What We’re Seeing

The POLYSolves steering committee enjoyed sharing the initiative work with their colleagues school wide in group sessions February 17. They announced a plan for conversations in the coming months about the book “Launch” by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani. Copies of the book are available to all Poly teachers in preparation for discussions beginning in March. Teachers Suzie Arther, Maite Bernath, Alice Lyons, and Richard White are leading the effort.

Over two days in February, the POLYSolves steering committee traveled around the San Francisco area to visit more than eight different schools including primary and secondary levels. From maker programs to unique approaches to space and the use of technology and design, the committee gained perspective on how other schools are progressively approaching innovative teaching and learning methods.

Brightworks School

After a tour seeing spaces and students working individually on projects or presenting, we had a conversation with school founder Gever Tulley (see his two TED talks for more information by searching “Tulley TED” on Google). He explained the curriculum at the school as being, in effect, three school-wide (K-12) “arcs” over the course of each school year, with each arc including exploration, expression, and reflection. He finds using the term “emergent” curriculum effective.


He said that the arcs are the key to their emergent curriculum, and they use concepts that kids relate to and then build from them to cover all kinds of topics in science, social studies, literature, and math. One example is “SALT,” from which they could do all sorts of things; he said “Geology” wouldn’t work as well as “rocks.” They become a keyhole to the world, the more you look through the keyhole the more of the world beyond you see. He said they do a lot of expert interviews, and it often helps when the kids ask for the interview, not an adult.


Students are highly engaged, and stay after school, until six, working on their projects and meet experts. It is a great “staylate” school culture.
Teachers welcome tangents from the main course of study prompted by students and call them digressions, and value them because they represent intrinsic motivation in those studies. They do three types of projects: all class, small groups usually pairs, and solo.

Urban School

Met and toured with Jonathan Howland, dean of faculty, who explained that the big emphasis at the school these days in on project-based learning throughout the curriculum, and the courses happening in the Urban X lab were helping to lead that effort and show the value.


We observed a class called Motion and Machines in the UrbanX lab, and heard also about popular robotics and Industrial Design classes, all of which seemed to be filled to capacity, turning kids away.   They develop tenacity with problems, and teamwork, and fine motor skills.   Roughly half, maybe a bit less, of all students take at least one class in the UrbanX lab.


APs have a very small role at Urban. But they do have a big program they call Urban Advanced Studies, UAS.


Jonathan Howland explained again where the momentum for change at Urban came from: 1. teacher leaders; 2. academic leadership such as HoS and Dean of Faculty; 3. world of educational thought leadership widely; 4. students!


Having faculty collaborative time is very valuable, one or two times a week, required.

Nueva School, K-8 and 9-12

All teachers at Nueva complete, before beginning work, a Design Thinking (DT) Institute. No class does it constantly, and they don’t follow a rigid DT template, students tell us. But it does inform the intellectual approach; when they read a difficult poem they have a way of attacking it using DT, they say. Students say DT especially influences their Science classes, where they regularly, frequently, design their own experiments. Lots of flexible use of space, mobile furniture, top ceiling wiring. Project room off lab is there to allow students to do additional supplemental labs on their own, independent of a teacher.


They also make sure there are a lot of classes, such as jewelry making, to draw in students who might not otherwise choose to be in the I-labs. Social Justice class meets in the I-lab too.   Fabricating your Artistic vision.


Full time shop teacher always in there, always available to support students. Always working to draw in core subject teachers.

Castilleja School

First part of program was learning about the Partnership for 21st century learning assessment. (Follow the link to see what’s on the school website.) They have done a several-year process to determine what key skills and competencies they want to assess , and have arrived at initiative, agility, and purpose, as can be seen below, and each broken down further. Karen Strobel, the director, a former post-doc and affiliate of Stanford’s Ed School with Deborah Stipek (author of Motivation Matters), and lesser so, Carol Dweck, told us about importance of aligning systems and structures, including reporting and grading, professional development for teachers, classrooms space and time, and instruction.


We then went to the Bourne Idea Lab, the Maker Space there, and met with its full time director. Students come in for two-week units, if/when the teachers volunteer to do so and do projects, such as designing a monument for women in US History.


How do they know if the maker program is succeeding? They asses by priority outcomes: 1: developing a maker mindset including collaboration and initiative; 2: instilling the design process; 3: building hands-on maker skills; 4 connects to other subjects.


Faculty who participate in an upcoming tour of Atlanta-area schools will elaborate on their findings here.