Curiosity-Based Learning through iProjects

A design principle that guides our work, we believe that curiosity and passion drive learning. A recent Parent University workshop walked parents through the research behind curiosity-based learning and shared one way in which Upper School teachers are guiding students to investigate their passions–iProjects. Head of Upper School Blair Peterson and Upper School Head of Learning and Innovation Emily Breite started with questions as they shared their thoughts about curiosity-based learning (much gratitude is offered to Becky Tussey, iProject Coordinator, who was unable to be with us for the workshop) and walked parents through the student iProject experience. We ended the session with parents sharing ways in which they hope to support their child’s curiosity-based learning outside the classroom.

The following slides offer a window into the presentation:

Curiosity-Based Learning Slide Presentation


Study Skills and Strategies: Promoting Student Success, Efficiency, and Independence

Samantha Flowers, Director of Academic Resources, led parents of Middle Schoolers through a workshop on study skills and strategies with the goal of promoting student success, efficiency, and independence. She was joined by Academic Resource Specialists Ann Plumer and Jim Mathews. Parents were surprised and loved that they were able to receive a demonstration from several awesome student leaders!
A copy of the presentation is embedded here in Samantha’s blog.  As she learns about new tools and strategies, she will be sure to share them there. The strategies and examples presented in this workshop are linked to this Parent Resource Page.

Reading With Your Child: K-2 Literacy

On September 15Literacy Specialist and Grade 1 Learning Coach Angie Bush hosted a workshop for parents to learn how they can enhance, strengthen and reinforce their child’s reading habits. Angie discussed how to help build the foundation for early literacy and shared techniques for boosting reading skills. Parents walked through a phonics experience with Angie as though they were in one of the classrooms with the students. Additionally, Angie offered several tools (outlined below) for parents to better read with and to their child.

Experts in child literacy are unanimous in their belief that parents should read with their children. The power of the parent-child bond has a positive effect on a child’s attitude toward reading and the child’s ability to read. This emotional space is what best promotes learning. Reading daily with your child is critical to development in many ways. There is no better way to increase vocabulary, teach literacy fundamentals, and expose your child to images and words to which they would otherwise not be exposed.

However, just saying the words on the page, while giving some benefits to your child, will not make the experience as productive as possible. By adding just a few small changes to your read-aloud time, you will be greatly increasing your child’s reading preparedness. Try the suggestions below to help make reading with your child both a pleasure and a learning experience.

  1. Choose the right book using the “five-finger rule.”

Have your child open the book to any page in the middle of the book and read that page. Each time she comes across a word h/she does not know, h/she should hold up a finger. If h/she gets to five fingers before h/she finishes reading the page, the book is too hard. If h/she doesn’t hold up any fingers, the book is probably easy for your child and can be used to build reading fluency. If h/she holds up two or three fingers, the book is likely to be at a good level for her reading to grow.

  1. Before you read the text:
  • Read the Title, Author’s Name, and Illustrator’s Name  It’s important for children to become familiar with what these three things mean. Explain what author and illustrator mean. It’s also great for them to understand that every book is written and illustrated by real people.
  • Ask Your Child to Make Predictions  Read the title and look at the cover, then ask your child to tell you what h/she thinks might happen in the book. Most children will be quite uncomfortable with this in the beginning since they don’t know the answer, and they want to please you by saying only correct answers. Encourage them by saying that there is no wrong answer, but rather you just want them to take a guess. Ask them again in the middle of the book to make a prediction about how the story will end, and you could even make your own prediction and sometimes model that it’s okay to make an incorrect prediction.
  1. Use sound strategies to tackle a new word.
  • Ask your child to sound out an unknown word. Look at the letters in a difficult word and have your child pronounce each sound, or phoneme. Then see if h/she can blend the sounds together to pronounce the word.
  • Ask your child what word or idea would make sense in the plot of the story when h/she gets stuck on an unfamiliar word.
  • Encourage your child to look at illustrations, pictures, titles, or graphs to figure out the meaning of new words.
  • Help your child memorize irregular words. Explain that words like where, hour, or sign are hard to sound out since they don’t follow normal sound patterns; these are Red Words. Point these words out when you’re reading to help your child learn to recognize them on their own.
  • Use suffixes, prefixes, and root words. If your child knows the word day, guide him to define new words like yesterday or daily. Similarly, if they know what pre- means, it’s easy to learn new words like prepare or preschool.
  1. Use the story to help your child learn.
  • Ask Your Child What Is Happening In the Pictures  It may not seem like pictures are as significant of a learning tool as the words, but when your child examines what is happening in a picture and explains it, it develops his/her inference skills. Doing this once or twice during a book will give him/her a chance to practice without completely interrupting the flow of the book.
  • Move Your Finger as You Read  By moving your finger underneath the words as you read, your child understands that you read left to right and top to bottom. It also helps children from a very young age to understand that the words you are saying are those written on the page, not just your own thoughts. Every couple of days, use this trick on a page or two just so that your child will begin to take notice of some very important literacy fundamentals.
  • Ask Questions  Asking a question every few pages is frequent enough to check your child’s understanding without breaking the flow of the story. You can ask basic recall questions, like “What did Mom say she needed at the store?” as well as reasoning questions like “How do you think Mom will get to the store?” and you can also throw in expansion questions like “What would you buy at the store to cook for dinner?” The goal is to engage your child in the story, but beware that if you stop too often you will turn your child off to reading with you altogether because it will become a frustrating situation to him/her.
  • Reread the same books again…and again…(and again)  Most adults like to read a book once, and unless it’s a favorite, they will move on to another one. However, children like to read the same books over and over again. This helps them to make permanent in their mind the words and concepts that their brain is understanding. Regardless of the repetition, it is helping your child learn when you happily read and re-read books.
  1. Give support and encouragement.
  • Challenge your child to figure out new words, but always supply the word before he becomes frustrated.
  • After your child has read a story, reread it aloud yourself so that he can enjoy it without interruption.
  1. Be a good role model. Let your child see you reading, and share your excitement when you enjoy a great book of your own.
  2. Make reading a priority. Whether it’s 10 minutes every night before bed or an hour every Sunday morning, it helps to set aside a specific time for reading. This kind of special “together time” can go a long way toward getting your child interested in books.
  3. Create the right atmosphere. Find a quiet comfortable place to listen to your child read. While you don’t need to build a special reading nook, it helps to ensure that, even in a busy home, there’s a quiet place for reading.
  4. Make reading fun. Kids may not get excited about the idea of quiet time spent curled up on the couch. Why not make it fun by turning reading sessions into impromptu theater performances? Play around with funny voices to impersonate animals or unusual characters in stories. You’ll get to release some tension, and your child will learn to think of reading as fun rather than work.
  5. Keep reading aloud to your child. Don’t stop reading aloud to your child once she learns to read by herself. When you read to her, you let your child enjoy books that are beyond her independent reading level and build her vocabulary by exposing her to new words. Reading aloud is also a chance for you to model reading smoothly and with expression.
  6. Introduce new books. Each year there is one book that seems to steal the hearts and minds of all children. While it may seem like the only book your child wants to read, it’s important to remember that there are millions of books that will suit your child’s interests and capture his imagination. Use these resources to help your child find great books:

Your local library. Get a card and go! Attend story times!

Book stores. Browse the children’s section. What peaks their curiosity?

Scholastic Books Parent Resources

Random House Children’s Books

The Children’s Literature Web Guide

Additional Resources

On-line Book Resources


The Library of Congress

RAZ Kids


Reading is Fundamental

Reading Rainbow

Reading Rockets


Kids Media

Reading Rockets


The National Reading Panel. September, 2015.

Reading is Fundamental. September, 2015.

Angie Bush, 2015.

Making Sense of Number Sense: A Mathematics Workshop for Parents

Garland Linkenhoger, our extraordinary math consultant, led two sessions with parents to Share the Well on the way in which we teach math with children in Pre-K-2 and in grades 3-6. She provided a window into the types of learning experiences that happen daily to build students’ number sense and problem solving strategies relating to multiplication and division.

Here is the video of the session for grades 3-6:  Parent University: Share the Well- Math

The books that Garland mentioned at the end of the sessions as highly-worthy reads include:

“As children learn to recognize, be intrigued by, and explore patterns, as they begin to overlay and interpret experiences, contexts, and phenomena with mathematical questions, tools (tables and charts), and models…they are constructing an understanding of what it really means to be a mathematician–to organize and interpret their world through a mathematical lens. This is the essence of mathematics.”  Young Mathematicians at Work: Constructing Number sense, Addition, and Subtraction by Fosnot and Dolk, 2001

“By constructing their own strategies and defending them, children are immersed in an investigation that involves mathematizing. Children are exploring ideas–fair sharing, equivalence, and common denominators; the connection between fractions, division, multiplication; common fractions–in relation to their own level of cognitive development. As children learn to recognize, be intrigued by, and explore patterns, and as they begin to overlay and interpret experiences, contexts, and phenomena with mathematical questions, tools, and models, they are constructing what it really means to be a mathematician. They are learning to organize and interpret their world through a mathematical lens. This is the essence of mathematics.”  Young Mathematicians at Work: Constructing Fractions, Decimals, and Percents by Fosnot and Dolk, 2001

We look forward to Garland returning in February and hosting another Parent University in Math!

Hungry for more? Here are some additional resources for further reading:

Expanding Learning Walks: Scaling Up the Practice to Include All Stakeholders

By Shelley Clifford, Head of Lower School
Since participating in an all-school read of Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap about five years ago, our school has embraced the practice of learning walks. This practice is part of a larger effort to transform school culture from a closed door, master teacher mindset to an open door, teacher as collaborator mindset. Additionally, schools tend to look out to find experts in the field, but we are finding that looking in and observing the high performing faculty with whom we share a campus may be more valuable.

We began learning walks by encouraging teachers to stop by a classroom for 1-5 minutes after dropping students off at PE or art. Administrators and teacher leaders modeled how this looks by popping in and spending a few minutes as a fly on the wall. Wanting this to be a positive experience, we left post-it notes or shared tweets that highlighted a bright spot from our observation.

Learning walks starting catching on and teachers became more and more comfortable with opening their own doors and welcoming unannounced visitors. At the same time, teachers grew to appreciate the opportunity to observe a colleague and refined their own observational skills. As a matter of fact, we replaced the word tour in our Mount Vernon vernacular with “learning walk.” When other schools requested a tour of our school, we offered them a learning walk. Our admissions tours became learning walks as well. We feel that this better communicated the purpose and intentionality around hosting visitors.

This year we decided to include families in learning walks of Lower School classrooms. We invited parents representing grade levels K-4 including new and returning families. We started small but hoped the experience would be a positive one, worth scaling up.

Five moms met on campus at  8:15 last Thursday morning. We sat in a circle in our Kindergarten Commons and exchanged introductions to build some community among the parents. As part of the introduction, we each contributed to the visible thinking routine, a process for developing habits of thinking and making our thoughts visible – usually on post-it notes. The prompt was I think I know…  Some of those responses included:

I think I know…

  • ideas around culture
    • that I am about to see excited children
    • that it is going to be a great day
    • how the flow of the day happens
    • why people love Mount Vernon
    • there will be a morning meeting
    • the children will be having fun
    • elementary school looks different today
  • ideas around instruction
    • there will be small groups and whole groups
    • phonics will be happening
    • classes will be using the Box Light
    • some classes will be working in centers
    • what happens in my son’s classroom

Next, I led the group through some background information about the development of our growth-minded, open-door culture and the role that learning walks played in that. Parents were very impressed that our teachers regularly participated in the process of observing teaching and learning among their grade level colleagues as well as between grade levels as a strategy for professional learning and professional collaboration.

We asked our parents to begin the learning walk with the thoughts of I like, I wish, I wonder. Then, we divided up the group and jumped into classrooms beginning in Kindergarten and hitting each grade level, in order, through fourth grade. There were a few questions between classrooms and a few moments where clarification was given in the rooms, but for about one hour, there were just quiet, independent observations going on. Parents entered the classroom, faded into the background or looked over a student’s shoulder and took notes on the learning – maybe learning reflected through student comments, conversations, or questions. The learning that was observed may have been evidenced in the writing on the tables, the student work hanging on the walls, or work in journals.

We saw small group phonics instruction in Kindergarten. Some students were finding letters that said /k/, /a/, /b/… and blending such a word. Others were sky writing and identifying letter names, sounds, and keywords. In first grade numeracy games were being played with 10 frames, rekenreks, and a tie in to whale watching in one classroom and the Daily 5 literacy centers going on in another. In second grade, we saw word detectives on the hunt for -ink, -ank, -unk words. Some third graders were collaborating as editors while others were in the hall having number corner. Finally, fourth graders were rotating through inquiry stations exploring questions like, “Where did Magellan go next?” in one classroom and publishing their final copies of a writing piece in another one.

After completion of the walk, we all gathered back together to debrief. Two visible thinking routines were now in use: I think I know… Now I know and I like, I wish, I wonder. Opening with the simple thought of, “Well, what did you think?” opened a flood gate of impressions, questions, and excitement of what was observed. The feedback from the parents included:

I like:

  • phonics was fun with kids writing in the sand
  • phonics was much more in-depth than I thought
  • that students are learning about short and long sounds as well as terminology like the breve
  • that learning math was tactile all the way through the grade levels, not just in K
  • connections between math and science being made
  • seeing how kids are taught to think differently
  • what K students knew about coins
  • that math was made relevant to the students’ world, like with the tooth chart
  • connections between social studies and literacy
  • that teachers can project their phone on the Box Light
  • visuals around conflict resolution
  • teachers offered lots of different ways for students to complete a writing piece like post-it notes or spider legs
  • kids can add post-it notes at any time, not just on the spot
  • seeing kids working together so often

I wish

  • we showcased more of the reading, writing, and math that we saw today in promotional and admissions materials
  • the learning coaches could teach more of our families about the Mount Vernon instructional practices

I wonder

  • how third grade uses the Chrome Books
  • how many other preschool and kindergartens use multisensory phonics instruction like ours
  • what grade US History and wars are taught explicitly
  • about nonsense words in second grade
  • how students know how to work with partners
  • what a document camera is and how it is used
  • how often teachers do learning walks

These observations opened the door for some rich conversations around learning in Lower School. In response to some questions and comments we were able to zoom out and explain about the research and design work that goes on school wide at Mount Vernon. We were able to share brain research and pedagogical practices. On other topics we were able to zoom in and drill down to understand the heart of our curriculum. Each parent left with a much richer understanding of who Mount Vernon is, how dedicated and passionate our teachers are, and why our students love their school!

As an exit ticket, parents added one more post-it in response to the prompt,

Now I know…

  • how teachers use innovative techniques to solidify foundational skills
  • differentiation comes in many shapes and sizes in Lower School classes
  • the social studies curriculum is dispersed through grades K-4.
  • kids learn a lot in the morning!
  • how phonics practice looks in the classroom
  • how bright kindergarten children are
  • kids are engaged in what they are learning
  • that the children are learning why, not just the facts
  • about the way Chromebooks are introduced, implemented, monitored, and utilized
  • that children are learning to think and problems for themselves

Each parent agreed that we should continue to offer learning walks to our parent body. It was a great day to take a peek inside classrooms and receive feedback from a different perspective. We plan to open the invitation to anyone who is interested. I will be interested to see how the next couple of rounds go.

Parents Are Multipliers!

Parents Are Multipliers!

In his Head of School Address, Dr. Jacobsen inspired parents, teachers, and students to be multipliers. What might this mean for parents at Mount Vernon?

As multipliers, parents are curious. We ask the big and challenging questions that will help us be stronger parents and learn more about who and why our children are the way they are. The more questions we ask and the more we learn, the more we can achieve breakthroughs in small bites that have exponential results. What avenues do we have to quench our curiosities?

Parent University

As multipliers, parents are connectors. We seek to understand our children’s curiosities and passions so that we can connect them to the appropriate mentors and place them in the right settings so that they can grow. Where can we find the resources to make these connections?

Parent University

As multipliers, parents build to last. We recognize that what we invest in our children today will impact their tomorrow. But where should we invest? How might we use our time, talents, and treasure in order to garner the best return for our children?

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and Parent University

Parent University equips parents with the tools to be a multiplier! Through sessions on teaching and learning to child development, join Mount Vernon’s own experts as well as those from the outside to propel your own learning, understand your child’s experience at school, and deepen your relationships within our community.  We invite you to visit the Parent University page on the website regularly to see what sessions are upcoming, connect to this blog to extend the sessions beyond the meeting, and access resources that may be helpful along the way in your parenting journey.