Gardner News, School Corner
School Corner: Applewild School
Christopher B. Williamson
Head of School
As the debate about adopting PARCC instead of MCAS continues, I find it disturbing that too often the assumption is that either standardized approach to assessment has efficacy. What should really occur is a discussion about how to inspire students to become motivated to find their passion and to develop the skills and attributes needed to be successful.
Having mentioned History Day in my most recent post, I am delighted to provide an update. With 76% of our eighth graders having qualified for States, we had one presentation come in first place in the Group Performance category and qualify for Nationals and three others earn Honorable Mention at State History Day! In all, 30% of our students out of the 326 contestants earned recognition at the state level. That is similar to the results just in from the National Spanish exam, in which three quarters of our seventh and eighth graders earned recognition by scoring in the top half in the country, with six students scoring in the top quarter and two in the top five percent in the nation. Our results on the National Latin Exam (not yet in for this year) are at least that impressive every year, and our fourth and fifth graders score very well on the national French test, the FLES.
What is significant about these superb results is not simply how well Applewild students do in state and national competitions. That is certainly gratifying and reinforces the value of our program. What is particularly significant is that we do not set out to measure ourselves by these assessments. History Day is project-based and emphasizes research and happens in the form of outside preparation while the standard eighth grade US History curriculum continues. It does not, in other words, dictate the program or take away from valuable class time in the way that MCAS or PARCC test preparation does. Similarly, the language tests are not taken to reveal progress in our curriculum, so they are not a point of attention in class nor define the curriculum. Rather, the tests provide students with fun practice on a national test in a low stakes way.
Applewild provides multiple ways of demonstrating mastery, with student presentations often being most revealing. The fourth graders recently presented their Invention Convention, for example. Each student has used the scientific design method to develop an invention to solve a problem that matters to each of them. The students designed a prototype and have even learned about patent law. They presented their inventions at our recent Grandparent/Special Persons’ Day. Following their passion to identify and solve real problems and then presenting to visiting guests raises the bar for both motivation and outcomes and helps explain why high standards are the norm at Applewild. Our eighth graders recently presented their Make a Difference project drafts to panels of adult visitors. These are ungraded projects, but they will end up on the web proposing real solutions to real problems in our world.
Demonstrating competence happens throughout our program and is not predicated upon standardized tests. The education builds on students’ natural curiosity, and the relationships with teachers encourage probing questions and a willingness to take risks to learn. Taking risks, creating, developing resilience, not being afraid of failure – all this builds what many contemporary thinkers now emphasize as essential for success. Angela Lee Duckworth has coined the term “Grit” and has developed a short online quiz so we can all find out our “grit score.” Carol Dweck, Wendy Grolnick, Wendy Mogel – all discuss the value of being flexible, creative, and persevering though adversity.
Laying a foundation for future success is at the root of education. It is why the early years are so vital. Students who learn that they matter, can solve problems, and can make a difference will continue to prosper. Low stakes opportunities to fail and learn and try again create resilience. This lays a strong foundation for learning in high school and beyond. Subject matter mastery is important, but much more important is what we at Applewild call Core Competencies: be reflective, think critically, communicate, create, persevere, collaborate. These qualities are taught throughout our program and in all disciplines. They lay the foundation for future success. They explain why our students do so well on the state and national stage and in secondary school – and in life.
As we prepare for the summer and all of its opportunities to develop “grit” in so many different ways, I will be retiring. I have enjoyed 45 years in this wonderful profession, 21 of them as a Head of School. North Central Massachusetts is lucky to have in its midst one of the best elementary schools in the country. It has been a privilege to have been part of Applewild’s “Belief in the Future” for the past ten years. I know that under new Head Christie Stover the school will continue to thrive.