursework in late fall. They will participate in a library scavenger hunt where they will physically and virtually explore our library resources (people, as well as materials) and learn how to utilize the library and explore resources beyond the library walls. Students will conduct research on the topics they are learning about in the health and wellness component of the class, learn how to take good notes in the NoodleTools research app, and how to properly cite ideas and images that are not their own. Students will familiarize themselves with library-curated material that is authoritative, current and non-biased, as well as learn how to evaluate the material they turn up in their favorite research tool of choice, Google! They will utilize the database Teen Health and Wellness, a new library resource written specifically for the teenage audience, which was added for this course, and for student use throughout their time at PC.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Creating Music: Theory and Practice

We collaborated this summer to create musical instruments from basic materials to study the construction and acoustical properties of these instruments, an initial step in studying with our students the physics of sound. Our work was funded by a grant from VITAL – a program created as part of our Strategic Vision that is designed to provide resources for teachers to work cross-curricularly over the summer to pursue areas about which they are passionate

We are passionate about science and music, and this work was a chance to look at the relationship between math, science and music by using PVC, wood, electronics, 3D printers and other materials to construct electric guitars, ukuleles, flutes, djembes and a trombone. These instruments were made with traditional and nontraditional methods in part to take advantage of the tools in the IdeaLab (also a outgrowth of the Strategic Vision) and develop techniques that students can use in the IdeaLab to safely create instruments of their own.

This fall we will study the physics of the sound from the instruments we made to help show students how the instruments create their unique tones. Students in the Small Band will have the opportunity to create their own instruments and to study the sound that they produce.

We also are working on a course proposal for a future semester-long course to explore in depth the physics of music, music theory and instrument design.  The combination of science, music and technology in a project-based course fits nicely with the Strategic Vision goals for continued growth of academic opportunities for students.

Along with the benefits we hope this provides for our students and the school, it was also just plain fun to spend time together building instruments.  We had our share of “failures” with instruments we created that didn’t do what we intended, but we learned as much from these results as from the instruments that worked as envisioned. 

We hope to pass some of the fun we had along to our students as well as other students and adults in the community who love music as much as we do.

Brad Ford, Upper School Band and Performing Arts

Tim Clarke, Upper School Physics and Robotics