Saturday, November 17, 2007

A tale of three teachers

Yesterday, I attended a coffee night for San Francisco parents interested in Marin Country Day School. Wearing a thick layer of antiperspirant and my mingling shoes, I was feeling confident and ready to chit-chat. I talked to several current MCDS parents. One delivered the great news that the school's buses are converting to biodiesel. Another told me about the number of Noe Valley families attending the school.

And then a prospective parent asked, "Are you the K Files blogger?" I was a little taken back, but said, "Yes." It turns out that she and her husband had been on my Live Oak tour and noticed that I was writing down everything. "And then when we saw you here tonight, my husband said, 'You have to go talk to her,' " she said.

They were friendly and we got to talking about schools, the search, comments on this blog—and then she said, "What really matters are the teachers. If a school has good teachers, then your children will get a good education." I think she's entirely right. This is an excellent point that often gets lost.

And I think her words were especially meaningful at a Marin Country Day School event. The average teacher stays at the school for 16 years. And that night three teachers spoke. Here's a brief rundown:

Doug is one of the school's three kindergarten teachers. He looks a bit like Harry Potter. He's got the same wire glasses, sweet face, and hair, only his is gray. His voice is calm and gentle; it could soothe a colicky baby. And when he talks about kindergarten, his words are thoughtful and heart-felt.

I first observed Doug on an MCDS tour. I actually mentioned him in an earlier post. He's the one who brought tears to my eyes as he played his guitar and sang a song with students gathered round. A few weeks after the tour, I attended a coffee night for MCDS where Doug spoke. I remember thinking, "I've found the perfect kindergarten teacher for Alice." And so I was excited to see him again.

This time, Doug talked about a past need to bring together the school's three kindergartens. His solution? To simulate a farming community. One class is the dairy, another the orchard, and so on. The kids grow plants in their classrooms and roll weather dice. If they don't roll rain, then the plants get no water. The classrooms conduct "business" amongst each other. And the kids actually have little tractors to pedal and pull around compost and produce harvested in the garden.

Doug also talked about the Reggio Emilia Approach, an education philosophy born in northern Italy. The town of Reggio Emilia is supposedly home to the world's best primary education schools and educators from all over the world (including Doug) visit to learn about the innovative approach to learning. In a nutshell, Reggio Emilia is based on the belief that children are equipped with the means and tools to construct their own learning about the world. As a result teachers build their curriculum around the children's ideas and interests. The teacher is a collaborator; not a transmitter. Doug didn't explain all of this as he ran out of time. I tracked down the information in a 1991 Newsweek article, which further piqued my interest.

Jenny—first grade
Jenny talked about a People Study unit. Her students learn to respect differences. They learn about adoption and various family structures. She told us about science and how the kids study snails, and about Math Mania on Wednesdays. And then she went on to reading. "Children really learn to read this year," she said. "There's nothing better than seeing a child read their first book." As she said this, her eyes lit up and you could tell she truly meant it.

Jenny's students primarily learn through phonics. They're reading independently, in groups with a teacher, with a partner. They're also doing lots of writing in their journals. They might read a story and then ponder it in their journals.

Another highlight: the first grade library. The first graders in all three classrooms work together to build an actual library. They write and publish their own books, and file them on shelves. And then they set up a system so they can actually check out books.

Claire-second grade
When Claire's students are conducting a science experiment, they don't pull a kit out of their desks and follow directions in a textbook. Rather, they lie on their tummies, their heads hanging over the edge of the MCDS dock jutting out into San Francisco Bay. They observe sea anemones, barnacles, and rays—and then they start talking amongst each other about what they see. Together, they decide which creature to study. And this is how the class study of San Francisco Bay begins.

Once they've got a creature—Claire said her most recent class chose muscles—they ask questions: What's inside the muscle? Who eats it? What do muscles eat? How does it get stuck to the rock? What temperature water do muscles like?

Next: Divide these questions up into two categories: those you can answer through research and those you can answer by setting up an experiment. And then the kids actually set up experiments: writing a procedure, conducting the experiment, and sharing conclusions. "It's a completely empowering experience for kids," Claire said.

Back at home
When I got home, my kids were in their beds but still awake. "Mama," they cried as I walked into their room. I smothered them in kisses and sat down on Alice's bed.

"Where were you?" Alice asked.

I told her that I had attended a school event. She asked me what I did. As usual, she wanted details. I told her about Jenny explaining how children learn to read.

At that moment, I practically saw a lightbulb appear above Alice's head. Her eyes grew wide and she earnestly said, " I know how I can learn to read. I'll write letters down on a paper and then I'll practice the sounds for those letters. When I want to learn more letters, I'll write down more."

As she explained how she wanted to learn to read, I immediately thought of Reggio Emilia.

"Okay, honey. We'll try that," I said. "That's a great idea."


  1. I'm glad you had a great time. And thank you for keeping the blog so open to different ideas.

    Not that you asked, but our own family has had mixed experiences with Reggio-inspired project based learning. In theory, it sounds great and is currently very popular; I hear it bandied about all the time. But in reality, it's success really depends on the teachers and the child's individual learning style. I believe it takes really, really, truly EXCEPTIONAL teachers to make project based learning successful. It requires a tremendous amount of work to support ALL the students and ensure they cover all the material required. I also believe PBL may not be suitable for students who are not natural leaders. There is potential for some students to fall through the cracks. In my own view, PBL seems more suitable for lower grades and science subjects. I'm a bit skeptical these days.

    But, teachers at MCDS seem great. Good luck!

    One parting observation - Alice Fong Yu appeared to me to be implementing the opposite of PBL. I really loved the school but I was a bit perplexed at how orderly the kindergartens were and how EXACTLY THE SAME thing was going on in each classroom. I believe they set the bar very high at AFY and that this begins in kindergarten with high expectations of behavior and orderliness. This approach obviously has faults but has merits too.

  2. FYI, the JCC preschools use Reggio, though I can't speak to the details. And SF Community in Excelsior uses PBL.

    The comment about the teachers themselves is right on. For all the high-flying theories of learning we are bandying about here, it comes down to that in the end, doesn't it? We have all been to school. Who do you remember from the classroom? Your best teachers. My mom, a salt-of-the-earth type who likes to keep things simple, reminded me of that recently as she watched me enter data in Adams' spreadsheet and attend tours like a lunatic. "It's all in the teachers, Kimmy. You had some good ones. Remember Mr. So-and-So...." And she did! And I did! Even though I grew up in the 70s in the SoCal suburbs where parents were pretty complacent about this stuff, I remember her jockeying for position, working the system to get us the best teachers in that grade. Personally, I think there are good teachers all over the place, and bad apples too. I also think kids can come through a year with a toxic one just fine (er...Mrs. Kaden, 6th grade, Earl LeGette, and, uh, Jenee Lange, Bella Vista HS, anyone...?!)

    I know there is the added layer of how supported teachers are in a given school or system. I know it's tough out there for...a teach.

    Also: A good-teacher callout to Mr. Rutledge, Ms. Kimberly and, most of all, Mr. Barry Rannells (may he rest in peace, and never know that we knew what he was sipping out of his flask while we were dissecting sharks).

  3. Kate, I too am glad you had a good time at the coffee event and that you are getting so excited for your kids' elementary years. Even more than the teaching, it is parental engagement with learning that will make a difference.

    I also agree with the poster who said that one size does not fit all. SFUSD schools have models that range from project-based learning to very disciplined, curriculum-driven models (Alice Fong Yu, Giannini at the middle school level) and that model too has produced large numbers of successful students. There may be additional and different best practices needed for English Language Learners and also those who are less supported with learning at home. The best teachers, in my experience, are familiar with a number of strategies and can be flexible in implementation. The superlative ones can seemingly do it all at once, with different kids, in the same classroom on the same day.

    Speaking of learning to read, my daughter went from knowing her letters to reading books in two weeks with what her teacher described as a combination of phonics, whole word recognition, and contextual reading. My son was on a slow but steady trajectory using mostly phonics and sounding out words. Now he has more word recognition and context. Both were reading by the end of kinder in their public school.

    And speaking of superlative teachers, I know the high school level seems far off for most reading this blog, but I am one of the middle school searchers and that means we are also looking at how each middle school feeds into which high schools (as one measure of academic success). There are the top three 6-8 middle schools in terms of test scores (Presidio, Giannini, Hoover) but also up-and-comers like Roosevelt, Aptos, and even James Lick, which now sends about 1/3 of its kids to Lowell and Lincoln (about 1/2 go to those two plus SOTA, Gateway, up-and-coming Balboa and various privates).

    So I pleased to see this article on the front page of the Chron today about our own Lincoln High's biotech teacher George Cachianes and how his kids competed against MIT, Princeton, Caltech, and Cambridge University in England and other international college students and outscored them. Check out and look for "Our Organelle Kicks Butt" by Bernadette Tansey. In the actual paper it is below the fold on the front page and entitled "S.F. high school's biotech wizards dazzle collegians at national meet."

    Please note, this is not our renowned Lowell High, justifiably considered one of the best high schools in the country, but accessible only through a special admissions process; this is Lincoln High, one of our better comprehensive public high schools, accessible by normal processes. Oh yeah, and it's free!

    Go Lincoln High kids! And kudos to their teacher, who is obviously doing great work.

  4. Yes, Reggio Emilia is the inspiration for the JCC Preschool program, and personally I think it works great! One of the reasons it works so well is that the student-to-teacher ratio is so small at the JCC preschools - usually about 5 to 1. I'm not sure if it would work as well in the larger kindergarten setting in groups much larger than that.

  5. Your post about the first graders creating their own library (what a fabulous idea!) reminded of this news item.

    For those of you parents with younger kids, know that 826 Valencia has wonderful writing programs for kids 8+, for free (requested donation). Plus they have a pirate store. They give preference to public school kids, but usually there is space in their workshops if you apply early. They also do workshops with classrooms and have intensive writing programs onsite at Everett Middle and soon to come, James Lick Middle. Woohoo!!! (I'm a James Lick parent).

    Anyway, here is the item, taken from SFUSD website:

    Wallenberg High Students win Literary Award

    An anthology of children's stories written entirely by students at Wallenberg Traditional High School has been recognized for its "inspired writing and illustrating, enthusiasm for words...and compassion for children and humanity."

    The award was given by the Jenkins Group and Independent Publishers who sponsored the “Moonbeam” children’s book awards.

    The book, entitled, “Exactly: 10 Beavers, 9 Fairies, 8 Dreams, 7 Knights, 6 Princesses, 5 Dogs, 4 Otters, 3 Old Men, 2 Robots, 1 Traveling Shoe & Everything Else it Takes to Make a Great Children’s Story Book, More or Less,” contains tales written by Wallenberg juniors and seniors who participated in the 826 Valencia Young Authors Project last year. Each student worked with volunteers to craft a fairy tale and, once his or her story reached a final draft, met with professional illustrators to find the best scene of the story for the artist to portray.

    Student Monica Zhao, who wrote the story “Xinderella,” said that parts of the project were harder than she imagined. “At first I thought creative writing would be easy, but my story went through 13 drafts,” she says. All the same, she ended up having a lot of fun.

    “I got to know a whole different kind of writing compared to what we do mostly in high school. It was really fun to begin with random ideas and make stories. I feel like this book is a real achievement for us.”

    “Exactly” won in the Moonbeam award’s “Spirit” category.

    The hardcover book was part of 826 Valencia’s Young Authors Project. Volunteers met weekly with students helping them to create, shape, and edit the book. It was published in April, 2007, and is available at the 826 Valencia store (address is the same as the name) in San Francisco for $28.00.

    826 Valencia is a nonprofit writing workshop and tutoring center in San Francisco whose mission is to help students ages 8-18 with their writing skills in the realm of creative writing, expository writing, or English as a second language.

  6. Thank you, Kate, for sharing your observations about all of these schools -- it certainly has helped round out the impressions and information I have been able to glean during my own tours of (mostly the same) schools.

    I also really appreciate the comments people have posted. Probably the anonymity fosters greater candor, but I wish that discussions of the larger issues about the place of education in our society were more out in the open.

    On the topic of the big issues, I want to weigh in on the "tragedy of the commons" effect of the high percentage of people pulling their kids out of the public system, particularly when those are the people with the extra resources to tend and improve the commons, if you'll permit the extended metaphor. Without judging, I think it is important to recognize that as much as parents have to make lots of decisions based on what's "best for our family," as everyone says, these individual decisions, writ large, have huge consequences for the whole lot. These decisions are not without externalities, and while the effect on everyone else shouldn't be the only consideration (except for Peter Singer-type utilitarians), in a community that's working well, individual self-interest corresponds to and reinforces the best interests of all. So, at the end of the day, I am disturbed that choices about education look like so many other symptoms of our society that have gone horribly wrong.

  7. I also have enjoyed reading all of the many comments and responses to this blog. One topic missing has been that of special needs students. Often special learning needs are not identified until a student is well into elementary school, so many parents don't know about these needs until their child is already in school. It is well worth enquiring at schools, as you tour them, how they assess and support special needs students.
    Many private schools are unable to accomodate children with special learning needs. In fact some public schools service private school students! On the other hand, public schools cannot meet certain specific learning and behavioral challenges and need the services of specialized private programs. So sometimes those students are "contracted out" to private schools. We're not talking MCDS...more like places like Edgewood, but this is only in extreme cases.
    This is not an arguement in favor of or against public or private, but I have known private school students to transfer to public because of the need for special services and it can be a very difficult transition. It's just another consideration to factor into your choice of a school.

  8. Hi Kate, are you still planning to write about West Portal School? Thanks.

    Also, thank you to the last two posters above me. You make good and eloquent points that in generalities and specifics somehow reinforce each other. Great discussion on this site overall, really. I too wish the debate could be more public--I think people are afraid it might seem too personal in that case? But the issues raised are so important.

  9. My West Portal review is in the works. I hope to post it later today. Thanks for the interest!

  10. Great, inspiring teachers can be found in both public and private schools.

    Reading this piece different versions of the same people and activities come to mind that my own kids have experienced in SFUSD. The kindergarten teacher sing-a-long to learn about 'head, thorax, abdomen'and the author's brunch where each child read and featured their own published book, the 1st grade overnight to Ft. Funston to learn about the ocean, ecosystem and the rocky seashore, performing "Much Ado About Nothing" in 4th grade, and monthly field trips from everything to the symphony, museums, nature trips, and more. This just scratches the surface!

    Mostly, I've been impressed with how both my kids have received individualized instruction and attention from all their teachers.

    Best of all, we don't pay additionally for it. Just the time we choose to volunteer and donate to the PTA.

  11. I wish that people would state which public school it is that they think is so great. E.g. when I read the above, I immediately thought, "rooftop." It would be wonderful to hear it was not rooftop (or clarendon, or lillienthial or one of the other impossible-to-get-into schools). Since you are posting anonymously anyway, why not state the school?

    As to me, the more I hear about MCDS, the more it strikes me as just a bit too precious. After all, if someone wants their children to be educated in Marin by looking at mussels in the Bay, why not just move there? Marin public schools look awesome.

    Maybe I'm just opposed to any school that makes me write a dissertation on my 4-year-olds strengths and weaknesses. Um, strength: eats mac n cheese one-handed. Weakness: farts after eating too much mac n cheese.

  12. After stepping on a few too many toes, I said I would remove myself from the comments on this blog. (Others have said the things I want to say, and generally more nicely, too!)

    But I just have to respond to one point in this post, something that hasn't drawn any responses yet.

    It's this point...

    "When Claire's students are conducting a science experiment, they don't pull a kit out of their desks and follow directions in a textbook."

    ... I need to refute the implication that students in other schools (at least SFUSD schools) do their science exploration by pulling a kit out of their desk and following directions in a textbook. I would hope that MCDS is not conveying the impression that its hands-on focus is unusual.

    My kids have spent 18-plus kid-years in SFUSD schools so far and have done many science experiments and projects, every one of them every bit as hands-on as studying mussels from the dock. They've done many nature-based studies at Lake Merced, Fort Funston, San Bruno Mountain, Glen Canyon, Mt. Davidson, Ocean Beach, Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands (and probably more that I'm forgetting).

    My kids and their classmates have also done many human behavior-related science studies centered around their urban environment. My daughter did a fourth-grade project on whether drivers stop for pedestrians waiting in crosswalks. It was described in the Chronicle's Matier and Ross column after the result showed that only two of 100 drivers stopped (experiment conducted on Sloat at Everglade). Her classmates have done studies on whether drivers talking on cellphones are more likely to roll through stop signs and on how drivers respond to speed bumps, among other topics.

    This IS a good example of the kinds of things parents might want to ask about, of course. If there is a school that happily says its kids learn science at their desk with kits and textbooks, that's a useful piece of information to consider in choosing whether to apply to the school.

    If I were Sandra Tsing Loh, I would wax outrageously, hysterically ironic about how our public schools can't afford kits, textbooks or even desks, so they HAVE to be hands-on. (Joking! Not true!)

    My son just sent me this item from "The Onion":

    Overfunded Public School Forced to Add Jazz Band

    MANALAPAN, NJ—Benjamin Harrison Middle School faculty members regretfully announced Tuesday that, despite their best efforts to prevent it, the school simply had too much state and federal funding to avoid adding a jazz ensemble to its music program.

    "We did not want it to come to this," principal David DeCarlo said after introducing students to Mr. Metheny, an award-winning jazz guitarist and the new school music teacher. "The children are the ones who are going to suffer. Especially little Sammy Orlovsky, who will have to play those drums where instead of using drumsticks you tap the cymbals with tiny brushes."

    The school plans to use its remaining $22.1 million budget to add a sculpture wing to the art department, triple janitors' salaries, and purchase a second computer.
    OK, back to my retirement now.

  13. Caroline: Thanks for your comment. After rereading my post, I can see how the point about science kits could be misinterpreted. It was something that Claire said and it resonated with me because most of my science in school was done with kits. I specifically remember the kit in my desk in fourth grade--and especially those in junior high. I think Claire's comparison was about the way the past generation vs. the new generation learns science. Not a difference between public vs. private. Thanks for keeping me on my toes! I appreciate your input.

  14. Regarding the school mentioned above, it is not Rooftop, Lillenthal, Lakeshore or Clarendon - or any of the schools that have historically been most highly requested.

    What I wrote here could similarly said of Peabody, Sherman, Sunset, Sutro, Miraloma, Sunnyside, Lafayette, Grattan or McKinley (and many others.) All of these were not considered 'desirable' by many middle class families until the last couple of years.

    The point is - virtually everything noted here here regarding teachers, methods, educational styles, programs, etc. you can find in abundance in SF public schools (sans tuition.)

    Kate, if you live in Glen Park/Noe - you should also check out Sunnyside and Commodore Sloat where many people in the neighborhood are very happy. Lots of kids in the area walk to these neighborhood schools.

  15. There's now an article on the Lincoln High School science teacher (referred to in a previous post on this thread) in the NY Times. can be found at, article dated November 18:

  16. Thanks to Caroline and anyone else who fills in the spotty information out there about public schools. A couple of years ago, when I had just recovered from the preschool process (way more arbitrary and completely random, IMHO), and was already starting to worry about K, an acquaintance of mine, loudly over a table-full of ladies lunching at the house of well-to-do philanthropist, commanded "DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE!" Go see the schools, she said, and see for yourself. And it wasn't sour grapes, she said, because her kid got into all the privates. She would choose the public school over all of them (and it was not one of the impossibles; in fact, until a few years ago, it was one of the undesirables). She had credibility to me. The problem for me is that with the privates, you can attend a 2+ hour journey into the science curriculum at Live Oak, or coffee klatches with parents at MCDS or Friends, banquet brunch spreads accompanied by multi-media presentations at Burke's, and on and on. For the publics, one is lucky to get 40 minutes with the principal whipping you through the place. Catch a class using what might be a worksheet -- no matter that it was created by the teacher herself for some edifying purpose, based on the best research from the Harvard Project One guidelines or whatever, we immediately seize on it as evidence that really the school is just teaching to the test with stultifyingly boring rote learning methods... That's the "hype" my friend told me not to believe, but it's hard, since there's lot of it out there.

    Oh, and the public schools' websites aren't as robust either (probably inadvertently, but some of the private schools' sites were such a turnoff that I ruled them out without even visiting. I guess on that score, the publics win, since half the time I couldn't even find a decent photo of the school on the website -- if they had one -- so I was forced to visit...)

    So, I guess what I'm saying is that what I enjoy most about this blog are the comments from people who actually have kids in these schools -- parents who have had the opportunity to learn about the curriculum from experience. Then I feel like I'm giving the schools a fair shake. Please Caroline and others with information -- don't keep it to yourselves!

  17. Please, identify the school where your ladies luncheon friend is happily sending her kids!

    I want to hear more from happy parents about their public schools--whether the schools are the Clarendons or the Miralomas--and I'd LOVE it if the schools were named.

    I've walked away from private school tours and open houses having a very good idea about the type and quality of education my son might receive, but have felt less confident about my ability to judge the public schools given that mere minutes in the classrooms and perhaps a little chat with a principal can't compete with hours long tours, video presentations and well-rehearsed pitches from heads of school, admissions directors and the like.

    Perhaps this is not the right forum, but I'd happily follow a link to the place that is if someone could point me there.

  18. Maybe Kate can have this Monday's discussion topic be Comments from happy public parents.

    Our child is in K at Sherman in Cow Hollow. Excellent sch, getting better each yr. (Classrm photos etc are very informative, you need the password which you can get on a tour or call school). for parent reviews.

    Very pleased w/K teacher (very experienced, focused on developmentally-approp learning, etc) and the principal. Strong academics, enrichment, involved parent community, beautiful library, computer rm, etc. 7:50 am start. They were studying the alphabet, strong emphasis on literacy. Field trips to library, Academy of Sciences, etc. Amazed at the weekly enrichmt:
    * Tues: 8:15 -8:45a. Choral music
    9:30 -10:15a. Computers
    * Wed: 10:30-11:15a Art
    12noon-12:45 Gymnastics (2d & 4th Wed) & PE (1st & 3d Wed)
    * Thur: 8-8:50a Gardening (on 2d & 4th Thurs)
    12 - 12:35p Library
    12:40-1:10 p Dance
    * Fri: 1:15-1:45p Reading Buddies (w/4th or 5th grader one-on-one). Lot of above due to principal leadership teamed with parental fundraising (goal $100k this yr, not bad, considering only 2 Genl Ed K classes). We hope the teachers and programs are just as good as our child gets into the higher grades.

    Demographics: Our child's K class: 11 white, 3 Asian-Am, 2 Hisp, 2 Middle Eastern, 1 Afr-Am, 1 Indian-Am. Nice families. Higher grades have more Chinese-Am children from lower socio-economic homes; lower grades increasingly non-minority, middle and upper class, educated families.

    Downsides: no foreign language

    Tours are Fri 9 am. (If this is a problem, contact school or Sherman PTA to arrange for another time or to talk to current parents).

    Good luck! I couldn't tell too much about the publics, too, and in hindsight didn't tour enough, so had to go with the gut feeling, (great resource) and quizzing happy public parents (how we found Sherman).

  19. THANKS to the poster above. Kate, willing to make "happy public parents" a discussion topic? I'm thirsty for first-hand comments and named schools!

    Thanks to ALL of you for sharing your experiences in this process. I woke up today thinking It will all be okay--a huge relief.

  20. The "Don't believe the hype!" woman is a parent at Miraloma.