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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the modern American school system was being created, there were two competing models of education. One was the assembly-line model, that saw the goal of schools to be, through a standardized curriculum, the production of a standardized product (children) suited to take their places in an industrialized society. Teachers, in this model, were the line workers: interchangeable operators, trained to do a specific task efficiently and repetitively, given a textbook, workbook, teacher’s manual, and often a script, and expected to stamp out students who met standards, benchmarks, and objectives at pre-set age points.

Opposed to this was the progressive model, championed by John Dewey, which emphasized developmentally appropriate, project-based learning by doing, educating the whole child not only to be able to work and function as a productive member of society, but also to have the tools to live a good life, one in which the humanities, math-sciences, and the arts would all have an equal place and importance in the lives of well-rounded individuals. In this model, teachers are artists and craftsmen who recognize and honor the individuality of all children, and create and tailor the curriculum to meet their needs and abilities.

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Nueva is unique in many ways, but it shares with other progressive schools this respect for both children and teachers. Teachers are not interchangeable cogs who are handed a manual and script and told to follow it. Rather, Nueva seeks out the very best artist/craftsmen teachers it can find in national and international searches, then gives them a healthy budget for books, materials, and supplies, and the teachers create their programs more or less from scratch, revising and refining them constantly to meet the needs and interests of the current children, and, not infrequently, starting all over again each year. For a new teacher, this can be exciting, liberating, and terrifying. For students, it produces an incredibly rich and varied program.

Of course, there is a curriculum, but that curriculum is one of skills only: all children must learn to read, write, solve problems, research, investigate, design, and explore. But the content used to teach those skills varies widely. We know that there are more books that can be read, more types of problems that can be solved, more history that can be studied, more avenues of science that can be explored, and more types of art that can be created and music that can be performed than any child will have time for in a lifetime, much less in fourteen years. So content is seen as a means to an end, and that end is both skill and passion.

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Examples of this process can be seen all over school at any given time, but it’s perhaps most visible any time a new teacher takes over an existing class or program. Each artist/craftsman brings his or her own background and set of particular skills and interests to the development of a new program to meet the current children, sometimes through emergent curricula that grow from student curiosity, and sometimes through exposing the children to new areas of study that they hadn’t been aware of before and seeing what resonates with them.

In science, for instance, twenty years ago the Nueva lower school science program emphasized ecology, environmental studies, and the natural world. When Fred Estes took it over about fifteen years ago, he brought a focus on the scientific method. Now Elena is recasting the program again. 

With a background in environmental science, Elena discovered her passion for teaching while a TA at Stanford. She pursued that interest first by working in afterschool and summer programs for gifted learners, and then by refining her skills as Damon’s associate teacher, where she learned, among many other ideas and skills, the importance of authentic projects. She arrived with a belief that science means different things to different people, and a determination to respect that: some students will be inspired to go on to be engineers or scientists, but science is a part of everyday life — bread bakers and hairdressers need to be scientists too. 

Elena’s overarching goal is to first get her students excited about answering questions about the world and then to give them the skills and practice to do that. Elena’s highest aspiration for every child is that (s)he will begin “directing one’s own learning process through questioning, researching, and testing,” as it says in the Habits of Mind section of her revamped student evaluation form. She has focused on giving her students the skills to be scientists in different ways, and she designs her curriculum by following their interests in a way that builds their scientific skill sets sequentially across the grades. 

For example, at the beginning of this school year children in every grade were excited about last August’s solar eclipse, so that became the first unit in all the grades, though at the different levels appropriate to each one. This was one example of how Elena encourages students to use current events as a jumping-off point for their own investigations, and it also helped her to calibrate and see what children in each grade could do. Each grade also began the year by debating "What Is Science?". Their responses were turned into signs posted around the science classroom, and they plan to revisit the topic at the end of the year to see if their ideas have changed. Of course, there are some studies that have become important Nueva traditions, such as chicken mummification in third grade in conjunction with their studies of ancient Egypt, so she is continuing them.

Here is just a taste of some of the exciting things going on in lower school science this year. In each, you will see Elena’s passion for authentic projects, interdisciplinary (and sometimes crossgrade) work, connecting with the grade themes, involving people outside the school, and content that emerges from the students’ interests and curiosity.

  • In conjunction with their study of the local Ohlone tribes, the second graders focused on ethnobotany. At the same time, students in preK were concerned about the problem of sand from their sand pit spilling into the new bike path. They had tried building a wall, but it hadn’t worked. So Elena brought the grades together as a Design Engineering project for the second graders. They did a needs assessment with the preK class, then researched Ohlone building methods and materials, and built a wall as the Ohlone did, using willow and rattan (substituted for tulle, which was out of season). After finishing the wall and assessing its benefits and problems, they wrote letters to the Operations Department with advice on how best to build a permanent wall. Later, when the children were immersed in Chinese immigration in the Bay Area, they studied the physics of musical instruments, looking at the similarities and differences between light and sound waves, and then built their own traditional instruments inspired by traditional Chinese instruments.
  • The third graders were interested in ocean acidification, so Elena polled them on what they wanted to do about it and, after learning all they could about its causes and effects, they ended up writing to the ninth circuit court of appeals about a current case (Juliana v. U.S., nicknamed YouthvGov by the plaintiffs) in which the federal government is being sued for backing out of the Paris Accords. They came up with ideas for devices to de-acidify the waters and support coral reef growth and propagation, which they sent to a professor at Stanford. They also jumped into a study of the human eye after the students read an article in homeroom about color perception.
  • Elena found that the fourth graders had some misconceptions on what causes magnetism and gravity, which led to a unit that culminated in a team from Waymo visiting class to tell them about their work on self-driving cars. They then decided to write letters to the Waymo team on whether they thought self-driving cars would be beneficial or harmful to society. The students researched numerous sources on the subject, analyzing each to determine if it was trustworthy and reliable, and in their letters they synthesized their sources to create arguments that had claims, evidence, and reasoning. Also, some students who have a passion for an area in science have worked with the teachers to design and lead lessons on their chosen subject.

There’s lots more to come. Elena already has plans to use the upcoming campus expansion projects as springboards for ecological studies and water quality testing around the school. Throughout all these projects, the students continue to build their scientific skills across the grades, getting excited about all the different ways science is a part of their lives.


 By Matt Berman, Fourth Grade Teacher

March 7, 2018

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