Curiosity most important piece of learning

Curiosity most important piece of learning

By Jodi Campbell
History Teacher

At the start of every school year, I ask my students, “Tell me your favorite thing about history.” and, unfailingly, several students will respond with some variation of these three sentences: “I hate history.” “History is boring.” “It’s nothing but names and dates that I have to memorize.” That’s what every teacher wants to hear, right? Well, maybe if you teach geometry, but definitely not if you teach history. When I first started teaching at an university in Canada, I was so discouraged by these responses. I was even more discouraged by their effort in class. They didn’t care. They did their work, or not, and they passed the class, or not, and they most likely didn’t take another history class again, unless it was another required course. They were so uninterested. Uninspired. Indifferent.

Then I came across a TED Talk by Ramsey Musallam, titled “3 Rules to Spark Learning” and found someone who put into words what I was actually struggling to do: to create curiosity in my classroom. In this TED Talk, Musallam claimed, “Student questions are the seeds of real learning, not some scripted curriculum that gave tidbits of real information.” For him, curiosity is the most important piece of learning. I realized I didn’t need every one of my students to love history. That wasn’t even what I really wanted. What I wanted was for them to show some curiosity about history. I wanted them to take the initiative to find something that they were interested in and then go learn more about it.

After seeing that TED Talk years ago, my job changed. I do not want to be one of those “disseminators of content” that Musallam mentioned, rather I wanted to be one of his “cultivators of curiosity and inquiry.” This is often a struggle for students to adjust to - the idea that they have input into their own learning, and it certainly can be a struggle for teachers to adjust to, but this goes quite well with Webb’s emphasis on independent thinking and creative initiative, qualities that will help students succeed not just in college, but in the larger world.

One of the assignments that particularly emphasizes this is a project for my 8th grade U.S. History classes, called “On This Day in History.” Students get to choose an event in U.S. History to research and the only parameters are that it happened on a date during the semester before the year 1877, which is the end of our time period. It allows students to direct their own learning, so that they can learn about anything at all that they find interesting. For instance, a student who loves sports wrote about the first intercollegiate soccer game, a musician wrote about the birth of John Philip Sousa, and students who like the Wild West wrote about the death of Doc Holliday and the shootout at O.K. Corral. Not only do they get to be in charge of their own learning, but they also get to put actual faces to some of the larger themes we discuss in class and maybe - hopefully - realize that history can be so much more than names and dates to memorize.

Student project led to gratefulness and empathy

Student project led to gratefulness and empathy

By Buck Smith
English Teacher

The 10th Grade English class recently completed its Siddhartha Project last week. In order to better empathize with the protagonist in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, the sophomores participated in one of the practices he went through during his spiritual journey in the book: deprivation or meditation. During the week, students attempted regular mindfulness meditation sessions, or they chose to deprive themselves of a practice, object, or consumable substance they depend on in their everyday life. This year, Webb's “sophomore samanas" gave up things like candy, sugar, meat, sodas, coffee, their mattress, their cellphone, social media, and Netflix. Some of the most unique projects this year included a set of best friends who attempted not to talk to each other, and a young man who attempted to give up the use of his dominant right hand.

Each day in class, sophomores wrote about what they went through in their Siddhartha journal and posted "Siddhartha Selfies" for their classmates to see. Students then built upon their journals in order to write a reflective essay about their week. As in previous years, students learned and grew from the experience. Most students emerged from the week feeling more grateful for all the material blessings they have in their lives, and many ended up empathizing with less fortunate people who go without food or clean water on a regular basis. Some sophomores built upon their Siddhartha project essay when they prepared for their oration, part of the Emerging Voices Program, which they will recite in chapel in the third quarter. The Siddhartha project should prove to be a memorable bonding experience for the class of 2021.

Follow blogs this year for more on “deep dive” into teaching methods

Follow blogs this year for more on “deep dive” into teaching methods

By Nicole Taucare
Dean of Academic Affairs

It is not so unusual for schools to be siloed institutions. In some schools, teachers work away at their classes and rarely share ideas with other teachers, except for maybe in passing or on occasion. I have worked in these institutions in the past, and I can tell you that in my experience, those teachers all longed for something more.

When I was interviewing at Webb in the spring of 2017, one of the many attractive aspects of the school was the fact that it valued time for teachers to share with one another. The departmental collaborative days sent a clear message to me: Webb believes in its Enduring Understandings. When we say that we believe that “learning is an enjoyable and on-going process” or that “each person has unique gifts and capacities and a responsibility to develop them;” Webb does as it believes. We are a learning institute and learning takes place in the classroom amongst the students as well as amongst the teachers.

The time given to the departments is not wasted time. The faculty currently use collaborative days to look at lesson plans together, discuss articles, and seek advice, among other things. I am excited to say that this year, we will go further with our professional learning. Through the generosity of a donor, in the 2018-2019 school year each department will take a “deep dive” into their teaching methods and their curriculum to ensure effective teaching at The Webb School. Each department will experience this deep dive by working closely with a Webb alum, Dr. Erin Henrick from the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. One of the keys to success is that the many aspects of teaching and learning align with the department’s vision and goals for student learning and thus, the work that comes from the deep dive will continually check back to the vision and goals.

The deep dive begins by faculty sharing what they feel are the strengths and weaknesses of the department and by sharing their learning outcomes for a class that they teach. Dr. Henrick will observe each teacher for two consecutive days. The observations are videotaped and other data is collected, such as student surveys. Armed with data and departmental goals, Dr. Henrick will provide a baseline report to the department, and together they will form a future path of professional development and professional learning.

The math department is the first department to undergo this deep dive and we all look forward to seeing the work that they will do over the course of the year to ensure that they are effective math teachers. Keep an eye out for the faculty blogs this year if you are interested in hearing more about the details of the path that each department chooses to go down as they continue to learn from each other and from Dr. Henrick and the resources she can provide.

Can Language Instruction Survive the 21st Century?

Can Language Instruction Survive the 21st Century?

By Jason Simpson
French Teacher

When I travelled to China with a group of Webb students this summer, I really wanted to try speaking Chinese. I thought of it as a way to say, “I appreciate your hospitality, and I understand I’m a guest.” My aspirations were much greater than my Chinese skills, though. I found myself using Google Translate constantly, and it was so easy. A click of my camera magically turned any sign or menu into English. A few taps brought up any Chinese word I might need. I knew I was eating forbidden fruit. I’d be disappointed if my students did the same thing on a trip to France. I’d be furious if I discovered them using a translator engine for their homework.

Google, Skype, WeChat – there are so many communication services that offer automatic translation now, some in real time like your very own free, personal translator. With all this growing technology, is there any point to studying another language in the 21st Century?

I already know the answer because world languages are my life and career. I know what Google can do, and what it can’t. My success rate with Google Translate in China was 50% at best, whereas I never hit any roadblocks with phrases I had learned through real study and experience. Why? It’s because language is an art, and we have a long way to go before artificial intelligence can match all the nuances of the human mind. I ran the title of this blog through several languages on Google Translate and got results like “Can language teaching be living in the 21st Century?” It’s just not the same. It’s an awkward, unartistic title that a fluent speaker would never write. The worst result was “Can he teach a language alive in the 21st Century?”, which makes no sense at all.

Matthew Kushinka of Redline Language Services gives excellent examples of Google Translate’s shortcomings in his post on the Pros and Cons of Google Translate and, for the business-minded, how The Google Translate Widget Is Killing Your Brand. From a more scientific perspective, the British Medical Journal offers both humorous and startling translation mishaps in its 2014 study on the use of Google Translate in medical communication. Needless to say, none of us wants to be treated by a medical professional who’s saying nonsense 43% of the time!

There’s a reason why language instruction still matters, and why direct translation isn’t part of our departmental philosophy. Our students are learning a skill that a computer can’t perform. They’re learning to think in another language, consider socio-linguistic contexts, and discover the hidden nuances within it all – and we’re challenging them to do all this brainwork in the instantaneous world of real-time speech. The art of accurate, thoughtful communication is a skill our students can use in any walk of life.

Art for your health

Art for your health

By Michael Stem
Pottery Teacher

When was the last time you went to the movies? What about a sports game or a concert? How about the last time you went to an art gallery? The lack of venues, coupled with stagnant exhibitions, along with all our busy schedules can snuff out a flickering interest in art. I love art but must admit I do not get to The Frist or other local galleries nearly enough. I've missed viewing old master works in one building and walking into another to see bold art from contemporary artists. The feeling of discovering a new artist or artwork that resonates with you is such an adventure – an adventure we should all take more often.

Studies have shown there are many health benefits from viewing artwork. Aside from the dopamine release that we get, like when our favorite team scores a goal, viewing art improves brain function. Viewing artwork causes the brain to analyze subconsciously and deeper study leads to “Cognitive Embodiment” or the ability to place oneself within the artwork. Just like our favorite books, shows, musical pieces and sporting events, we can become immersed and truly invested in what we see.

Google, in all its omnipotence, has made a great step forward in helping us all get started on an art adventure. Their project, Arts & Culture, is a feast of artistic resources and around every corner is a chance at just a little bit more dopamine and happiness in your day. The project includes more than 1,000 artists and their works in high resolution, you can explore museums around the world, and even view videos in 360 degrees. Aside it being the biggest virtual gallery and the closest many of us will ever get to the real artwork – it is completely free! No profile creation, email verification - not even a sign in is required to be inspired. With such a great resource available, I implore you to visit the link below, find a new (or old) artist and start an adventure of your own.

Google Arts and Culture Project

Approach history with inquiry

Approach history with inquiry

By Jonathan Chicken
History Department Chair

There’s an old joke that history is all just stuff that happened a long time ago, so you don’t have to learn anything new—some kind of a reflection, probably, of the line in Ecclesiastes, nihil novi sub sole: “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Like lots of old jokes, it’s not really true. As I tell my students on the first day of class in 9th grade, history is not “what happened in the past,” which is just a recounting of finished events; history is our inquiry in to the past. Herodotus of Halicarnassus, writing in about 420 B.C., is often credited as the “father of history,” and it’s from him that we take the name of the discipline: historie, “inquiry,” because that’s what we do: we inquire, we investigate. This changes all the time, because the way we ask questions changes all the time; History is always new. Every year I change, modify, subtract, move around my curriculum, because there’s always some other focus or idea to bring out, some other piece of evidence to share and explore with students. The inquiry always changes.

One of the best ways to keep up with this comes in my inbox every day: the website Realm of History offers a free subscription to daily posts about history, and these occasionally inform my classroom content, and in particular I watch the archaeology section because physical culture (the artifacts, remains, architecture, and objects of past civilizations) is one of the more under-utilized types of historical sources. For example, this post from 2016 discusses evidence which suggests that the famed “Terracotta Army” of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuangdi may have been inspired by advisers from the Hellenistic Greek world. The implications of the idea are intriguing—it suggests a broader contact across the Eurasian steppes between Europe and China than had been previously thought, “shrinking” the world a bit. It also might suggest something about the "originality" of the Chinese achievement in the Qin Dynasty.

At Webb, where we have a diverse population including Chinese nationals in the classroom, this kind of discussion raises questions about the role of the past in one’s own national pride and psyche. Almost to a person every Chinese student I’ve taught has been skeptical (to say the least) of this evidence and information, despite the research being done in China by Chinese scholars—it becomes an inconvenient kind of truth for many who did not want to see their own backgrounds “coming from somewhere else.”

One of the most important things I think we can do as teachers and students of history, though, is to be courageous enough to face truths that we might not find personally enjoyable, and to step outside of previously assumed worldviews, instead of simply dismissing what we do not want to hear or know, and to challenge our worldviews. Academic and personal honesty and rigor mean that new ideas—especially when backed by evidence—need to be considered even if they make one uncomfortable. History is always changing; our questions about it are always changing; we are always changing as people because of those questions and the answers we find.

Literature offers ways of understanding ourselves in a crazy world 

By Neil Barrett
English Teacher

Literature offers ways of understanding ourselves in a crazy world

Recently, I discussed a presentation that I recently gave at a symposium sponsored by the Classical Languages and Literatures Department at Mississippi State University. The symposium topic was "The Metaphor of the Monster," and my research involved a monstrous internet subculture referred to as the Incel Rebellion. I also interpreted the movement through some classical literary texts, and the English Department here at Webb kindly listened to my presentation, offering a chance for us all to discuss the literature that we teach in light of current events. Literature offers ways of understanding ourselves in a crazy world. Whether we are reading Twelfth Night, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Odyssey, or Paradise Lost, Webb has English classes that are engaging students in an important way, challenging them to see themselves in a world where literary questions matter.

Teaching latest technological advances in science classroom

Teaching latest technological advances in science classroom

By Dr. Julie Verdoni
Chemistry/Physics Teacher

Biotechnology is an ever-expanding topic and certainly one that is often years behind in textbooks. Trends in technology come and go as scientists attempt to find the most effective, economical and versatile tools to address both their basic research needs, as well as the needs of the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries. Curriculum changes are therefore up to the faculty to determine the longevity and import of a newly discovered technique.

CRISPR (pronounced "crisper") may be one to stick around. Following the lead started many years ago in using bacterial systems as tools in the laboratory, researcher discovered what turns out to be a "bacterial immune system" which can be translated into most other cell systems, including mammalian, for use as a novel way to modify gene expression. This technology has expanded tremendously in the last 5 years and is being hailed as a revolutionizing tool. Any students planning to pursue education, careers, or internships in biology will likely encounter CRISPR in some way, and it’s important to have a fundamental knowledge of this technology.

Steve Gray compares viral vectors, to FedEx trucks, delivering packages. If conventional gene therapy delivers a package to a building, then gene editing would deliver it to a specific drawer in a specific desk. CRISPR has proven itself in academics to be an invaluable research tool and if it can live up to the claims without consequences, it may also become invaluable in the clinic.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2018-08-crispr-gene-doomed-therapy-clinic.html#jCp

How to listen better in a math class

By Lea Anne Windham
Math Department Chair

How to listen better in a math classroom

The Math Curriculum at Webb is geared towards a “Growth Mindset”. We strive to – foster risk-taking, creativity, learning from mistakes, understanding the possibility of multiple answers and perspectives, and have the students learn to critique peers’ work and use resources.

Our goal for the students is to foster learning for understanding, ownership of the material, connectedness and sharing. We feel that self-regulated learning helps teach problem solving skills that transfer to most other courses, disciplines and SAT questions (not to mention real life!) It also allows for different types of learners to show their strengths (e.g. writing, computer skills, risktaking skills, discussion strengths, presentation skills).

In order to accomplish these things, students must take part in the struggle of working through problems and the listening (or presenting) of their solutions. Students often work with each other and explain their ideas to a problem and compare different types of solutions for the same problem.

This past week I had my 7th grade students complete a Self-Assessment for first quarter where they self-reported on their Class Contributions and self-assessed their understanding of the concepts and topics. When asked what they would like to do next quarter to improve their overall understanding, many of them said “Listen better” in class. This prompted me to ask them – “What does that look like? - Listening better?” Many of them admitted to not paying much attention once they were done explaining their work or presenting their solutions. The idea that they could learn and benefit from another’s explanation is still a small one in their minds. Some students admitted that once they had an answer they were done. Interestingly though, most students in their mini-conference with me were very mature about their desire to learn from their own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others and make better connections from one problem to another as well as make connections to a “bigger idea” or concept.

I discovered a great handout or set of tools that I intend to give to my students in order to help them be better listeners in class. It is a great set of tips though that can help us all listen better and become better communicators. I hope they are helpful to you.

How do I listen better in the (math) classroom?

Benefits of learning additional languages surpass proficiency, global citizenship

By Kelly Northrup
Latin Teacher

Benefits of learning additional languages surpass proficiency, global citizenship

Writing for The Atlantic, Paris-based historian and writer Cody Delistraty highlights the benefits of learning another language, which are by no means limited to proficiency in that language and global citizenship. Globalism is a driving force in the world economy, so proficiency in multiple languages may well provide an economic benefit in the future for our children. However, regardless of whether Webb students use the languages they've studied in their future careers, there are immediate benefits already being realized as language learning strengthens the development of their brains in ways we might perhaps find surprising. This quick article begins by highlighting unique words that exist in other languages but not in English and then summarizes multiple recent studies about the brain-based benefits of language learning for all. Second (or third or fourth!) language study improves memory, focus, and self-awareness, allowing students to accomplish their goals across the curriculum and throughout life. Mirabile dictu --- What a wondrous thing to say!

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/more-languages-better-brain/381193/

Informative pieces about teenagers and vaping

Informative pieces about teenagers and vaping

By Ray Broadhead
Head of School

(The following is excerpted from my Sept. 13 emailed Letter to Current Parents, Students and Faculty/Staff.)

I recently saw a piece on NBC News about teenagers and vaping. Vaping of nicotine, THC, and other substances is becoming a greater problem than tobacco products because these products are not being controlled at an appropriate level. Vaping has been on the increase with Webb students as well in recent years. Here is a link to the NBC piece:

https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/e-cigarette-use-epidemic-fda-chief-says-n908781

Also, here is an informative PowerPoint produced by Cigna and Freedom from Chemical Dependency which contains very helpful information for us naïve adults.

https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/individuals-families/childrenandfamilies-handout.pdf

Every generation of adolescents has to respond to the challenges of substances and possible abuse. We want to work with you to create as safe an environment as possible at Webb. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us, and we will help in any way that we can.