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.

Abalone, Dolphins, and Flounder, oh my!

Zachary RobertsDear Gateway families,

Some of you have asked about the reasons for the new schedule this year.

Last spring, as we began asking ourselves how to increase our program’s excellence and pursue our school’s mission, we identified four key areas to consider closely: schedule, space, curriculum, and staff development. We want every faculty member to be able to deliver an excellent program in a dynamic system, so rethinking the daily schedule became a crucial priority.

After research into best practices at independent schools across the country, and consultation with Heads of School and industry experts, I felt the cycling schedule approach would be of great benefit to Gateway. Though it can be a challenge to change familiar routines, here are some of the ways in which students and teachers are already benefiting from this innovation:

  • Longer chunks of time: The A through F schedule gives us flexibility to have longer uninterrupted classes. Longer classes enable teachers and students to spend more time on complex concepts.

Continue reading “Abalone, Dolphins, and Flounder, oh my!”

An Ethic of Continuous Improvement

Zachary RobertsDear Gateway families,

What a joyous first day of school! From mindful stretching in Kindergarten to second grade apple tasting in Life Lab to hands-on science labs in sixth grade, today was just the beginning of digging into the deep learning and growth that will occur throughout the year.

And yet, even today, on this very exciting first day of school, you might be left dissatisfied if you ask your child “How was your day?” Perhaps the most common answer to this question is “Fine”, which can leave us guardians completely unfulfilled. “C’mon, gimme something more!” went through my head many times in my early years as a school-age parent, until I began asking questions that gave my children more specific frameworks for their answers. Some of the more successful questions I now ask include tell me who made you laugh today and tell me when you acted kindly to someone and tell me when someone surprised you with kindness and tell me two interesting things you learned (often the responses to this are about other people, not necessarily academic content or skills) and did your class read any books/do any science experiments/etc today? Continue reading “An Ethic of Continuous Improvement”

Picking Our New Furniture

Zachary RobertsDear Gateway Families,

With Camp Gateway concluded and faculty returning in two weeks, the campus is buzzing with contractors installing new carpets, repainting rooms, and myriad other tasks, including figuring out where to stash the constantly-increasing collection of boxes that contain the new furniture for our Second Grade and Middle School Spanish classrooms.

It’s exciting to be part of the leading edge of educational innovators thinking intentionally about classroom design, and we’re grateful to have the resources to take the step to improve our learning spaces. Classroom design has become a hot topic amongst educators in the last few years; this April article on Edutopia has over 87,000 shares on social media, while this summer articles such as this one on deskless classrooms and this other one on flexible seating underscore the relationship between classroom design, how teaching and learning happen, and the impact on student senses and emotion. Continue reading “Picking Our New Furniture”

More Field Research for Classroom Redesign

Zachary RobertsDear families,

We’re very excited about the classroom redesign process being piloted in Middle School Spanish and Second Grade via this spring’s Fund-A-Need, and hopefully you’ve had a chance to read my blog posts from June 29 and July 6 on this topic. In that later post, I wrote about four insights we gained from visiting Hillbrook School in late May. On that same trip, Kristin Bogart (Director of Development), Sherri Helvie (Assistant Head), and Jeremy King (Facilities Manager and IT Director) visited Schools of the Sacred Heart in San Francisco, where they hit upon several other key ideas:

1) Furniture can have more than one purpose. Tables and desks are now made with white-board surfaces that allows students to work directly on them. Some white-board tables have a release that allows the table-top to flip upright, so that it then becomes a whiteboard display, or a room partition. And bookshelves can have hidden casters so that they can be easily wheeled around to transform the shape and divisions of a room.
Continue reading “More Field Research for Classroom Redesign”

Field Research for Classroom Redesign

Zachary RobertsDear families,

Last week I wrote about the six design elements that will underlie the classroom redesign process being piloted in Middle School Spanish and Second Grade via this spring’s Fund-A-Need: flexible, mobile, choice, health, movement, and aesthetics.

An important part of our research process in thinking through the design of our pilot program has included site visits to schools in the region that have gained a reputation for pioneering the process of redesigning the intersection of classroom furniture, instructional practice, and academic program. This is why, in late May, Kristin Bogart, Sherri Helvie, and Jeremy King travelled to Hillbrook School in Los Gatos (where the photos below were taken) to see how that school has begun innovating with classroom furniture and design. Some of the key ideas and takeaways from this visit included:

1) There doesn’t have to be a “front” anymore. Ultra short-throw projectors (such as the ones we already have) can be mounted on high-quality, sturdy whiteboards, which allows a room to flexibly re-orient in any direction. Continue reading “Field Research for Classroom Redesign”