Exploring Education at WIS
Middle School Learning Specialist Heidi Bachman has created a new elective this year called Build Your Brainpower. This semester-long course is designed to investigate study skills, neuroscience, mindfulness, and mindsets. Heidi explains further, “The original concept of the class was to find a way for me, as the learning specialist, to have more time with students who might need a little extra support. However, [the class] is for everybody, and most kids need to understand how their brain works, and most kids need to develop their study skills, particularly in the Middle School.”
Similar to most classes at WIS, Build Your Brainpower is not structured in a “traditional” sense, where the students take notes as the teacher lectures. Instead, they are actively learning about the brain in more hands-on ways, like creating and labeling plaster molds and paper replicas of brains and 3-D models of neurons. Because the Maker movement has become so popular at WIS, Heidi explains, “I was trying… to incorporate more hands-on, kinesthetic ways of taking notes and exhibiting those notes. For example, we do a lot of multimedia stuff, so kids will watch digital media that incorporates information, and then they learn how to take notes from that information and how to physically represent those notes.” These note-taking skills can translate to other classes as well.
Heidi started the year by asking her students to write down what they knew about the brain. Most regurgitated whatever information they had retained from previous classes; few of them truly understood how everything fit together. From this starting point, Heidi and her students began exploring all the physiological elements of the brain, and then moved on to the emotional elements. “I’m using the brain and the neuroscience as the content, but then incorporating the ideas of mindfulness and positive mindsets as well.” Heidi says she spent at least part of every class working on mindfulness; sometimes she used specific guided imagery, while other times the students created concept maps for words such as perseverance, resilience and optimism. Heidi would ask, "What does it look like to be resilient? What does it look like to persevere? How do you enact that? They’re still building their ideas of those positive mindsets....”
Heidi is also trying to emphasize the growth mindset; “Kids need to understand that they have the power to grow their brains—particularly at this age.” One way she demonstrated brain growth: near the end of the semester, she repeated the exercise from the first day of class, when students wrote down all they knew about the brain. She then had them compare the sheets from the first day of class; the students were impressed with all they had learned! One student reflected, “Before I just wrote down words, and now I actually know what they mean.” Says Heidi, “It was validation, both for me AND for them.” She also asked for feedback throughout the semester; “Kids don’t have enough input into what they’re learning… I gave them a survey halfway through the class, and asked what they thought was working, what wasn’t, and moved on from there.”
The summative project for Build Your Brainpower asked students to create an interactive and interesting presentation about one of the topics they had studied: memory, parts of the brain, neuroplasticity, study skills, or the parts of the neuron. Unlike most “final” projects, this effort was due mid-semester, part of Heidi’s effort to model good student behavior. “Good students, and even adults in the workforce, don’t always think that their first draft or effort is the best. I wanted to emphasize the concept of revisiting their work, and improving upon it, and being able to really look and see, ‘Did I fulfill the task?’ ‘What could I do better?’” Most students chose to create videos; both their peers and Heidi evaluated the projects. Then Heidi asked students to reexamine their work and improve upon it. When Heidi reviewed the revised projects, there were clear improvements. Check out some of the students’ final videos: Diego, Ana, Katherine.
When asked to give Heidi feedback at the end of the semester, one student responded, “I walked into this class not expecting much... After the first class, it became my favorite class. Things to keep: the way you gave us the freedom to change the class with you.” Another student wrote, “Thank you sooooo much for teaching this class. I loved how every time I walked into the room you had a new fun project and lesson,” while another added, “Make this class even more awesome. Best class ever. Continue this class for us in Grade 8. Fun activities. I’m going to miss this class.”
First semester, Build Your Brainpower was open to students in Grade 7; second semester, Grade 6 students will have the opportunity to enroll.
A rite-of-passage here at WIS is the Grade 10 Project, a months-long endeavor which allows for independent exploration of a topic of personal interest. Students set a learning goal and, with the guidance of a faculty mentor, develop a realistic plan for achieving that goal. The end result of the project may be an artistic production, an original design, or another means of expression. Students are introduced to the project in the spring of Grade 9 and work diligently throughout the summer and fall to complete the project, which culminates in the Grade 10 Project Fair in December.
The goals of the Grade 10 Project for the students are:
to explore a topic in which they are interested and about which they are enthusiastic
to take a project to fruition, from conceptualization to realization
to demonstrate their ability to reflect deeply on the learning process
to demonstrate independence as a thinker, doer and maker
to connect their interests to a global issue or problem of significance
Students must complete: a process journal, in which they explain each step of the project; a reflection statement, which details their personal growth and incorporates the extensive research done; and a Project Fair presentation, which showcases the students’ artifacts and includes an oral presentation.
This project is inspired by the IB Middle Years Program (MYP) Personal Project, but WIS has made some significant changes in the past few years. Upper School Principal David Markus explains, “After former Assistant Principal Robert Spezzano and I were working together for a couple of years, we thought—we’re an international school. What is it that shows we’re really international? So about three years ago, we changed the project so there had to be some sort of global issue connection to the students’ topics. We’ve also tried to structure it more, so the students are more directed in how they stay on top of it. It’s a project that’s done in addition to their regular work, so it’s easy to slough it off to the side, but we’ve worked over the last couple of years to have clear deadlines and clear expectations.” Upper School Dean of Students, Sarah Polland, adds, “This year, students are submitting work through Google Drive. Each student has an individual Grade 10 Project Google Drive folder that is shared with me and the sponsor. We can see updates as they are made, so it’s a more interactive and collaborative process.”
This year’s Grade 10 Project Fair took place on December 15; the gym, Black Box Theater, and Theater foyer were transformed by the students’ work. Topics included the pros and cons of animal testing, climate change, immigration, art therapy, gender equality, building a prosthesis, and cyberbullying, just to name a few. Ms. Polland comments, “I didn’t get to see the beginning stages of the brainstorming and what that looked like, and why students chose certain topics, but I can tell you they are topics they’re extremely passionate about. Even just looking at some of the titles, I can already see, without looking at the child’s name, who is doing that project. It very much is a personal project.”
Grade 10 students were more than excited to explain their projects and what they had learned. Max R. decided to investigate the effects different diets have on the human system. He decided to become a vegan for six weeks, which meant he had to eliminate all animal products from his diet. As a way to study the effects of this diet, he had bloodwork done two weeks before the diet began, two weeks after it started, and then two weeks after it ended. He was surprised by the results; while his cholesterol was at a normal level to begin with, it dropped 37 points once he became vegan. He felt more fit and energized as well, and this project has continued to influence him: “When I was vegan, I noticed that I had to pay more attention to what was actually in the foods I was consuming, because I had to make sure there were no animal products in them. Even now, I see that I will pay attention to nutrition, because I notice now what harmful additives are being placed into our everyday food, and what you need to avoid in order to live a healthy lifestyle.”
Ali spent her summer learning the basics of American Sign Language. She explained she has a deep love for languages, and wanted to learn something new that would be able to improve her communication with others. Her project highlighted this passion: “Communication is really important to me, whether it’s communicating with my family, my friends, people I’ve never met before. The skills that I’ve adopted at WIS, like learning English and Spanish, they’ve helped me so much, and now, learning American Sign Language, I can communicate to an even larger audience, because it’s the third-most-used language in the US, which is astonishing to me. It’s really going to open doors for me in my future. I hope to become a doctor, so hopefully speaking all these languages and being able to communicate will help me be able to get further and differentiate me.”
Max W. turned his passion for playing guitar into a labor of love. He learned about a group of children in Paraguay called the Landfill Harmonic, who, with the help of some adult mentors, created musical instruments out of trash and recycled materials. Max was inspired to build his own electric guitar out of used or recycled products. After doing much research and collecting the necessary materials, Max started the assembly at the end of the summer and finished with only days to spare. He explained, “My first attempt, it didn’t work—it didn’t play. I was a little worried, because that was a week ago, so I ran around to some shops, and talked to people that know the instrument, and they helped me out. They could have bailed me out and fixed it, but I said no—I’d rather talk about it and do it myself. They told me what the issues were, they helped me see what was going wrong, and then the next day, after a pretty long conversation with a guitar tech at Atomic music, I was able to wire it up and finish it.” While talking about his process, he also played different chords to demonstrate how the guitar worked.
Lulu had a very personal story behind her project: “My project is a self-exploration into what I consider to be a home. I’ve moved to different places over my life—I was born in Texas, and then I lived in Romania for seven years, and then Switzerland for five, and then DC for the past three—so I’ve always kind of been stumped when someone asks me the question, ‘where are you from?’ or ‘where’s your home?’ and I’ve never known what to answer.” She spent her summer interviewing people from all over the world, and collecting their stories on what home means to them. Through these many interviews, she was able to come up with her own definition: “For me, a home is a routine in which I’m empowered and I feel like I can accomplish anything. So now I have my answer, and I kind of feel like that place for me is DC. It’s the place I’ve lived in for the fewest amount of years, so it’s kind of funny to me, but I really feel a strong connection here.”
While the Grade 10 Project can seem overwhelming at first, most students agree that it is an excellent preparation for the rigorous demands of the IB Diploma Program, which they will start in Grade 11. Claudia, who presented on domestic violence conveyed through street art, realized “how much I love art, so that helped me make the decision to take IB Art next year.” This project is also a precursor to the IB Extended Essay, another independent learning project.
Congratulations to our Grade 10 students—their months of work have certainly paid off!
While the school day for WIS Primary School students runs from approximately 8:20 AM to 3:35 PM, 74% of Primary School students also enroll in at least one of our many after school classes. WIS Auxiliary Programs offers classes ranging from French cooking class and Arabic calligraphy to private music lessons and robotics. This year, WIS has partnered with Spark Business Academy to offer two courses to help students learn about the business world and entrepreneurship.
Founded by Chuchi Arevalo, Spark Business Academy partners with local schools to offer after school classes and summer camps for students as young as age 5. As a graduate of Georgetown’s MBA program and a former banking consultant, Arevalo feels it is important to extend children’s financial literacy. He has designed courses specifically geared to young children’s capabilities.
Through our partnership with Spark Business Academy, WIS offers a course known “Budding Entrepreneurs” for Grades 1-3. The class provides a supportive environment of guided discovery for students to gain practical exposure to the business world, including an introduction to marketing, finance, strategy and operations. After examining business concepts and mini case studies, the class concludes with a capstone project asking students to come up with their own ideas for a business.
WIS also offers a “Bulls & Bears” class for Grades 3-5. Students explore investments by participating in a simulated stock market, complete with real-time market data, a stock portfolio and the opportunity to buy and sell their stocks.Arevalo’s Academy (and pictures of WIS students during a Bulls & Bears class) are featured in this Businessweek article.
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