This post is an interview by Jeff Wetzler, co-founder of Transcend, with Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, Head of School of Van Ness Elementary School
Back in March, we wrote in this blog about the Eight Great Leaps that we at Transcend believe are necessary for moving from outdated learning models to what the 21st century demands of education. Today we’re going to dive into the First Great Leap--the Focus of School. We’ll hear from principal Cynthia Robinson-Rivers on how the members of her community are shifting the focus of learning at her school, Van Ness Elementary in Washington D.C.
Traditionally, the focus of schools has been heaviest in subjects measured by tests. Each course is separate by subject and focused on requirements for college or skills for predictable jobs.
The First Great Leap proposes that the transition of focus towards broader, more holistic student outcomes--through deep, cross-disciplinary learning--will cater to and produce students more prepared for the world that awaits them.
Cynthia’s approach brings social-emotional learning to the forefront of the education process. Her school, Van Ness, emphasizes cultivating critical thinkers and developing a generation of confident, curious, and compassionate members of society. Like many urban schools, Van Ness’s student population includes learners who have experienced trauma and other challenges outside of school. We think that having zero suspensions this and last year shows Van Ness’s commitment to interrupting inequitable patterns that later contribute to inequitable outcomes. To see more about Van Ness’s learning environment in action, check out this video.
We sat down with Cynthia to ask her more about how her community creates this focus of school. Below, she talks about how she’s built a school that embraces social emotional and systems for students of all backgrounds to succeed:
Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to start Van Ness?
Cynthia: We started Van Ness in 2015 and knew we wanted to spend our first year or two focused deeply on social-emotional learning. Our teachers and staff looked at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the Building Blocks research from the Turnaround for Children and found that the most important things for kids were safety and belonging.
Safety and belonging are prerequisites for the type of critical thinking that we also wanted to engage in. That helped us to decide to spend our first year picking an approach to behavior. We chose Conscious Discipline as our school-wide approach.
What happened a couple of years into the founding of the school was that we got an influx of a group of kids with deeper social-emotional needs and deeper behavioral challenges. That led us to really think about what school needs to look like for kids like that to have success.
We started to implement things like a sensory movement room, break opportunities, sensory work with an occupational therapist, as well as the explicit teaching of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness strategies for those students.
As we were implementing all these unorthodox approaches for this small group of kids, we were also working with Transcend to think about school redesign and realized that potentially all students could benefit in some way from some modified version of the things we were doing for this small group of kids.
What are the learning aims you’re designing for? In terms of what’s important to foster in graduates.
Cynthia: We defined our graduate aims after talking with students, parents, teachers, and even community stakeholders, and asking them, “If we’re successful over these next five years and kids graduate 5th grade, they will have what skills?”
Some key traits that came out of these conversations were: compassion and empathy. The goal to develop kids that care for others, feel interconnected to their community, and treat people kindly.
Another focus was to develop critical thinking skills. We want kids to be able to problem-solve and analyze. With that we wanted to teach creative problem solving where kids are creative not just in their approach to art but in their approach to any kind of challenge.
Constant learning was another focus. How we can cultivate a growth mindset in our students so they know that they learn from mistakes and that adversity is a good thing. To show them that practice and struggle makes you stronger.
Lastly, is something we call Cross-cultural Community Builders, which simply means that we want our kids to be able to collaborate, learn from, and appreciate someone who comes from a very different background than their own.
After we defined those aims, we decided what we would do to actually cultivate those aims within our children. For compassion and empathy, we implemented Conscious Discipline in behavior. We taught self-discipline and appropriate behaviors rather than punishing children when they’re behaving inappropriately. Helping both teachers and students do something we call “seeing each other through the lens of positive intent.”
The shift looks like: When a child misbehaves, what a child is actually showing you is that they lack a certain skill. How can you help them learn that skill?
For creative problem solving we believed we needed a space both in the structure of our day but also our physical environment where kids could practice what it looks like to solve problems creatively. That’s when we decided we’d implement maker spaces in every classroom. Those spaces are for kids to either work on challenges and projects that are aligned to their unit of study/curriculum as well as a space for opportunities to learn in a hands-on way using tools and one-off one-day challenges that kids can respond to when they’re not working on an ongoing project. We believe it’s important to create fun problems as well like, “How can you use the popsicle stick, paper clip, and rubber band to make a catapult that shoots the ball the farthest?”
We’re giving them some flexibility of thinking, but also building some “nonacademic skills” like perseverance, tenacity, and [working through]adversity, through a difficult task.
For critical thinking we assume that some of the implicit strategies we use as adults to approach a problem kids might not have and need to be taught explicitly. For example, if you were taught to compare and contrast two things, you might automatically create a T-chart inside your head and have a running list. These are called “Thinking Routines” (which we learned from Project Zero at Harvard) and you can pass on to students these types of frameworks that they can then apply again in different contexts.
Constant learning we’ve tackled mainly through changing the language that we use with kids. We’ve read Carol Dweck’s research and we try to never say, “You’re really smart,” but instead, “You worked really hard on that.” Instead praising effort over innate ability to reinforce the idea that the child can always learn and grow to tackle difficult tasks.
In terms of cross-cultural community building, we’ve done outreach so we can maintain our diversity. In informal ways we encourage kids and parents to have playdates together. What we’ll do in the next couple of years is do a deeper dive on implicit bias on ways we can have an anti-bias approach in our education and in our school. We’ll study ourselves with recording discourse and analyzing who’s called on most and then adjusting our practice so that we have equity of voice. That’s work we still know we need to do.
If you were to compare and contrast your school to a more traditional model of early childhood education, what would you say are some of the most important differences between what you’re building and the traditional model?
Cynthia: A huge core difference is taking time and explicitly teaching those skills of self-awareness, self-regulation, social interaction, and other social-emotional skills. We don’t take those for granted or necessarily prioritize reading or math over them.
What would be your advice to other learning communities that want to move in the direction you’re talking about?
Cynthia: Take time to expand the knowledge of everyone involved and make sure everyone is invested.
Understanding your multi-year plan and not to do everything at once was another important lesson we had to learn and a critical way to approach the work. Understanding that there are some things that feel really important and necessary that you can’t do at first. You’ll have to wait until after your second or third year.
Realize that the new initiatives you bring have to feel integrated into existing work and existing academic structures that won’t go away. Don’t make these feel like more add-ons for teachers who already feel stressed or overwhelmed with the variety and number of initiatives they already have to implement.
The integration should not only be into the academic but between the academic curriculum and your behavioral approach. Whereas if you want to implement an academic approach that calls for lots of individualized learning or students working on projects independently, you also have to have an approach to behavior and a mindset that allows kids to have that agency and independence as opposed to a more controlling approach to behavior. That alignment between your academics and your behavior management system is important.
Engaging a community to broaden learner outcomes is helping create students that are prepared in a variety of approaches for the new world around them. Van Ness is a great example of how shifting the focus of the school to include more than traditional measures of success can change the kinds of people we cultivate in our communities.
What would this look like in your school or learning environment? For more resources check out our Graduate Aims Database, which is helping learning communities shift the way we approach education.
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