When I meet Lower School visitors and proudly say, “we are a
Responsive Classroom school,” the faces of teachers and administrators usually light
up, but prospective parents sometimes look a bit bewildered. What is Responsive
Responsive Classroom is more than a curriculum; it’s a
blueprint for community, based on the belief that a school’s social curriculum
is just as important as the academic curriculum. We know that children can’t
learn if they don’t feel comfortable and safe, so we overtly teach the social
skills they need to navigate peer relationships.
When you walk through the cozy Lower School hallway and into
our bright classrooms, you’ll see colorful rugs, whiteboards on easels, chimes,
and class charts. Each of these is a signal that our teachers use Responsive
Let’s stay in the hallway for a moment. When Lower School
teachers transition from one activity to the next, they quietly ring a chime; this
music, heard up and down the hallway, is the heartbeat of our program. Here at
Bullis, you will never hear a teacher raise a voice at a classroom full of children.
Ever. When the chime rings, students stop talking and turn their attention to the
When every teacher uses the same, predictable strategy, students
feel safe and secure. This most basic element of schooling—the need to quickly and momentarily focus on
the teacher—becomes ingrained. At this point in the year, teachers often simply
pick up the chime and students quiet down! Our students are well behaved and
respectful simply because they are treated that way.
Now let’s move into the classroom. Each day, the teacher
posts a Morning Message on the whiteboard and personally greets every child. Students
unpack their belongings, then gather in a knot around the easel. They might
read and respond to a poem, add data to a bar graph, complete a riddle, or cast
a vote about an important issue.
Then at 8:05, the teacher gathers the class in a circle on
the rug for Morning Meeting.It begins
with a “Greeting.” A peek into one classroom might find Meghan turning to
Devin, looking him in the eye and saying, “Good Morning Devin,” then Devin responds,
“Good Morning Meghan,” turns to his left with an outstretched hand and, says “Good
Morning, Brendon.” This continues until the circle is complete. Teachers act as
facilitators and remind students of the importance of eye contact and firm
The Meeting continues with “Share,” a time when one or two
children briefly tell a bit of personal news, then ask for “questions” or
“comments” from classmates. These bits of news are frequently funny, but can
sometimes be personal and poignant; children know to be “active listeners” and
to respond in ways that maintain focus on the classmate, not the self. A typical
share might go like this:
Brian: “My dog got out last night and we spent an hour
looking for her.”
Dave: “My dog got out too!”
Teacher: “Dave, can you reframe your comment and keep the focus on Brian?”
Dave: “You must have been worried.”
Children ask questions in the same way: “How did you find
her?” or, “Was your dog happy when she got home?” The essential social skills we
teach during Morning Meeting, like the ability to move from egocentrism to
empathy, are too critical and important to learn by chance. Finally, each
Morning Meeting ends with a group game—students love this most of all—which
sets a positive tone for the day.
In September, each student creates a set of “Hopes and
Dreams” for the year. In order to become a reality, these are brought to the
group and are generalized into a “Class Contract.” Teachers refer to the
Contract frequently during the year, and they help the students design
strategies to adhere to it. Our teachers help students grow into their best
selves, and they teach them how to encourage others to do likewise.
In addition, students are assigned “Class Jobs,” daily responsibilities that keep
the class running smoothly. Substitutes who cover our Lower School often marvel
at the independence of our students. Responsive Classroom teaches both autonomy
Conflict, which occurs in all groups, is often brought back
to the classroom rug, and teachers facilitate meetings that allow each child a
voice. Students learn how to be assertive, not aggressive, and they call out
injustice when they see or experience it. Disagreements are aired openly, and
children learn that bullying occurs only in cultures of silence and repression.
Responsive Classroom is an integral part of the Lower School
experience. I invite you to visit a Morning Meeting and observe the magic.
The Lower School students worked hard this trimester. According to Accelerated Reader, they read over 1,500 books since September. They participated in schoolwide community service efforts during the Thanksgiving and holiday seasons, and they singlehandedly raised close to $800 for UNICEF and over $400 for The American School in Tunisia and the American Red Cross. This is a group of children who embody our core institutional values: integrity, respect, diversity, responsibility and service.
To celebrate, the LS students and teachers will go to the Natural History Museum before our winter break to view the 3D IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies. The movie, captivating and appropriate for Lower School audiences, weaves together two simple narratives: the story of three generations of a butterfly family which migrates aremarkable 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico, and the scientist who devoted his life’s work to tracking this journey. The movie’s technology is spectacular. Extremely high resolution cameras were mounted on tiny remote control drones that flew alongside the butterflies—you can see the scales on their wings and even the air rushing through their “punk hair.” The filmakers also used special time-lapsed MRI technology and captured the metamorphososis of caterpillar to butterfly inside the chrysalis. I saw the movie over Thanksgiving Break with my own children, and we agreed it was something everyone should see.
The cost for our outing—the movie tickets and our special post-movie lunch—is generously covered by the Bullis Parents Association, which always is so supportive of our school.
Along with our annual building of gingerbread houses, we will have the perfect wrap-up before we leave for winter break!
What are the ingredients for a happy and successful life? The
Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal study of 268 Harvard men from the classes
of 1939, 1940 and 1941 provides the succinct answer: love during childhood. Love
gave these men, now in their early 90’s, the tools to put their trust in life
and flourish, even when ravaged by WWII. Men who remember their childhood as
warm and intimate are four times more likely to be married for more than 10
years, to have close relationships with their children, to have friends, to
maintain pleasant contact with their families of origin, to belong to social
organizations and to play games. I highly recommend you read all the findings
from the Harvard Grant Study, detailed in the book, Triumphs of Experience. It’s wonderfully written and filled with
Those of us who work with children
everyday get bogged down in the details of daily life, and this study reminds
us to approach every interaction with a youngster through love. The Lower
School reading program is founded upon the desire to treat children with
generosity, respect and love. We assess their reading level because we want to
meet them where they are and scaffold their growth. We’ve created the Leveled
Book Fair to answer your question, How
do I find books to match my child’s reading level? We hope you find it
useful. We want to make sure the books arrive in time for Winter Break, so it
ends quickly – on November 14th.
Thank you for the gift of your
children. They will be successful because of the love you provide them each and
For over a year, the Lower School teachers have focused their
efforts on improving students’ reading comprehension levels, and we’ve had
great success. This year, we’re examining ways to improve our writing
instruction because we know that the ability to communicate in writing is the
most important skill taught in grades K-12. We also know that the strongest
writers are often graduates of small independent schools like Bullis. Our small
class sizes, the strong relationships we build with students, and the ways we target
instruction to meet each child’s individual needs are the tools we use to
nurture the growth of our young writers.
We recently hired Katherine Bomer, a nationally recognized
expert on the teaching of writing, to work with Lower and Middle School
teachers. Katherine currently teaches at the University of Texas, Austin and is
closely affiliated with the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia
University’s Teachers College. She’s the author of three books on writing, and
her newest, Hidden Gems, is used in
teacher education programs across the United States. Katherine recently
completed a four day visit to Bullis, helping teachers examine our students’
writing skills and demonstrating new ways to motivate and engage young writers engagement
and target instruction to meet the needs of each and every child.
While the teachers were working with Katherine,
I attended the iNacol Conference with Dr. Boarman and other members of the
administration. While there, we examined ways to incorporate technology,
specifically blended learning, into our school.
This is a hot topic in education, and we are taking it seriously. Most
of the teachers have completed either a 4-week or 12-week blended learning
course. We are learning new ways to assess students quickly and efficiently,
new methods of imparting basic information, new ways to practice basic skills,
and new tools to keep students organized. It’s an exciting time to be in
education and an exciting time to be at Bullis.
Lower School Academic Goals: 2012-2013
At Bullis we value a balanced approach to education, and we take great pride in meeting students where they are. This month’s blog focuses on our academic goals for 2012-2013, but first, I need to tell you something important. I’m proud to report that last year, 98% of the Lower School students substantially increased their reading comprehension scores by at least one grade level. This is due to the combined hard work of students, parents and teachers who made sure kids were reading, reading, reading! Our emphasis on volume of reading paid off. Thank you!
2012-2013 Academic Goals
1. Continue to increase reading comprehension levels by increasing the volume of reading: Research by Richard Allington and others shows that students’ volume of independent reading is a leading indicator of academic success. Quite simply, kids who read a lot do well in school. For example, a 1988 study of fifth graders’ reading volume by Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding showed this varied level of achievement on standardized tests of reading comprehension:
Minutes of Reading per Day
Words per Year
This data reveals the importance of measuring volume of reading by time, not by book. Books at the lower levels take less time to read, so asking all the students to read let’s say, three books, sets the bar way too low. Instead, we emphasize reading “as much as possible” each evening and certainly not less than half an hour. We also know that kids won’t enjoy reading books that are too difficult, so we need to give children plenty of choice among books at the appropriate level and then and we need to teach them how to determine for themselves whether a book is “just right.” We also need to increase our students’ exposure to wonderful literature and increase parent support for independent reading at home.
2. Demonstrate an Increase in Reading Achievement: Because reading is an invisible process, we’ve put systems in place, like Accelerated Reader, that give us valuable information about our students’ reading volume and reading comprehension. We want and need to increase the progress we made last year. In addition to Accelerated Reader, we formally assess each student 3 times per year in order to document their reading achievement and design strong programs.
3. Make sure each student is reading at or above grade level by the time they move into Middle School. Our data proves that reading comprehension increases when kids read voraciously, so we need to ensure that each student reads on grade level before moving to Middle School. Parents and teachers of teenagers know that adolescents resist reading remediation much more emphatically than preteens. We need to intervene early – in grades 3 through 5 – and there’s no time to waste. That means some students may miss instruction in other subject areas like Spanish or social studies in order to work with one of our reading specialists.
4. Implement a new format to the Lower School conferences: We received tremendously positive feedback last year after the 5th grade students led their parent-teacher conferences, so we’ve decided to expand this new format to all grades. When students lead conferences, they tighten the communication between school and home, and they take more ownership of their academic work. During a conference, students outline their goals and review work from their portfolio.
5. Track increases in math achievement: This year students will be assessed three times in mathematics using a computer adaptive test called StarMath. The StarMath reports provide a snapshot of student understanding in the following mathematical domains: numbers and operations, algebra, geometry and measurement, data analysis, statistics and probability. This data enhances our current instruction by providing teachers with the data they need to design individual instruction and practice for our students. We use IXL, a subscription based program, to design this extra practice.
6. Improve the science curriculum by integrating more math and engineering: This year we are using curriculum designed at the University of California Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science (Full Option Science System), the Boston Museum of Science (Engineering is Elementary), and Ergopedia (LabAids). These vendors were chosen because each provides students with hands-on experiences based on relevant applications in real-world scenarios.
If you are a current parent, thank you for helping us meet these goals. If you are thinking about joining the Bullis Family, you’ve found a gem.
I spent many hours on my bicycle this summer and used that
time to reflect on my first year at Bullis. One hot day, on a long ride through
Provence, I developed a list of reasons why I love this school:
Bullis students: Bullis kids are
caring, joyful, brave, confident and curious. Perhaps due to the small class
sizes, or the fact that teachers eat lunch with them everyday, our youngsters converse
comfortably with adults. I remember a lunch table conversation at the end of
last year, when my fourth grade tablemates asked me what kind of kid I was at
their age. Did I ever get into trouble? What kind of games did I play? Did I
like school? I was amazed at the empathy and curiosity of these ten year olds.
Bullis families: Each morning, I
love to watch cars pull up to the curb and explode with entire families! Big
brothers help little sisters drag backpacks from trunks, and then head off to
Middle or Upper School, while some families quickly finish the breakfast picnic
in the backseat. Many have dogs who happily jump into the front when the kids
get out. Sometimes kids bicker, and I like that, too. It shows they’re comfortable.
For many families, our school is an extension of home.
Bullis teachers and the instructional
core: The instructional core, a term developed by Harvard professor
Richard Elmore, is the relation between teacher, student and content. It’s the
nexus of teaching and learning. Our teachers form lasting bonds with students,
and they bring the latest improvements in education into their classrooms. This
summer, many Bullis teachers took a course in blended learning, while others
studied at Harvard’s Project Zero or Columbia University’s Reading and Writing
Project. This fall, Katherine Bomer, a nationally recognized expert on the
teaching of writing, will work side by side with our teachers and students. Our
instructional core is strong, and it’s an exciting time to be part of the
Bullis leadership: Dr. Boarman opened
a recent meeting by sharing his leadership philosophy: treat everyone with
respect; demand excellence; cultivate a sense of urgency; maintain the highest
standards of honesty and integrity; build group cohesiveness and pride; and finally,
be available. The construction video posted on our homepage provides a good
glimpse of Dr. Boarman’s active leadership. He knows each Lower School student
by name, and he eats lunch with them every day.
My list of favorites also includes the panoply of student talents
showcased in our weekly All-school Assemblies and our magnificent arts program,
but I’m most proud of the way we make decisions. We simply ask: what’s in the best interest of students?
look forward to seeing you September 4th! If you would like to see a video of
my biking vacation, please view my teacher page!