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Each August when students at Rowland Hall enter fifth grade, they receive a special assignment: write a letter to your teacher introducing yourself and expressing your hopes and fears for the year ahead. According to Sarah Button and Chad Obermark, two Lower School faculty members with a collective 23 years of experience teaching Rowland Hall fifth graders, 75% of incoming students are worried about one thing in particular—the science share.

"We talk about the science share from day one," Chad said.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings. It takes approximately eight weeks for students to complete the entire process: choosing a question, forming a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, writing up their results using the claim-evidence-reasoning framework, and creating the presentation board and accompanying Keynote—digital documentation—for the science share.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings.

The sustained timeline, coupled with the independent nature of the research, is what contributes to student anxiety about the science share, Chad explained. "They've really got to own it," he said, "and for some kids it's daunting."

For some fifth-grade students, identifying their research question is the toughest part of the process. Mackenzie White, whose project explored whether the duration of egg-whipping affected the height of a pound cake, said that finding a genuine question was her biggest challenge.

Sarah said that students' initial questions frequently fall into that category: those they already know the answer to. When she pushes them to establish genuine questions, they grow concerned. "They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong," she said. "So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do."

At this year's science share on April 26, projects explored a range of questions, such as whether the type of string on a lacrosse stick impacts shot accuracy, or whether listening to music during a math test affects student performance. Faculty, parents, and other Lower School students made their way around the room, examining display boards, listening to presentations about the scientific method, and asking the fifth graders questions about their findings.

Some students were nervous about presenting their work to the community, though many spoke with pride about what they had learned. Will Chin, whose question was "does the temperature of a tennis ball affect how high it bounces?" described the painstaking process of data collection. After filming bouncing tennis balls—some of which had been cooled or heated—he pored over hours of video to extract precise height measurements, often slowing down and rewinding footage multiple times. However, his advice to future students was reassuring. "Once you get past the procedure," he said, "it's really fun."

They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong. So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do. —Sarah Button, fifth-grade teacher

Gigi Brown, Jojo Park, and Bea Martin also had good suggestions for next year's fifth-grade class: Make sure you pick a question that really interests you. Choose a project that doesn't involve living subjects. Start early, and don't be afraid to ask your teacher for help.

Even though some students may struggle with the science share, Sarah emphasized that the process of engaging with a meaningful question—not the end product on display—is what creates a positive learning outcome. Additionally, the experience can impact the way students approach future projects in the Middle School and beyond. For one of Sarah's former students whose science share wasn't particularly successful, that meant helping his brother out when he got to fifth grade. "He didn't want his brother to make the same mistakes he had," Sarah said, "and his brother's project ended up being one of the best in his class."

The celebration of scientific inquiry and process, including the occasional failure, presents an opportunity for the community too, according to Chad. While many other Lower School performances or events focus on the arts or literacy, the science share offers a critical window into STEM learning. "It's a big deal," he said, "and it's a big deal about science."

STEM

Doing What Real Scientists Do: Fifth-Grade Science Share Celebrates Inquiry, Process, and (Sometimes) Failure

Each August when students at Rowland Hall enter fifth grade, they receive a special assignment: write a letter to your teacher introducing yourself and expressing your hopes and fears for the year ahead. According to Sarah Button and Chad Obermark, two Lower School faculty members with a collective 23 years of experience teaching Rowland Hall fifth graders, 75% of incoming students are worried about one thing in particular—the science share.

"We talk about the science share from day one," Chad said.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings. It takes approximately eight weeks for students to complete the entire process: choosing a question, forming a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, writing up their results using the claim-evidence-reasoning framework, and creating the presentation board and accompanying Keynote—digital documentation—for the science share.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings.

The sustained timeline, coupled with the independent nature of the research, is what contributes to student anxiety about the science share, Chad explained. "They've really got to own it," he said, "and for some kids it's daunting."

For some fifth-grade students, identifying their research question is the toughest part of the process. Mackenzie White, whose project explored whether the duration of egg-whipping affected the height of a pound cake, said that finding a genuine question was her biggest challenge.

Sarah said that students' initial questions frequently fall into that category: those they already know the answer to. When she pushes them to establish genuine questions, they grow concerned. "They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong," she said. "So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do."

At this year's science share on April 26, projects explored a range of questions, such as whether the type of string on a lacrosse stick impacts shot accuracy, or whether listening to music during a math test affects student performance. Faculty, parents, and other Lower School students made their way around the room, examining display boards, listening to presentations about the scientific method, and asking the fifth graders questions about their findings.

Some students were nervous about presenting their work to the community, though many spoke with pride about what they had learned. Will Chin, whose question was "does the temperature of a tennis ball affect how high it bounces?" described the painstaking process of data collection. After filming bouncing tennis balls—some of which had been cooled or heated—he pored over hours of video to extract precise height measurements, often slowing down and rewinding footage multiple times. However, his advice to future students was reassuring. "Once you get past the procedure," he said, "it's really fun."

They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong. So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do. —Sarah Button, fifth-grade teacher

Gigi Brown, Jojo Park, and Bea Martin also had good suggestions for next year's fifth-grade class: Make sure you pick a question that really interests you. Choose a project that doesn't involve living subjects. Start early, and don't be afraid to ask your teacher for help.

Even though some students may struggle with the science share, Sarah emphasized that the process of engaging with a meaningful question—not the end product on display—is what creates a positive learning outcome. Additionally, the experience can impact the way students approach future projects in the Middle School and beyond. For one of Sarah's former students whose science share wasn't particularly successful, that meant helping his brother out when he got to fifth grade. "He didn't want his brother to make the same mistakes he had," Sarah said, "and his brother's project ended up being one of the best in his class."

The celebration of scientific inquiry and process, including the occasional failure, presents an opportunity for the community too, according to Chad. While many other Lower School performances or events focus on the arts or literacy, the science share offers a critical window into STEM learning. "It's a big deal," he said, "and it's a big deal about science."

STEM

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A Rowland Hall Lower School class

The princiPALS are back.

In the second episode of Rowland Hall’s new podcast, Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman and Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus are tackling the subject of academic rigor.

What exactly is it?

Is it a good thing?

What does it look like for students during their early childhood and elementary school years?

While, for many, the term academic rigor is simply a way to describe curriculum difficulty, the princiPALS show how it encompasses accessing, evaluating, and using knowledge—and what that looks like today, when students can instantly retrieve vast quantities of information on the internet.

In an ever-changing world, it is more important than ever to teach students how to think, not what to think.

In an ever-changing world, the princiPALS explain, it is more important than ever to teach students how to think, not what to think. “We need students who know their academic content, but also can apply it in new and novel ways,” said Jij. In other words: it’s less about what students know, but when and how they use knowledge that will best prepare them for the future. While traditional education methods focused on memorizing and regurgitating facts to display knowledge, today’s students thrive when they joyfully engage in the learning process, successfully evaluate and apply knowledge, and collaborate with others.

We invite you to join Emma and Jij, along with host Conor Bentley ’01, as they discuss the ways educators, parents, and caregivers can help children become engaged, flexible, deep thinkers. Listeners will also enjoy practical tips that will help them raise lifelong learners and future innovators. 

Episode 2 can now be found on Rowland Hall’s website, Stitcher, or Apple Podcasts. And be sure to check out episode 1, “Building Resilience in Children,” if you haven’t already.

Community

Sixth graders at 2019 UN Civil Society Conference

In August 2019, when the United Nations (UN) held its 68th Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City, Rowland Hall administrators seized the moment and took the entire sixth grade to the event.

“We wanted the sixth graders to take advantage of this historic opportunity to attend a UN conference for the first time outside of New York and San Francisco,” said Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education. “Because the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a unifying theme in the Middle School sixth- and seventh-grade curriculums, the opportunity was too good to pass up.”

So on August 26, the sixth graders—then in their second week of the school year—traveled to the Salt Palace Convention Center, where they met UN representatives from across the globe and participated in significant conversations around the conference’s theme of building inclusive and sustainable cities and communities. In addition to exposing the students to some of the larger ideas they would be examining over the year, the conference served as an important jumping-off point for an exciting new assignment: empathy-to-impact projects. 

Brought to Rowland Hall by sixth-grade social studies teacher Mary Jo Marker, empathy-to-impact is designed to get students to think more deeply about global issues and how they can take steps to make a difference in the world. For its inaugural year at the school, Mary Jo asked students to choose projects that support the second UN Sustainable Development Goal: Zero Hunger. The assignment, she explained, is for each person to pick one action in support of that goal, research it, and then find a way to share their work with the larger community. Though the steps are simple, the project is intended to make a big impact in how students think about the world around them and their place within it.

My goal is that they experience an opportunity to practice their empathy, solidifying social justice work in the future.—Mary Jo Marker, sixth-grade social studies teacher

“My goal is that they experience an opportunity to practice their empathy, solidifying social justice work in the future,” Mary Jo said.

The project is also an exciting chance for the newly minted middle schoolers to take on more autonomy in their learning: they choose their research subjects and community group, as well as set their own timelines (the only requirement is to complete projects before the end of the school year). Mary Jo explained that this freedom empowers students by giving them more opportunity to think deeply about their topics and find creative ways to approach them. It also helps them to understand the power they have to make change, even at a young age—a major goal of a Rowland Hall education.

“We want our students to see themselves as changemakers in their communities,” Ryan said,  “and find their voice around issues that give them a sense of purpose and inspire them to learn for life.”

Six months in, students are hard at work researching and presenting on a variety of topics that address the Zero Hunger goal—such as food waste, malnutrition, supporting local farms, and finding ways to provide healthy, safe food to low-income families—and making contacts throughout the community. Some students, like Samira Eller, are also finding ways to make connections between Rowland Hall’s campuses. While researching monocropping, the practice of growing the same crop on a plot of land year after year, she realized that she could educate elementary schoolers on the topic, helping them to not only understand how they can make an impact at a young age, but also closing the circle on one of her biggest takeaways from the Civil Society Conference.

“Hearing from so many young people from different parts of the world showed me that it is always possible to make a difference in the world, no matter your circumstances,” she said. 

Samira decided that Rowland Hall’s fourth graders would be at an ideal age to grasp the concept. Plus, she added, “I enjoy enlightening younger kids and getting to see them understand things and learn.” In January, she presented her findings to the entire fourth grade on the McCarthey Campus, emphasizing the importance of diversifying crops and even throwing in some of the surprising facts she discovered in her research—for example, “the Cavendish banana—that yellow one you find in almost all of Utah’s mass groceries—is grown entirely in monoculture, even though it is the least flavorful of many different bananas,” she said.

Samira Eller presenting to fourth graders

Samira Eller presenting her findings on monocropping to Rowland Hall's fourth graders.

The fourth graders loved it. Teacher Tyler Stack commented, “The students really enjoy when a peer from the middle or upper school comes to speak to them. They were engaged with the topic and excited to see what they are going to study the next few years.”

I learned that my voice can make a big difference and that making an impact in the world isn’t always about the big things, but more the little ones.Those students can almost certainly look forward to conducting their own empathy-to-impact research one day. Mary Jo is already planning on repeating the assignment next year, and will be opening it up to other Sustainable Development Goals. She is excited to see the kinds of ideas students will continue to come up with—and how it will improve their confidence as global citizens, as it has with Samira.

“I learned that my voice can make a big difference and that making an impact in the world isn’t always about the big things, but more the little ones,” Samira reflected. “Sometimes something might seem impossibly hard and dangerous, but in reality all it takes is a second to tell someone, ‘Hey, did you know…’ to make a pretty big dent.”


Top photo: Rowland Hall sixth graders hold cards displaying the UN's Sustainable Development Goals while attending the 68th Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City in August 2019.

Ethical Education

First-grade teacher Susanna Mellor leading morning meeting.

On a Thursday in November, Susanna Mellor’s first-grade class was seated in a circle, ready to begin their morning meeting. That day, they started with a pinky greeting: everyone hooked fingers, forming a chain, and then Susanna turned to one of the students next to her. “Good morning, Thomas,” she began. The salutation passed around the circle, ending with a hearty, full-group welcome: “Good morning!”


Morning meeting is one of several practices recommended by Responsive Classroom, a student-centered approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) and effective classroom management. Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus explained that the division started utilizing Responsive Classroom in 2016 as a way to support Rowland Hall’s long-standing commitment to SEL, which is associated with higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, and higher-quality instruction.

Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms. More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning.—Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus

“Responsive Classroom gives teachers the tools to create truly joyful, safe, and inclusive classrooms that help our students thrive,” he said. “More importantly, it gives students more responsibility and ownership in the process of building a community of kindness, respect, and learning with their classmates.”

Morning meeting achieves this by engaging young learners in a welcoming atmosphere at the start of each school day. In addition to an inclusive greeting, the meeting includes a moment of sharing, a group activity, and a daily message. Whatever the day’s focus, teachers use the meeting to make sure each child is recognized and participating in the class.

“Responsive Classroom practices help build confidence and ease anxiety by fostering a sense of belonging and significance,” Susanna said. And, she added, as the school year progresses, its rewards multiply. “When they listen to each other, students feel that they matter. I see new friendships begin to bud, classmates work comfortably and easily together, and students take risks as they share ideas in class discussions.”

The Responsive Classroom Approach

Responsive Classroom, first developed by the Center for Responsive Schools in 1981, creates safe, nurturing learning environments through four key domains: engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmentally responsive teaching. Because Rowland Hall is focused on integrating SEL into our academic and co-curricular programs (we formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018), incorporating Responsive Classroom into the Lower School curriculum was a logical choice. And it has made a difference.

“It's given our teachers more clarity and alignment when they consider how best to support students, structure learning activities, and promote positive behavior expectations,” Jij said. “Students, in turn, experience more consistency and are clear on why their actions matter for their own learning and for the learning of others.”

Rowland Hall is focused on integrating social and emotional learning into our academic and co-curricular programs; we even formally added it to goal 1 of our Strategic Plan in November 2018.

To drive student success, Responsive Classroom also emphasizes interactive modeling to teach the skills, strategies, and procedures that help kids thrive at school.

“Interactive modeling has made my classroom a more calm, efficient, and productive learning environment,” Susanna said. “When students watch and comment on what I do as I role-play a procedure, they actively deduce the steps by verbalizing them and listening to peers do the same. As a result, they have a firm and clear understanding when it comes time for them to begin the task at hand.”

Integrating Responsive Classroom into Established Practices

Responsive Classroom has helped Rowland Hall refocus many classroom practices toward the school’s overarching SEL goals. One example occurs at the beginning of each school year: developing classroom agreements. Unlike traditional lists of rules, classroom agreements are created in partnership, giving teachers and students buy-in on how their classrooms will run. While the agreements have been a part of the Lower School for many years, Responsive Classroom added another layer to the process.

“Using the Responsive Classroom approach has allowed my students to delve deeper into the process of exploring their own hopes and dreams, and how we can work as a group to help each other achieve our goals,” Susanna said. She explained that students become engaged, thoughtful, and passionate as they determine what will help them do things like learn how to read, try harder math problems, or even score soccer goals. “I notice students putting much more thought and reflection into this process, making it more meaningful and effective,” she said.

Collaborating on classroom agreements also makes it more likely that children will follow, and reference, those agreements during the school year.

“Students refer back to these agreements when obstacles arise and really demonstrate ownership of them,” said Susanna. “For example, when having a class discussion about erasers being damaged intentionally, several children commented, ‘That’s not following our agreement. We said we’d take care of our materials this year so that we could become better writers.’”

Susanna Mellor's class reads the morning message.

Morning meeting gives students an opportunity to revisit class agreements and reflect on how they can work together in support of classroom goals.

Classroom agreements are referenced regularly by instructors too. In Susanna’s morning meeting, for instance, students are asked which agreements they want to focus on and what actions they can take to make sure those agreements are honored. One student reminded classmates that they can meet their goal to keep calm in the classroom by walking; another observed that they can fulfill the agreement to try harder math problems by listening respectfully during instruction.

Using Responsive Classroom in New Ways

Responsive Classroom also inspires new methods to empower students. This fall, the Lower School used the foundation of classroom agreements in a new way: to create school-wide Winged Lion Agreements.

On September 6, 17 student delegates from grades one through five—one from each class—gathered in the McCarthey Campus parlor for the first-ever student constitutional convention. Delegates shared their classes’ newly developed classroom agreements with the group before beginning a discussion on agreements that could be applied to the whole school.

Student delegates created Winged Lion Agreements

Responsive Classroom helps educators look for ways to engage students in their school community. Above, the student delegates who helped craft the Lower School's first Winged Lion Agreements in September.

When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone.—Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer

Lower School Specialty Principal Linda Tatomer—who has completed all Responsive Classroom courses, including the Responsive Classroom for Leadership conference—led the discussion and was impressed by how the process unfolded. “When students help make decisions about how the school runs, they understand their voices are valued and that they play a role in making school enjoyable for everyone,” she said. “And because each student was a stakeholder in the convention’s outcome, they were serious about identifying meaningful goals.” She was also thrilled by the inclusion she saw in the room, especially by the way fifth graders mentored the first graders. “They really made connections and made them feel valued,” Linda said.

After thoughtful discussion, the group decided on five agreements for the year: 
    •    Be kind

    •    Respect

    •    Work hard and never give up

    •    Be safe

    •    Have fun


Each item was purposefully selected, down to exact words—for instance, the delegates chose the word “respect” because of its ability to encompass a wide range of areas, from personal behavior to how students should treat their surroundings.

Designing Better School Days with Responsive Classroom

Responsive Classroom further helps the Lower School team continuously reevaluate how to best meet students’ needs. One recent change to the school day occurred as a result of a February 2019 meeting with a Responsive Classroom consultant, who was sent to observe a full day at the school after Linda completed her training in the approach.

“One thing the consultant noticed was that our dining hall is very noisy,” Linda remembered. The consultant recommended a proven solution she thought would benefit the division: moving recess before lunch, an idea that the Lower School student support team had been considering for two years prior to the visit.

Lower School students on the playground.

In 2019, the Lower School moved recess from after to before lunch, resulting in school-wide behavior improvements.

“The change would have numerous benefits,” said Linda. “Children could focus on eating, noise would go down, and no one would be racing to get outside.” After presenting the idea to an enthusiastic Lower School faculty in the spring, Jij and Linda began working on making the change for the fall. When it was time to introduce the schedule adjustment to students during the second chapel of the year, Jij, Linda, and Chuck White, the McCarthey Campus emotional support counselor, were thoughtful in their approach, using a similar style students had already experienced in the classroom.

“We asked, ‘What should lunch feel and sound like?’” Linda said. The team also emphasized the why behind the discussion so students would understand both the reason for change and its related benefits. “We talked about how we can all follow agreements to make school more enjoyable for everyone,” Linda said.

Using a dining table that had been brought into the chapel, Jij, Linda, and Chuck then modeled for students proper lunch behavior: entering the dining hall respectfully, staying seated facing the table, and talking at an appropriate volume. Each child was also given the chance to practice at the table.

Children have adjusted well to the change, Linda said. It was, she explained, an extension of the discussions students have become accustomed to—and, importantly, it reminded them that they each play a part in creating a respectful, safe, and joyful school for all.

“I’m really proud of them,” she said.

Responsive Classroom Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Responsive Classroom has been an influential tool in helping Rowland Hall meet SEL goals in the Lower School. Because we are committed to partnering with parents and caregivers in their children’s education, we have made many Responsive Classroom materials available in the parent section of the McCarthey Campus’ Steiner Library for those who are interested in more information about the approach.

Academics

Preschoolers explore the nature yard.

On an overcast autumn day, a voice rang out in the Lower School nature yard. “Match!” it cried.

At the sound, the entire 4PreK class came running. One by one, they began smelling one of the yard’s plants, on a mission to find a scent match to a mystery plant they had been given that morning.

Research shows there are powerful benefits of sensory learning—building nerve connections in the brain, improving fine motor skills and perception, encouraging social interaction, and enhancing memory are among them.

This activity is one of several sensory learning exercises that Kate Nevins’ and Brittney Hansen’s preschool class enjoyed this fall, and was designed to engage students’ sense of smell. Before going outdoors, each child had been given a bit of the crumpled mystery plant (wild sagebrush), which they rubbed between their hands and smelled. The group then went to the nature yard to locate a full sage plant by scent alone. “Children ran from plant to plant smelling the scent on the palm of their hand and then smelling the plant to see if the scent matched,” the teachers wrote about the activity. “As soon as a child was sure they found the right plant they would yell, ‘Match!’ and we would all come running to smell for ourselves.”

Because research shows there are powerful benefits of sensory learning—building nerve connections in the brain, improving fine motor skills and perception, encouraging social interaction, and enhancing memory among them—Rowland Hall embraces opportunities to add it to lessons. “The five senses have been a part of the 4PreK curriculum for at least the past 20 years—it is such a critical unit for four- and five-year-olds to explore,” said Brittney.

In the 4PreK program, senses are introduced as tools for making scientific discoveries and observations about the world. And sensory learning can be quite simple. For example, for the listening exercise, the preschoolers walked to the McCarthey Campus back field, where they closed their eyes and concentrated on, and named, the sounds around them. When exploring touch, the children lay down on the grass and described how the blades felt against their bodies.

Our young naturalists were encouraged to slow down and use a keen eye. We are learning that scientists have to be patient and look very carefully.

Students also learned the importance of perseverance. For a color hunt designed to engage sight, each student painted the wells of an empty egg carton a different color, then went outdoors to collect items that matched those colors. “Some colors proved to be more difficult to find,” the teachers said. “Our young naturalists were encouraged to slow down and use a keen eye. We are learning that scientists have to be patient and look very carefully.”

The unit also recommended continuing sensory learning at home. After the color hunt, for instance, the teachers prompted parents and guardians to help students find ways to use their collection boxes around the house. “Encourage your children to take the cartons outside in your yard or with you on a neighborhood walk,” they told parents and caregivers. This helps create a powerful connection between school and home (an ongoing goal at Rowland Hall) and builds early childhood skills like language development, fine and gross motor skills, and problem-solving in a pressure-free, fun way.

Interested in other ways you can bring sensory learning into your home? Check out 31 Days of Sensory Play to get started.

STEM

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