Why We Chose to Call it The Willow School?

Many visitors to our school in Vero Beach ask, “Why did you choose to call it The Willow School?” In 2004 when we founded the school, we were looking for a name that acknowledged the importance of nature and reflected the beauty that exists all around us. We wanted a nature name because it also symbolized our vision for the school- to get children outside. Research shows how beneficial being in nature is to everyone, and even more so for our children. In fact there is a growing movement advocating that children today are suffering from, “nature deficit disorder.” This is due primarily to the exploding volume of video and technology stimulation but also to the fact that many children stay indoors for most of the day and seldom go outside even after school.

willow blog 3Some researchers argue that children would not need ADD or ADHD medication if they were able to be outside more often. Nature is an automatic stress reliever for everyone. It calms us down, helps us become more centered and has a rejuvenating effect. Kids need to be outside daily, feeling the sun on their faces, running around and playing with each other. When they are outside, they often make up games, go on treasure hunts, build forts, all stimulating their creativity.

We also wanted the school program to provide opportunities for students to experience the exquisite nature right here in our Vero Beach backyard, and around Florida too. The students annually visit places such as the Indian River Lagoon, the Sebastian Preserve and local marshes.

Willow blog 1Each year the older children (grades 3-8) participate in two 3-day camping and kayaking trips, visiting a different natural Florida location as well. Some of the places visited include: St Augustine, the Florida Keys, Fort De Soto State Park in St Petersburg, the Peace River and Wekiva Springs. These longer trips enable our students to be in nature for an extended period of time. Allowing them many moments to enjoy the peace and quiet found there as well as appreciate the natural flora and fauna.

So in looking for a name reflective of nature, we turned our attention to local fauna. There are a wide variety of birds in the Vero Beach area; wading birds such as the blue heron, roseate spoonbill, sandhill crane… The Sandhill School? Songbirds too, painted bunting and mockingbirds but those names didn’t seem to work.

Then we tried the flora: oaks, laurel oaks, river oaks, The Oak School? The River Oak School? We kept going with trees: poinciana, palmettto, and then we remembered willows. The Willow School? Willow trees are majestic and elegant and can grow almost anywhere there is water. They are also flexible, strong and adapting. We wanted our students to embrace those characteristics of the willow tree too; to be strong and yet flexible. So Willow seemed to fit all of our criteria and had even more symbolism than we had originally set out to encompass. In fact, there was a simplicity to the name too. It stuck and The Willow School in Vero Beach was born!

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7 Easy Ideas to Help Get Your Child Reading

Many parents feel stressed about reading. It is, after all, one of the most important skills we possess and without it, life today is extremely difficult. Even with the advent of technology, reading is still a must. Think about it- websites, emails, texts etc. 

So, how can parents help their children to read and encourage them to love books?

In the Early Years (2-4)

  1. early literacyMost early childhood experts will tell you that reading to your child is the #1 thing parents can do to ensure their child becomes a reader. Parents usually do this as part of a bedtime routine. Really young children love to hear the SAME books over and over again. Try not to get discouraged, even when you are bored. When my oldest was 3, her favorite book was a Curious George compilation of 5 stories. Every night for probably 4 months, she wanted me to read from that book. Not one of the five stories, but the SAME one, every night! Was I bored? Yes! But I also knew that the words were imprinting on her young mind. One of the main benefits of realsing to toddlers and preschoolers is ia higher aptitude for learning in general. Countless studies have shown that students who are exposed to early literacy are more likely to do well in all aspects of formalized education. 
  2. Ensure that your child’s room has lots of books. I love books and relished buying picture books for my kids. Each of them had a bookshelf in their room. We also went to the library weekly. Sometimes I would catch one of my children “reading” to her stuffed animals. This is an indication of early literacy, children are retelling a story they know, using their own words while following the images.
  3. Not only should your child’s room be full of books but so should the preschool program they attend. Ask your childcare provider about their literacy program and look for a reading center in the classroom. Listen for statements like:
  • “We incorporate books into our weekly/monthly units of study.”
  • “We read books daily to the children as a part of circle time.”
  • “During free time, children have opportunities to read or be read to.”

Early Elementary (5-8)

At Home

  1. early literacy2As your child begins to sound out words and decode on his own, encourage him to read to you! There are loads of easy reader books at the library, from Scholastic or a local bookshop. You could even ask his teacher to lend you some. I once knew a Kindergarten teacher who had a little briefcase she sent home each night with a different child. In the suitcase was an easy reader book for the child to read to his parents along with a few puppets. The child could read the book to the puppets, mom, dad, anyone. Children loved to carry the briefcase home!
  2. When your child gains fluency, you can also begin to read together. Many parents like the strategy of reading one page and having their child read the next, and so on. It’s critical to make sure that this is a relaxed and fun activity, not stressful for your child. It is also fine if your child chooses a book that might be a little below grade level. It’s great to ask a few questions as you go along just to check comprehension but it also gives you an opportunity to talk about the characters and the choices they are making, lessons learning, etc. A good way to know if a book is the right level is the “five-finger” rule. On average if there are about 5 words per page your child struggles with, that is the right level. Teach this to your child, it can help them know too!
  3. Some parents enjoy reading long chapter books at night to their children. This is an excellent way to continue to inspire them to want to read longer, more complex books. It’s also great one-on-one time many parents enjoy. Read aloud helps with auditory comprehension and memory too. It can also provide great fodder for interesting conversation. I recently met a father of two boys- 7 and 9 years old. His routine now is to read graphic novel “classics” to his kids and they are eating them up. It’s also a wonderful bonding time for the guys together.
  4. At School – Here is what to look for:
  • You want a school program that not only encourages reading but allows children to self select books. Inquire if the children can pick out their own books or if they can only read what is assigned to them.
  • Are there classroom libraries and not just a school library? Look for books in the classroom itself.
  • Ask the teacher if there is a quiet reading time and not just reading “instruction.” More specifically, do the kids actually have time to read during the school day?
  • Does the program include book groups – when children read a book together in small groups- intermittently throughout the year?
  • How does the school evaluate reading? Do the children have reading contracts or are they evaluated from tests or another way?
  • Do the children have opportunities to share about the books they are reading with one another? Is this an oral share? Do they get to complete projects about their books?

Forbes Magazine recently claimed, “If You Want to Succeed in Business, Read More Novels.” That article points to studies showing that “reading fiction actually increases people’s emotional intelligence: their accurate awareness of themselves and others, and their ability to create positive relationships with others based on managing their own reactions.” In other words, when we read about made up characters, we become better at understanding people and situations in our lives. And this makes us better at our jobs. 

The goal of reading is to encourage mastery of fluency and comprehension so we can essentially read whatever we want and understand it. I would argue there is another goal. That is to inspire and foster the love of reading. The best way to do this is to model (as parents- show our kids that we read for pleasure too!) AND to find a school program that provides children with both choice and time so that they also become successful readers and love it too!

If your child is struggling with decoding at the age of 6, please speak to his or her teacher. Children naturally pick up reading and have fun rhyming words, putting sounds together to make words and breaking them apart. However, nearly one third of children struggle with the acquisition of decoding, the basis for reading. These children most often need individualized instruction in an Orton-Gillingham program to help them be successful readers.

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What’s So Great About Hands on Learning?

handsonlearningLet me ask you a question. How did you learn to ride a bicycle?  Was it from reading a manual or maybe from watching a video?  No, it was from getting on the bike, having mommy or daddy hold on and run with you as you learned to balance, right? Then you mastered the skill through practice and repetition. This is an everyday example of hands on learning.

Hands on learning is another way of saying active learning or learning through doing. When people hear hands on learning, they think about preschool or physical learning, like the example above. The truth is that hands on learning is what each of us does everyday when we apply knowledge and acquire skills. It is how we learn to type, by typing. It is how we learned to drive, by driving. It is how we learn to read, by reading. It is the old adage that practice makes perfect. We can only practice by doing. There are people who will argue that you can learn everything you need to know by practicing on the job, right? On the job training, that is hands on learning.

The hands on approach is one of the most successful classroom techniques as well. Think about it. We all have a variety of learning modalities- visual, auditory, kinesthetic- but we ALL learn best from doing rather than just seeing or listening.

In science children conduct experiments by gathering data, by measuring, weighing,hands on learning2 exploring and observing as scientists. They can then chart the information gathered and make conclusions. This is an illustration of hands on learning.

In language arts, students need opportunities to write every day. Perhaps by developing plot lines and characters, working on grammar and sentence structure within their writing, even applying spelling skills and handwriting. This is what helps create competent and talented writers. Children should also have a designated time to read picture books or chapter books daily. Perhaps the students could choose the books they read too, thereby increasing their enjoyment of what they are reading. Allowing children to read what interests them is the fastest way to inspire children to want to read while developing their reading skills and abilities in the process.

In math, students can apply concepts to real world problems, play games to re-enforce skills and help one another. These strategies enable children to truly absorb what they are learning, apply that knowledge and own it. After all, learning is about accumulating knowledge and being able to apply it appropriately, incorporating higher order thinking when necessary. We want children to retain information as they grow so they have the ability to use that knowledge in all their subject areas.

Think about it. Everything you do well, you do because you have practiced at it. So at Willow, students practice writing, reading, art, science, drama, art, music, PE games every day, because as we all know, practice makes perfect.

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Finding the Right Math Program for Each and Every day!

Everyday Math2Sometimes children come to school either not liking math or not fully understanding math concepts. This can easily be remedied by using an engaging, hands on math program.

Last year there was a young student starting in 2nd grade; let’s call her Annie.  Annie’s parents said that at her old school she had hated math and was exhibiting anxiety when having to do math both at school and at home. When asked what Annie specifically did not like about math, her parents said the program at her old school focused a lot of attention on the memorization of facts. The kind of program teachers often refer to as “Drill & Kill” because students are constantly doing timed testing and it is as if the fun has been leached away.

After meeting Annie, it was clear she was a bright girl and would have no problem with a math program that was more engaging and emphasized conceptual learning as much as fact acquisition. She started the year eager to learn. As the fall went by, Annie continued to embrace the activities and games of a more holistic math program with energy and enthusiasm. She was frequently the first child to start and always wanted to do extra work. So, what was the difference? Perhaps this program was simply a better fit for Annie. She is a bright girl who loves to learn. By making math fun, interesting and applying it to real life situations, math can be more like a game than a chore. Quality math programs expertly incorporate real world scenarios, hands on activities and manipulatives into the curriculum.  Learning math is fun, challenging and always something new.

One such program to consider is the Everyday Math Program. It was developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science in 1983 and was most recently updated in 2012. Today nearly 3 million children worldwide use this program.

5 Components to Consider in a Math Program:everyday math3

  1. Above Grade Level– Look for a challenging program where students could be a grade ahead of their local public school contemporaries graduating in 8th grade having completed Algebra I which many students take in 9thgrade.
  2. Strong Math Foundation – Research the rationales behind the math program and look for one developed around brain research. These programs use natural short and long-term memory to help children learn math. They also connect mathematical concepts to one another so children easily grasp new ideas and can see how they directly relate to each other. For example, fractions, decimals, percent and money are all different ways of expressing the same thing: ¼ = .25 = 25% = $ 0.25.
  3. Math Made Easy with Games – It is important to find a math program that is designed for all children who are naturally math smart as well as children who have excellent language skills or logical ability. Children understand not only pencil and paper math but also conceptual math, the rationale behind the numbers. This helps them apply their knowledge to new problems. And the games act as re-enforcement.  Look for a program that incorporates games into the learning. Everyday Math is a great example, having developed many games that codify learning and kids love them. There is Multiplication Baseball, Beat the Calculator, Battleship using the X/Y coordinates, and Landmark Shark.  Suddenly it no longer seems like ‘math’ when it is a game!
  4. Everyday Applications – It is critical that a good math program engage children. One way is to create problems based on actual real life applications. Children might be asked to estimate and go ‘shopping.’  They could money into vending machines and have to provide change. They answer story problems about sharing food or traveling in the car.
  5. Holistic Approach – Quality math curriculum teach in a spiral, introducing concepts that come around and around year after year. Children as young as Kindergarten and 1st grade learn about geometry and algebra is introduced as early as 2nd grade. This is done in subtle, age appropriate and interesting ways- children make figures out of shapes, fill in blanks representing the ‘x’. Children become familiar with these concepts so later on they can easily build on that knowledge without anxiety.
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When Learning is Experienced – A 21st Century Approach

experiential learningExperiential learning is an evidenced-based technique that really helps children learn and retain information. It also happens to be one of the 4 pillars of The Willow School program in Vero Beach, Florida. Experiential learning incorporates techniques that encourage students to engage in their learning on a multi-sensory level. This means that they use their auditory, visual and kinesthetic senses to not just think about the learning but to experience it. Research has shown that when students are engaged in their work with more than one sense they learn faster, retain the information better and it’s more fun.

This is not to say that lecture doesn’t have a place in today’s classroom, but it is best to limit “lectures” to 15 minute mini-lessons. After the mini-lesson multi-sensory activities are done to reinforce the concepts presented. This helps the new information really stick.

Experiential learning places its emphasis on building skills like: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and both written and oral communication skills. These are often referred to as the 4 C’s. It is important to weave these into experiential activities as research has shown these are critical for success in the 21st century.

So what might an experiential activity actually look like? Here are some examples that you could try:

experiential learning2Student debates: These can be individual or group, graded or not. They allow students the opportunity to take a position and gather data to support that view. It involves team work and collaboration as well as critically thinking about an argument and developing one logically. A good strategy is to require the students to argue both sides of an issue. This helps students see both points of view. Debates also give students experience with verbal presentations aiding in their communication skills.

Think-Pair-Share: Give students a task such as a question or problem to solve. Have them work on this alone at first (think). Then have them discuss their ideas with their partner (pair). Finally, choose a student from each team to share their ideas with the whole class (share). This acitvity encourages creativity, critical thinking, collaboration as well as verbal and written communication.

Collaborative learning groups:  Assign students to groups of 3-5 students. They choose a leader and a secretary. They are given a task/project to work on together that may last one day or even a month. The group produces a group answer, paper or project to “show what they know.” This has hundreds of applications from a simple class room activity to something like a play that can be written and developed over a longer period of time. Depending on the parameters for the activity, many skills are re-enforced as well as significant content learned.

Learning is truly experienced using any of the techniques above. Students also report that having a variety of activities throughout the class day makes learning more interesting and breaks up the day. Studies show that children have a higher level of retention from doing hands-on, interactive activities. When they have ownership and say in their learning they are more likely to invest time and energy into it and remember the information gathered for years to come.

Remember too that these activities can also be used for people of any age. No one is too old or too young to engage their senses and everyone enjoys having some fun while they learn. So doesn’t it make sense that we should try to incorporate as much experiential learning into the curriculum as possible?

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What Exactly is Project Based Learning?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an exciting and dynamic approach to education. It frames curriculum into a structure that is engaging, interesting and exciting for children. In a classroom where project based learning is used, children are actively engaged. Project Based Learning invites the student to be an active participant in the design and implementation of learning. So for example, if a class is learning about say… explorers after the class has read, discussed and learned historical information about explorers, the teacher might then invite the students to choose an explorer to learn more about.

Each child would then select an explorer and decide how to best portray and depict that explorer. The student will research independently and come up with a way to communicate the knowledge he or she has acquired to the rest of the class. Perhaps, the child will dress up as the explorer and act as if she really was Christopher Columbus or Ponce de Leon. Maybe the class will decide they want to put together a play about explorers or a presentation to do in front of the school. Project based learning allows the children to actively determine how the project is carried out and even assessed. When children are so actively involved in their own learning process, they get excited and engaged and want to learn more. They become the experts and that is both exciting as well as empowering. Knowledge creates self esteem.

According to the George Lucas Education Foundation (GLEF), a proponent for this type of education, project based learning “is not just a way of learning but a way of working together. If students learn to take responsibility for their own learning, they will form the basis for the way they will work with others in their adult life.”

Academic research supports project based learning in schools as well. It shows that schools that incorporate project based learning have less absenteeism, they see an improvement in cooperative learning skills, and increases in student achievement.

To learn more about project based learning, visit Eutopia.org

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