Friday, December 11, 2015

Antiquated Knowledge? Cutting-Edge Technology!

Students in Costume Design, an elective in the Upper School Performing Arts theater sequence, began their work by developing basic hand sewing and machine sewing techniques and went on to demonstrate their understanding of basting, hemming, tacking and the whip stitch by assembling an old-fashioned handwork sampler. They practiced ironing and pinning techniques as well as machine straight stitching, back stitching and cornering, and applied those skills in the last stages of the sampler construction. Finally, they decorated the samplers with a variety of fasteners: two- and four-eyed buttons, shank buttons, snaps and hooks.

What does this have to do with Penn Charter’s Strategic Vision?

To put this learning in context, technology such as conductive thread used in clothing will still require the manual skill and dexterity necessary to thread a needle, make a knot, and stitch.
Major designers are currently using giant laser cutters for more precision and less fabric waste when laying out and cutting their patterns for ready-to-wear fashion. The Costume Design course helps students bridge a gap between cutting-edge technology and what some may think of as antiquated knowledge. All of the skills enumerated here can be categorized as life skills and are directly connected to the second goal in our Strategic Vision: "Advance our educational program to provide students with the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in a complex and changing world."

For the final "Project Runway" style assignment, students worked in collaborative groups and chose between Reinventing a Fantasy Icon or a Recycled Super Hero/Heroine. The fantasy icons this fall were: Rapunzel as a hippie in the 1960s; Ursula from The Little Mermaid in a steam punk 1950s prom dress; and Nala from The Lion King in a 1930s African-inspired dress. From the wide variety of materials, to the creative problem-solving and innovation needed as they worked their way through the design, this project required planning, risk taking, grit, flexibility in thinking, and innovation.

The group that chose the Recycled Super Heroine challenge upcycled unusual materials such as orange construction fencing from our recent new stadium building project, corrugated cardboard, netting, scrap fabric, wire and plastic containers. All the groups created inspiration boards and sketches for their designs, giving special attention to the costume design elements of color, texture, pattern, light, line and shape before they acquired materials and fabrics for the construction phase.

It is my hope that some of these students will present their designs at the Arts Portfolio Night, hosted by the Performing and Visual Arts and Design departments on Jan. 21, 2016.

Looking Forward: Toward the end of the first trimester, as they were constructing their final projects for the course, the students moved to the new IdeaLab. This new space provided a unique opportunity to spread out and work at tables the height of an actual cutting table found in a costume or tailor's shop. Next year, I plan to have the class make several removable tabletops that will be padded and covered in muslin for use as pinning and cutting tables.

Eva Kay Noone
Performing Arts, Theater

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Past Wisdom + Future Possibilities

Silhouette.pngAll ninth graders at Penn Charter take a study skills class in the beginning of the year to be able to use their laptop for school, do advanced research, and stay organized -- essential skills for navigating their step-up to meet the increased rigor of high school. I teach technology skills by assigning projects students complete to show me they are able to do the kinds of things teachers will ask them to do with their laptops in 9th-12th grade classes. They learn key skills completing their projects.
We start with the basics. I assign small projects to make sure students can access their school accounts and post assignments online. Since teachers are assigning creative work that requires students to take and edit pictures, I needed a new project to introduce those tools and move students beyond the basics. Some summer work with the school’s new IdeaLab laser cutter sparked an idea.

Experimenting with the equipment, it became clear that most projects would take too long for the whole grade to complete, but each student could laser cut a simple face outline from wood. Before the campfire-like sweet scent of laser’d wood drifted from freshly cut project samples, the outline tests reminded me of something from Quaker history...silhouettes.

While traditional portraits were seen as expressions of vanity emphasizing a person’s looks and social status over their spirit and equality with others, Quakers in the 18th and 19th centuries turned away from paintings towards simple silhouette profile cut-outs as inexpensive ways to regard loved ones. In a way, the use of paper silhouettes hundreds of years ago mirrors online social networking practices of today. Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library puts it like this...
“[Quaker] Silhouettes were given or exchanged to further cement social relationships, similarly to the action of “friending” someone on Facebook today. Some silhouettes were mounted and framed; others were simply slipped into the family Bible or another favorite book. Interestingly, the majority of silhouette albums produced in Philadelphia were created by Quakers seeking to literally bind their community together.”

When the school year started, students in the Class of 2019 used their laptop cameras to take a profile picture of themselves and do a multi-step process using Pixlr -- a powerful, cloud-based image editing tool -- to turn their profiles into a simple silhouette. 

While silhouettes looked out of the past, they were perfect modern material for the high-tech vector tracing capabilities of a software package called inkscape. The software turned the contours of the faces into the mathematical line descriptions needed to direct the cutting beam of our new Full Spectrum CO2 Laser Cutter.

Students learned some important ways to use their school laptop for class projects, got a look into the future of computer controlled fabrication, and learned a little bit about our Quaker past, all in one project. The wood likenesses are heading home to be shared with loved-ones.

Michael Moulton
edTech Director

What’s that Part? Inquiry in the Classroom

I recently put together resources and stories to share for a presentation on embedding inquiry across the curriculum. When trying to come up with a definition of inquiry, after collecting responses from colleagues, I found it helpful to identify what inquiry is NOT. I kept coming back to the idea that inquiry is not teachers asking students questions teachers already can answer. Instead, it’s providing students with open-ended exploration driven by their curiosities.

So what might this look like in a Lower School classroom?

During first grade technology class, we decided to explore some of the different parts of our Chromebooks and figure out how the parts came together to make a whole. Students first brainstormed some parts that they thought a Chromebook might need in order to work. Then we took one apart to see what the inside looked like. We discovered screens, batteries, screws, wires and lots of other parts, too. 

Our next job was to take a closer look at two "mystery parts." We recorded our observations and made some predictions about what we thought these "parts" could be and how they might work together to make a whole. We were excited to discover that they were LED lights and batteries and that when we put the parts together in a certain way, we were able to make the bulb light up!

Christy Brennan, Lower School Technology Coordinator

Friday, October 30, 2015

In Time for Halloween: Mystery Cemetery

Working collaboratively as "archaeologists" to make
detailed observations about a mock burial excavation. 
Sixth grade social studies students recently left their classrooms and descended into the depths of the Old Squash Court to engage in the “Mystery Cemetery.” This mini-unit was adapted from a unit designed by the Archaeological Institute of America and enabled students to become archaeologists who were brought in to a mock burial excavation to use their expertise to draw conclusions about the site. 

As an introduction to this activity, students completed a homework assignment that asked them to dig around in their kitchen garbage, catalog and categorize the contents, and think about conclusions that archaeologists might make about their family based on their trash. Albeit a messy task, this activity introduced students to the process that archaeologists and historians use to learn about the past. 

In the “Mystery Cemetery,” students worked collaboratively to make detailed observations—about the skeletons, the coffins that they were buried in, the artifacts with each body, and the locations of the bodies. From these observations, students were challenged to find patterns to draw conclusions about the age, gender and social status of each of the 15 burials in the cemetery. This included an “odd area” with three burials that did not fit the logic of the main cemetery, forcing students to add some creative flair as they drew conclusions about those bodies. They shared their findings in a journal article that summarized the process they engaged in, explained how they drew their conclusions, and reflected on the lessons learned from the project. 

This hands-on experience provided students with a sense of the work of archaeologists and historians in terms of using what is left behind as clues to learn about the past. This will lay the foundation for our study of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China this year since much of what is known about those societies is based on artifacts, including burial sites.

Perhaps more important, though, this mini-unit was a lesson about dealing with uncertainty. Students were challenged, and sometimes frustrated, with not having a clear path to draw conclusions—or finding a “right answer” since one did not exist. Students turned to each other and to different ways of thinking to complete the task, which is the kind of collaborative and innovative effort that we continually try to ignite in our students. 

Jim Pilkington
English, Social Studies, Middle School Service Learning Coordinator

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Life's Priorities: A Metaphorical Parfait

Rocks, pebbles, sand, water.
Which do you add first?

What message could mixing the list of materials below create (besides a mess) for a middle school student?

  • a plastic jar
  • two mid-sized rocks
  • a bag of pebbles
  • a handful amount of sand
  • a bottle of water

In Penn Charter’s Middle School earlier this fall, the mixture created a metaphorical, earthy parfait example about how students could reflect upon and gain perspective about priorities in their lives. Thinking about the important parts vs. smaller problems/concerns in their lives, and making sure they are making the important items a priority, were also outcomes of a lesson given from the new Middle School Advisory curriculum instituted this year. The goals of the lesson were met with flying colors. 

After a dramatic mixing in front of the room, advisors asked students to share out loud what they believed to be the point of this exercise. Some ideas shared were…

“The lesson was that even when a person’s life is full, one could always squeeze in more tasks."

“The lesson was that we must be patient and allow problems to settle in our life.”

Then advisors explained that, had we not placed the big rocks in the container first, the big stones would not have fit in the space later on.  We made the “big” rocks the priority.  

Then, as a closing reflection exercise, advisors asked students to journal in their e-portfolios answering the following question, “Why could this be an important process to use when dealing with typical middle school issues or problems that may crop up in life?” 

Josh Oberfield
Social Studies, Middle School Student Life Coordinator

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Student Addresses Educators at TECHedADVIS


PC senior Andy Nguyen presented to more than 350 school teachers and administrators at the TECHedADVIS conference in Newark, Del., on Oct. 9, 2015. His talk shared how William Penn’s imperative to “do good with what thou hast,” plus help from his teachers and his growing set of tech skills enabled him to serve Philadelphia’s Widener Memorial School, a public school for students with physical and medical disabilities.

viewAs one of two students chosen to speak at this conference featuring a lineup of national educational experts, Andy shared work his 10th grade Quakerism class did at Widener and the problem he was left with afterwards.  While the Quakerism class ended, Widener’s need for help continued. Andy told how teachers encouraged him to offer his video production tech talents to Widener after the class was over, resulting in a consciousness-raising movie about the school.

Preparing for the talk wasn’t an easy thing to do for a busy 12th grader (see his tweet below from earlier in the week) or for me, his conference faculty mentor. However, it was an honor for me to be of help.

I was on a panel of edTech planners at the conference and, when asked about Penn Charter’s mission, I pointed to Andy in the audience and said “There’s our mission...It’s Andy. It’s helping students live lives that make a difference as Andy is doing.” Every now and then I get to look up from the daily work and catch a glimpse of Penn Charter achieving our timeless mission.

Michael Moulton, Director of Educational Technology

Friday, October 23, 2015

Drone Camera Captures Visual Arts Choreography

As part of PC's ninth grade Foundation Arts curriculum exploring line in visual arts, design and movement, students planned and carried out choreography -- and filmed from above with a drone. 

They first worked out the choreography collaboratively in drawings on paper, rehearsed, and memorized their steps and moves.

On Day 1, the drone captured their work exploring gestural line (embedded below and uploaded to YouTube). On Day 2, students explored mechanical line.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Penn Charter's Center for Public Purpose has been working with the non-profit SPARKmakers for the last two years to bring a curriculum called "Designing Electronic Gadgets and Playful Structures" to students in partner schools and non-profit agencies throughout Philadelphia. 

So far, Penn Charter student interns have worked with students at St. James School, Widener Memorial School, the Center for Returning Citizens and are now engaged in a nine-week program at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries in Tioga.

Students in these partner schools and agencies learn how to use a solder, work with circuits, and repurpose old electronics to make simple robots and fun mechanical things. Projects have included a boat powered with a propeller, a car powered with motors, a flashlight and the design of a playground. This will be followed by a second level in design problem-solving and fabrication skills. 

 Jim Ballengee, Founder, Center for Public Purpose

The Head, the Heart and Spaces In-Between

By Travis Larrabee, Director of Upper School
(exerpted from remarks to parents, Sept. 2015)

I recently read an article by philosophy professor Simon Critchley that resonated with me on many levels, but especially in my role as a teacher and administrator in an independent, Quaker school.

In “There Is No Theory of Everything,” published in the New York Times, Critchley shares his memories of one of his most influential teachers, a philosopher named Frank Cioffi. Critchley writes:
"Behind every new student stands a teacher. This is someone who opened the student’s eyes and ears to the possibility of the life of the mind that they had perhaps imagined but scarcely believed was within their reach. Someone who, through the force of their example, animated a desire to read more, study more and know more. Someone in whom the student heard something fascinating or funny or just downright strange. Someone who heard something significant in what the student said in a way that gave them confidence and self-belief. Such teachers are the often unknown and usually unacknowledged (and underpaid) heroes of the world of education.  … It is also very often the case that the really good teachers don’t write or don’t write that much. They are not engaged in ‘research,’ whatever that benighted term means with respect to the humanities. They teach. They talk. Sometimes they even listen and ask questions."
We have all had one or several such teachers – men and women who made such an impact that we can recall not only their faces, but their words, their lessons, their mannerisms, their lectures and their idiosyncrasies. Our school has an alumni base like nothing I have ever seen at the secondary level. People love this place, and they keep coming back to visit. They come back to see the campus and to meet with each other. But the source of their connection to the school and the experiences they had here are the people – the faculty and staff who opened their eyes, taught them a lesson, let them fail and then picked them back up. There is a direct correlation between the strength of Penn Charter and the strength of its faculty.

The second part of Critchley’s piece that has stayed with me relates more directly to the title “There Is No Theory of Everything.” According to Critchley, Cioffi rejected and struggled with the notion of “scientism,” the idea that natural sciences can explain everything right down to the details of our subjective and social lives. Scientism contends that the gap between how we experience the world and the scientific explanation of the material forces that constitute nature could be closed with a “theory of everything.”

Cioffi rejected this notion. He said there is no theory of everything. Yes, there is a gap between the natural and society, but it cannot and should not be filled. He believed there is a proper time and place for the scientific explanation of natural phenomena. According to Critchley, Cioffi saw that there are times when we don’t need causation or even correlation. Instead, there are times when what we need is further description, elucidation and illumination. There is no theory of everything. The point, then, is not to seek an answer to the meaning of life, but to continue to ask the question to see what can be revealed.

This is what brought me right here to what we do at Penn Charter. We help students to find the answers and the solutions, but more importantly, we teach them, urge them, and, yes, antagonize them to ask the questions – even questions for which there are not answers. Great questions are just as important as “correct answers” – maybe even more important.

At the risk of oversimplification, I feel Critchley (and perhaps Cioffi) was trying to reveal the importance of the head and the heart, and, I would argue, the spaces in between. Call it what you will – a spirit, a soul, an Inner Light.

Because we focus not just on what we know, but how we know it …because we reflect on not just what we feel but why we feel it …because we reach decisions by consensus…because we engage in active reflection … because we believe in the idea of continuing revelation … because we stand on the core principles of integrity, equality, simplicity, and stewardship, Quaker schools are able to move beyond providing a rigorous liberal arts education. We are able to explore, together, the head, the heart, and those really important spaces in between. This happens in classrooms, in assemblies, on the fields, and on stage. This happens quite often in this room, where we have Meeting for Worship. It happens in moments of group decision making, and in moments of quiet, intentional reflection.

So as you move from class to class on this Back to School Night, and as you interact with your sons and daughters and their teachers throughout the year, I encourage you to think about the influence of teachers in all our lives and about the unique gifts that a Quaker education can provide.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Returning to Ridge

By Brooke Giles
"There’s nothing more rewarding to me than to see the absolute joy a child gets from creating."
Two summers ago, I traveled to Ridge, Jamaica, to teach art at a summer literacy camp. Ridge is located in the mountains of Southwest Jamaica, many miles from the manicured resorts of Montego Bay and Negril. Brooke Riley started Friends of the Ridge United (“FOR U”) as a physical therapy outreach program for the rural poor. In 2007, FORU raised money to build a community center that
FORU Founder Brooke Riley
now houses various community programs, including a four-week summer literacy program for children of all ages. Since my first visit in 2012, the children of Ridge have remained an inspiration, and I hoped to have the opportunity to return.

This past spring, Robert Gray OPC '55 generously endowed the Gray Fund to facilitate professional development and summer opportunities for Penn Charter’s visual arts teachers. I proposed a two-week return trip to Jamaica to teach art and to facilitate the permanent integration of art into the curriculum. I saw my trip as an opportunity for me personally and for the entire Penn Charter community. The project reflects Penn Charter's mission of social justice and volunteerism by using our significant resources and expertise in service of those who lack similar opportunities. Through my trip I was able to spread enthusiasm for art, encourage creativity in children’s lives, and expand the role of art in the education system. With an emphasis on equality and social justice, my trip enabled the practical application of Quaker values and the Strategic Vision’s goal for deepening our identity and actions as a Friends school.

View to Ridge from car on hill
Thanks to the Gray Fund, I flew to Jamaica on July 11. As I departed, I was excited by the prospect of seeing the children I remembered so fondly - Dejanae, Romario, Ojay, Brandon - and many others who made the experience stay with me for years. I was also a little anxious. On my last visit, I was one of many volunteers from the states. This time I was on my own - the only non-local at the camp. Consistent with Brooke Riley’s goal of empowering the community to run the literacy camp without the need for volunteers, a local school teacher, Mrs. Salmon, had taken charge of the curriculum, teachers, and organization of the camp.

Seeing Brooke again at the airport was like being reunited with a sister whom I deeply admire and respect. We started our three-hour “drive” to Ridge (more of a “bump” really), winding along the coast, passing the beaches of Montego Bay, then the cliffs of Negril, weaving in and out of bustling towns like Alligator Pond, then finally climbing the hills to Ridge.

On Monday, I walked to the community center for my first day at the camp, it was as if I had never left. I remembered the cut-throughs, landmarks, and people along the way. When the community center came into view, I was overcome by a rush of excitement. It was full of activity: people gathered all around; children playing on the swings and basketball court; Mrs. Anna’s convenience shop was full.

Like most structures in this part of Jamaica, the community center is one-story, concrete, and built slightly into a hill. There are two classrooms and a kitchen in the main structure. Three additional open-air classrooms are attached to the outside walls of the building. Zinc roofs and tarps keep the sun and rain at bay.  

I spent the first day getting reacquainted with the camp, meeting the teachers and the children. I remembered roughly half of the staff and children from my last visit, and I was thrilled to find that most remembered me! Camp starts at 8:30 with a morning devotion, which begins with singing and ends with a prayer for the day. After devotion, the children and teachers break into groups. This year, there were 35 kids distributed among four levels. Level 1 was mostly five year olds (“the babies” as the Jamaican teachers call them). Levels 2-4 included children of various ages from 7-12, depending on their reading level. Mrs. Salmon scheduled me to work with the Level 1 class from 8:30 to break (snack time at 10), then with Levels 2-4 after break until dismissal (10:15-12:30 or when lunch is ready).

 Level 1, indoor classroom
Level 2, outdoor classroom

Left and above, Level 4 students making bracelets  

After the first day, Mrs. Salmon realized that the children wanted more art and she told me to ignore the schedule. She instructed me to give the children all the time they needed for their projects and to move freely between the classrooms. In the first few mornings, I arrived to a flood of questions from the kids and teachers: “What art are we making today?” “Will you come to my class first?”  I set a rotating schedule to determine my first class of the day and made sure that everyone got to try all of the projects.

Just like my last visit, the children's enthusiasm for art was insatiable. The education system in Ridge does not have room for individual attention or specials like art. The camp therefore offers a unique opportunity for the children to discover and learn.

I arrived with a suitcase full of supplies. My goal for the two weeks was to allow the children to explore, freely using the materials to express themselves. I tried to convey that there’s no right or wrong way to use the materials. The children were enthusiastic just to create!  

We did many projects throughout the two weeks, including both craft-oriented and fine arts projects. As for fine arts, I focused on material exploration, introducing simple techniques along the way. We discussed color theory and explored complimentary and contrasting colors. I worked with the older students on shading, shadows, and highlights with color pencils. Working with beads, I integrated color theory and patterns when making necklaces and bracelets. In printmaking, we identified the applicable tools, and discussed relief, line, and texture.

The children enjoyed the crafts most of all. They enjoyed creating art to hang on their walls, but were particularly enthusiastic about making things to wear or play with. Masks and beading were by far the most popular projects. Watercolor on pre-cut diffusing paper and printmaking were a close second.

Level 1 students making printing plates and working with watercolor

Level 2 and 3 students printmaking and decorating masks

The children were so proud of the projects they created. The teachers filled the classrooms with their work. The children wore their masks they created to school days after. When the camp day ended, I frequently would gather with students outside to create more. Either completing a project, trying something again, or learning something new such as photography. Their enthusiasm did not stop with the end of the school day. Their enthusiasm is a gift. It stays with me, fueling my passion for teaching art in Jamaica and at Penn Charter. There’s nothing more rewarding to me than to see the absolute joy a child gets from creating.

Two weeks never seems to be enough. Next year I hope return to the community center to continue to work with Mrs. Salmon and the teachers of Ridge to further integrate art in their summer curriculum. Back at home, my photographs from my most recent visit and my memories of the children will inspire me throughout this next year at Penn Charter. Until then my task is to think of exciting projects for the future, and more importantly, to raise awareness about education in Jamaica and to share with the Penn Charter community the struggles and successes of the students and teachers at the FORU summer literacy camp.

Students and teachers

Below, Brooke Giles, third from left with coworkers and friends at FORU: Larry, Bre, Brooke Giles, Brooke Riley, Sanjay, Mitsey, Peter. Larry and Brooke are two of the three physical therapists who work full time in Jamaica. Bre is a community member. Peter, Mitsey, and Sanjay were Brooke's host family during both her trips to Jamaica.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

IdeaLab: More than a Makerspace

Sheila Ruen, chair of Visual Arts and Design, our colleagues and I are excited to introduce the IdeaLab, a large and broadly equipped space designed to support both current curricula and ongoing innovation for Penn Charter students. 

This new space, shown in renderings above and below, is the newest addition to PC's current lab spaces and activity dedicated to creative, innovative, project-based learning across all divisions and disciplines. That existing network includes the woodshop in the Lower School building, science labs and art studios throughout each school house, the outdoor learning spaces, including Chigwell Close, and the music lab in the Kurtz Center.

This new space will support Penn Charter's Strategic Vision by helping students develop three core competencies -- creation, communication and collaboration. Each of these competencies will have a dedicated area in the IdeaLab: a maker lab, a media lab, and a creative lab

The MakerLab is a workshop and workspace for students to create with both traditional tools and materials and new technologies, including 3D printers, laser cutters and electronics. The MediaLab is a studio for students to create and document their projects with digital and analog storytelling and portfolios. The CreativeLab connects these two work areas with communal tables for discussion, problem solving, and critique. 

IdeaLab, which will be in the lower level of the Middle School, will open this fall. More soon! 

-- Corey Kilbane, Upper School Science & Advisor for Science and Maker Clubs

Corey Kilbane teaches chemistry in Penn Charter's Upper School.