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.