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28 10, 2015

Solar Powered by the Genius of Ancona Students

By | October 28th, 2015|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

By Balazs Dibuz, Director of Teaching and Learning and Sylvia Glassco, Head Teacher, 5th / 6th Grade Mathematics

Just in time for longer nights and shorter days, and the onset of sunlight deprivation that will last more than six months as we stumble through another cold Chicago winter, the solar panels our 5th and 6th graders acquired through a grant have arrived and been installed on the small roof over the “old entrance.” Hurrah! And, no, I am not being ironic; it really is a good thing that the panels arrived when they did. While they do produce 8KW of output under optimal conditions, which is about 2% of the school’s overall electricity usage, the Chicago winter, when conditions are far from optimal, is a perfectly acceptable setting for this teaching tool. Students will be able to monitor the variations in energy produced by the panels as we begin to replace some of the school’s dirty energy with renewable.

solar panels on roof

We have solar panels because our 5th and 6th graders, as part of their “Climate Change Model Summit” last year, proposed an increased investment in alternative energy as one way to tackle the climate change-causing effects of greenhouse gas (carbon, methane, etc.) emissions, and we wrote a Curriculum Connection article about it, and Jonathan Pereira, a parent of two younger students at Ancona, together with an organization called Earth, Wind, & Solar Energy, helped us apply for a grant through the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, and Fred, our maintenance manager, and Reggie, our Director of Finance and Operations, prepared the building to make the install possible. That is, we have solar panels because we worked as a community to get them.

Now that the panels are installed, the learning can continue. Some of the first lessons related to the panels will have to do with realities and limitations, as the panels could not be installed in the location our students’ analysis determined would be optimal for the collection of solar energy. The challenge of connecting to the existing electrical system, and of finding a structurally suitable location, were unanticipated factors that made this process true experiential, or project-based learning; dealing with real-world challenges only increases the learning potential involved in the project. Our students, excited to see tangible results of their efforts, will now track the energy production of the solar panels. With careful attention to seasonal and weather-related variation, students will examine the physical processes of energy conversion (from solar to electrical energy).

But our students won’t stop there. They are eager to explore ways to increase the size and scope of Ancona’s solar panel array, as well as other uses of alternative energy, and to improve the overall efficiency of Ancona’s energy consumption. Last year’s Climate Change unit was a catalyst that served to bring together our students’ prior knowledge and environmental questions with our collective community desire to identify and address real-world problems. Students hope that this learning experience will be just the beginning, a project that will continue to grow with them and inspire future “generations” of scientist at Ancona.

17 09, 2015

The Strategic Plan: 2015

By | September 17th, 2015|Curriculum Connection, Parent News|0 Comments

Come to the Town Meeting on October 6, 2015! Ancona is embarking on a thrilling and fast-paced strategic plan to get us where we want to go in only three years. In very short time, we determined what we need most and can accomplish by listening to you and each other.

    • Fall 2014 – Spring 2015: Dozens of interviews with parents, staff, and students
    • May 2015: Faculty survey and parent survey
    • May 2015: Town meeting
    • June 2015: Board retreat
    • July – Aug 2015: Strategic Plan Task Force (SPTF)
    • October 6, 2015: Town meeting 

With great motivation, and unfaltering dedication to what we had discovered, the board and SPTF have captured a daunting variety of goals – 43 of them! These goals fit into seven broad categories:

  1. Education Program
  2. Fiscal Strength
  3. Economic Diversity, Tuition and Financial Aid
  4. Enrollment and Retention
  5. Facilities
  6. Communications
  7. Community Building

When we began leading this process, we imagined that emerging with three goals would be commendable and realizable. But as we saw the fine details of each of these goals, we agreed that they all needed to be done and – unexpectedly – could be done. Avoiding a more common strategic plan that would take 5 years to arrive at and 10 years to complete (and be outdated right away), we sought goals that met these criteria:

  1. Low-hanging fruit: Goals should be realizable in 3 years or less, and cost nothing or very little
  2. High leverage: Goals should have a large effect for enrollment, retention, and reach a broad audience of many constituents

The board dedicated its entire retreat, six  hours, to articulating these goals. Next, twelve volunteers of the SPTF – parents, board members, staff, faculty, and the Head – spent nine hours (plus homework!) to refine this list and respond to the needs parents and faculty helped us identify in the school year. You may see your own thoughts reflected in these goals, and when you do, I hope you’ll jump up with me to lend your shoulder to the wheel.

Ancona has two town meetings a year. At the next one, people from throughout Ancona’s community will come to hear each of these brave volunteers explain our process, the goals, and our next steps. Please come! A plan sits on a shelf; but a people carry the world forward.

When we make progress toward these goals, we will have a stronger, better Ancona, a more creative Ancona, an even better place for kids to learn, an even better place for parents to claim, and a school that is geared for the future with momentum, change, and brilliance.

4 06, 2015

Next Step: High School

By | June 4th, 2015|Curriculum Connection, Parent News|1 Comment

Graduation is one of my most favorite days in any Ancona year.  Our graduates inevitably look poised and grown at graduation, which they should, because they are very ready for the next stage in their educational careers.

  • They learned to be leaders, organizing and running Sandwich Shop and  Día del Español;
  • They learned the design process creating prototypes for a new exercise app for a start-up tech firm;
  • They researched and presented original history fair projects; they studied poetry and physics;
  • They made it to the top of Buck Mountain at Camp Ching; they navigated the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico and settled in with host families speaking only Spanish;
  • They entertained us with music and dance;
  • and, perhaps most challenging of all, they survived the high school admissions process. And they’ve all been admitted to high school!

HS Chart 2015_creative for web2.fwChicago’s high school landscape is in constant flux, and the number of options is growing. For this year’s class, St. Ignatius tied with Jones as Ancona’s #1 favorite; one student chose boarding school; and one student is eager to be the first Ancona grad to try out GCE (Global Citizen Experience), a project-based and student-centered independent high school on the near north side.

One constant, however, is Ancona’s excellent record of placing our graduates in the city’s most selective high schools. Starting an Ancona education in the early years really pays off. If we look at the 14 graduates who began their Ancona careers before 3rd grade, 10 are admitted to one of five top high schools: Jones, Lab, Lincoln Park IB/AP, St. Ignatius, and Walter Payton and one will attend Northfield Mount Hermon, a highly selective boarding school in Massachusetts. Overall, about 70% of our graduates will attend these schools. Others are accepted to such selective high schools as DeLaSalle, Mount Carmel, and the Kenwood Academic Magnet Program.

The graph above is a snapshot of Ancona’s record. Over the past five years, over 80% of those graduates who began their Ancona educations before 3rd grade enrolled in eleven of Chicago’s most selective public, independent and Catholic schools, as well as one highly selective boarding school, listed in order of the number of Ancona graduates enrolled.

Many factors go into each family’s decisions of where to apply and where to enroll in high school. Our number one priority is finding a school that is a good match for each child, and Señora Christina Kuszewski Rouches, our Director of High School Admissions, does an amazing job of counseling every family through the process. Do they want religious education? How far should their child have to travel? Do they prefer a large or small school? Are they considering moving? What have they heard from friends? Might they ultimately want the choice of college in Europe? Does the high school have the right athletic or arts or club programs for their student’s special passions? Are they looking for something more traditional or something more alternative? Do they prefer a public, private or independent option?

I am saddened by the anxiety around the high school decision reaching down to our preprimary parents, even though the high school landscape in 10 years will undoubtedly be quite different from today’s. Ancona’s parents, however, can rest assured that based on our strong record, when the time comes, their children will not only have school choices, they will go to high school well-prepared to meet the challenges, both academic and social, that they will find there.


7 05, 2015

Thinking by Design

By | May 7th, 2015|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

Design Thinking is an approach to learning that focuses on developing students’ creative confidence.  Ancona students are engaging in the design process more and more often as teachers integrate design thinking into existing units, create new engineering units, and take advantage of real-world design challenges.

This winter, 7th/8th grade science teacher Katrina Pommerening had both the flexibility and creativity to take advantage of an amazing opportunity for our students to work with designers from IDEO, the international design consulting firm who pioneered user-based design thinking, and young entrepreneurs from Foov Fitness. Foov is a small startup that uses iPad app technology and fitness expertise to develop story-based workouts for people with cognitive disabilities. Foov’s first app encourages a wide range of movement exercises as users take a virtual trip to the ballpark, including a walk up the ramps, side-stepping into the seats and reaching for popcorn and hotdogs.

The challenge for Ancona’s student teams was to create a new virtual reality context for the next iteration of the app. The app had to include virtual incentives to get the users exercising, and the challenge included prizes for the best Ancona design groups.  Talk about authentic problem solving!

Generate Ideas

The design challenge began with a trip to Matter, an incubator space for health care innovators in the Merchandise Mart.  Working with young entrepreneurs from Foov and designers from Ideo, our 7th/8th graders learned about the first version of the app and started the design process — generating ideas of additional real-world contexts that could include the necessary physical movements.  Then, working in small groups, our students chose a favorite new scenario that could include an array of ten or so physical movements.

Make Informed Decisions

Design thinking is based on empathy, that is, understanding the needs, often unspoken, of the users who have the problem you’re trying to solve.  Back at Ancona, our student designers presented their initial ideas to 3rd/4th graders and used their feedback to revise their emerging design concepts.


It isn’t design thinking if it doesn’t involve prototypes and iterations, and collaboration with the client is key to getting one’s design into production. In Katrina’s classes, they put together the scenario work they started at Matter with their feedback from the 3rd/4th grade users, and each group developed a prototype of its app.  Three weeks ago, the IDEO/Foov team paid a visit to Ancona for some informal consultation.  Using the feedback from the consultation (their clients), the teams went back to the drawing boards to further refine their prototypes in preparation for the final presentations.

Last Friday, the students returned to Matter where each group presented its latest prototype to a panel of Ideo consultants, Foov owners and one user with a cognitive disability. The scenarios included a camping trip, a trip to the zoo and a carnival experience.  Using Prezi or Google Slides, the groups walked the panel through their narratives, demonstrated the movements and explained the incentive system it had built into the app.  The panel asked questions and provided critical feedback.  It was IMPRESSIVE! Foov announced the two winning Ancona teams on its Facebook page.  The first place team won a day at the Cubs, and the second play team won a day at IDEO. Kudos to all!


23 04, 2015

Authentic Science Learning

By | April 23rd, 2015|Curriculum Connection|2 Comments

Authenticity and Beetles

Children engage deeply when learning is authentic — when the context is real, immediate and connected to their lives.  And children strive for quality when there is an authentic audience for their work.

Room 103 Kindergartners teach 3rd/4th graders to identify evidence of ash borer infestation.

Room 103 Kindergartners teach 3rd/4th graders to identify evidence of ash borer infestation.

The imminent construction of Ancona’s Outdoor Learning Space offered a very real and immediate context for the Kindergartners in Room 103 to learn about the emerald ash borer beetle and why we will be removing many large trees from the playground.  With their teacher Jane Paha, the children talked about how people depend on plants for life, and using the Internet, the children found some simple videos that taught them about the life cycle of the beetles and how to look for infestations. Outside, they were able to identify ash trees and to find evidence of ash borer infestation.  Montessori tells us to follow the child, so when the kids really wanted to talk to a scientist, Jane asked parent and arborist Daniella Pereira to visit. From Daniella, the children learned more about how the trees grow and how the beetles starve the trees.

As all good scientists do, the children wanted share their findings. They put together a video about the beetles, presented it to children in other classrooms and answered their questions.

“I love that they were largely able to discover the facts themselves,” said Jane.  “Now the kids are very curious about the playground and how it will change this summer.”  Since these All Year Montessori students will be in school all summer, they will have another authentic opportunity — documenting the playground changes as they occur.



And Solar Panels, too

Another dimension of an authentic context — and life — is that it is dynamic, so teachers working with real problems must be nimble enough to exploit changing circumstances.  Balazs Dibuzs wrote in depth about the 5th/6th grade Climate Change unit for Curriculum Connections earlier this fall.  The unit included a visit from Ancona grandparent Julian Dawson, an architect with an earth-friendly house here in Chicago that includes solar panels and passive solar heating. Sylvia Glassco designed the interdisciplinary unit to teach both about the human effect on climate change and to present opportunities for student action and advocacy.  One group of students decided that they wanted to advocate for solar panels.

When parent Jonathan Pereira (yes, related to Daniella, above) read the Curriculum Connection article, he contacted me about the possibility of applying for a school grant to fund 1 KW of solar panels (this is fully explained in the slide presentation below).  So when the same students were studying energy in March, Sylvia invited Jonathan to speak with the class about what they would need to consider before deciding that Ancona could install solar panels.  “The students found him very helpful,” said Sylvia, “and also, respectful of their knowledge.”

In their science class, the students learned about different types of energy and how energy can be transferred.  They completed an engineering design challenge to develop solar ovens that would hold heat for at least 3 hours, and then they split into two groups.  While one group worked in the garden to harvest solar thermal energy in a hoop house,  the students interested in solar panels researched Ancona’s roof, electricity usage and solar panels more generally to develop their argument for panels at Ancona.

Last week, Ari Frede and I were invited to a presentation.  The solar panel group made an impressive plea for solar power at Ancona and did a very thoughtful job of answering our questions (an authentic audience!).  With Jonathan’s assistance, they’ve applied for the grant.  Because of their advocacy, a teacher’s flexibility and a parent’s initiative, we’ll hopefully be seeing Ancona’s first solar panel in the coming months.  This is authentic curriculum at it’s best.  Ancona students move the world!

Watch the presentation and see if you are convinced!

9 04, 2015

From Monarch to Social Justice – A Community of Mathematicians

By | April 9th, 2015|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

And the winner is…

CrayonsElection results are in (and I don’t mean Rahm), so if you’re looking for a good read, try The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, chosen as the best new book by Illinois’ school children. And for a local winner, you might try the Ancona favorite, If I Built a House, by Chris Van Dusen.

Librarian Marsha Stewart’s Monarch Awards Election is all about turning kids onto literature and thinking critically about what makes a good book, but in a child-centered, inquiry environment, one good question quickly leads to another. In at least one classroom, the Monarch Awards spurred work in counting, grouping, data display and data analysis, too.

Fundamental Understandings

A big, fundamental concept for our young math learners is the 5-structure. Our teachers use many different materials to build automaticity in recognizing and combining the parts of 5. In other words, we want children to visualize any group of 3 and 2 or 4 and 1 and to know in their bones that no matter how they are arranged, they equal 5; that you can take them apart and put them back together again, and you will always have 5.  Establishing  this deep understanding may not be as apparently rewarding to adults as evidence of calculations on paper, but it has a bigger payoff.  As the children’s math facility grows, 5  and its components become very friendly numbers for mental manipulations of all kinds.

So, when the preprimary children in Room 102 wanted to know how their classroom voted in the Monarch book election, teacher Peggy Malone saw an opportunity. As they counted their votes, the children learned to make  tallies using one popsicle stick for each vote and to group their votes by crossing four sticks with a 5th.  They drew their tallies on a summary showing the votes for all of the books.

Monarch Tally 2

This may seem like simple work to an adult, but it is a brain-stretching concept for a preprimary child.  When their own votes were counted, the children wondered how the other preprimary classes voted, so Ms. Marsha gave them the responsibility for tallying ALL of the votes in the five preprimary and 1st/2nd grade classrooms.  With close to 100 new votes to count, the 5-structure was no longer as efficient. What to do? Enter the introduction of a new fundamental concept — the 10-structure. Learning to manipulate the various components of 10 is a critical aspect of Kindergarten and 1st grade mathematics.

Monarch TallyWhat the data show

But there was more.  As he saw the votes adding up, one budding psychologist wondered whether any boys voted for a biography of Helen Keller. They didn’t!  So the children took their data once again and investigated how the vote for each book broke down along gender lines.  Using their own natural curiosity, they became social scientists who can find important information in their data.

Math is Communal

If your vision of math work is a solitary child working on some paper-and-pencil problems, think again.  Math at Ancona is a community activity where explaining how you solved a problem is every bit as important as finding the answer. Waverly was so excited about Room 102’s investigation into how girls and boys voted, that she took pairs of children from the classroom to the display and carefully explained the charts to each pair.  Out in the Foyer, she found herself unexpectedly explaining to Ms. Marsha and some other adults, as well. When children can explain their understandings to others, we know that deep and lasting learning is in place.Ayanna Tally


Other classrooms came to view and discuss the tallies, too.  The Monarch work is down now, but the conversation continues. 5th/6th grade  I-Math (Independent Math) Data Projects are now displayed in the first floor corridor.  Once again, science and social studies research were integrated with mathematics and data analysis.  Each project researches a question of interest to the student and displays the results in graphs. Jenny Hempel’s 1st/2nd graders were delighted to find interesting projects about topics such as the decline of large cat populations and the relationship between age and birthday party locations hung right at their eye level for easy reading. Even Jenny was surprised when the children spent over 40 minutes reading the projects and understanding the various graphs. They had a lot of new questions, too, so they’re planning to post their questions on sticky notes for the 5th/6th graders to answer. The conversation continues.

Soc Justice Data JH

19 03, 2015

Election Excitement

By | March 19th, 2015|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

Preprimary children watch a book ad on the iPad with Jane Paha.

Preprimary children watch a book ad on the iPad with Jane Paha.

Our corridor is abuzz with election excitement – not Chuy v. Rahm – but the unfolding drama of which of twenty recent children’s books will win the vote of Illinois’ K-3 children for this year’s Monarch Award. Will it be the goose who outwits the fox? The crayons that quit their jobs? Hellen Keller or Jane Goodall? The winner of this statewide contest will be announced tomorrow, and Ancona’s students will learn whether they picked the statewide winner!


Ancona Librarian Marsha Stewart is on a personal mission to ensure that every Ancona student LOVES reading, because research consistently shows that students who choose to read for enjoyment have better literacy and overall school outcomes, not to mention great pleasure throughout their lives. Ms. Marsha’s annual Monarch election is a great complement to our Reading Workshops, creating genuine excitement about books and helping to imbue to our youngest readers with the passion for independent reading.


QR Code 2Ancona’s preprimary through second grade students have been voting in Monarch elections for over 10 years, and as with all great teaching, Ms. Marsha has continually improved and enhanced the experience. In January and February, Ms. Marsha reads 10 of the 20 nominated books to the children and places sets of books into the classrooms for the teachers and children to read and reread. The children are encouraged to read as critics, thinking and conversing about what they like, what makes a good book and what makes one book better than another. They learn about different genres, because the books include a variety of fiction, non-fiction, biography and poetry. Many children read all 20 books, and as the deadline for the election draws near, they are encouraged to campaign for their favorites. To do this, they must learn how to persuade others.


Campaign posters and large group presentations are a thing of the past. Using technology as an interactive learning tool, Ms. Marsha helped the children to make short video ads for their books. Individuals and small groups planned their own presentations. It’s interesting to compare the free-for-all ads of the 1st graders with the more organized, often written ads of the 2nd graders, showing the accumulated impact of their reading and writing workshops.


On the Monarch campaign display in the Umeh Foyer, QR Codes make it possible for anyone to view one or more of the videos. All week long, children have been using their iPads to scan the QR Codes and view the ads. As they decided how to cast their ballots, they could see that they are members of a community of readers, sharing the love of these books with one another. They also had a lesson in advocacy, learning that their voices matter and their votes count. They are a part of a wider community, and they can try to influence the outcome!

To see some of the videos yourself, scan these QR Codes with your mobile device.  If you don’t have a QR Reader, try downloading a QR code reader app.


19 02, 2015

‘If it ain’t got that swing . . . ” — all things Jazz at Ancona

By | February 19th, 2015|Curriculum Connection|1 Comment

A few years back, the Preprimary program at Ancona added a Jazz Parade to alternate with the annual Chinese New Year Parade. This year, in the context of their study of Black History, they decided to explore how Jazz is related to the Black experience. Through collaboration with our Librarian, Ms. Marsha, and our Art Teacher, Angela, they followed the progress of jazz from its origins in African rhythms to its fusion with French Creole, Mississippi Delta (Gospel and Blues), European and Afro-Cuban musical forms in New Orleans, and its spread across the United States to places like New York, Kansas City, and Chicago, and the West Coast, to finding an international audience and global acceptance as it was embraced around the world and continues to evolve in sub-genres, such as Be-Bop, Fusion, Latin-, Cool- and even Acid-Jazz.

Ms. Marsha set the Jazz theme in motion by reading the children a book titled The Sound That Jazz Makes, which served as a developmentally appropriate foundation for their study of jazz. Back in their own classrooms, students read books related to the theme, such as Rap-a-Tap-Tap by Leo and Diane Dillon, Nicholas Cricket by Joyce Maxner, and Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler and R. Gregory Christie. With Angela, the children explored art and artists who visually articulate these themes: Jacob Lawrence (Migration Series), Aaron Douglas, Lois Mailou Jones, Archibald Motley, Romare Bearden (Musical Instrument Collages), Henri Matisse (Jazz Series), Piet Mondrian (Boogie Woogie). Students created kente-inspired wall-hangings and made talking drums and tambourines out of everyday objects, like toilet paper rolls and boxes.

Students in the preprimary were deeply immersed in their exploration of Black History, especially the cuisine, history, geography, Creole language and ragtime music of New Orleans and the Bayou when, with the kind of collective improvisation that is jazz, things really took off. In the spirit of collaboration, with the goal of complementing the curriculum, Angela outlined several themes to explore at each level:

Confluence of Cultures: Jazz derives from several cultural traditions: West African rhythms, European chamber ensembles, Mississippi Blues, Gospel and Cuban Contradanza.

Diversity: Jazz halls were places where both the musicians and the audience reflected the idea of the American melting pot.

Historical Context: Jazz coincides with the urbanization of America and the emergence of the New Negro Renaissance. As a cultural movement, jazz maintains a significant influence on global culture, taking on new shapes in different regions where it is taken up and fused with other traditions and innovations.

Migration/Movement: Jazz moves with the waves of people traveling from the Southern part of the United States to Northern cities during the Great Migration.

Literature: Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred figures prominently among jazz poetry. Louis Armstrong’s song, “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?” is highlighted in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti and Amiri Baraka created prose and poetry related to Jazz culture.

Math and Science: There is much scholarship around the rhythmic patterns, ratios and tempos related specifically to jazz music. Vibrations, frequencies/wavelengths, and how musical instruments work are also important areas of science exploration.

Musical Evolution: Although Jazz evolved into many sub-genres, collective improvisation, syncopation, and the swing beat continue to define Jazz.

Meanwhile, Ms. Marsha shared Internet and print resources with all grade levels to support these explorations. She also shared her father’s wonderful photographs of famous jazz musicians, which you can see displayed in the halls of Ancona. Chuck Stewart shot most of these photos after graduating from Ohio University, but his inspiration was sparked when Marian Anderson visited his school and he captured her image with the Kodak Brownie camera his mother gave him when he was only thirteen years old. Perhaps this collaborative study of jazz will inspire Ancona students in similar ways.

Working together with the 1st through 4th grade teachers, Angela guided students in constructing and decorating their own Kalimbas (thumb pianos), an instrument with deep and wide-spread roots in Africa. Students in 3rd and 4th grades will continue to explore a variety of African instruments and will learn about the physics of sound as well. Meanwhile, our Head of School-elect, Ari, visited the preprimary classrooms, bringing his guitar and harmonica to give a presentation on how music can make people feel different emotions. He talked with the children about major and minor chords as well as the 7th chord that is often heard in Jazz Music. The children enjoyed the presentation, as well as getting a chance to work with Ari.

Kindergarten students have designed and decorated umbrellas for the culminating event of this exciting unit of study, the jazz parade. Angela provided a variety of textiles, decorative paper, and ribbons that inspired these beautiful creations. She also helped  students understand the role that math plays in art. First students chose geometric designs to trace and cut, then they measured ribbons and fabric that would best fit their themes. The results are impressive and you can see them tomorrow, Feb. 20, as preprimary students wind their way through the halls of Ancona to the syncopated rhythms of jazz (parade begins at 10:30).

And be sure to join us for our African-American History Assembly next Friday, Feb 27, when you will get a chance to see, hear, and feel all that jazz at Ancona.

4 02, 2015

Assessment @ Ancona

By | February 4th, 2015|Curriculum Connection|0 Comments

Educators are fond of citing the wise farmer’s maxim, “You don’t grow a pig by weighing it.” While this transfer of wisdom from one field to another may be pithy, and while the statement is, strictly speaking, true (weighing a pig does not increase it’s weight), a deeper examination can reveal a great deal about the role weighing does play in raising pigs on farms, and, by analogy, in assessing children at school. In fact, weighing, in all its modes and measures, is actually an essential component of the kind of education we are committed to at Ancona. We might even say: how we assess is at the heart of how we teach.

Rob Evans, Ed.D., a famous educator, admonishes teachers “never [to] collect data on a child that you do not use to further your teaching of that child.” What he is promoting is “formative” assessment, the type that allows teachers to decide what to teach next based on where the student is (what she understand, knows, or can do). There are other types of assessment, of course, usually called summative and comparative. These are the kind that help teachers determine how far a student has come over a period of time or how she compares to others in her peer group. In farmer terms, this kind of weighing gives one bragging rights or determines which pig gets the blue ribbon. While this kind of weighing may grow the farmer’s pride or income, it certainly does not grow the pig.

At Ancona, we are almost exclusively concerned with assessment that helps us and our students make well-informed decisions about how to proceed in this great project called teaching and learning. One reason we call our curriculum the Landscape of Learning is to remind us that students of the same age can be at different places along their paths of learning and can (and should) actually traverse different routes at different speeds to arrive at the learning goals we identify as milestones along their journeys. Just as we would not give two families who are at different locations in the city the same directions on how to get to school, we don’t give two students the exact same lesson, assignment or guidance in school. Knowing where a child is in his understanding and competency (as well as how he learns best) is essential to  designing learning experiences in which he will thrive.

Our attention to children’s “place and progress” begins from the moment they walk through the door of the Preprimary classroom. Maria Montessori exhorts teachers to think of themselves as scientists, observing carefully and noting precisely not just what a child is able to do, but how she approaches the work and how she responds to various types of guidance. The purpose of this attention is not to tell the child that she “got it right,” because praise, much like a blue ribbon, has no real impact on learning. Research has shown repeatedly that grade-like assessments actually dampen the motivation to learn, and Montessori herself recognized early on that constant praise results in training the child to perform for the praise and not to apply himself to the learning. This is why many Montessori materials are designed to be self-correcting; a feedback loop is established between the child and his work, resulting in  the satisfaction of independent learning.

Even as children grow beyond the Montessori materials, the work Ancona teachers prepare is designed to keep assessment as immediate and authentic as possible. It is, in fact, an important criteria of project-based learning that the goal or product of the project be realistic and measurable by authentic criteria: Did the sail move the boat more efficiently than it did the first time? Did we save money on the sandwich shoppe ingredients by buying bulk? Did your audience understand your intended message? How do you know? Therefore, teachers plan for students to have opportunities to try out their solutions and to share them with authentic audiences. In gallery walks, for example, students write observations and ask questions about other groups’ math work, and in math congresses they display their solutions and explain their thinking/strategies. The process of sharing drafts with and giving feedback to other writers before they revise their work is an essential element on our Writing Workshops.

While learning can be messy, assessment need not be. In fact, one of the functions of assessment is to help educators focus on what matters most when students engage in learning: the learning. To this end, teachers at Ancona make themselves present in the learning process, observing and recording the evidence of understanding or the development of skills as they happen. Because this is not always easy, there are some powerful tools the teachers at Ancona have adopted or invented to measure learning. As an example, teachers use the Running Record ate to evaluate growth in reading throughout a student’s years at Ancona. At all grade levels, teachers sit with students as they reada series of increasingly more difficult texts, recording the child’s oral reading and comprehension. This snapshot of a child’s current reading level empowers teachers to assign the child’s just right reading level.  Together with spelling inventories, running records help teachers assign the most effective word study activities for each child, and also serve as portfolios that document a child’s growth over time, revealing patterns and changes in the tempo of his or her learning.

We are very aware at Ancona that our students will some day (too soon) be assessed in order to be placed in new educational settings or to be ranked within those settings, and so we offer them the guidance and practice necessary to prepare for this kind of assessment. But if that were all we did, we would be like the farmer who puts his pig on the scale, reads the numbers, possibly records them in a book, and then puts the pig right back in the standard stall while he himself goes inside to dream of winning blue ribbons. It may make the farmer feel better, but it certainly won’t grow him any great pigs–or win him any blue ribbons, either, for that matter.

15 01, 2015

Ancona 5th and 6th Graders Tackle Climate Change

By | January 15th, 2015|Curriculum Connection|2 Comments

At Ancona we don’t tell students that climate change is a problem or what to do about it; we let them learn about climate change by analyzing real-world data, and we empower them to take whatever action they feel is right and effective. The 5th and 6th grade unit on Climate Change is highly interdisciplinary and is based very firmly in real-world contexts–two fundamental principles of project-based learning. 5th/6th Grade Math/Science teacher Sylvia Glassco’s description of the unit captures this and more:

“Beginning in 1970, students travel through time to investigate breaking climate data as it is released. Studying and simulating experiments with ice cores and sea ice, ozone thickness, and regional and seasonal shifts in animal behavior, students make scientific judgments about what is happening and what needs to be done. Taking various global perspectives, students come together to debate international treaties at two mock conferences addressing climate change.”

Throughout the unit, students develop a deeper understanding of some key science concepts and processes, including climate systems, energy transfers, data collection and graphing, science as an iterative process, as well as skills in the areas of non-fiction reading and writing, public speaking and debate. They also tackle essential questions like, “How do climate systems and human behavior interact?” “How do scientists refine their understanding over time?” “What are the responsibilities of scientist-citizens?”

By reading a selection of news articles from the past four decades and by re-enacting various experiments from those times, as well as learning about  scientist-citizens like Rachel Carson, all within a cultural context, which they explore through the music, images, and social/political trends of those decades, students reconstruct our nation’s fluctuating relationship with the causes and effects of climate change. They are encouraged to analyze the data and debate the implications, learning to identify and handle different kinds of information–distinguishing between demonstrable facts and expressed opinions. 


As the unit progressed and students’ knowledge about the human impact on climate grew, so did their frustration and their desire to do something about it. They began to explore ways to communicate the facts and to motivate people to take action. Thsi desire to do something about climate change led perfectly into the two culminating projects students were responsible to create. Each student prepared a paper for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, where they represented various nations (considering the economic, social, and political contexts of those nations). They also formed groups to create projects that allowed them to act on their beliefs about climate change. Students chose a variety of ways to take action, including a podcast, which will soon be broadcast on a local radio station, a movie, a series of posters (that you may have seen in the lobby of the school over the past two months), a climate rally–in front of the school on two different ocassions, a web site, an Instagram feed (titled “climate change 101”). One group of students is still planning a bake sale, the proceeds of which would allow them to “adopt” a tract of rainforest through the Nature Conservancy, and another group of students is looking for grant money that would help Ancona get solar panels for the roof of the school.

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Project-based learning requires that students truly grapple with real-world problems and construct their knowledge and understanding through first-hand engagement with primary source documents and experts. They are also afforded the opportunity to express their ideas and feelings and to propose, implement, and analyze solutions of their own. These elements of project-based learning are all present in the integrated Climate Change unit the 5th and 6th grade students engaged in this year.