13 Years Old is Closer to 3 than to 23

Back-to-School-Night is often used as a time to share classroom curriculum, explain routines and expectations, and make sure families see prettily completed work — all so that they are reassured that the children are learning effectively. After all, aren’t parents most interested in the academic content their children are going to be taught?

My experience is that the answer to that question is “no”.

What parents crave most of all is connection — just like children in the classroom. Research clearly shows that for adults and children alike, emotional safety and social connection come before engaged learning and a growth mindset. Wendy Mogul, psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, speaks about this very compellingly (or go back further to Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs).

This is true even — and especially — as children enter middle school. Adolescence is a natural time of distancing and redefining by children. Parents have to learn to navigate their own feelings and experiences at the same time that their children begin developing more individualized identities. What guardians really want is to be emotionally and socially connected with the teachers, with each other, and with the ideas and values that underlie the program. They want to know that their children will be prepared for the future not just academically, but also as good people with strong character and integrity.

This year I offered four distinct pieces of advice to middle school families at Back to School Night. My hope is that all of our families engage in an ongoing conversation about our beliefs and values as families, think carefully about the parenting choices we make, and don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees when it comes to the hard work of raising children. Continue reading “13 Years Old is Closer to 3 than to 23”

Faster Isn’t Smarter: A New View on Academic Excellence

Across human history, societies have held unique and sometimes esoteric ideas about intelligence and achievement. From public speaking to writing poetry, different cultures have defined and measured academic success in a wide range of ways.

Sadly, in current American society, academic excellence is often defined in ways that reduce children to scores and grades. This is a vast oversimplification of learning, if not outright intellectual dishonesty. For this reason, a national group of highly-regarded independent high schools have created the Mastery Transcript Consortium and are attempting to end the outsized impact that grades and transcripts hold in college admissions.

So what, then, is a truly child-centered concept of academic excellence?

First, academic excellence integrates 21st century skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. A child who can independently complete tasks at a high level, but is behind on social skills or struggles to work well in groups, is not yet reaching fully-formed academic excellence. The neuroscience on this is very clear: emotions and social connection are integral to learning, and memory, emotion and long-term learning are all linked.

Second, information literacy is a crucial skill; memorization and regurgitation of bits of knowledge are at best minor markers on the path towards mastery and complexity. When students know how to find out what they do not know, evaluate the sources of that information, and integrate it into their problem solving, they become agents and scholars capable of driving their own learning. This is why students of all ages need to be conducting research, applying knowledge to solve problems, and creating original work. Just last month the Wall Street Journal published an article on effective study skills highlighting how research has revised traditional thinking on the subject. Continue reading “Faster Isn’t Smarter: A New View on Academic Excellence”

8 Ways to Set Up Your Child for Success

Dear Gateway families,

This week our faculty and staff are hard at work preparing classrooms and curriculum, and we are eager to have children return to campus on Wednesday for the new school year!

One of the topics we always discuss in depth at this time of year are the routines, expectations and practices we use to integrate children into the classroom each fall, and to set them up to succeed with the challenging academic and social work that will unfold throughout the year. Here are a few ideas for how you can support your children’s success in school through a consistent and developmentally appropriate home environment.

Getting out the door: Establish predictable morning routines with your children. Map out the morning using visuals (graphic organizers really help!), so that they understand how much time it takes them to do each step — get dressed, use the bathroom, brush teeth and hair, eat breakfast, make their lunch, get their shoes and coats on, etc. When children are included in this process they feel ownership and responsibility for their morning tasks, adults get to do less cajoling through each step, and everyone’s morning experience improves.

Fueling up: Children can be picky eaters, but having a healthy, balanced breakfast is a huge boost to their academic success and emotional stability. Who likes being hangry? No one, and it hits children especially hard. Talk through your expectations for your child’s breakfasts, offer them limited choices that meet your expectations, and include them in your shopping trips to make sure you have what you need for their mornings.

Being on time: Being a minute or two late — or more — may not be a big deal to some adults, but many children experience being late as stressful or shameful. Coming in late can also be disruptive to the teacher and the class, and the child may have missed out on important class routines or information.

Emotional grounding: Challenging mornings happen to us all, and even the best-laid plans simply don’t pan out. When you encounter one of these mornings, remember that your child needs to be emotionally connected and secure to effectively enter the complicated world of classrooms and classmates. In these situations it’s wise to slow down, breathe together, and connect with open hearts, so that your child doesn’t carry the morning’s struggle into the rest of the day.

Downtime: We provide several breaks and other opportunities for play and movement during the day, but let’s be frank: many children are often intellectually and/or emotionally tired by the end of the school day. Enriching them with after school activities is wonderful and important, but children also need downtime when they can play, read, do art, or simply daydream. Resist the urge to overschedule your child.

Screens: It’s your house and you pay the bills, so you set the rules. That being said, we have a clear viewpoint: when it comes to free choice use of screens, less is more. The neuroscience of addiction is scary, and many children have trouble putting down a device.  Computers and tablets should be used in public spaces like the dining room, not in bedrooms. And yes, you can simply say no; we got our oldest daughter a cell phone just two weeks ago, right before she began high school.

Homework: First, every child should read every night, for at least 10-20 minutes. Second, every child should help out with the work of the home — dishes, pets, laundry, etc. Third, our teachers generally follow the American Psychological Association’s recommendation of max of 10 minutes per grade per night, but sometimes a child will struggle with a particular assignment or even consistently with a specific area. If this happens, lovingly have them stop working, and email your child’s teacher to let them know and help your child problem solve.

Bedtime: Just like in the mornings, the post-dinner routine is a crucial way for your child to process and integrate their emotional and social life. As you develop your family’s evening routines, include time for talking together in a calm and intimate way, and make time to hear about the ups and downs of the day without trying to offer coaching or catastrophizing; children’s work is to off-load their feelings, and as parents, our work is to hold that space without imposing our own emotions.

The home-school partnership that exists at Gateway is one of the unique and powerful ways in which our community intentionally works to align our values and actions in support of the children. Likely you have many techniques and tips to share with our community, and we sincerely hope you make the time to connect with other parents about these and other topics. Sharing the burden and reveling in the joy of being parents is amplified in this loving community!

I look forward to seeing you at Preview Day on Tuesday from 1:30-3:30, and/or the GFA’s welcome back coffee on Wednesday morning.


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School

A safe space for everyone.

Dear families,

In 1918, pink was the color associated with baby boys, and blue was the color associated with baby girls. It’s interesting to consider that this gendered approach to colors is exactly the opposite in today’s society (and why it unnecessarily persists), and it leads us to ask many other questions about how a dominant society has decided to define the concept of gender, both now and historically, as well as for the future of today’s children.

We hope you are able to attend the Parent education event, “Dimensions of Gender”, this coming Friday, May 5th at 9:15 in the 6th grade Humanities room, immediately following our First Friday assembly, to explore this topic in depth with a panel of administrators and faculty.

Gateway School explicitly values the courage to promote a just society, and this year our faculty and staff have committed to investigating our understandings of gender more deeply, with the guidance of Joel Baum, Senior Director of Professional Development at Gender Spectrum. We know that gender impacts every child, that transgender and gender-expansive youth face great difficulties, and that creating a gender-inclusive school creates a better learning environment for all children. Continue reading “A safe space for everyone.”

When Is It Bullying?

“What’s the difference between bullying and just being unkind?”

I get asked this question every year, in part because I teach a four part unit on bullying to our Fourth Grade students. Children in the upper elementary grades naturally undergo important developmental shifts in how they interact with their friends and classmates. The tools and strategies they used as younger children often no longer work, so they need guidance in developing new ways of having healthy and successful friendships.

The unit begins by anonymously polling students about who has been treated unkindly, who has been unkind to others, who has seen someone be unkind to another person, and similar other questions. I am proud and impressed by the children’s honesty: almost every student will privately acknowledge that not only have they had others be unkind, they have been mean as well.

Continue reading “When Is It Bullying?”

Neuroscience & Social Emotional Learning

Last Wednesday, our annual Speaker Series event brought Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at USC, to Santa Cruz. Between the afternoon in-service for the collective faculty of Gateway School, Mt Madonna School, and York School, and the evening presentation for families and the broader community held at Cabrillo College, I walked away with a head full of ideas and insights about how neuroscience can help shape our approach to education and raising children. Here are just a few of Mary Helen’s phrases I found especially meaningful.

“Embodied cognition means that the body gives the brain a platform for experiencing the world.” Because a brain exists within a specific space and culture, it is co-dependent with the biological and cultural context. This dynamic interdependency plays out in countless ways, including the manner in which we learn to experience feelings. We each have a cultural construct that helps us learn ways to process our feelings, and these varies around the world. This means we have to be reflective, aware and intentional about the norms and structures of our culture.

“Emotional and cognitive development are co-dependent.” Through fMRI and other tools, neuroscience has proven something that we have long believed to be true based on observation and theory; when a child doesn’t have a sense of emotional safety in the environment, or strong social connections with others, the child’s ability to learn is compromised. Our implementation of the RULER approach to teaching emotional intelligence reflects this understanding; we are teaching students to recognize their emotions, to empathize with the emotions of others, and to create healthy social connections. Continue reading “Neuroscience & Social Emotional Learning”

Learning in a Global Context

Dear Gateway families,

In the second half of the 20th century, the world experienced a powerful transformation towards a globalized economy and society. From shifting geopolitical boundaries and the rise of continental political organizations, to military alliances and the proliferation of multinational corporations and free trade zones, human society was more tightly bound together than ever before in an interconnected web of dependencies.

The new administration in Washington D.C. will undoubtedly have a significant impact on how our country chooses to move forward as a global leader in the years to come. This impact will reverberate around the world, and it will be felt here at home, and in independent schools too. Though our school will remain apolitical from the structure of American politics, we have some core values and essential beliefs that have risen to the top of my mind as I consider this shifting landscape.
Continue reading “Learning in a Global Context”

Is it dessert, or is it the main course?

Dear Gateway Families,

Consider this scenario: a teacher introduces a topic in class and talks about it in depth, has students read some texts and watch a video to learn more, gives a few worksheets to reinforce content memorization, leads class discussions to drive critical thinking about the ideas, and then asks students to show what they’ve learned by creating a poster.

Now consider another scenario: a teacher introduces a powerful question to the class, helps children learn about the topic through a variety of resources, asks them to think about it in the context of the real world, includes student voices in selecting the form of a project, helps students reflect on their understanding of the issues, guides them through a process of feedback and revision, and then has students present their project to a public audience.

Continue reading “Is it dessert, or is it the main course?”

Compassionate Citizenship at Gateway

Zachary RobertsDear Gateway families,

Our community was stirring this morning.  Last night our nation chose a new president and other officials in the most divisive election in memory. Yet the peaceful transition of power between administrations has already begun and will see us into the new year. Our democracy is strong and will survive our divisions.

Our job as a school is to build a community of compassion and citizenship, and so throughout our school, today our faculty chose to strengthen classroom communities. We took time for activities in which students built relationships and understanding with each other. In some classes, teachers and students discussed what respect means, breaking it down to what it is, who gets, and why to give it, while emphasizing that using a critical lens and holding our elected officials accountable is not the same as being disrespectful or uncivil. Others used the opportunity to talk about losing with grace, and gave children the space to share personal experiences when they have tried really hard for something, and then haven’t gotten it — because in life, we all have times when we lose and must confront failure, and it’s how we recover that matters.

Our school mission to raise children to be compassionate scholars and citizens has never been more important. Our children will follow and pattern after the way we speak about the election and the way we manage ourselves.  We have a powerful opportunity to teach wisdom, grace and respect in the days to come. Our values of integrity, critical thinking, communication, compassion and the courage to promote a just society will continue to lead us. Our children will be strengthened as smart, decent, loving and responsible people, and they will see that in the face of challenge, the right response is to roll up our sleeves, see each other with empathy, and carry ourselves with kindness and integrity.



Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School

In The Blink of an Eye

Zachary Roberts

Last Friday I stopped by a second grade classroom to listen in during an Author’s Party. Students proudly read stories they had written (and illustrated) to parents, grandparents, and friends. Kindergarten buddies looked upon the second graders with the cool admiration that only a child can bestow upon an older child. Over tea and muffins, children and adults cooed, laughed and smiled appreciatively as each student shared a story and answered questions about the choices they made while writing.

We want all Gateway students to develop a great love of reading and writing. But learning to read and write is tricky! The human brain has only been doing this reliably for several thousand years — barely a blink of the eye on the evolutionary timeline. That’s why our program uses different types of instruction that responds to the unique strengths and needs of every student.

In K-2, joyous confidence goes hand-in-hand with mastery of skills. Children learn that their ideas are worth expressing and find an eager audience in our community. In 3rd-5th grades , the focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn, as students begin to read informational and historical texts. They also participate in literature circles to share their own insights and interpretations about novels and stories, and learn to manage the stages of the writing process. By Middle School, students focus on the development of critical thinking and comprehension, the use of language skills to express understanding across other academic disciplines, and the opportunity to develop written craft in many genres.

This summer we sent a group of faculty to one of the country’s premier professional development trainings for language arts. Hannah Wikse (K), Jennifer Woodruff (1), Rachel Sattinger (2) and Sherri Helvie (Assistant Head) spent a week at Teacher’ College at Columbia University learning about Writer’s Workshop, which we are implementing across grades K-2. The workshop model is incredibly powerful because it treats students as working authors and gives them repeated opportunities to experience the writing process. Student writing is based on meaningful experiences in their own lives, and in the workshop they write often, and for extended periods of time.

Last year our faculty worked together to identify over 40 ways we are teaching reading and writing in the classroom. These strategies are based on our best understanding of how the brain learns literacy skills, such as choral reading (when a group reads outloud together), modeled writing (when a teacher writes live and in the moment narrates her choices about content, diction, and grammar), and using graphic tools to give a “scaffold” for children to organize their ideas. Teachers across all grades weave together varied techniques that give children many ways and chances to learn and practice the skills and ideas in our curriculum.
No wonder that when I walk into a class of middle schoolers transfixed during a read-aloud, or a group of Kindergarten students using EduCreations to create stories in the Discovery Center, I am again reminded of the amazing breadth of teaching practices the faculty use to help our children embrace, master and enjoy reading and writing.