The language arts program at The Willow School forms the heart of the School’s academic program. With literature at its core, students are taught to read fluently, write clearly and compellingly, listen thoughtfully, and speak eloquently. Through an integrated and experience-based program, students’ individual needs are met and nurtured. Reading for pleasure is celebrated as teachers help children develop a lifelong love of reading and writing.
Throughout their time at The Willow School, children are immersed in quality literature. Classrooms and the school library are filled with engaging fiction and nonfiction texts. These selections support the expectation that reading is an integral part of life, both inside and outside of the classroom. Students are given opportunities to explore books independently, encouraging them to read often, to seek out books, and to write their own tales.
Reading begins in the early childhood classrooms where the youngest readers discover that print carries meaning and power. As part of a sequential, multi-sensory approach to language learning, a structured phonics program provides a solid foundation for young readers and supports reading fluency, accuracy, and vocabulary development. Further emphasis is placed on reading comprehension through strategies that are commonly used by proficient readers. These concepts, taught alongside common literary elements, provide the skills necessary for children to become avid readers. Teachers help students learn to select just right books that are appropriately matched for each child’s reading development. Willow’s comprehensive leveled library allows students to study books best suited to their individual reading proficiency. Students explore print through a variety of activities including guided reading, partner reading, literature discussion groups, book clubs, and novel studies. Reading workshop is a vehicle used to encourage independent reading in which individual skills are taught and practiced. Reading stories aloud further improves listening and comprehension skills, builds vocabulary, and exposes children to literature above their reading level.
Writing is an essential part of the school day, and Willow students come to view themselves as authors. Lower School students learn printing and cursive using Handwriting Without Tears, a handwriting program that provides students with the physical skills necessary to achieve good penmanship. Our writing workshop is an individualized program in which students pursue relevant skills and apply them to their work. Students use exemplary literature as a springboard for generating ideas and studying the craft of writing. Choosing their own creative writing topics is an important element in fostering interest, ownership, and quality. Stories from their own lives hold great significance, and often produce works of art.
In addition to creative writing, students also learn to write in more structured formats and for a variety of purposes. Encouraged to explore various genres and take risks, Willow students focus on expository and persuasive writing, as well as poetry, letter writing, scientific reports, journal keeping, and speech writing. They collect ideas, write, revise, edit, confer, and publish. Children learn the structure of language, the foundation upon which all subsequent learning is built. Montessori Grammar, Daily Oral Language, and Words Their Way are programs The Willow School incorporates into its language arts curriculum. The study of Latin in the Middle School further enriches the understanding of the English language. As students develop an attention to detail and logical thinking, they become precise, subtle, and discerning readers and writers.
The goal of The Willow School mathematics curriculum is to develop mathematicians that are not only competent in their computational skills, but also demonstrate clear, creative, and flexible mathematical thinking. This is accomplished through rigorous attention to instructional strategies that encourage students to think through mathematical problems and construct their own meaning. Conceptual understanding is followed by constant practice in the computational skills necessary to apply that understanding.
The Willow Math Program is student-centered and constructivist in its approach. Students progress from concrete materials to symbolic representations. Teachers observe how students learn and guide them in building upon what they know. Students are asked to explain their thinking orally, in pictures, writing, numerals, and symbolic representation. Demonstrating mathematical literacy is a crucial component of a Willow student’s math experience and takes place regularly within the framework of the Math Congress, a forum that fosters both mathematical literacy and respectful dialogue. During the Math Congress, students work independently or in small groups to brainstorm and discuss their mathematical thinking and strategies. While all students strive for accuracy, they are encouraged to view errors as opportunities to develop greater understanding. Time is provided for students to share their thoughts and ideas with one another, fostering respect for differing perspectives.
Students at The Willow School are given opportunities to apply mathematical concepts in place-based contexts. Second graders participate in yearly pond studies in which they investigate and record Willow’s pond population. Third graders measure and record the amount of compost material collected from the daily lunches. Each year, kindergartners and fourth graders participate in Cornell University’s bird-watch program and are presented with numerous opportunities to record, analyze, and compare data. In addition to exploring the many uses of math in the scientific world, Willow students also use math to enhance their learning in social studies. Fourth graders collect and record data to help them understand underlying causes of world hunger. Most importantly, the goal is for Willow students to become mathematicians with practical and authentic problem solving skills.
The Singapore Mathematics, which insures familiarity with algorithms and practice with word problems, is provided for Kindergarten through fifth grades. Pearson/Prentice Mathematics is provided for the sixth through eighth grades. Recognizing that no math program is all-inclusive and suitable for all learning styles, the Willow faculty has access to, and supplements these programs with Terc/Investigations Math, Montessori materials, Catherine Fosnot’s Contexts for Learning Mathematics series, Groundworks series, and activities from Marilyn Burns. Through these core programs and supplemental materials and methods, students develop an understanding of the fundamental mathematical concepts: (i) numeration and number theory, (ii) the four operations using whole numbers, fractions, and decimals, (iii) measurement, data, and probability, (iv) plane and solid geometry, (v) pre-algebra, and (vi) algebra. Students demonstrate mastery of basic math facts and the ability to perform routine computations and symbolic manipulation and are encouraged to value mathematics and appreciate the quantitative aspect of our world through concrete and abstract thinking.
The Willow School science curriculum has been designed to enhance students understanding and appreciation of the natural and physical world through programs of exploration, discovery, and interpretation. The Willow School is a place where ethical and scientific virtues meet and interact to affect positive change.
The content of the science curriculum focuses on the examination of life, earth, chemical, and physical sciences. For example, kindergartners learn that plants grow from seeds with light, water, air, and nutrition. Building upon this experience, students in the Lower School examine the basic concepts of photosynthesis and learn how plants make use of this process. In Middle School, students expand their knowledge of photosynthesis by studying cell structure and growth.
The Willow School’s 34-acre campus is integral to the science curriculum, providing a laboratory for on-site investigations of: (i) forests and wetlands, (ii) stream water quality and soil composition, (iii) seasonal changes and their effect on living organisms, (iv) environmentally sensitive building designs and groundwater systems, (v) bird and pond population, and (vi) sustainable and regenerative systems. By the end of their Middle School experience, students have been given the opportunity to cultivate a deep and profound sense of place.
Within this framework students are taught to act in a context of inquiry and research as they observe, question, investigate (by formulating and testing hypotheses), and draw conclusions that are reported, discussed, and shared with the community. Students also learn how to document their observations, studies, and investigations. In short, students practice the most important methods of real scientists. Willow students become scientists when they study science.
The science curriculum is also integrated with other subjects, allowing students to explore such concepts as: (i) the impact of science on cultures, religions, and civilizations, (ii) the connections between scientific thought and the arts, and (iii) the many uses of mathematics in the scientific world.
The curriculum strives to lay the foundation for the scientific habits of mind that can empower our students to relate to their environment in an ethical fashion and to apply the scientific method to solve problems and answer questions. Willow students are guided to take daily and long-term actions that maintain sustainable and regenerative relationships between people and their physical and natural environments.
The goal of the social studies curriculum is to prepare students for global citizenship in a diverse society by involving them in discussions and experiences that develop critical thinking and an understanding of the interdependent nature of our world. The curriculum at each grade level investigates important questions about human interactions, values, and choices. Big ideas are explored through integrative lenses to help students gain deeper understanding through multiple perspectives. The Willow School places great value in authentic experiences and provides students with opportunities to perform tasks that are similar to those of social scientists and historians. The School’s programs both facilitate the development of skills necessary for comprehensive understanding and require the application of this understanding to new contexts.
Through studying other cultures, students gain a respect and appreciation for perspectives different from their own. As they gain an understanding of the relationships between culture and environment, students are guided to develop a sense of place. Place-based learning experiences are an integral part of the curriculum. The Willow School’s environment itself becomes a profound teacher. The social studies curriculum is guided at all levels by the themes embedded in sustainability education. Understanding the value of cultural and biological diversity, the actions necessary to create a sustainable community, interdependence and systems thinking, the laws of nature and principles of sustainability, the value of multiple perspectives, and the importance of developing a sense of place, all culminate in a sense of responsibility to create a desired future.
The emergent social studies curriculum for each grade is guided by specified inquiry. Students in the Lower School begin to understand the importance of ethical relationships, both among humans and between humans and the environment. Preschoolers wonder, “Why?”, in order to develop an understanding of the importance of caring for themselves, their place in the world, and all the living things. kindergartners ask, “Who am I?” This question leads them to investigate how they relate to those around them. As first graders explore the nature of community, they ponder the question, “Can I exist alone?” This inquiry expands outwardly from the classroom community to the whole school, and finally to the town. Second graders focus on the past and how communities change over time. The essential question, “Why is the past important to me?” leads them to consider how their family’s history, culture, and traditions impact their lives. Third graders study our country’s early history and address the question, “How does our country’s history affect my life today?” More global in emphasis, the fourth grade curriculum leads students to ask the question, “Why is it important for me to know about cultures other than my own?” Students work to understand the multiple perspectives offered by different cultures as they think about how to create a sustainable future. The study of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China presents fifth graders with the opportunity to analyze their knowledge while considering the questions, “Why did civilizations form? What did we gain? What did we lose? What is the lesson for the future?”
Through involvement in discussions and experiences that develop critical thinking and an understanding of the interdependent nature of our world, Middle School students are prepared for global citizenship. Sixth graders study ancient China, Greece, and Rome and explore how sustainable actions based on competition and domination are promoting the success and viability of human and natural systems. They confront the questions, “How does culture shape who we are? How can awareness of how we are connected to our past help us shape our future?” Seventh graders investigate the patterns of connections and cultural diffusion and how they created the first phase of globalization. They address the questions, “How do our connections with other cultures change us? Must our connections always create a “winner” and a “loser”? Does being connected require us to act responsibly?” Eighth graders investigate to what extent one’s culture influences one’s values, sense of identity, and decisions. They study the early history of the American nation and the principles on which it was founded. As they consider the question, “What does it take to be the change one wants to see in the world?”, students explore how the problems our nation faces today might be solved in ways that not only benefit Americans, but also lead to a win-win future for all humans without putting the health of the earth’s systems at risk.
The French Program at The Willow School is informed by Waldorf pedagogy, which approaches subjects from the whole to the parts. The classroom environment is designed for children to absorb French as they would their own native language, learning to engage in authentic interactions involving all the senses through song, stories, movement, rhythm, and colors. Students follow the seasons and natural rhythms of the year with short poems and plays. The Willow School’s Virtues Program and its mission statement inform and inspire the choice of meaningful, humanistic material for these interactive lessons.
In the early grades, children are taught spoken French. As students progress, the curriculum becomes more conceptual, oriented to specific learning goals. While increased emphasis is placed on reading and writing, the performance of skits and plays relating to particular study topics remains an important part of the lessons, helping students to internalize vocabulary and cadence. In this way, students not only begin to master the mechanics of the language; they also begin to acquire a sense of the depth and diversity of French culture.
In the Middle School, students deepen their experience of the language through more rigorous grammar study and more extensive exposure to the francophone world. Technology provides countless opportunities to enliven the experience in a visual and interactive way.
In French, there are two verbs meaning to know. Savoir means to know something “factually”. Connaître means to know a person, place, or subject intimately. At The Willow School, students both to savoir and connaître French.
The Willow School Latin Program supports the School’s emphasis on the mastery of the English language through expanding students’ vocabulary and understanding of grammar. All sixth grade students receive an introduction to Latin; seventh and eight graders have the opportunity to continue with Latin, or to study French or Spanish. The Latin Program encompasses learning how to read and translate Latin, building vocabulary skills, and establishing a strong grammatical foundation in Latin and English. Using materials developed by the Cambridge University Press, students gain knowledge of Roman culture, history, and mythology. The stories in the Cambridge series are historically based and developed around archaeological sites and artifacts left by real people who lived in the Roman Empire during the first and second century AD. To balance the rigorous academic demands of Latin with the joy of learning, effort is made to engage students in the storyline of their texts and to maintain a fun, upbeat, and interactive learning atmosphere. A variety of in-class activities, homework assignments, and special projects reinforce what students already know and facilitate the exploration of new concepts and ideas.
At Willow School, the study of Spanish as a second language is taught to the students in the Lower School and recently introduced to the sixth grade class. The Spanish language program focuses on the four language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Beginning in kindergarten, students are introduced to the language through music, rhymes, songs, stories, poetry, role-playing, and movement. In addition, the teacher draws upon familiar story books, which she reads to the children in both Spanish and English, until they become familiar enough with the Spanish words to understand. The use of puppets and stuffed animals to role play is also important in helping children to acquire a foreign language at this age. Classes are conducted primarily in Spanish to immerse the students in the language. In second grade students begin to learn the basic rules of grammar and spelling. As the students advance, their writing and grammar skills are refined, and the develop a more extensive vocabulary. There is an increased focus on the exploration of the culture and history of South America and Spain, creating an appreciation for the Hispanic culture within each child and expanding their worldview.
Willow students take part in handcrafts classes from kindergarten through fourth grade. In fifth grade they begin the study of architecture. In Middle School, students can delve deeper into architecture by choosing an architecture elective. Working in the studio, students build an understanding of the relationships between the nature of a place and the designs of its people. Using a variety of tools, natural materials, and specific techniques, students further their understanding of the processes and strategies involved in making unique and purposeful objects.
Because handcrafts and architecture are both an amalgam of the core academic subjects, this curriculum reinforces classroom lessons in an authentic, creative, and tangible manner. All students learn that weaving and knitting are traditional methods of story-telling (language arts), that the raw materials we use in class (paper, wood, wool, cotton, etc.) are made up of fibers from plants and animals (science), that creative design processes are built on patterns (math), and that each culture has its own unique, distinctive handcraft and architecture (social studies). The handcrafts and architecture design sequence serves as a laboratory for creative thinking and self-discovery that prepares the students to be observant, perceptive learners.
Children need rigorous musical training early in life in order to be able to appreciate fully the complexity of a musical piece, feel comfortable making music with others, sing with confidence, and have the tools to read and follow a piece of music. The Willow School Music Program is designed not only to develop a series of fundamental musical skills, but also to help children achieve a level of musical literacy that allows them to learn music independently and to think of themselves as musicians.
To meet this goal, Willow utilizes the Kodály Method, a comprehensive, experiential approach to musical education, which provides a highly sequential framework to support student understanding, knowledge, and love of music. The Kodály Method is vocally based. It stresses musical literacy and focuses on repertoire that is multicultural and historical in nature. Students experience musical concepts first through their senses: listening, singing, moving, and clapping. Then through a process of teacher-guided deduction, they discover a new musical concept. Students continuously reinforce the new concept through singing, games, dancing, musical dictation, and sight singing. They deepen their understanding of each new concept by exploring how it functions in a wide variety of musical contexts.
In addition to the Kodály Method, the Music Program also incorporates elements of Orff-Schulwerk, an approach to teaching music which offers an array of percussion instruments, including glockenspiels, xylophones, metallophones, and drums. The music children make on these instruments serves a variety of purposes: large muscle control and coordination for younger students, visualization and aural exploration of musical concepts for older students, and most importantly, opportunities for multi-part ensemble playing, improvisation, and composition for all students in first through eighth grades. By the end of fifth grade, students have sung, played, and performed pieces from many different cultures in North, Central, and South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. By the end of eighth grade, students have learned and performed a selection of pieces from each of the major periods of music history: the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Twentieth Century. Music in kindergarten through fifth grade employs mostly pentatonic and extended pentatonic scales. Beginning in the second half of fifth grade, the emphasis begins to shift to diatonic music.
All students at The Willow School attend music twice in a six-day rotation for forty to forty-five minutes. The entire Middle School student body meets once a rotation to work on three-part choral music and vocal technique. Each grade also meets once by grade level to focus on sight-singing skills and instrumental music. Two musical electives are offered over the course of the year to Middle School students. The first, “Mallets and Gongs”, allows participants to work in a smaller group on more challenging mallet percussion music of their choice. In the spring, a vocal elective is offered, “Popapella”, in which students can choose music from the pop, rock, and Broadway genres. Student choice and responsibility play a large role in the elective offerings: they choose the repertoire and assume much of the responsibility for the rehearsal and final arrangement of their pieces.
Willow’s students are given a wide range of both formal and informal performing opportunities. They present two concerts per year in December and May. In February, Middle School students organize and produce the annual Willow School Talent Show, in which students (K-8) share their talents with an enthusiastic audience. In March, students participate in International Day. Each year a different continent is chosen for artistic exploration. Students (1-8) learn music and singing games from the chosen region and then share them at an extended Morning Gathering. Middle School students also participate in a “Spring Sing”, during which they perform for senior citizens at two local senior centers in May. Students who study music privately have the opportunity to share their accomplishments at a music recital / potluck supper held in the spring. All students sing at the conclusion of every Morning Gathering. Students also perform music periodically throughout the year to enhance class presentations such as plays, research projects, or culminating events. These experiences, coupled with the concrete development of musical skills, enable students at The Willow School to develop confidence and pride in their musical accomplishments and to present themselves professionally and joyfully in public settings.
The Lower School Art Program is designed to provide students with a wide range of artistic experiences that promote the expression of individuality through art. Over the course of the year, students participate in “Artist Café” sessions where they are exposed to a variety of artwork from around the world ranging from the historic to the contemporary. This part of the curriculum is designed to foster student discussions, develop observation skills, and allow students to see the many possibilities and unique voices that exist within the arts. Students also work on a number of projects that expose them to diverse mediums including acrylics, clay, inks, printmaking, assemblage, mixed media, pottery, and collage. These projects have been designed to address the four artistic skill areas: thinking (communicating ideas), feeling (expressing emotion through art), seeing (looking at the world from different vantage points), and making (the technical skills associated with each medium). These skills provide students with the tools they need to be confident artists who are comfortable expressing themselves by using their own unique voices.
The Middle School Art Program is designed to provide students with a wide range of artistic experiences while allowing them to express their individuality through art. Over the course of the year, students participate in “Artist Café” sessions where they are exposed to a variety of artwork from around the world ranging from the historic to the contemporary. The goal is for the students to be able to look beyond their initial aesthetic judgement (“I like it / I don’t like it”) and ponder bigger questions like “Why does this look the way that it does?” Students also work on a number of projects that expose them to mediums including acrylics, clay, inks, printmaking, assemblage, mixed-media, photography, and technology. These projects have been designed to address the five artistic skill areas: idea (using a visual language to explore thoughts and imagination), expression (expressing emotion through art), observation (looking at the world from different vantage points), communication (intention versus interpretation), and creation (the technical skills associated with each medium). These skills provide students with tools that are necessary to be confident artists who are comfortable using their unique voices to express their thoughts and ideas.
The Willow School library serves as the information center of the School by providing physical and intellectual access to materials and ideas in various formats. There are four essential components of the framework for instruction within the library program: to promote self-education by modeling an inquiry-based approach to learning, to foster a love of reading for information as well as enjoyment, to develop the skills and resources necessary for students to become effective and ethical users of information in a global society, and to support collaboration between classroom curricular areas and Willow’s Library Program.
Reading is the foundational skill for learning and personal growth. The extent to which students can use information depends upon their ability to understand what they read and to integrate their understanding with what they already know. The reading strategies needed to strengthen decoding, comprehension, and fluency skills are modeled in formal instruction as they are woven into library lessons. A current, high-quality, high-interest collection is maintained and cultivated to support independent reading as well as listening for understanding and enjoyment. Students are afforded opportunities to appreciate and respond to literature within the library class and with the larger school community. Students are encouraged to explore both fiction and nonfiction through read-alouds, author studies, and book-talks.
In order for students to successfully navigate the fluid boundaries of our global society, they must be able to demonstrate the qualities of global citizenship. Therefore, students are taught to seek diverse perspectives, use social tools responsibly and safely, and gather and use information ethically. These key concepts of legal, ethical, and social responsibility in accessing, using, and creating information in various formats are additionally supported by The Willow School’s virtues program. Students are encouraged to become more reflective about the choices they make as they participate in their own learning through the use of digital technologies.
Collaboration between the librarian and classroom teachers allows for shared learning experiences that meet individual student needs. Lessons are designed to support both content and skills objectives within the various academic disciplines at each grade level. Third graders through eighth graders are given the tools and strategies necessary to navigate the wealth of information available to them. Explicit instruction and repeated practice in evaluating information for reliability is a main emphasis of the library curriculum. In all grades, students are encouraged to share their knowledge through the use of multiple formats, often using innovative technology to present data and information in compelling and creative ways.
The Willow School Wellness Program is designed to provide students with age appropriate information and physical practices that foster a lifetime of well being. Starting in preschool and continuing through eighth grade, the program provides an introduction to the human body and to factors that prevent illness and promote health. The wellness curriculum focuses on kinesthetic awareness, sportsmanship, nutrition, and physical fitness and covers a variety of topics including nutrition, disease prevention, physical growth and development, reproduction, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse prevention, consumer health, and safety (crossing streets, riding bikes, first aid, the Heimlich maneuver etc.). The goal is to increase each child’s knowledge of what it means to be healthy as they practice behaviors that enhance their well being.
Childhood is the best time to adopt healthy habits, routines, and behaviors because making good choices from an early age has lifelong benefits. Health education programs are most effective when involved parents compliment and reinforce what children are learning in school through conversations and activities at home. The Willow School provides basic information about implementing health decisions, however, Willow encourages families to take an active role as co-educators, especially in those areas where family values are especially important.