By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach
On the first day of school this year on our elementary campus, over one hundred 4th and 5th graders gathered in the Commons to find peers with whom they have something in common. Human Bingo. Literally. The students walked around, each with a sheet paper in his or her hands, stopping to talk briefly with other students, writing on their paper and then moving on to talk with others. The task was to find connections—someone who is a middle child, who has brown eyes, who isn’t afraid of bees, and on and on.
It’s an icebreaker, that game of Human Bingo, but it’s also a pretty good indicator of our Wildwood way, starting on the very first day of each year. We want kids to connect, talk, relate, and understand.
Back to school at Wildwood means a renewing of established connections and the beginning of more. That’s how we start the year at Wildwood, because we put relationships at the center of school and student life. Every day. It’s what we have always believed, and the research now clearly shows, that meaningful relationships create a solid foundation of a superior academic program.
In the Pods, the first day of school requires our youngest students to become familiar with the ways of being a kindergartner. In true Wildwood fashion, teachers and fellow 1st graders provide the necessary guidance.
“Let’s show our new friends how we sit tall in circle,” Grace says to the class. The 1st graders all straighten up and hold their heads up high; Grace calls out some of their names so the kindergartners can look to their peers as examples. “It’s important for us,” Grace continues, “to sit in a safe place and be mindful. Let’s teach our kindergarten friends the song we sing to help us be more mindful in circle.” On Grace’s cue, all of the 1st graders sing—proudly remembering the song from last year: “Tick tock… like a clock… till I find my center…”
While the activities and classroom experiences are different, our students at the middle and upper campus spend their first full day forging connections as well—within their Advisories and across each grade level Division.
Wildwood teachers at every grade level also model this connection-making. Prior to the school year, our teachers spend up to three weeks collaborating and planning these opening day experiences for students and, of course, the rest of the year’s learning as well.
Fostering a school culture that values connection and collaboration is essential to The Wildwood Way. We model it here, and it’s an approach that more educators are embracing— at public, charter and private schools across California, the nation, and the world. As the Director the Wildwood Outreach Center, I am able to share the approach that we know helps students grow and learn in meaningful ways.
An increasing body of research shows that personalizing students’ school experiences through relationships that build social-emotional wellbeing correlate with higher academic achievement (McClure et al., 2010; Durlak et al., 2011). For The Wildwood Outreach Center that means the weeks before school starts in August get busier and busier every year.
At Palms Elementary School, a nearby LAUSD school, The Outreach Center organized a day-long collaborative training in systems thinking. 25 teachers took a day out of their summer vacations to learn from each other and from Barbara Moreno—a systems thinking expert who trains teachers at both Palms and Wildwood last year.
At New Los Angeles Charter School, a middle school in LA’s Mid-City neighborhood, I worked directly with new teachers to help them develop their skills as Advisors. I later worked with the full faculty at New Los Angeles to help them build on their existing collaborative teacher culture and to create a set of norms that they will use this year in their work as a faculty.
Finally, I spent three days in Sacramento working with district administrators in the San Juan Unified School District, helping them to develop their skills as Critical Friends Group (CFG) coaches. CFGs—long a practice within Wildwood’s collaborative culture—provides the adults in a school or a district with a set of protocols they can use to present work or dilemmas to a group of peers, with a view toward increasing student achievement.
I’m invited to share the Wildwood approach because more educators are beginning to understand the benefits for teachers and learners alike: Forging meaningful relationships is also good for educators, as recent research shows that quality of relationships predicts not only student achievement but also teachers’ job satisfaction (WestEd 2011).
In order for students to engage in a culture of caring and collaboration, adults must experience them first. It is exciting to guide teachers as they learn to build an authentic culture of meaningful relationships with each other, so they can help students achieve the same. It works, starting here, because our teachers have experienced the power of relationships themselves.