Friday, June 10, 2016

Using All the Angles in Ninth Grade Geometry

The geometry balloon project described in this video was an exciting task that drew upon at least five core curriculum areas: surface area, volume, right triangle trigonometry, polygons and proportion.

The project certainly involved some 21st century technologies, as students used the multiple award-winning Geometer's Sketchpad software, and then transferred data to Inkscape, an illustration tool that can be used with our laser cutter. Students used the laser cutter to cut out all the polygonal panels to exact sizes.

The students then constructed the projects in the IdeaLab, and sometimes in the Upper School art room. This final step makes this a good example of the Strategic Vision goal to rethink space, as students divided their time between their regular classroom, the IdeaLab and the art room.

We encountered challenges along the way, but these enthusiastic ninth graders persevered to success.

Also, in this topic we again talked about the multicultural roots and examples of geometric art and architecture throughout the world, with particular mention of Islamic art, which focuses on geometric shapes with spectacular results, as in the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain.

Bruce MacCullough
Upper School Mathematics

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Beowulf Production Becomes a Literary Event

by Christine Pearsall

When I learned that the Middle School play for the spring of 2016 would be Sort of Beowulf: A Sort of Comedy, a parody of the famous English epic hero story, I immediately envisioned an opportunity to draw from my experiences as an English and theater teacher and link our divisional theatrical project to the Middle School English classroom.  Early in the process I teamed up with Eva Kay Noone, the production’s director, to share my ideas about how we could make this a literary event for the entire Middle School.

Together we worked with the Middle School English department to devise a curricular unit for grades 6-8 that would help students learn the story of Beowulf and prepare them to see the production. Students read an abbreviated version of the story and then sampled some of the epic verse. Some classes even listened to a portion of the story in Old English, gaining a sense of the language in its earliest form and an overall scope of how the language has evolved.  Each grade also completed an artistic extension in response to their study of the tale. For example, eighth graders used a menu of knight heraldry symbols to create personal coats of arms, which they designed to look like Viking shields. Seventh graders examined a graphic novel of the epic tale and then worked in partners to illustrate comic book sequences inspired by the great battle between Beowulf and the monster Grendel. Sixth graders created and colored murals of the action scenes from the adventure story.

While our cast and crew delved the most deeply into the story and play-making process during their weeks of rehearsal, many other students joined the experience the week of the show by helping display the dramaturgical work of the English classes in the Middle School lobby and Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts and by volunteering to usher for the show.  In an effort to give all Middle School students an opportunity to “see” the story they had been studying and to support their peers who were performing, we sponsored a pizza dinner for students on opening night, so they could stay at school and attend the performance. Over 35 students came to our pre-show event, with many others joining us in the Kurtz Center that evening with their families.

Thanks to our collaborative and willing English, visual arts and theater faculty, Sort of Beowulf: A Sort of Comedy truly became a literary event for all Middle School learners.  I am always delighted by how theatre can enliven the classroom, and how this particular art-form’s magic can bring to life important stories.

Part of the Content goal of Penn Charter’s Strategic Vision charges us to continue to teach canonical works like Shakespeare and Beowulf, but to find new ways to have our students access these age-old classics. The Beowulf project that the cast, crew and entire Middle School community engaged in is an example of how we designed an innovative and age-appropriate experience to enhance student learning. Projects of this nature are an example of how Penn Charter affords educators the opportunity to design and deliver innovative learning experiences and to “collaborate with students in a process of continuing revelation and joyful learning.”

Christine Pearsall is a Middle School English teacher. She has served as assistant director to Middle, Upper and all-school productions, and she is head coach of the Middle School girls soccer team.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Wellness: Mind, Body, Soul

Wellness: Mind, Body and Soul

Student wellness was one of the topics presented at Vision Forward NOW, a student-teacher showcase of initiatives undertaken since PC announced the new Strategic Vision in 2013.

In a live presentation at the event on May 5, Director of Middle School Wilson Felter explained his division's new advisory curriculum, which is designed to promote character, decision making, healthy choices, and more. Above, the video captures some highlights.

In a short video presentation, Lower School Counselor Lisa Reedich explained the power of mindfulness, showing how she coaches both students and teachers to practice mindfulness. During the Vision Forward NOW event, Reedich came on stage after the video and led the entire audience in a one-minute mindfulness exercise. Even with 300+ people in attendance, silence filled the Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts.

While both the advisory and mindfulness presentations touched on neuroscience and social-emotional well-being, the third element of the wellness segment focused on the brain in a very different way, highlighting Penn Charter's concussion management program.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Educating Fifth Graders about Social Justice


By Naveena Bembry, Fifth Grade Teacher

As a teacher in a Quaker school, I seek ways to empower students to have a voice and give meaning to the Quaker principle, “Let your life speak.” 

In fifth grade, we have actively explored Goal 1 of our Strategic Vision -- which calls upon us to deepen our identity as a Quaker school -- by nurturing Quaker values through the lens of social justice. In that process, we are building the kind of consciousness that will prepare students to fulfill our ultimate goal to educate students "to live lives that make a difference."

Inspired by the “I too am Harvard” campaign and similar movements on college campuses around the country and beyond, it struck me that the voices of young people are powerful and should be lifted up. With our fifth graders, we began the process of finding our voices by having conversations about social justice issues.

We analyzed texts and images that sparked conversations about social justice issues connected to ideas of power imbalances, layers of identity, socioeconomic status, gender roles, environmental stewardship and inequality. Our classroom provided a safe space for us to talk about diverse perspectives, microaggressions, stereotypes and the critical role that language plays in our interactions with each other. 

I shared images from the “I too am Harvard” style campaigns that have spread to many college campuses, and we analyzed the experiences that might have sparked a student to write a particular message like the one above: "Intelligence is not determined by race."

What do you stand for?

I was drawn to the simplicity of using a white board and a dry erase marker to write a deeply rooted belief or a profound message about an experience and so, we embarked on a journey to lift up the voices of fifth graders, asking each: What do you stand for? Each one of their messages was captured in a photo and the photos were displayed together for all to see.

There was quite a buzz when the photos went up, and one student remarked, “Wow, I never knew that my classmates had all of these opinions. These messages tell us so much about who we all are.” In that moment, it was clear to me that this class project provided a window for students to grow from their peers’ perspectives, convictions and personal experiences. With each message, we gained valuable insight into our fifth grade community.                                        

The simplicity of student voices

A sampling of student responses appears below.The beauty of this experience was the way that the simplicity of sharing student voices ignited our learning and expanded our thinking in so many powerful directions.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

Invisible Man: English Department Collaborates on eBook
by Erin Hughes, English Department Chair
Shahidah Kalam-Id DinSara MosesLisa Turner and I will be serving on a teacher advisory board for Adam Bradley, English professor at University of Colorado-Boulder and director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture. 
Bradley is a leading scholar on Ralph Ellison, and Ellison's longtime publisher, Random House, has asked Bradley to edit an "enhanced ebook of Ellison's Invisible Man.
Here's where we come in: PC teaches the book in eleventh grade. Having taught Invisible Man many times and knowing both the value and challenges of teaching the novel, we are working closely with Bradley to develop a mutual understanding of how best to share Ellison's work with high school students. It's an exciting collaboration, complete with discussions of Ellison's manuscripts, newspaper articles he used as the basis of vignettes in the book, editing decisions and more.

Students Lead Diversity Work

by Imana Legette, Director of Diversity and Inclusion
Student leadership is a key component of a Penn Charter education and enhancing learning and leadership opportunities for students is one of the strategies in Goal 2 of our Strategic Vision
We encourage students to take on leadership roles in all areas of their experiences. The students who attended the People of Color Conference/Student Diversity Leadership Conferences (SDLC) in Tampa this year have done just that.
The SDLC leaders created mini-workshops for Lower, Middle and Upper School faculty and led them during the division faculty meetings. Each workshop consisted of a silent movement activity. The faculty was asked to stand when they identified with a question posed by the student leaders. Each question was related to one of the eight core cultural identifiers: ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status (class). 
The second portion of the workshop consisted of an exercise called a “fishbowl” activity (pictured above with Lower School faculty, and below with Middle School). The SDLC students created questions that they would answer inside the “fishbowl,” and faculty had the opportunity to ask questions after listening to the conversation.
The students expressed that it is hard for the majority to understand what is like being a person of color and having to adjust/code-switch throughout the day. More specifically, one student said, “I can’t walk into the school and leave my culture and experiences at home. I need you to recognize my differences and allow for conversations that may be uncomfortable for you. That allows me to trust you and feel safe in your classroom. I have to deal with race every day, most white people don’t have to think about their race if they don’t want too. I don’t have that option.” The conversation was engaging and enlightening for both the students and faculty. 
This year we also introduced three new affinity groups designed and led by students: SALSA (Spanish and Latin Student Association), ASA (Asian Student Association) and the Social Justice Club. Each group presents issues to the student body that matter to them. 
  • During Hispanic Month this fall, SALSA led an assembly and advisory activity on the various cultures within the Spanish and Latino/a populations. They discussed the stereotypes associated with each group and demystified several characteristics associated with the group. 
  • The Asian Students Association will lead the Movies that Matter series in May. The movie Vincent Who? is based on the true story of an Asian American killed in 1982 in Detroit for allegedly “taking jobs away from Americans.” The murder ignited the Asian American civil rights movements. 
  • The Social Justice Club is a forum for students interested in putting action to issues that are currently in the news. They have discussed and supported the #BlackLivesMatter movement as well as issues around the environment, including what is currently happening in Flint, Mich. 
Many other groups such as SAGA (Straight and Gay Alliance) and BSU (Black Student Union) have led activities that cross over to other divisions. SAGA will lead the Day of Silence on April 22. BSU led a Black History Month assembly for the Middle School during their morning assembly that introduced the song and history of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In the spring, students from all groups will lead workshops in the Middle School as part of the Middle School Day of Service/Diversity. Each grade level will focus on identity development, bullying and the social identifiers. The workshops are completely run and designed by students.
Issues of equity and justice are not just for teachers and parents. Students have a desire to lead and participate in the work and conversations that will make Penn Charter and our global communities more inclusive community.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Laser Cutter Advances Physics Project

The addition of a laser cutter to the Penn Charter Idea Lab has allowed for a drastic change in an intro physics bridge project this year.

Over the last 20 years, my introductory physics classes have designed and built traditional truss bridges using wood sticks and glue. The students have worked in groups to design bridges and spent a couple of weeks building them before the bridges were "loaded to breaking" to find their strength. While students learned about forces and bridge strength this way, due to the time required to build the bridges they were unable to take this knowledge and use it to create an improved design.

The use of the laser cutter is an example of Goal 2 of our Strategic Vision and how the introduction of new technology can maximize student learning, engagement and success.

With the laser cutter, students spend ~20 minutes to take the bridge from design to final product instead of two weeks. The addition of the new technology has allowed the classes to build approximately four times as many bridges as they would have with the old technique, and they have had the opportunity to be far more creative with their designs. Less time with wood sticks and glue and more time to create designs, test them, and then create additional bridges based off the results.

This iterative process gives students a chance to explore different ideas. Some designs may “fail,” but this is where the real learning occurs. Looking at the “failures” of their own designs and those of other class members allows students to determine the critical factors for a reliable bridge. Observing and learning from the solutions of others is also a fundamental part of the engineering design process.

The addition of the new technology has allowed the classes to build approximately four times as many bridges as they would have with the old technique, and they have had the opportunity to be far more creative with their designs while still working towards making the strongest possible bridges.  As students have refined their designs some students have managed to double their original strength-to-weight ratios.  In the future students will be able to run multiple tests of the same design and to compare a bridge model using different materials to get a deeper understanding of variability and material properties.

Tim Clarke, Upper School Science