The Head's Perspective
The Head’s Perspective: Black Mountain College

All roads seem to have led to Black Mountain College recently, or at least to the wonderful exhibition of work at the Hammer. We were in Berlin over spring break, and I went to the Hamburger Banhoff, Berlin’s contemporary art museum, to see an amazing show, Manifesto, by Julian Rosefeldt. I hadn’t realized that Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957, a show at Hammer Museum and already on our calendar for when we returned to LA, had exhibited in Berlin last year.

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2015. Photo: Liza Voll Photography.

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2015. Photo: Liza Voll Photography.


If you haven’t seen the Black Mountain show, please do. It’s terrific, and it’s closing in just a few weeks. There’s much that will remind you of all that we treasure about Wildwood School and our work with students and families here, even sixty years later.


quoteblock_1It’s impossible to not think about the progressive parallels between Wildwood and the visionary artists, educators, and thinkers responsible for Black Mountain College and a broad list of colleges and universities based on the same ideals.  I found myself compelled, really, reading the beautifully and simply crafted opening statement:


…Black Mountain College was influenced by the utopian ideals of the progressive education movement…They experimented with new ways of teaching and learning; they encouraged discussion and free inquiry; they practiced living and working together as a community; they shared the ideas and values of different cultures; they were committed to learning through doing; they trusted in the new while remaining committed to ideas from the past; and they valued the idiosyncratic nature of the individual.


Anyone who works in schools—and I’d imagine many other organizations, as well—knows of the regular pull to come up with an “elevator speech” to describe what we do and how we do it. An esteemed colleague of mine, a now-retired head of school back east, once said to me, “I’m sick of that elevator speech stuff. What we do is too complicated to describe in three floors.” Her tongue-in-cheek lamentation resonated for me, but the language the folks at Hammer Museum used to describe Black Mountain College does it pretty well, I think.


I’ll be thinking about that show for a good long time, I suspect, and their particular brand of progressive pedagogy will help me frame and inform my own thoughts about how we learn, how we teach, and where we’re headed. Although Black Mountain College wasn’t a sustainable venture, it’s impossible for us to know how broadly its influence has been felt.


What I do know is that the students and teachers, artists and musicians, mathematicians and philosophers who inspired and learned from one another at Black Mountain went on to learn from and inspire others. Just one element of the introduction I’ve shared above captures it perfectly: “they trusted in the new while remaining committed to the ideas from the past.”

The Head's Perspective
The Head’s Perspective: The Wildwood Board of Trustees Demystified

“The Board” conjures different things for different people. Vision. Work. Power. Responsibility. Philanthropy. These collections of people who care about and for an organization work tirelessly to further its goals—for profit, for social good, for children. Wildwood School’s Board of Trustees is focused on the latter, of course. One could argue—and I would—that our Board is focused on the last two, in fact, considering Wildwood School’s mission:


Wildwood School cultivates reflective scholars, bold innovators and compassionate leaders equipped with the skills, ethics and inspiration to transform their world.


quoteblock_1Our school’s Board serves the future—or, perhaps better put, holds the school in trust for the future—in deliberate, celebratory, earnest, and generous ways. Most Trustees in independent schools love the schools they serve. Our Trustees take it to a whole new level, which is why I was so pleased when our WWPO leadership invited Assistant Head of School Melinda Tsapatsaris and me to put together a panel of current Trustees to “demystify” our Board. I was so grateful to our representative group for investing yet another morning at Wildwood, and I want to capture it for those who couldn’t be present.



Landis and Board members Marc Frankel, Board Chair Lisa Flashner, Ashley Kramer, Lyle Poncher, and Andrew Solmssen at the WWPO Spring Summit.

The WWPO Spring Summit on March 9 included a group of five Board members and myself answering questions posed by one of our own, Dr. Marc Frankel, a consultant to independent schools and universities around the world. Our students—current and future—are lucky to have Marc’s expertise serving their school, as evidenced by his nimble facilitation of the panel and the depth and breadth of perspective he shared with those present.


Marc began the discussion by reflecting on the difference between public and independent school boards, noting that independent school boards focus on the fiduciary, strategic, and generative nature of governance. They don’t involve themselves in the day-to-day, like approving book lists and such. Like ours, the best independent school boards structure their work and align their focus to ensure that the school is healthy and thriving in the future.quoteblock_2


Together with 25 year Trustee Lyle Poncher (parent of Amy, ’97, and Zach, ’11), Marc outlined the Board’s responsibility to identify strategic priorities, appoint the head of school, lead fundraising efforts, and structure the school’s annual budget and multi-year financial planning so that everything is in place for a healthy, stable, and—in Wildwood’s case, especially—dynamic school that is continually focused on innovation, best practice, and above all excellence. As Lyle noted, “We are not involved in curriculum. Although the head and his colleagues might consult with us, our job isn’t to decide if we should be teaching Portuguese.”


Andrew Solmssen (Jack and Ridley, ’24) took the question about how Trustees are selected and what is expected of them. Prospective and new Trustees go through a thorough vetting process, and a multi-stage orientation that begins in the spring before their service begins and carries through their first year and beyond. Without going into too much detail, Andrew noted that most Trustees are identified from the ranks of current and past parents who display a particularly pronounced commitment to the school, a clear desire to see it flourish, and a recognition that their service is future-focused. Board members are expected to make Wildwood School a top philanthropic priority. Although there is no requirement for giving, Andrew explained that roughly two-thirds of our Trustees make annual gifts at the highest leadership levels.


Although not a representative body, our Board include members who have children in elementary, middle, and upper school. A critical mass of Trustees are parents of alumni. Some have children who graduated a decade ago, yet remain committed—in their service and in their philanthropy—to ensuring that Wildwood School stays true to its mission and values with regard to educating children and serving families. The Board’s Committee on Trustees works collaboratively to identify potential future Trustees who bring specific skills, professional expertise, and a willingness to work on behalf of the school.


Continuing to explore the nature of the Board’s makeup, Ashley Kramer (Katie, ’19, and Ella, ’22) spoke about the importance of gender, race, age, and—very important to the functioning of a Board—skills and professional affiliations. On our Board are hedge fund managers, physicians, entertainment industry professionals, consultants, COOs, educators, technology leaders, lawyers, and others.


Much of the work of the Board is done in committee. Standing committees of the Board include: Finance, Advancement, Investment, Audit, Committee on Trustees, and the Executive Committee of the Board. In any given year, a task force or two is operating to explore topics over a more limited time frame. Task forces range from diversity to marketing, and HR related topics to flexible tuition policies.  Task forces and some Board committees include non-Trustees, and all have administrative representation.


As Lyle Poncher described it, Wildwood School’s Board has evolved over the course of the two-plus decades he’s been involved. Operating more like a parent co-op early on, he described the early Board as “well meaning, but inefficient,” and noted that there wasn’t a clear separation between the work of the Board and the work of the head and the professional staff.

Board.Head Partnership, NAIS Trustee Handbook

In describing a typical Board meeting, I explained that each Board meeting—five “regular” meetings and one full-day retreat, annually—generally includes one meaty strategic or generative discussion. It could involve anything from the Board helping my colleagues and me consider the ramifications of a significant program shift we’re considering (our Board guided my colleagues’ and my thinking with regard to the specifics of the Institute Model introduced in upper school last year), or a strategic discussion related to the logistics of funding programmatic enhancements (our Board invested considerable time discussing the competing priorities of funding financial aid, faculty salaries, and building endowment a few years ago). Board Chair Lisa Flashner (Jake, ’17, and Zac, ’20) and other Board leaders work diligently to ensure that Board meetings are focused on the 5, 10, and 15 year future, making the best use of the energies and vision of the creative, smart, committed group of people who serve the school.


WWPO, of course, is another key way that parents serve the school and its students, and many current and past Trustees have been involved in the work of WWPO before, and even during, their Board service. WWPO’s Board Liaison—Diana Stephenson (Molly, ’20 and Jenny, ‘23) is in her first year of service—attends all regular sessions of the Board, but has no vote. Although several of my most senior administrative colleagues are usually present for Board meetings, Diana and I are the two people present for all Board meetings who are specifically charged with keeping in mind how Board decisions might affect the here-and-now with students, parents, and faculty and staff.


Talking about some areas of current Board focus, Andrew Solmssen noted that the Board’s strategic plan, approved almost two years ago, serves as the primary road map for all Board and administrative work at any given time. Our current plan includes a focus on developing the long-term three-campus facilities plan, approved by the Board in January 2015; fostering a diverse community; and ensuring that the school benefits from the healthy funding that ensures positive progress with regard to important initiatives around topics like faculty salaries, flexible tuition, and program development.


Lisa Flashner closed the morning elaborating on Andrew’s reference to the Board’s fifteen year three-campus plan. As Lisa announced at the spring 2015 State of School, the Board had, earlier that year, put a stake in the ground by committing to the school’s property acquisition at 11800 Olympic Boulevard as one of two Wildwood campuses to be developed in the neighborhood. Our current middle and upper school site, 11811 Olympic Boulevard, will continue to function as our middle and upper school campus for the interim, but it—or a different site—will provide a companion property for 11800, while the current elementary campus continues to serve the program needs there.


With good questions, good will, and not just a few laughs, the morning’s program came to a close after about an hour and a half. Strolling out with some of those who were present, I was happy to see that the work of the Board had, indeed, been “demystified” and that I’d been joined by others in my appreciation for all that our Board does. The five Trustees who were present represented the greater body of 20 exceptionally well.


~Landis Green

Head of School




The Head's Perspective
The Head’s Perspective: Ben, Becca, and the Extra Space After a Period.

As another academic year comes to an end and we prepare to part ways for a well-earned summer break,

Ben Salk, Wildwood Alumni '09

Ben Salk, Wildwood Alumnus ’09

I’m reflecting happily and with great pride on the year about to close. One of my proudest moments involved looking out over the 300 or so people gathered in the elementary Commons for this spring’s State of School as Ben Salk ’09, one of our alumni panelists, called out to Becca Hedgepath, or “Mrs. H.” I was particularly happy for Becca, a seasoned teacher, when Ben noted that she was the first person who helped him to understand that “rules are rules and rules don’t change.” It was poignant, funny, and sweet.


And it got me thinking.


Ben’s affectionate comment got me thinking because I’ve come to understand that rules—even the hard-and-fast ones—are, in fact, reconsidered from time to time. That may even be the case with some of the rules that Ben learned about grammar and organization from Becca when he was in Division One. Case in point: Until very recently (embarrassingly recently), I always inserted two spaces after a period. Teachers of mine repeatedly underscored the importance of those two spaces, but somewhere along the way the rule changed. As a particularly irreverent Slate article noted, “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.” I’ve been mostly successful in editing out that extra space when I close a sentence, but I must say it’s still a work in progress. I’m still a work in progress.


Of the many lessons I hope we instill in Wildwood School students, one relates to the Life Skill of Flexibility. I want our students to revel in the idea that we learn as we go, that hard-and-fast-rules can change. quoteblock_1_2Our work related to inclusion with regard to language reflective of the gender spectrum is yet another example of how rules change. Although we at Wildwood were ahead of the curve, thanks to a core group of driven students several years ago, we and many peer schools around the country continue to reflect on changing practice, and the laws that are redefining how young people in public schools are to be affirmed for who they are. The dialogue about he/she morphing into they/them, or other gender neutral pronouns, is active on college campuses, and it’s increasingly becoming a topic of conversation in K-12 environments as well.


I join Becca and Ben in a playful and affirming nod to the importance of learning the rules, knowing what they are and why they are so. That said, I’m equally—and perhaps even more—engaged in the changing nature of our world and the ways that we are preparing students to come to learn the rules, even as they get comfortable with the fact that some rules will—and should—change to reflect the times.


The Wildwood Way View All Blogs
ASM Meets ZPD: What’s That?
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Jenny S. stands ready to lead ASM

5th grader Jenny S. leads ASM

By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach


There’s a Wildwood tradition that’s a familiar rite of passage on our elementary campus, and fairly unique almost everywhere else. Every Friday, it looks something like this:


An 11 year-old stands on a lighted stage, the sole focus of a crowd of over 400 people. She’s there to make a presentation—about herself—which needs to be clear, coherent, and engaging enough to hold everyone’s attention.


She’s nervous. And, she delivers.


By the time the crowd roars its approval, a smile spreads over her face. Relief, and accomplishment. For her, the hardest part is over.


The ASM went well! ZPD is real. But wait, we’ll get to that….


The whole process of leading an All School Meeting (ASM) at the elementary campus was instructive for Eliana B, who presented on robotics.

Eliana B. brings one of her robots onstage during ASM

Eliana B. brings one of her robots onstage during ASM


“I had big plans for my ASM presentation, and I had to learn to manage my time to get ready.”


She needed to build half a dozen robots that she bought with her birthday money. “Each of the kits took a day to build, so I realized that I had to start building early if they were going to be ready for my presentation.”


Eliana also remembers the patience and flexibility that she had to tap. “Many of the kits’ instructions were confusing, and my cats kept walking all over the robot parts that I was trying to organize. Then, when the date got closer and I started practicing, I started getting really nervous.”


Will W. and Bronte B. prepare for ASM with teacher Seth Gordon

Will W. and Bronte B. prepare for ASM with teacher Seth Gordon

Each week a pair of Wildwood 5th graders leads the weekly All School Meeting. As a team, they open the session, solicit school-wide announcements, and introduce guest performers. Then, each student takes on the individual component: Meet the Leaders. For several minutes, the crowd gives it’s undivided attention to each of the students as a way of honoring the leadership and longevity of our elementary campus’s oldest students.


Public speaking can be anxiety provoking for everyone, especially novices. With the ASM leadership exercise, Wildwood 5th graders often find they are up to the challenge. They tap bravery, practice, and lots of modeling to master their fears, lead their community, and prepare for similar situations in their futures.


Many of Eliana’s classmates echo her sentiments: Leading ASM is a mix of excitement and fear.

Graham W. shares photos during ASM

Graham W. shares photos during ASM


“I’ve been on stage in plays before but this was a huge leap,” says 5th grader Will W. “I’m not up there with 20 others; it’s just me and one other person. A very new experience… and very unnerving.”


Graham W. noted something that surprised him looking down from the stage. “The Commons looks a lot bigger when you’re up there by yourself. I wasn’t expecting that.”


Liad L.’s ponderings indicate another common feeling among his fellow 5th graders. “When it comes right down to it,” Liad suggests “you are the subject matter; you can be who want to be when you lead ASM. Even though I have stage fright but, I was being myself, so I felt confident.”


Confidence doesn’t imply perfection, and Liad was ok with that, too. During his presentation, Liad demonstrated his acumen with juggling sticks, called flowersticks. “I’ve only been practicing for about a year so I didn’t get upset when I dropped my sticks a few times in front of everyone.”


quoteblock_1Conventional school wisdom says that when you set the bar high for kids and provide them with modeling and appropriate support, they will rise to the occasion and be able to learn and do things that may have seemed out of reach last year, last month, or even last week.


There’s solid theory behind that wisdom. In educational psychology terms, leading All School Meeting is an example of learning within one’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). It’s an idea that began with the writings of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky back in the 1930s.


In the space between what a child can do on his or her own—without any assistance—and something that he or she is incapable of—even with help—is the ZPD.


It’s the sweet spot of learning and doing into which capable educators coax students.


Ultimately individual learners need to bravely venture into the zone.

Liad B. presents at ASM

Liad L. presents at ASM


Wildwood provides its 5th graders the appropriate scaffolding to be able to lead ASM. Students practice in multiple meetings with Seth Gordon, the performing arts teacher in charge of ASM, including a full run-through the morning of the meeting.


And, all Wildwood fifth graders see their peers go through the process—and come out happier and more confident on the other side.


Students like Jenny S., who began her Wildwood career in the pods, have seen this leadership modeled since kindergarten. “When I was in the Pods,” Jenny says, “I couldn’t imagine myself being up on stage as a leader.” She also benefitted from watching her older sister, Molly, lead ASM when Jenny was in 2nd grade. “So as I got older,” she says, “I started thinking that it this is something that I could do.”


With the scaffolding in place, when the stage lights go on, Wildwood students rise to the occasion.


And what’s on the other side? Relief, satisfaction, and new learnings.


Will W. presents to his audience

Will W. presents to his audience

“Was I nervous? Of course!” says Will. “But as soon as I finished my presentation, all of the ice was melted and the butterflies were gone.”


“When I’d finished, I was so excited that I wanted to do it again,” remembers Graham. “And I wanted to show everyone that they don’t need to be scared. In fact—it’s really fun!”


Jenny is looking ahead to 8th grade when she knows that she’ll need to transfer what she’s learned from her ASM experience to a much higher-stakes challenge: Her Gateway Presentation. “My sister is preparing hers right now, and I can totally see how this experience will get me ready for needing to present about myself for 45 minutes.


Another benefit of leading All School Meeting is the connections that the experience allows others to make with you, as Will aptly describes: “Leading ASM is all about coming out of your shell in front of the school. It’s like opening secret compartment in yourself that no one else knows about, and shining a light on it.”



View All Blogs Wildwood Community
Wildwood Seniors Fundraise for Nepal Foundation
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Dear Wildwood Community,

Let us first introduce ourselves as Julia Broudy, Lily Braunstein, and Grace Knobler.  We are three Wildwood seniors who have been a part of the Wildwood community since elementary school.  During high school, the three of us had the opportunity to travel to Nepal through the International Community Involvement program (ICI). On this trip we taught English in schools and spent time working with the Unatti Foundation center for girls.

quote block_1This amazing organization is home to eighteen girls from the ages 5 to 20. The girls have experienced both poverty and neglect. During our trip, we developed strong relationships with the girls and knew that we wanted to continue strengthening these relationships even after leaving Nepal. We decided to use our our Senior Project as a way to demonstrate our commitment to these amazing women.  A Senior Project provides the opportunity for students to explore a specific academic or personal challenge.  We wanted to dive into the world of fundraising and fuse our passion for community service with our relationships to the girls at the Unatti Foundation.

As we applied to colleges this year we reflected upon the importance of our Wildwood education. A popular saying goes, “educate a girl, change the world.”  With this in mind, we are hoping to raise enough money to send Rita, a 16 year old girl from the Unatti Foundation to a three year nursing program.  This program costs $7,000 U.S., and we believe that with the help of the Wildwood community we can change Rita’s future and in doing so help change the future of many others.

111Our project does not stop there! Along with fundraising, we wanted to create a space for our two communities to continue to  inspire each other.  Students who travel to Nepal often email back and forth with the girls, but we wanted to broaden this opportunity to everyone  by creating a Facebook page that will serve as a means of communication.  On this page we hope to share stories about our days, share artwork and other creative projects.

Please join us in improving the lives of the girls at the Unatti Foundation and in improving the communication between our communities.

We ask that you donate directly to our GoFundMe page so that we can ensure the money goes directly towards a nursing education.

You can also learn more about Rita, and her story at

The three of us appreciate your time and your support for our project!



Julia Broudy, Lily Braunstein, and Grace Knobler

unatti foundation

View All Blogs Wildwood Community
In Our House the Mommy Does the Wrestling

By Ben Fussiner, Wildwood’s Director of Auxiliary Programming

I am the same height and weight as Bud Dupree, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I won’t compare our fat percentages, as I don’t want to hurt my own feelings. My wife, Sondra, is 8 inches shorter, less than half my weight, and most likely has never heard of Bud Dupree. When we had a baby boy in January of 2012, it was pretty clear which one of us would be tossing the football in the backyard one day.

And yet, it didn’t work out that way.

quoteblock_1There is a picture in our house of me tossing my son, Ziggy, into the air. He was 17 months old at the time. It is the last time I ever made that toss. In July of 2013, when my son was a year and a half old, I started experiencing major neck pain, which was eventually diagnosed as 2 bulging discs. Don’t feel too sorry for me, I made the choice to have children in my mid-forties — a wiser man would have instead contemplated early retirement.

We have fought gender roles in our household from the beginning. Our 2 sons (we had a second in 2014) have my wife’s last name. We both change diapers, bathe our boys, wake up in the night and in the morning. We both cook and clean.

It felt like roughhousing was always going to be my domain. It just seemed like it would be natural that way, based on personality and body type alone, not on societally accepted gender roles.

When it became clear that my neck wasn’t healing quickly, Sondra, reluctantly at first, took on the role of the rowdy rollicker. It started with horsey rides, and tumbling and has developed a life of its own. They now have a repertoire of invented games: “Garbage Truck,” “Avalanche,” and “Catch Me, Catch Me.”

Some games seem to even have a practical application, there is “Earthquake,” where she shakes and rumbles him while he lies on top of her. As residents of Southern California, we benefit from this in-house form of an emergency drill. They even have a game that resembles a 2-person version of the “Stop, Drop, and Roll” move we were taught for fire safety as kids in the 70s.

Outdoors, they toss all forms of balls, play chase games, and engage in tickle torture.


I watch all this from the comfort of a chair, feeling similar to how I did when I had a fever as a child, and had to look longingly through the window as the neighborhood kids played games in the street. I am, quite literally, on the injured reserve list, with no knowledge of when I will be in game shape. Our 8-month-old, Marsden, is usually with me, he of an age not quite ready for such physical tomfoolery.

Of course, some of the gender role standardization that happens in life seems to go beyond societal imprinting and is simply inborn. With zero encouragement from us, Ziggy has been fascinated by construction, firefighters, and trucks for as long as he has been aware of his surroundings.

Last weekend, at a friend’s birthday party, when faced with many choices offered by a professional face painter, Ziggy chose the blue and white fancy icicle like tendrils meant to represent Elsa, the princess-turned-queen from the movie Frozen. His closest girl friend from preschool tried to dissuade him, suggesting Spider-Man or the skeleton as better options for a boy. He would not be deterred, and a few minutes later he proudly wore the face of the ruler of Arendelle.

There is no telling why he made this choice, and what leads him to feel comfortable in his identity. My wife and I have always supported the idea that anyone can be anything that they want to be. I hope these are deeply ingrained beliefs. But if, because of the situation we find ourselves in due to circumstance, 2 little boys grow up believing that moms are not only just as good, but maybe better even, at roughhousing, it might make the world just a teeny tiny speck of a better place.

By the time my boys are of adult age, maybe some of the Steelers linebackers will be named Betty, not Bud.


The Wildwood Way View All Blogs
Advisory Is Essential–But It Isn’t Everything
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Joe Wise and upper school students learning by the company they keep

Teacher Joe Wise and upper school students learning in each other’s company

“Good schooling is built on the oldest idea around: you learn by the company you keep.”

~ Deborah Meier, NYU Professor of Education & Small Schools Reform Advocate


One mantra in my work as Wildwood’s Outreach Director is “Advisory is Essential.” Those words emphasize that caring, positive relationships among students and with the caring adults who guide their middle and upper school experience are crucial. Advisory is Essential is also a tagline that clearly resonates with Wildwood Outreach Center’s growing list of domestic and international client schools.


quoteblock_1And while advisory is essential at Wildwood, it isn’t everything. What makes Wildwood’s program work powerfully for our students is our intentional emphasis on relationships to guide all aspects of school culture—from classroom instruction to student assessment and faculty hiring. We know that fostering strong relationships, between and among students and faculty is essential in every classroom, not only as a stand alone advisory curriculum in middle and upper school.


Wildwood emphasizes relationships from a student’s first day in the Pods—where new kindergartners are welcomed and looked after by their teachers and 1st grade classmates—to high school culmination—when one’s advisor gives a personalized, public tribute to each graduating 12th grader.


Through the Wildwood Outreach Center, I work with hundreds of educators each year at public, charter, private, and international schools. While I often find myself working with like-minded teachers and administrators, I just as often face the healthy skepticism and fears of many of teachers I meet. Unlike Wildwood faculty, most have not been hired with an explicit view towards their skills at developing strong relationships—whether in the classroom or an advisory. Rather, they see themselves (especially in the middle and upper grades) as ‘history teachers’ and ‘math teachers,’ selected for their academic expertise, not their ability to shape strong relationships. If they can’t do it well, they don’t want to do it at all.


My encounters with these teachers and sentiments have pushed me to broaden my evidence base, so I can effectively help all educators see and understand the value of a wider perspective of support and possibly see reasons to make a shift in their own practice.


The good news: The research is now catching up with the Wildwood Way. The philosophy that has guided our program since 1971 is now supported by a growing body of academic and brain-based studies. Both anecdotally and in data sets, it’s clear that relationships do matter. Kirke Olson, licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience, and Mindfulness at Work in School summarizes a key takeaway: Though “the pressures in our school[s]…today may suggest otherwise, beginning with relationships and then moving to curriculum is the most efficient way to ensure students’ success.”


In support of the interpersonal focus of Wildwood’s middle and upper school advisory program, a recent study (McClure et al. 2010) demonstrated a relationship between the connectedness students feel to their advisors and higher academic achievement. Similarly, a 2011 study (Durlak et al.) showed a correlation between student engagement in a social-emotional learning program (like morning meeting at Wildwood’s elementary campus or advisory in the older grades) to both higher academic achievement as well as an improvement in social-emotional learning skills (e.g., self-management, social awareness, and interpersonal skills).


One source that often surprises the reluctant is the Gallup Group, the opinion research organization, which surveys students and adults annually on education issues.


Gallup has found that the need for strong relationships doesn’t end in middle school or even upon graduation from university. In a recent survey of 30,000 college graduates, Gallup found those who strongly agreed that they were emotionally supported in college were twice as likely to report that they were engaged professionally and thriving in their lives compared to those who didn’t strongly agree. In fact, the same survey also found that the college one attends and one’s major hardly matter to professional engagement and fulfillment in life after college. What does matter? How one does college (e.g., meaningful internships and coursework, along with active extra-curricular involvement) and being emotionally supported by professors and other mentors.


Those findings are supported by significant brain research.


In The Invisible Classroom Kirke Olson surveys the current studies that support the power of meaningful relationships. Building on the research of Stephen Porges and others, Olson highlights the role that positive relationships play on our autonomic nervous system (ANS)—which acts unconsciously to regulate breathing, heart rate, and blood flow to organs and muscles. The ANS regulates the fight or flight response to stress. Students cycle through dozens of these responses daily (both in and out of school), due to real or imagined stressors. The words, actions, and mere presence of caring peers and adults, Olson shows, can affect substantive physiological changes to counteract the fight or flight response—causing one to be more open to new learning and experiences.


Olson also highlights the interplay of trust and vulnerability in forging positive relationships and strong classroom and advisory cultures. Utilizing the work of University of Houston researcher Brené Brown and others, Olson argues that when teachers and students show vulnerability—by sharing a personal story or acknowledging an area for growth—they develop trust and safety within their group.


Furthermore, when we share something of ourselves in a safe environment, we release a dose of the hormone oxytocin. It sharpens our attention to others’ eyes and body language, helps us feel more connected and less stressed—also opening us up to new learnings and ideas.


quoteblock_2Feeling connected, safe and able to encounter new ideas isn’t just good practice in advisory. Creating that environment for students is a fundamental good for classrooms and schools everywhere. It’s essentially human, and increasingly supported by current research and evidence.


At Wildwood, we make those values part of everyday practice, and we are pleased to share a philosophy we’ve been growing at home with educators around Los Angeles, the country, and the world.

~ Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach


Works Cited

The Wildwood Way View All Blogs
Pen Pals With A Purpose
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By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach

5th graders' letters to 8th grade pals

5th graders’ letters to 8th grade pals


Wildwood’s 5th and 8th grade social studies students have become (digital) pen pals—

connecting with each other about what it’s like to be in middle school, as well also sharing their deeper knowledge of a more serious topic they study in common: slavery.


The teachers hatched the idea at Wildwood’s annual holiday party— a chance for faculty to not only mingle but also share ideas across campus.


In social studies with teacher Monique Marshall, 5th graders recently learned about modern slaves; mostly women and children from the world’s poorest countries forced to leave their homes—often kidnapped and sold across international borders—and into difficult, degrading labor for little or no pay.Douglass_Cover


8th graders in humanities class are studying historical slavery in the United States—in the years leading up to the Civil War—through Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.


Both sets of teachers know that students can deepen their learning by explaining it to someone else. quoteblock_1So, each grade level has a built-in audience, ready and eager to expand their knowledge on the subject.


The 5th graders initiated the writing, crafting introductory letters to 8th grade pals, assigned at random by their teachers. There’s a clear topical angle to these letters—as the 5th graders relate their key learnings.


Jamie B. writes to her 8th grade pal, Zoe B.: “In… social studies class we are learning about modern day slavery. It’s super sad because a lot of… people who have money issues get kidnapped to work without pay. It’s illegal to do that in all countries, so… the traffickers and recruiters are wicked!!”


And the letters provide an opportunity to connect with the 8th graders, as Jamie writes: “I love animals and right now I’m raising a mixed yellow lab/golden retriever guide dog puppy…. I’m sorry if you like them but I am really not into cats because they just freak me out…. Do you have pets?”


Alex Cussens' 8th graders write their responses to 5th grade pals

Alex Cussen’s 8th graders write their responses to 5th grade pals

The day that I visit 8th graders in teacher Alex Cussen’s humanities classes, the students are drafting their responses.


Remy W. shares what he’s writing back to his 5th grade pal, Chloe B. and begins with his personal response: “Great to hear from you! I am new to Wildwood (I moved over here from Australia a couple months ago), and I love Wildwood so far! I like soccer too, but I also love rugby and basketball. I don’t have a dog, but your dog Mac sounds really cool!”


Tess F. has me read the part of her letter to 5th grade pal, Leily K., in which she relates what she’s been learning about American slavery, through an anecdote about Frederick Douglass: “The amazing thing about Frederick Douglass is that he taught himself how to read. He did this by challenging other kids to games, and telling them ‘I bet I’m better at writing than you’ and then when the other kids would write, he would look [at what they’d written] and learn how to read and write. He was very smart in this way, because he knew that kids were competitive, and so he used that to learn.”


The 8th graders are excited to hear back soon from their 5th grade pals. The teachers are working out a plan for the younger students to visit the middle AND upper campus—to connect with their pals and to see first-hand what middle school (and middle schoolers) are really like.



The Head's Perspective View All Blogs
The Head’s Perspective: Living Up to Our Highest Ideals

A long-time Wildwood parent and I were at a school event recently. It was an admissions event, and we’d just heard a panel of current upper schoolers answer questions about the long-view of their Wildwood School experience. Two of them were his, and he was understandably proud. His third child is already off at college, after 13 years at Wildwood.


As we parted, he made an observation that stuck with me. Empathizing with the hundred or so prospective parents gathered, recognizing the weight of the decision about to be made—which school was going to be right for their family and would that school see it, too?—he wished aloud that he could encourage them to live up to the best version of themselves and their highest ideals as they think about schools and what they want for their children. quoteblock_3Then he noted that it’s becoming clearer every day that Wildwood is ahead of the curve in what can feel like uncharted territory, which can make it challenging for parents to remember to focus on their highest ideals along the way.


I think I was particularly primed to have his “remember our highest ideals” message resonate so, having just had multiple Wildwood parents share with me Frank Bruni’s recent article. Bruni received an advance copy of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s new report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions, and continues to shine a spotlight on a system that is increasingly seen as broken. Using only slightly more dramatic language than I’m prone to use, Bruni notes that “…many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions.”


The report, the creation of which was led by Harvard GSE’s Making Caring Common project, was developed and is endorsed by representatives of a huge range of colleges and universities to which Wildwood students have, will, or wish to matriculate. Several of those universities, the report notes, “…have already made changes in their admissions materials or practices…”


From the report: “Admissions processes inevitably send messages about what colleges value, messages that young people may interpret as signals of what society values as well…These messages can exacerbate young people’s sometimes singular focus on achievement or, alternatively, motivate behaviors that are likely to develop in them a greater commitment to others and the common good. Some colleges have sought diligently to communicate the importance of this commitment in the admissions process, but too often these messages are overwhelmed by messages from the larger culture and from parents that narrowly emphasize academic performance and personal success.”


With schools like Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, CAL, Cornell, Harvard, Michigan, Smith, Swarthmore, University of Chicago, Penn, USC, UVA, Wesleyan, Yale, and others large and small, public and private coming together to address this topic, I am more hopeful than ever that the hyper-competitive environment that’s surrounded high school students during their college process—and so negatively impacted the high school experience everywhere—will change for the better. And change for good, I hope.


The report offers three specific recommendations for reshaping the college process:


  1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
  2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture, and class.
  3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.


Reading the full report (the Executive Summary provides a quick overview if you don’t have much time) I was, as I so often am, energized to see how consistent the recommendations are with the principles we espouse—and actively teach—at Wildwood. Our founding philosophy, the vision that guided our expansion to a K-12, and the research and reflection that continues to guide us today was and is decidedly ahead of the curve. Everything from the encouragement that students’ community service should focus more on “doing with” than on “doing for” (I think of our ICI students working side-by-side with locals to build houses in Guatemala) to the recommendation that colleges begin to convey that, “…taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas” (In the years before many very well-regarded independent high schools decided to disband their Advanced Placement programs, a move becoming more and more common in independent schools, Wildwood introduced its upper school program and eschewed the standardization of those types of programs). Calling on themselves and others to prompt change, the writers of the report noted that all too often, “Academic performance becomes not one important theme, but the theme in the large composition of a life.”


As much as anything, the recommendations repeatedly require that students reflect on the degree to which they’ve contributed in positive ways to their families, their schools, and their communities. College applicants will be called on to think about the range of actions that fall under Wildwood’s Habits of Heart as they seek admission. As the writers explain, “Reshaping college admissions needs to be coupled with more purposeful, intensive and wiser efforts across our culture, at home, and at every level of education, including colleges themselves to develop in young people deeper commitments to others.”


quoteblock_2None of this important work is as simple as it may sound. It takes a strong culture, agreement among the adults involved, and time (this week, this year, and over the span of many years) to guide young people to be the best version of themselves, both with regard to academics and citizenship. It has to begin early, and it can’t stop.



Our middle school students earned first place again in the annual Future City competition, held in San Diego this year. They’ll go to nationals in Washington, DC and will have the opportunity to present their project to President Obama if they win there. Our students placed in many sub-categories, as well. As great as all of that is, multiple people—colleagues and parents—came back reporting to me not of the win or the successes in multiple categories. They separately spoke of the power of seeing kids celebrate the successes of others, share and give credit where credit was due, and reflect on the strength of the teams and the benefits of the collaboration.


They aren’t ready for college yet. But they will be.


~Landis Green

Head of School

The Wildwood Way View All Blogs
Special(ist) Assignment
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3rd grader, Jack C.'s, interpretation of a branch in the rain

3rd grader, Jack C.’s, sketch of a branch in the rain

By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach.

On one of this week’s rainy days I spend some time visiting a selection of the specialist classes at our elementary campus. Through the visual arts, technology, and PE, I get a peak into how our specialist teachers enhance our students’ daily experiences that are part of The Wildwood Way—even if it means getting a little wet.


Visual Arts: Natural Beauty


3rd graders, Tuesday H. and Natalie H., stay dry during visual arts class as they sketch outside the Commons

3rd graders, Tuesday H. and Natalie H., stay dry during visual arts class as they sketch outside the Commons

Teachers Kusum Nairi and Kendra Elstad didn’t let the rain deter the day’s plan this morning with a group of 3rd graders—heading out to the garden to sketch. The light drizzle provides students ample opportunity to see nature in a different way: “How do you draw the rain?” Kendra asks, as students interpret the ways that clouds and drizzle affect this natural environment.

3rd graders, Grayson S., Charlotte W., and Juliette H., pose together as they sketch self-portraits

3rd graders, Grayson S., Charlotte W., and Juliette H., pose together as they sketch self-portraits


Later in the day I stop in to see Kusum and Kendra working with 2nd graders as they draw their self-portraits. Students have been studying the mathematical dimensions of the human face and use this new knowledge to draw themselves—using mirrors to frame their visages. I empathize with Breeze W. when she laments how she can never seem to get the eyes “just right.” Not deterred, I watch as she tells me how she’s going to do her best to draw them better this time.


Technology: Playful Problem-solving


3rd grader, Quinn K., demonstrates his Ozbot

3rd grader, Quinn K., demonstrates his Ozbot

Mid-morning I stop in to Wildwood’s Tec D.E.C. (Discover, Explore, Create) where teacher Doug Meyer assists a group of 3rd graders as they program robots. These students are learning coding skills using Ozobots—adorable little, round robots that operate using visual sensors. The Ozobots and the software students use to program them are the result of recent, generous gifts by Wildwood families. Olivia D., Bryce C., and Quinn K. eagerly show me how they’ve programmed their Ozobots—the robots can read both color-coded lines on paper or take in a visual code on a laptop screen in order to perform a sequence of linear movements, spins, and color changes.

2nd graders, Milan B. and Lila B., work together to create green screen images

2nd graders, Milan B. and Lila B., work together to create green screen images


Afternoon finds me back in the Tec D.E.C. watching a new group of students—2nd graders—working with Doug and librarian Jennifer DuBois. Their learning is how to use the Tec D.E.C.’s green screen, creating their own imaginative photos by superimposing pictures of themselves into a variety of backgrounds. Next week, the students will work more closely with Jennifer as she helps them to embed videos of themselves into backdrops they’ll choose from various non-fiction books. Imagine a 2nd grader sharing her learning about the animals in the rain forest—while she virtually ‘walks’ through a vibrant picture from a book on the subject. Pretty cool, fun stuff!


PE: Keep on Moving


My final visit of the day takes me to PE in the Commons—warm and dry on this cold and rainy day. The sound system blasts workout music as teachers Darren Pasco, Hasan Muhammad, and Tyler Williams keep a group of 2nd graders active and jumping (literally) to the beat. It’s a welcome respite and release of energy on a day that these kids will mostly spend indoors.



All of our specialist teachers (which also includes experts in the performing arts, science, and Spanish) are uniquely skilled in enriching students’ experiences and helping them build the skills that are essential to The Wildwood Way—rain or shine.