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Teaching & Learning

Faculty Friends: Learning Can Be a Messy Lesson

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

San Francisco Friends School recently launched a biannual digital magazine, Among Friends, featuring articles that we will be posting to our website, starting with this piece by SFFS Lower School teachers Amabelle and Jake. To read more from the Fall 2019 issue of Among Friends, please click here. And please let us know what you think! Share your feedback, article ideas, and class notes with Director of Communications Alissa Moe at Looking forward to hearing from you! 

Preparing to Launch Our Weather Balloon!

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Friends School is a school that values interactivity with lesson plans, allowing facts and figures not only to exist on paper but right before us. Sure, learning about the stratosphere’s impact on marshmallows could be digested while seated, but our school takes it to the next level. 

The 8th graders have been introduced to the weather balloon, a large helium balloon that comes equipped with resources to measure the atmosphere. Our weather balloon holds a CanSat, which is a research tool to help us collect the data we find, a camera, and seven different experiments chosen by 8th, 4th, and Kindergarteners. The three 8th Grade classes brainstormed and discussed possible items to put into the payload of the balloon, and figured out what items would get impacted by the change in environment. The three groups chose marshmallows, sound, and multiple forms of water, then connected with their buddy grades of 4th grade and Kindergarten. The 4th graders and Kindergarten also discussed what they wanted to put into the balloon and decided on brine shrimp eggs, popcorn, seeds, and salt water. “I thought that this really brought us together and collaborated really well and I thought this brought us closer with our buddies because we were able to collaborate with something together and have a a bonding time as a grade,” said Clara (SFFS’19). 

Each 8th-grade section has split into groups, each dedicated to a different part of the launch. There are six teams: Flight Management (looking at weather patterns, and looking for an optimal launch day, Engineering (the craftsmanship and mechanics of the project), Communications (talking with teachers, newspapers, etc.) Data Science (researching how to execute the experiment most efficiently), Event Logistics (picking a location), and Science (researching and creating the hypothesis). Rylan (SFFS ‘19) of the Engineering team noted that the teams have all come together to work through obstacles: “The most fun part of this project has been the problem-solving. Whenever we are presented with a problem, we come together to solve it.” Each team has a responsibility in making sure that the flight will go smoothly. As the launch date nears, each group continues to work hard and secure the launching time, location, and payload. 

What We Hope to Learn/Impact: 
The results of this experiment will lead to an even deeper understanding of air pressure, density, temperature, humidity, and their effects. This is a really special opportunity that we are able to participate and experience, and we are all excited to see the results. As Mary (SFFS’19) on the Science team explained: “We have written the hypothesis for the two aspects of our experiment, the tone that we are creating and the ambient sound that we are recording. We’ve also not found that much research on what we are trying to find out so this experiment will give us brand new information.” Many students are expressing gratitude and enthusiasm. In one student’s words: “I was so excited and interested when first heard of the project! I had never heard of anything like this and when we saw a video of the balloon, and how we could see the curve of the earth from the balloon’s camera. I was even more interested,” said Communications team member Taevin (SFFS’19). This lesson extends beyond the classroom, as our science teachers announced that we would be seeing this effect in real life. Along with this, the independent work and collaboration skills we are able to learn from this project will be important to our high school experience. The project itself is extremely memorable.

Exploring the Future of Friends

Thursday, November 29, 2018

When Lower School Head Jennifer Arnest saw a piece on 60 Minutes about MIT’s Media Lab earlier this year, she was immediately inspired to see this so-called “Future Factory” for herself. Convinced that the lab, a model of collaboration and breaking down traditional discipline barriers, could inform the exciting strategic initiatives that are taking form at SFFS, Jennifer enlisted Academic Dean Tracie Mastronicola and longtime SFFS Art Teacher Jennifer Stuart—who recently led students in an interdisciplinary project on light with Science Teacher Sara Melman—to join her in making the trek East.
“What we’re trying to do is consider how an integrated approach to teaching and learning affords students a better understanding of the work they’ll likely be engaged in as they enter adulthood. [Answering these questions will help us] build a program with a thoughtful curriculum and applied learning lab work that is robust and takes into consideration who we are at Friends,” says Jennifer.
Founded in 1985, the MIT Media Lab houses numerous research groups that blend disciplines including technology, media, science, and design. Researchers at the lab aim to “anticipate and create technologies to make our lives safer, cleaner, healthier, fairer, and more productive.”
Among the most well-known of these groups is renowned educator Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten Lab, which “develops new technologies and activities that… engage people in creative learning experiences. Our ultimate goal is to foster a world full of playfully creative people, who are constantly inventing new possibilities for themselves and their communities.”
After securing an invite from the lab, our SFFS Friends flew out to MIT, eager to learn more about how people from such varied career and education backgrounds come together at the Media Lab to develop creative, strategic solutions to specific challenges. They came away inspired by what they saw. Jennifer Arnest notes that the philosophy imbued in the work of Lifelong Kindergarten can be applied to numerous facets of our strategic work, including the new schedule, which aims to create more space for SFFS faculty and staff to collaborate across departments, creating innovative opportunities for our students to problem-solve through hands-on learning. It also emphasizes learning and creating as part of a team, which Jennifer Stuart notes gives us the opportunity to give and receive feedback, to ask and answer questions, etc. in an engaged, organic way.
“When you’re at the Lab, you can get drawn in by all the different components… but underneath the cool projects, there is a purpose: how this technology can solve problems we’re facing,” says Jennifer Stuart. “At Friends, we already have great integrative work going on at all grade levels—and now we have new ideas to build on the strengths we already have.”
To learn more about our work to develop a new schedule for the 2019–20 school year which will provide more opportunity for integrative, thoughtful, ­project-based learning, please click here. And please continue to check the strategic direction section of our website, which will continuously be updated throughout the coming months as we implement new strategies for learning and growth at SFFS.

Inspired by Flint, Middle-Schoolers write to the SF Public Utilities Commission

Monday, September 17, 2018

Fifth- and sixth-graders at San Francisco Friends School recently wrote to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) with concerns about water quality in our city. The students were inspired to take action after reading an article about the water crisis in Flint, MI; learning more about the injustice that Flint residents faced as they have fought for clean water and answers; and discovering that Mari Copeny, also known as "Little Miss Flint," became a nationally-respected activist at the age of eight after writing her own letter to President Barack Obama.

Our students expressed their concerns to Juliet Ellis, chief strategy officer at the SFPUC, and raised questions about how crises like the one in Flint happen. Ellis responded to each student individually with a hand-written letter, reassuring them of the safety of San Francisco's drinking water, and lauding their interest in the health of not only themselves, but also the community at large. When discussing their activism and Ellis's response, the students were clearly energized. 

"I felt sad [when I learned about Flint], because they didn't have tap water. And it made me feel like I was very lucky to be able to drink my tap water here," said Eli. "It made me feel kind of scared—because what happened there, could happen to us. We never think, hey, our water could become [unsafe]," agreed Mia. Rami closed the discussion with an important take-away: "Something I learned, is that even when you're younger, you can still make a difference."

Introducing the SFFS Friendly Chat Series! Vol. 1: Anhvu

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Starting this year, Director of Middle School and High School Transition Kristen Daniel will be interviewing different members of our faculty and staff in a series we're calling Friendly Chats. The interviews, which we will transcribe and publish here, take place at the opening of our weekly faculty/staff meetings. We are excited to share these interviews with you, and hope that Friendly Chats provide everyone in the Friends community the opportunity and insight to get to know the adults on campus a little better! 

First to sit down with Kristen for a Friendly Chat is Anhvu Buchanan, one of our lead second-grade teachers. 


K: Thank you for being our first guest! To start out, I wondered if you could say a little bit about your name.

A: My first name, Anhvu, is Vietnamese, and my last name is Buchanan. When my mom came to this country, she married an American man with the last name, Buchanan, who isn’t my father. And [they] divorced, but she decided to keep that last name because it was a time period when she was worried about racism, people looking at her differently… But then she gave me a Vietnamese first name, so I don’t know! 
A story I tell my students that I’ll share with you now, is that I actually didn’t know my name was Anhvu until the sixth grade. I thought my name was Andrew, and that’s because in kindergarten, kids couldn’t say Anhvu, and it came out as Andrew. And then I went to a private, Catholic school where you just sign up with whatever name you want, so my mom signed me up as Andrew. In sixth grade I went to public school, and the night before school started, my mother comes in, hands me a piece of paper, and says, ‘Oh, they’re going to call you this tomorrow. This is actually your real name.’ And I looked at it, like, ‘What?!’ And for the first three weeks of school, I actually carried around my name because I didn’t know how to spell it... And that’s why I never get mad at students or parents or anyone for misspelling my name, because I remember how hard it was for me. 
It became a weird identity thing because in middle school and high school kids say, “What do you want to go by?,” and I would always say my nickname because I was kind of embarrassed, [having to go by a Vietnamese first name]. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I made the conscious choice to ask to be called Anhvu, and that was because I found friends, Asian friends, who were like, ‘Your name’s awesome—be proud of it!’ So having those allies, that affinity group, really made me proud. But if you call my house now, my parents and family members still call me Andrew.

K: I had the pleasure of reading your published poetry over the weekend, which I really enjoyed— 

A: Sorry for that! 

K: It was great! You’ve published two collections: this first one is called The Disordered, and it was published in 2013. There was a line from one of the poems, 
Why aren’t there milkmen anymore?  And what is the hourly wage for a starting tooth fairy?
And I love that line because there’s such a sense of playfulness to it, and it made me think or maybe understand why second-graders are drawn to you… I wondered if you could just talk for a little bit about how you approach poetry with second grade. 

A: I introduce it as: I have this experience with poetry, and I want to teach you different poetry tools. So each week we introduce a different tool, and I think at this age and any age, even for high school and college, model poems and mentor texts are really important. Also, imagery is really important to me. Sometimes you can just look at a picture, and use that as inspiration for poems or as a starting point for any kind of writing. In addition to tools, we introduce different forms of poetry—haiku, recipe poems, poems that the students may have never come across. 

K: Poetry is very personal, so there are certain pieces that appealed to me for different reasons. I hope that you’ll read one of your favorites for us. 

A: Sure. The Disordered was my thesis for grad school [an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State]. Prior to that, I was a psych major in undergrad. So this book was basically my poetic reinterpretation of a very scientific text—every poem is based on or influenced by a different psychological disorder. Some of you know that I’m a pretty bad hypochondriac, and this poem is influenced by my personal experience:
The Hypochondriac
I wake up from naps bloated with broken knuckles my spine tingles when I stare at goldfish sometimes there is a pain in my side when I cook meatloaf my face is always flushed when I enter a bingo hall my throat gets sore when dogs bark at me my knees are stiff four days a week I yawn excessively though I’ve never seen anyone yawn before my legs swell up when I shower in the afternoon I lose a bit of hair riding in a taxi after board games I limp for five straight hours the tips of my toes get discolored in February I get shortness of breath eating at a salad bar my vomit is always blue I can’t stop coughing when I listen to morning radio whenever it snows I have back pains my eyes bulge anytime I’m around squirrels I twist my ankle anytime I speak in public my skin gets itchy when I sit on hardwood floors reading the Sunday paper gives me the hiccups my face twitches on birthdays I always fracture a bone after shopping in thrift stores I have difficulty swallowing food in the spring every time I blink I think I’m dying I blink at least sixteen times a minute

K: That was really fun—why do you read it that way?

A: If you notice, a lot of my poetry is in prose blocks or without punctuation. And the idea is that you’re in your mind a lot, and some of these thoughts are just never-ending. But I also like to play with language, and have people read it in different ways without punctuation having to [structure] the poem. 
My other book is called Backhanded Compliments & Other Ways to Say I Love You. What got me writing poetry in the first place was high school: broken heart, listening to music, writing sad songs and poems. So this book was me seeing if I could write better love poems than I wrote in high school. And the idea is, some of these are sad love poems, some are happy, and you just have to read to see what feels right for you. This is called “Board Game Affair.” 

like the twister that spun from your mouth and crashed into me the first time our words said hello 
like the clue you hid beneath your tongue and couldn’t wait for me to discover
like the monopoly between our bodies, the slow boardwalk to and from your door, the hotels and houses aching between my fingers that I wanted to build for you
like the scrabble to find the perfect vowels to fit the perfect word to fill the perfect sentence to create a paragraph so precise that we took down the moon

like the chutes and ladders and mazes and tunnels and shafts and passages and burrows and puzzles and webs I had to crawl through to get just a little bit closer 
like the battleship scars I peeled off you one by one, layer by layer
like the risk you took putting ants in your mouth to show me you cared about my poems
like the life I thought we’d have together

like the mouse trap you set up by the windows and the doors to know I would always be 
by your side 
like the parcheesi way you threw plates at the wall to tell me we needed to talk 
like the operation we wanted to get to stitch your lips to my earor your eyes to my eyes
like the sorry! I could never quite seem to prove to you 

like the way we wished perfection was something we could actually grasp
like the last time you leaned in to me and whispered yahtzee into my ear and really, truly meant it. 

K: When I was reading both books over the weekend, that was one of my favorites. It felt really playful and accessible, and I think that a lot of the poems [in Backhanded Compliments] are very playful; they’re about love and relationships, and you had some exceptionally beautiful lines that spoke to me. One that I thought was really exceptional: You hand me a paddle; I hand you the creek. We listen to the shoreline, then wait for each other’s call. 
I know that social justice work is important to you, and you did some work in the juvenile justice system. There is a poem in The Disordered that I’d like you to read for us, and then talk about how you came to that work with young people and what inspired you to write about the experience of someone on Death Row.


I became the witness and reported on the case and wrote about his life and detailed his crimes and followed his story as he approached execution and the paper-thin mirror between us and saw him strapped to the chair and heard the tremble in his voice and sensed his last few gulps and heard the phone call at the very last minute and observed the hope as he was saved temporarily and watched as he disappeared and then returned and strapped down again and they started and I felt his eyes roll back into his head and believed I could smell his body convulse and his mouth drooling and gasping and became my own dry mouth watching him painfully say and goodbye and finally still and still and gravely still and felt the word “dead” uttered by the prison guards and tried to scream but could only muster a spoonful of squeaks and frozen and went home and passed the time away and kept the blinds shut and hid and got angry quickly and often and stayed awake and stayed awake and nightmares and door frames and nightmares and could only stare and drift away and rub my fingers and peeling carrots and crying over the kitchen sink and again and again and nothing left to say about what I saw and what I continue to see.


I taught for an organization called Writers Corp, at the Juvenile Justice Center. And I worked with students as young as nine and as old as 18; it was the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve had, but also the most challenging. And maybe the most challenging part was that every week, I wouldn’t know who was going to be in my classroom because [my students] were getting transferred, (hopefully) getting released, or getting sent to prison. And it was that experience that changed my life, realizing the impact and the power of teaching—that experience is why I’m here. 
I had one student, Kevin, who showed me what it meant to be a teacher and how I could change lives. He was the kind of student who didn’t want to write, and I never forced writing. I’d give the students prompts, I’d give them poems, and then if they didn’t want to write, they didn’t have to. And so for months, I was trying to get him to write, trying to get him to write. And then I did a lesson on odes. It was around Mother’s Day, and I came over, and Kevin had written a poem to his mom. And from that moment on, he kept writing. And that was when I knew: This is it—I want to teach, I want to help students. What was hard was that when I came back a couple of weeks later, Kevin was gone. And I had no idea—and I still have no idea—what happened to him. I just hope he’s okay. [During that time] I saw how unfair the system is: I had students who were there for eight months, just waiting for a trial—and that time was not even counted as time served. It was just gut-wrenching. 
And the little things [mean something so different in juvenile hall]. Here, students lose pencils all the time. There, when a kid loses a pencil, it’s a lockdown and everyone gets strip-searched, because it could be used as a weapon. 
[As for the poem], the death penalty was my worst-case scenario for my students. I had students in there for murder, and they admitted to me that they did it. It was heartbreaking, and that’s where I was reaching with that poem, the heartbreak on so many ends: for the family of the victim, for the person getting executed and their family, for the person who’s actually having to do it. There’s so many ways to experience that moment. 
Those things really impacted me, and it’s always in my mind. 

Congratulations to Friends School Faculty Graduates

Thursday, May 24, 2018
(L-R): Katy, Tanya, and Beth at their UOP graduation

For Friends School faculty, learning does not stop in the classroom or end when the school day is over. This year, a number of our teachers completed advanced degrees, challenging themselves to strengthen their teaching chops and explore new horizons. Below are just a few highlights of their hard work and dedication to both teaching and learning.  

Just this month, TAs Tanya Cotom and Katy Hill received Masters in Education from the University of the Pacific (UOP) and the Bay Area Teacher Training Institute (BATTI). Katy will be pursuing a lead teaching position in the fall, and Tanya plans to continue her work as a second grade TA at Friends.

Middle School Humanities Teacher Beth Pollack also graduated from the BATTI/UOP program, completing an MA in Educational Leadership and Administration. Her plans include employing her leadership skills at Friends and looking for more leadership opportunities in the future. 

Dance/Drama Teacher Hilary Palanza has spent the past year working on an MA in public policy at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, focusing particularly on how to support and advocate for the Arts. For her next project, she will be working on her long-held dream to develop and open the first ever interactive dance museum.

And a congratulations are also in order for lower school TA Gavin Odabashian, who was accepted into the BATTI program and follows in the footsteps of Tanya, Katy, and Beth.  


Mysteries of the Unseen World: Thinking Like an Artist/Scientist

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. So the unknown, the mysterious is where art and science meet.”
~Albert Einstein

In mid-march, we attended the National Art Educators Association (NAEA) conference hosted in Seattle, WA. This is the ninth year that we attended, and the third time that we co-presented at the conference, which has been an amazing opportunity not just to share the unique approach to the arts at SFFS with independent schools from across the country, but to gain inspiration from other visual art instructors as well. While at the conference, we celebrated ten years of collaborative work at SFFS by presenting a hands-on workshop that illuminates how the visual arts and scientific inquiry are intertwined by sharing two interdisciplinary units—one third grade, the other seventh and eighth grade.

Integration is a natural way in which we experience the world. True integration in the classroom serves all of the disciplines involved and makes connections to ‘real life’ experience outside of the walls of our school. As in our classroom/studios, participants in our (sold out) workshop were introduced to a series of artmaking routines to investigate a question that is relevant to both scientists and artists. Those attending the workshop came away with a clearer sense of how this approach builds understanding in both disciplines while providing experiences that invigorate a spirit of inquiry, connecting to the real world of artists and scientists.

Here is a small sample of the brilliant student work that we showcased at the conference:

Three examples from the third grade of a two-minute warm up drawing.
The prompt: Draw yourself as an artist/scientist.


Seventh/eighth grade art inspired by the Hubble Telescope images.
Students used embroidery in order to focus on line, shape, and patterns. 


More seventh/eighth grade art inspired by the Hubble Telescope.


Third grade computer virus drawings. Prompts: What is the story of our computer virus?
What kind of computer virus will we craft? 

A closer look at third grade computer virus drawings.


A closer look at third grade computer virus sculptures.


Seventh Graders Working to Help People Experiencing Addiction

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

“San Francisco needs better safety for bikes! If we managed to create more bike lanes, there would be a big impact in injuries from bike riding.”

“I disagree. I think that the needles littering the streets and all those people addicted to drugs that aren’t getting the help they need are a greater problem than bike safety in our city.”

“Well, San Francisco also has a big problem with housing and housing costs. I mean, it’s getting REALLY expensive to live here, and that’s a humongous problem!”

And so it went, back and forth. After weeks of decision-making, the seventh graders had finally decided on a topic for their service project that benefited San Francisco in some way. We decided to focus on people experiencing opioid addiction and figure out ways to help them.

We split into groups, each with one student as our leader. Every group was given a topic that concerned people experiencing addiction, and we then set out to find a way to make a project out of our subject.

The first group, led by Lucas Dilworth, focused on the opioids’ effect on the brain. More specifically, they focused on the fact that when on drugs, the brain releases an overload of the chemical that is responsible for a person being happy—dopamine. Dopamine can be released when say, eating a pizza when you’re hungry, or playing a sport you really like. However, when on drugs, the brain releases an overload of dopamine, too much for your body to handle. Now, you feel a need to do the drugs because your body can’t satisfy you without the extreme amounts of dopamine that the drugs give. In response to this, you need to take more drugs to handle the need, and this turns into addiction. Their action plan was to create posters about this process, and put them out in the community for everyone to see, because not everyone is educated about this subject.

The second group, led by Titus Cabezas, were focused on Narcan, a nasal spray that can help prevent an overdose. After doing some research, they found out that not many people besides emergency services are educated in the use of Narcan. In a city like ours, with drug overdose problems happening every day, it would be especially important to get more people trained in the use of Narcan. The group decided on a place that they thought would be best for employees to be trained in Narcan. They chose Starbucks, because it’s a very popular spot and thought they could have an impact. They wrote letters to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson about this topic, and they suggested the idea.

Another group, led by Olivia Robbins, focused on raising awareness about the locations of places to help with ODs—hospitals, Walgreens, and other places where you could get help if you needed it. They thought this was important because so many people who need help don’t know where to find it, and if they did they would be so much better informed. The group made maps disclosing locations where people could get the help they need and deserve.

Another group, led by Adelaide Tranel, was focusing on the different kinds of treatment for drug addiction. After doing some research, they found out that a great way to get people off of drugs is to get them a pet, because then the person knows that they have to have better self control in order to take care of their pet. They collaborated with the Ohloff organization to learn more about how the effect of a pet can really help people experiencing addiction, taking their input and putting it into their own research.

One group that Sonia Esteva led focused on children in families with addicted members. After doing some research, they decided to create a children’s coloring book for the kids of those currently in treatment or rehab. They collaborated with the Epiphany Center, an organization that takes care of kids while their parents are being treated, to make sure that their coloring book got distributed.

Hanna Wheeler’s group concentrated on needle disposal. They researched how dirty, used needles are extremely dangerous, especially if a different drug user then uses an already-used needle. They decided to make posters to educate people (both random pedestrians on the street and drug users) about the importance of needle disposal. The posters include a site that tells you nearby needle disposal places and its phone number, along with some other information.

So, the seventh grade has really been working hard this year to make a difference in the community. They’ve split up into different groups, come up with their own ideas, and executed an action plan successfully. They’ve shown the leadership and resolve that they need to have in this world, and will continue to use all of these abilities in the future. Next step: head to city hall to discuss these matters with their district supervisors!

SFFS alum Trinity Lee offers advice to Friends School students

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Earlier this year we chatted with SFFS alum Trinity Lee about her life after Friends and her love of all things STEM. Trinity was recently awarded a prestigious full-ride scholarship through The Posse Foundation to attend Lehigh University!

Trinity graduated from Friends in 2014 and is currently a senior at Convent of the Sacred Heart. At Sacred Heart, she became interested in computer science, including programming languages and the Innobotics Club (innovation and robotics) on campus. Trinity’s interest led her to seek out more opportunities, which led her to the “Missfits”—an all girls, community based, robotics team that was started to help address the gender disparity in the engineering field. The team competes in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, a six-week intensive where high school students build industrial-sized robots that face off for a championship title.

Though Trinity came from a programming background, once she joined the team, that all changed.

“Surprisingly, once I joined the team, I didn't do any coding at all,” she said. “I actually specialized in the design and mechanical build aspect of the robot….I have so much more experience than when I started, but there is still a world of knowledge out there.”

Part of the Missfits mission is to bring STEM to youth in the community, which for Trinity is just an extension of her life at Friends. She credits the “well-rounded science background [I got] from SFFS and...the culture of inclusivity and integration of the SPICES” as being important aspects of her successful high school transition and career.

Trinity was kind enough to share some advice for our current 8th grade students as they transition to high school:

“Find something you are passionate about and stick with it! Try to go outside of your comfort zone and do things that you never considered doing. I liked the idea of robotics but I didn't know anyone who did it. Sure, I was scared to try it out but in the long run I really benefited from the experience...I have met a whole new group of people and have a great common interest with them. Ultimately, it's scary to leave Friends after a lifetime of friendship. Finding a passion will allow you to transition into your new school and find some great people to be friends with.”

If you or someone you know might be interested in learning more about the Missfits, you can go to or email

SFFS Math Faculty Learn about "Lesson Study" from Japanese Expert

Thursday, March 22, 2018
The SFFS math team with Dr. Takahashi (fourth from right)

Established in 2016 with generous support from our community, the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future (CHFF) supports our faculty with transformative professional development experiences at key moments in their careers. Encouraged to think beyond workshops and conferences, teachers submit an application seeking support for a professional development experience that will enrich future programs, our school culture and greater community.

After receiving support from the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future, third grade teacher Amabelle Sze trekked many miles south to Hillsborough to attend the Innovative Learning Conference in the fall of 2017. There, she learned about "Lesson Study," a Japanese method for deepening collaboration, planning and reflection in teaching and learning. The name for Lesson Study in Japanese is “jugyokenkyu.” “Jugyo” meaning “teaching and learning.” “Kenkyu” meaning “study or research.” So, Lesson Study is the study or research of teaching and learning.

When Amabelle gets excited about a new, educative idea, she is unstoppable. Upon her return, Amabelle extolled the value and importance of Lesson Study to anybody who would listen.

Luckily for her, she can typically find a learning partner that is game in fellow third grade teacher Jake Ban. Jake, who had previously engaged in Lesson Study during graduate school, was immediately excited about the opportunity to delve deeper with colleagues in the service of student learning. Jennifer Arnest, who had learned about Lesson Study at Mills College, fanned the fire. Amabelle and Jennifer then presented about Lesson Study at a professional development day this past fall. It was soon clear that Amabelle, Jake, and Jennifer’s enthusiasm about Lesson Study was shared by many colleagues.

A few months later, Jake and Amabelle were sitting in a public library in East Oakland. After Jake’s persistent nagging, a graduate school classmate had arranged for them to attend a public lesson with elementary teachers from Woodland Acorn. For these teachers, this class was the culmination of a months-long Lesson Study process. For Amabelle and Jake, what had felt like a vague, interesting idea now seemed imminently achievable and ever more important. They were impressed by the depth of practice and knowledge the teachers exhibited. The Acorn Woodland staff were reflective and curious while simultaneously deliberate and savvy. Their research proposal, pre- and post-lesson conversations, the lesson itself, and the reflection, demonstrated the deep complexities inherent in teaching and learning.

At Woodland Acorn, it was not only teachers who were deeply engaged. The students were presented with a problem, “Can you write 8/3 as a mixed number?”, and persisted in solving this problem in a variety of ways independently. When asked to explain their thinking, these students, most of whom are English Language Learners, demonstrated a depth of mathematical understanding through conversation, writing, and whole-class presentation. In the teacher reflection of this lesson, Jake and Amabelle heard the letters “TTP” repeated often. They turned to each other and shrugged at this acronym. Afterwards, when one teacher passed by, Amabelle asked, “Excuse me, what is TTP?” The response: “Teaching Through Problem Solving.”

Throughout Japan, this methodology of teaching mathematics is used. Rather than teaching concepts, with a traditional “I do, you do, we do” structure, students engage in a problem for which the solution is not known in advance. Teaching Through Problem Solving is open-ended and thusly often time-consuming, often messy, and often unresolved. A leading Japanese math teacher and strong proponent of Lesson Study, Akihiko Takahashi reflected on this process, “[Math teachers] are too impatient. You expect children to learn a concept by the end of the lesson.”

TTP provides young mathematicians with an opportunity to delve deeply into mathematical practices to develop strong conceptual foundations and problem solving abilities. TPP overlays nicely with the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, which essentialize the habits of professional mathematicians.

Both Lesson Study and TTP reflect many of our shared Quaker values:

  • Simplicity: teaching math through problem solving encourages narrow and deep mathematical learning
  • Community: working together with colleagues to plan curriculum
  • Reflection: being more mindful of our practice through group reflection
  • Continuous revelation: researching lesson topics, planning and reflecting together provides a greater truth than any one individual teacher could possess

We are very happy to announce that we hosted Dr. Takahashi at San Francisco Friends School on March 19, 2018. He worked closely with a team of our K-8 math teachers on collaborative lesson research and the approach to teaching through problem solving.