Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tour notes for SF Friends and Presidio Hill, and questions on project-based learning

With private school application deadlines looming, I’m racing to get a few more private school tour notes posted. I just added notes on San Francisco Friends School and Presidio Hill School to the database. (I also hope I can get write-ups together on French American International and Chinese American International early this week, but may run out of time.)

In putting together these notes, I found myself left with a few broader questions. Both Friends and PHS are schools that emphasize project-based learning. I didn’t toured every private PBL school in San Francisco (you’ll see the list of private schools we toured and why here), but we did visit a few. After these tours, I definitely have a much better understanding of PBL. But I’d also like to hear thoughts from parents who are either currently in PBL schools, or who decided to go in another direction.

First, for context, here are some vignettes from our tours of PHS and Friends. As you’ll see, I had clearer impressions from some classroom visits than I did others.


  • In the second-grade classroom, students had chosen a medieval theme for the year, complete with a castle built at one end of the room. During our visit, the kids were working on writing “flipped” fairy tales, or retellings of traditional versions. Many students were busy scribbling -- one girl, for example, was crafting a story about a witch who used her broom to sweep floors instead of ride through the skies. A few boys, though, were doodling or drawing pictures instead of writing. It was hard to tell if they were being given a chance to express a different learning preference, or if they just weren’t engaged in the assignment.
  • In a fifth-grade math room, students were working on multiplication by looking at a screen projection showing a problem and three solutions. None of the solutions provided the exact answer. Instead, the class was being asked to say which was the closest answer, and why. The students were all engaged in the discussion – no one seemed lost or checked out.
  • In the middle school science lab, students were learning about homeostatis by putting ice cubes in water and then using a mix of heat, water, and more ice to keep the temperature at a constant state for 20 minutes. The kids were all engaged, laughing, breaking up big chunks of ice with a hammer, and busily checking their thermometers and timers.


  • In a kindergarten room, students were working on their “magic letters.” As their teacher explained it, the class had been assigned a few letters of the alphabet that day – C, O, and Q. Then they started working with those letters, laying them out with sticks, writing them in the air, writing them on each other’s backs, and then finally writing them on paper. The kids were working enthusiastically and having a great time.
  • In a middle school math classroom, the students were working on fractions by building bridges out of popsicle sticks and rubber bands. One explained to us that the bridges would later be tested for their weight-bearing capacity as a demonstration of ratios and denominators. Some of the kids, though, didn’t seem focused on the task at hand, and were talking among themselves about other things. The teacher also didn't seem directly engaged in the activity, and was instead sitting up at the front of the classroom working on a laptop. Overall, I didn’t get a clear sense of exactly what was being taught, how the topic was being taught at that time, or if all the students were involved.

I’m not presenting these vignettes as total representations of these schools. Instead, I’m offering them as a way to get perspectives on project-based learning. In some of the above, I got a good sense of the educational dynamic. In others, it was less clear.

Parents with kids in PBL schools, what has your experience been? How do PBL schools stand out? How do you measure what your kids have learned, and what have you found important? Or, if you chose a different type of school, why?

While the above examples reflect Friends and PHS, perspectives from other private PBL schools are definitely welcome. It'd also be great to hear from parents with children in public schools with PBL programs, such as SF Community, Creative Arts Charter, and Clarendon.


  1. The Friends Kindergarten is using Handwriting Without Tears, as do a number of SFUSD schools (and many other schools and OT programs). It's an excellent program. It is not novel or unique to Friends, however.

  2. After touring 13 public and 7 private schools, I've come to the conclusion that project-based learning looks messier and more unfocused in the classroom than traditional instruction. But as a teacher of college students, I have precious few students who seek out problems instead of answers, who ask questions other than "is this going to be on the test," who read for pleasure, who can do research, and who are able to critique material on terms other than "this is boring." And guess what? These students are, for the most part, coming out of less traditional school environments.
    The kids out of schools driven by content-based curricula and testing are good memorizers, and that's pretty much it.

  3. I am not that optimistic about PBL. I am not against it. However, I think for ES, the goal is to find the best way for your kid to learn, not to try to fit him into one particular method.

    Everyone learns differently. Some learn well by reading. Some learn by doing exercises. Some learn by doing projects. Some are visual learners. Some are observers. Some are good at abstract thinking but some are not. There is not one particular learning method for everyone.

    PBL may be good for some, but definitely not for everyone. However, there is no way we know when the kid is 5. We may have better ideas for MS.

  4. Hi Seattle!

    I missed you and your mom at the Sherman tour by a couple of days!

    Hugo's preschool is project based... and he LOVES it. Last year, the projects in his preschool class included "water" and "around the world". Basically the teachers pay attention to what interests the kids and then spin a curriculum (art, math, science, reading) around those interests.

    The kids had so much fun playing with water that the teachers created a project about water. The class read books about the water cycle, measured rain fall, made ice cubes, etc. For the around the world project, the teachers noticed that the kids love singing the color song in Spanish. From that they spun a project about different cultures. They created a "passport" that the kids got to stamp for each of the 7 continents they learned about.

    For more examples, Edutopia has an article about project based learning

    Sadly, because of the overemphasis on testing and greater expectations of what children should master at younger ages, project-based learning (or any child-directed curriculum) is a rarity in public schools.

    From what I can tell, SF Community is definitely PBL, but is out of our commute path.

    The other schools we toured that say they are "project based" seem to use projects as supplements to the traditional, academic curriculum. Accordingly, we also looked at schools with more science emphasis... using the scientific method as a way of thinking, learning or discovering.

  5. Helga, what preschool does your son go to? Sounds amazing. Thanks.

  6. Someone should also mention to friends that two of the holidays on the Holidays We Celebrate sign in the K room are misspelled. And I think they should be a little more forward about splitting up boys and girls. We saw middle schoolers in PE - who were playing basketball in their school clothes and shoes like ballet flats - who were separated by gender. When someone asked, we were told, "Oh, yes, we are considering the research and we all know that boys and girls learn differently, so we're trying it out and separating them in PE, MATH & SCIENCE. WTH?? There is a reason I am looking at coed vs. single sex, so this would be an important issue to many of us. I was pretty disappointed - expected to like the school a lot more.

  7. Can someone speak to the benefits or detriments they see of a school the size of PSH. We lean towards a smaller school environment and would like to know how that environment works in practice.

  8. I wish our public SFUSD school was using a program like E. Rat mentioned. I rarely seen a lined paper. If they are lined, it's from the copies they made of the HM materials and they are not stressed to use the lines. Although my child's handwriting didn't start off bad, it is beginning to mesh together without direction...

  9. Argonne uses the same program Hand Writing Without Tears that was observed at Friends

  10. Helga,

    "Water" isn't a project. Sounds like thematic teaching, i.e., diverse activities loosely grouped around a general topic. An example of project-based learning would be more like: design a toy that moves across the water. What would you need to know to make something like that? How could you find out? Or maybe: find a way to reduce the amount of water wasted when we use the water fountain. Why is water waste a problem? What are some ways we could divert the water that gets wasted? Challenges and complex questions are what make project-based learning intellectually stimulating.

    --Public school teacher who uses PBL, and hasn't used thematic teaching since it went out in the 1990's.

  11. FWIW, Handwriting Without Tears is something one could use at home with one's child. The materials (the letter building blocks, the puppet, etc.) are cute and kids like them. This is the website:

    I would say that there are competing pressures in Kindergarten:

    1. Giving children the freedom to write imaginatively, with good detail and voice AND phonetic spelling/sight words but not worrying too much about letter formation beyond basic legibility

    2. Neat, easy letter formation.

    For some children, the mental and physical task of writing neatly is so strenuous that content suffers. Of course, if children write fluently but illegibly that is also a problem.

    I don't know what the perfect balance is - just some thoughts on why you might not see a whole lot of lined paper.

  12. Project based learning at SF Community public school is quite different than what Helga is describing from preschool. It's definitely teacher-directed, not child-directed. K-5 students do 2 multidisciplinary projects a year, approx. 1/2 of each semester, around a schoolwide theme (Health & Human Body, Physical World & Design, Community, and Environment.) The projects are challenge based and are planned by the teacher team at each grade level to incorporate the state standards, while also engaging the children and teaching them scientific inquiry, social justice and other stuff that's not on the standardized tests. For example, under Health and Human Body, 4th and 5th graders hike all the peaks of San Francisco while learning about the cardiovascular system and measuring distance and the effects on their own fitness, and writing an illustrated guidebook. Under Environment, they make recommendations to the SF Zoo for improving animal environments based on a report they write on their animal through scientific observation on visits to the zoo, supplemented by research, build a scale model of the animal's enclosure and debate the ethics of zoos. They are still having their normal math instruction, book groups, etc. during project time, but they relate to the project.

  13. I went to the evening orientation and morning classroom tour at the Friends School with a friend who is considering the middle school for her son. We found two things rather amusing.

    1. Silence
    Besides silence in worship, Quaker tradition makes silence a spiritual component of individual personal practice. The Head of School and the Director of Admissions both spoke about the importance and power of silence and how the students are expected to sit in silence “to reflect,” BUT SILENCE WAS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND IN THAT BUILDING! The funky renovation of the old Levy factory combined with thin walls produces in very bad acoustics. It was extremely noisy on both days, from basketballs bouncing overhead (the gym is on the third floor) to the noise of kids running, jumping, and dancing in an adjoining room constantly interrupting the presentations. The Director of Admissions kept opening a sliding door to ask the students to be quiet so that we could hear the faculty talk about the school. When we visited the art room, the teacher complained that the band was next to her classroom; the noise was disruptive and drove her and her students crazy. I guess that’s the sounds of silence.

    2. Grades
    They don’t give grades, and they don’t believe in grades. This was repeated several times by the Head of School during the two visits. When the Director of Admissions started reviewing the application process, she noted that parents must provide a copy of their child’s most recent transcript (grades). A parent asked why they need transcripts since they don’t believe in grades, and the Head of School replied, “We use them to evaluate the student.” Now how hypocritical is that!

    After the tour, my friend and I decided that the word “cult” best describes our overall impressions of the Friends school. Did anyone else get that vibe?

  14. 12:07, the bit about noise is funny ... I hadn't really put the bad acoustics in the silent meeting room together with the emphasis on silence.

    But truthfully, I didn't get a cult-like feeling about Friends, though it's clearly a school people either love or hate. They have such a specific mission, and such a detailed philosophy, that I think people react strongly negatively or positively. Maybe it's like Waldorf in that way. I happen to think Quaker tenets are more rational than those of Rudolph Steiner (though I am not Quaker), but to each their own.

  15. Re: December 13, 2010 3:24 PM

    To which school is the post referenced above (about the mispellings and gender separation) referring?

  16. The post is referring to Friends. It is named (though not capitalized) in the first sentence.

  17. 12/13 2:24 My sons go to a Bright Horizons/Marin Day preschool/child care center affiliated with my employer. We feel very lucky to be a part of it. : )

    12/13 9:18 Thanks for clarifying what project based teaching in looks like (the kids in my sons preschool class were 3 years old turning 4). Please let me know what school you are using PBL!

    12/14 12:41 I wish SF Community was in our commute path!

  18. We are moving from Europe this summer where my kids have been students in the International Baccalaureate since 2007. My oldest 2 are in HS and will attent the Fr. Amer. Int'l school, but I am searching for a school for my son entering 7th grade. Can anyone recommend a school? I have made contact with Presidio Hills and The San Francisco Schools but am so confused and this is so hard to do from abroad!

  19. Welcome Paige. French American starts in K, so perhaps you want to apply for him to the same school as his siblings? There are also other options, both private and public. For private you might consider other schools relatively near the FAIS campus -- Friends, Live Oak, Children's Day School. Or to go with another French option, the Lycee. For public, there are many options as well. You could try for a smaller school, like a K-8, like SF Community, Claire Lilienthal, Rooftop (the latter two may be hard to get into.) Or if he's brave and wants something bigger, you could look into Roosevelt (grades 6-8) or Presidio or Aptos or further away AP Giannini. If you contact SFUSD, setting up an appointment with a counselor, they would be able to help you with the process. Good luck!