Independent Faculty Inspire Creative Thinking and Learning
Empowering Scientific Thinkers
Prep’s Science Department Chair Laura Kaufman designs hands-on units for her 8th grade science students that recreate experimental conditions and encourage scientific thinking while teaching concepts. Starting with no set way to go about an investigation, students create their own questions, gather information, plan their investigations, analyze data, use math and computational thinking, and communicate their findings. In a recent rock and mineral lab, they asked and answered a wide variety of questions, including, “Does the density of a rock affect its splash height?” and, “Does freezing minerals increase their density?” Kaufman says that when students formulate their own questions and design their own procedures, “their engagement increases, they enjoy the process and their understanding of the specific content and the scientific method in general is deepened.”
Music and Writing
Hired this fall, writing teacher and Pulitzer Prize nominee Mark Salzman has brought his experience as an author of fiction and non-fiction into his 7th grade writing classroom. He encourages students to find their authentic voices through journaling exercises. On the final day of the fall quarter, the students were revising their work—three personal observations or stories—while Salzman played Bach’s Cello Suite in G Minor on his cello (Salzman also is an accomplished musician who has performed with Yo-Yo Ma). The 7th graders, seated in a circle around their teacher, worked with quiet concentration as the music wafted over them.
Art That Pushes Boundaries
Melissa Manfull is a teaching artist whose work has been exhibited internationally and is collected by the US State Department and Microsoft, among others. She also began teaching drawing and painting for all grades at Prep this fall. One of her students’ first projects was creating street art-style graffiti around campus. She helped her 9th and 10th grade art students research the artist Banksy and his site-specific work in London and Jerusalem. In her words, she wanted students to think about how “art can transform the meaning or feeling of a place.”
Says Manfull, “We worked with the original meaning of an object on campus (like a fire alarm) and enhanced or changed it with a stencil—and, unlike Banksy, we used water color, of course!”
Calculus for the Real World
Inspired by taking UCLA environmental science classes funded by Prep’s professional development program, mathematics teacher Nick Ponticello has created an environmental science unit in his calculus class. Students work in teams to blend research and mathematics, presenting topical projects on exponential growth and decay in the environment.
“Every discipline has a responsibility to engage students with the world,” says Ponticello. “These project presentations demand that the students take notice of what is going on in today's world; they ask the students to use the mathematical tools they have gained to make sense of what is going on outside of the bubble of Prep. That way I am doing my job: producing well-educated students, as well as socially conscious individuals.”
Papers this year included “The Spread of Ebola,” “Nuclear Waste: The Hazards of Storage,” “Surface Water and Groundwater Supplies: Issues with Depletion and Contamination,” and “Population Growth into the Future.”
Leveling the Playing Field
Sean Beattie, Julie Mejia and Esteban Chavez are constantly looking for new games, from Frisbee to cricket to German dodgeball, for their 7th through 10th grade PE students.
“Everything we teach is about eye-hand coordination, team-building, agility, and introducing skills. We complement traditional sports like football and volleyball, swimming and track—things a lot of students have experienced—with more unusual units like paddleball. With a wide variety of sports, we can get everybody on an equal footing,” explains department chair Beattie, “so all of our students learn new skills, have fun and get involved. Universally, the most popular units are pillow polo, badminton, and field hockey, as well as the leisure unit, which includes ladder toss, bocce ball and horseshoes. We don’t ever eliminate the fun!”
Thinking on Their Feet—in French
Madame Jennifer Murphy came to Prep in 2012 after living and teaching in France. She has redesigned her French 3 and 4 classes to take advantage of her relationship with Lycée Rabelais, a school near Paris where she taught in the 2008-2009 academic year. This fall, students at both schools collected objects to send to one another that would provoke conversation and curiosity about culture and geography. Prep students sent paper caps from In-N-Out, a Dodgers hat, seashells and a Prep yearbook. From France, they received tabloid magazines, a hockey puck, Moroccan keychains, a list of rules for the Lycée’s student union, and tickets for the Paris Metro.
“Students are challenged by the randomness of the boxes’ contents to go out of their comfort zones, attempting to describe and use the objects for a skit,” explains Murphy. Her students, after a short course in improvisation techniques taught by Performing Arts Department chair Rob Lewis, exchanged video they wrote and performed with French students online.
Meanwhile, students in France and La Cañada are becoming pen pals (or rather social media pals) and many members of Mrs. Murphy’s French 3 and 4 classes will travel to France over spring break. One of the highlights will be a chance to meet the students of Lycée Rabelais in person…and to use those Metro tickets.
Breathing Space to Think and Learn
Josh Perlman heads up Prep’s Meditation Club, and he deepened his own meditation practice this summer through a workshop for teachers. The experience has transformed his 10th grade world history classroom.
“As a younger teacher, I would nervously volunteer my version of the correct answer whenever there was no immediate response from the class,” Perlman says. “Now, I look at moments of silence in class as an opportunity to breathe. I don't necessarily call on the first student who raises a hand, realizing that different students process information—and build up confidence to raise their hands—at different speeds. I sometimes announce that I won't call on anyone until there are at least five hands in the air. Usually a question hasn't really fulfilled its educational purpose until at least three or four students are competing to answer it.”
“I personally am a tactile learner, and my experience in teaching has shown me that students are more successful in unlocking themes in literature when they can internalize them directly,” says Mary Ellen Jamison, winner of Prep’s 2014 Detoy Prize for Teaching Excellence.
To help her 10th grade English students understand the figurative and symbolic language of Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” students eat grapes, touch raisins, and smell rotten meat to help them understand Hughes’ poetic metaphors. They also create a play using a pivotal scene from The Grapes of Wrath, allowing every student to engage with the literature personally.
Jamison believes that "you don't know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. Creating a play with props, costumes, food, and actual Steinbeck dialogue gives a synthetic understanding of that mile. The real beauty of a Prep teaching experience is that we teachers are allowed to employ many methods of instruction.”
The Intersection of Visual and Verbal
Dr. Tyke O’Brien wears many hats at Prep, serving as both senior class dean and an English teacher in 9th and 12th grades. For the last three summers she has also brought her experience as a Sunset Magazine-featured interior designer to Prep’s classroom renovation project, which has incorporated new technology, green materials, a color palette tailored to learning and a flexible design that encourages interactivity and creativity in the classrooms.
“I have always been both a visual and a verbal person,” she says.
Her PhD dissertation was on Gertrude Stein, who was both a writer and influential art patron, and O’Brien’s assignments for her semester-long course, City in Literature: Los Angeles, encourage students to literally see Los Angeles in new ways. Recently, Australian photographer George Byrne visited her classes to kick off a project that requires students to both write and illustrate their own unique view of Los Angeles. The unit ends with a photography show. “Summer design projects satisfy my personal need to be non-verbal after a year of teaching English,” she says, but she thinks—and teaches—that the visual and verbal are inextricable.
Creating and Measuring Impact
Five years ago, Prep’s middle school science teachers Hilary Thomas and Laura Kaufman were brainstorming how to extend the existing 7th grade science fair experience into 8th grade. They hit on an idea that combines the scientific method with middle schoolers’ energy and drive to make their world a better place. In 2010, 8th grade Community Impact Projects (or CIPs) were inaugurated. Designed and carried out by students, the projects combine significant service with analysis and presentation of the results. Projects tap into students’ passions; past CIPs have included creating food baskets, tutoring music and providing equine therapy for developmentally disabled children. This year’s 8th graders have begun projects that range from monthly oceanic fish net retrieval to a holiday book drive that combined Small Business Saturday, book donations and a kids’ reading session. Ideally, 8th graders keep up their CIPs through high school, refining and extending their projects in response to their findings, to truly make an impact in the community. High schoolers’ continuing projects include hosting a holiday parties at homes for the elderly, tutoring and working with library reading groups.