About Ilsa Dohmen

Posts by Ilsa Dohmen:

Reaching Beyond with WeWork

Reaching Beyond with WeWork

In the spring of 2017, a parent approached us to share about a community co-working space in downtown San Jose that he was excited about. We heard more, visited the space (at WeWork Valley Towers), and were intrigued; as part of Vision2020, the school’s current strategic plan, we are endeavoring to build more and more opportunities for Hillbrook learners to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. Following on our many explorations of how space and time affect our behaviors and thinking, it struck us that an opportunity to have a space that sort of “belonged” to Hillbrook, but wasn’t on our campus, might open up new avenues for realizing this strategic initiative. So like many Hillbrook endeavors, after asking whether a change of space might improve our ability to engage our community and help our students “reach beyond,” we took a risk and started a pilot, by getting a small membership at the co-working space in May of 2017.

What intrigued us about WeWork? As members, we suddenly had access to a new space, in the heart of downtown San Jose and within biking and public transportation of our Los Gatos campus; we had access to a new social network of entrepreneurs, community organizers, and small business owners who were eager to connect and learn from each other; we had increased connection, based on new proximity and time-structures, to all kinds of organizations that already overlap with our service-learning, and making experiences, and community connections–places where we serve, where our families and friends work, and where we like to go to learn new tools or explore exhibits.

But how to use these new opportunities? And how to use a space that, in many ways, feels like the opposite of school? In May, we invited all our 6th grade students during advisory one day: “Who might like to go this Friday to a place where entrepreneurs work, and interview some people?” We asked, what might happen if we just started to take students to this new space. And then we did. What happened was that a small handful of self-nominated middle schoolers had what they called “the best field trip ever.” And the adults who went along with them found that a surprising number of entrepreneurs and small business owners actually were drawn to come by our table in the middle of the day and be interviewed by our students.

On our first visit with students to WeWork, we learned about Dr. Wang’s invention of a “Green Refuge” non-profit tiny house building project for people without homes. We learned from a digital advertiser who launched his company after keeping track of all his ideas by writing down 5-6 ideas in a journal every day. We learned from Erik, who launched several companies by the age of 30, some of which failed quickly, that time is his most valuable resource “because it’s not infinite. Money is basically infinite, because you can always raise more but time isn’t infinite.” (You can listen to our students voices tell more of the story of what they heard and learned this day on our May 2017 podcast here.)

Since then, we’ve been back to WeWork several times, once with students in the summer, and often with various groups of teachers, staff members and administrators. We’ve reached out to other schools who are using co-working spaces to extend the reach of their learners beyond the bounds of their campus. And we’ve started to tell the story to families, teachers and children. As we collaborate and share, we know we’ll learn more, allowing us to return over and over to the question that started it all: How does Hillbrook achieve its vision to inspire children to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world?

The Time of Our Lives

The Time of Our Lives

Albert Einstein may have famously claimed that “time is an illusion,” but most educators and students would say it’s something they’re constantly trying to wrangle. This year, eleven teachers and administrators at our school volunteered to serve on a “schedule committee,” looking at how we use time at Hillbrook. To start, we each followed one student for an entire day, from drop-off until pick-up. While each of us had experienced observing whole classes on campus, for many of us, it was the first time to focus on just an individual student experience throughout an entire day.

Our findings on the student shadow days were numerous. We were heartened to see the variety of modes of thinking and activity students were a part of. In my own observation, I watched a seventh grader write independently, make a movie collaboratively, observe insect behavior and propose a taxonomy, practice vocabulary, communicate math problem-solving strategies to peers, play gaga ball, meditate silently, throw a great pass in football, and catch and release a spider from advisory– in one day! Through all thirteen of our total student shadow days, we gained insights into the experience of children on our campus and generated needs and questions. After assembling these take-aways and prototyping some schedules focused on meeting various needs, we set out on visits outside Hillbrook.

As part of the Vision 2020 plank “Reimagine the Student Experience,” we are seeking out schools, around the Bay Area and beyond, that are attempting to treat time differently, perhaps maximizing time spent working on projects, or time spent in cross-grade discussions, or time spent learning on one’s own. Each of these schools offers insight into how we might further personalize student learning, or devote more time to cross-disciplinary projects that reach beyond our campus.

About half our team spent two and half days last week first visiting local Khan Lab School, then San Diego’s High Tech High and Design 39. On our visits, we learned about the choices each school had made in order to create longer windows of time for their priorities. For example, one school had students working on project time every afternoon, though their students did not take Art, or Music, and had Physical Education only twice per week. Another had each student working at their own pace in math, though those lessons were done almost entirely on computers. We saw school hallways that looked like museums of modern art, and empty hallways at schools that had chosen the blankness in order not to overstimulate children. Each of these schedules and environments prompted our team to reflect on what is most important to the learning journey at Hillbrook and how the structures we create promote those priorities.

At Hillbrook, we know environment is not neutral. Our collection of research studies around classroom setup confirm our intuition that physical space affects how people think and learn, and what they do. And we continue to be curious and deliberate in our designs of space based on our learning goals or how we want users to feel. This year’s schedule committee process finds us steeped in the same wonderings and realizations about the less visible ways we create place–those that dictate or differentiate “Science” from “Math” class for example. They’re the structures that cause a student to say yesterday to me “I just want to do math things in math class, you know?” And they’re up to us to shape.

Stay tuned to find out how we progress through the schedule committee process, visiting more schools along the Northwest in early February…





Oh the Places You’ll Go (for PD)…

Oh the Places You’ll Go (for PD)…

One of the things I’m most grateful for, and proud of, working at Hillbrook is our dedication to faculty and staff learning. Each year we send employees around the nation, the globe, and Silicon Valley to learn and share about their areas of interest. So far this school year, our faculty and staff have attended or presented at the following workshops and conferences:

Conferences Attended

Summer ceramics membership at Higher Fire Studios

Several Tech Shop Classes (including Sand blasting and powder coating, Arduino and more)

Construction Modern Knowledge Summer Institute

Project Zero Classroom

Thacher School’s Capstone Consortium

Nueva School’s Design Thinking Institute

BATDC’s Mastering Group Facilitation Workshop

Oceanic Society Expedition

Singapore Math Workshop

CATDC Leaders of Color Cohort

Life Lab Plant It, Grow It, Eat It!

PHP‘s Learning Differences Simulation

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) National Conference

NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC)

Responsive Classroom Training

Wildwood School’s Never Too Young: Elementary Age Social Activism

Modern Language Association MLA Annual Convention

Learning Ally’s Spotlight on Dyslexia

Conferences Presented

Fablearn Flagship Conference

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Summer Conference

NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC)

Computer Using Educators (CUE) Fall Conference

Reflecting on Instructional Rounds

Reflecting on Instructional Rounds

On Monday, Student Progress Conferences came to a close for the Fall semester. This is one of my favorite times of year, celebrating student growth, acknowledging areas for improvement, and setting goals that students will work towards for the remainder of this semester. In the Middle School, we challenge students to be the leaders of these conversations, boldly presenting a summary of their teacher’s feedback to their families and advisor. Students as young as 4th and 5th grade sit with multiple adults to discuss their year so far, and to plainly share goals they have set for themselves to be better question askers, better organized, or to be better collaborators with their peers. I am always in awe of how well we prepare young people to do this very hard task. The meetings feel celebratory, reflective, and remind me how important it is for adults to model self-study and a growth mindset for students.

Hillbrook is particularly committed to adult learning. Our Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) offers a wide variety of opportunities for teachers and staff to develop their passions and also to gather in groups for self-study and reflection. Back in August, I shared about the new protocol groups faculty and staff were invited to join this year. Each of these is designed to bring adults together to engage in collegial conversations in the service of collective growth.

One of the groups, Instructional Rounds, is designed to support individual improvement by recognizing and sharing practices of good teaching. It is based in a discipline of description–learning to name and describe teaching practices with detail, while unlearning to judge. Instructional Rounds provides adults a method of self-study and reflection on practice, so that they too can acknowledge feedback and set goals for their growth.

Last month, a group of 20 administrators, faculty, and staff participated in the first round of visits to multiple classrooms, taking notes of everything they saw and heard related to some guiding questions about the physical learning environment. Our observations included everything from how materials are laid out, to lighting and sound, to teacher language, to how students were using their bodies in the classroom. After the visits we met to debrief our observations, naming practices we noticed, and discussing questions like, “What options do students have to mentally or emotionally take a break?” and, “How do we talk to students about managing their bodies?” The conversation was high-energy, with each member sharing take-aways to try out in their own space, or a new area of practice they wanted to observe more about.

Hillbrook’s CTE has invested a lot in this area of our program. In the past few years we designed the iLab to be our first agile classroom, studied student and teacher use of it, drew conclusions about its best features and brought those into nearly every other space on campus during our Reimagining Classrooms project. In the past three years, we have run several research studies around the effects of space on teaching and learning. After the Instructional Rounds visits, ranging from Kindergarten to 3rd grade Writer’s Workshop to 8th grade Geometry, I was heartened to hear a group of adults describing shared understandings and also asking hard questions of each other about the topic of learning spaces.

In 2015, I was among a group of 10 educators funded by the CTE to attend the Project Zero Summer Institute at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In one of the closing sessions, Steve Seidel (former director of PZ) said something that stuck with me: “Schools are the only place where we’re required to get together and work on how we all want to live together.” I am so grateful that Hillbrook is a place where learners of all ages have decided this is how we want to live together: by pausing throughout each year to reflect, ask hard questions, think aloud about our own behaviors and set goals for growth. Each time we pause for this moment, I smile to think how well-prepared we are for it, how gladly we engage in the cycle, and what an exciting future we have together as learners of all ages.

Getting to Know You…

Getting to Know You…

We’re all familiar with the highlights of a new school year starting—new pencils, shoes and haircuts, new people to talk to and have lunch with, and the certainty that something interesting will come along soon and change us all for the better. To be clear, I’m talking about the adults on our campus. Since mid-August, teachers and staff have been buzzing into the new school year with pretty much the same hopes, dreams and nerves as our youngest learners. We’re all ready to find out more than we knew before, and to hopefully make some friends along the way.

Two weeks ago, new staff and faculty were the first “new” people to settle into campus at orientation. Each year we’ve invited them, in addition to watching the award-winning video on our school’s history, to read a handful of articles that help communicate the school’s culture and values. Among these is Robert Evans’s 2012, “Getting to No: Building True Collegiality in Schools.” In it, Evans summarizes research, philosophy, and arguments of others to make the case that schools tend to be congenial places, but not always collegial ones. He writes, “True collegiality requires more than being cordial and caring. It requires a focus on development and performance. It means sharing…and it means talking candidly, and being able to disagree constructively, about professional practice.”

This is not new work for Hillbrook faculty and staff. Over the past few years, you may recall hearing about teacher and staff involvement in inquiry groups, program audits, co-teaching relationships, research studies, data collection and transformations around learning spaces, and more. Hillbrook continually strives toward being a great place to be an adult learner—one who engages deeply and thoughtfully with other adults and with our program, in order to better serve students.

What is new this year is a series of teacher-led, protocol-based discussion groups. Last week, we invited teachers and staff on-campus to take a risk and join their peers in delving into their practice through either Critical Friends, Instructional Rounds, or SEED (nationalseedproject.org) groups. Each of these groups is based on a structure practiced by other educational institutions around the country. Each will meet monthly, bringing together teachers, administrators, and staff, across our departments, divisions, and disciplines, to critically examine our beliefs and practice. We will be visiting one another’s classes, examining one another’s dilemmas and sharing deep, heartfelt stories about what it has been like to grow up as our own unique selves. In each, we will continue to build what Evans describes as collegiality: “shared commitment to appropriate candor in the service of collective growth.”

The new protocol groups will be one more way that adult learners on-campus reach beyond themselves to make a difference for students. By examining ourselves as teachers, we become continually better at meeting our mission, to make every day at Hillbrook “a journey of self-discovery, imaginative thinking, creative problem solving, laughter and friendship,” for our students.

I, for one, am eager to see how the year unfolds, new haircut, new friends and all.

Reimagining Classrooms: Wiggly Objects

Reimagining Classrooms: Wiggly Objects

“Once upon a time, Sara borrowed two wiggle stools from first grade…” That’s how second grade teachers Sara Lee, Penny Siebecker, and Taylor Hovish start this story. Last year, Sara and Penny had been intrigued by anecdotes from first grade about these colorful, plastic stools that look like oversized chess pieces with a rounded base. They were curious. Did students like the wiggle stools? And did they help learning in some way?

This year, as part of the Reimagining Classrooms (RC) project, Sara Lee ordered a larger set. The RC project kicked off last April after the parent community generously supported the effort through the 2014 Auction “fund a need.” The project invited teachers who wanted to significantly alter their physical classroom to take that risk, and to document their observations as we learned together from the changes. Teachers chose their own approach, guided by findings and key themes from previous years.

At Hillbrook, we know environment is not neutral–is not just a background upon which teaching and learning happen. We believe that environments invite and evoke different behaviors and types of thinking. And this year we are starting to understand we can use the physical environment to realize our goals of inclusion in the classroom as well. Alan Watts, best known for popularizing Eastern Philosophy in the United States, calls us all “wiggly objects.” And many teachers would emphatically agree. One of the key themes we have identified from previous classroom redesigns at Hillbrook is the importance of movement, not only in the sense of meeting a physical need, but also in the sense of creating flexibility in the variety of ways of being that can be practiced within one learning space. We aspire to create spaces that promote both fidgeting and flexibility.

2ndg_wigglestool2The second grade team observed a range of student responses to the wiggle stools: some loved the stools and wanted them all the time, others said they never wanted to try them again, some chose them only sometimes. The stools helped highlight how much second graders move. And they appeared to help some students meet this need while also joining, and perhaps focusing more on, group work.

The conversations across the second grade team increasingly turned to these wiggly objects. Many students loved them and they appeared to change the class dynamic; but were they really helping students? In December, they sat down with sixth grade teacher and research designer Ilsa Dohmen to find out: is there something we can measure about how the stools serve students? Together they designed a simple study comparing the effect of sitting in either a still stool or a wiggle stool while completing mental math worksheets.

On two different days this December, second graders came into their classrooms with tables set either with all wiggle or all still stools. To warm up for the lesson, they were asked to do their best completing as many mental math problems as they could in five minutes. About ten days later, students came in and experienced an identical warm-up with the opposite chair type and a different, but analogous, worksheet.

casualtenjamTeachers observed that during the data collection not as much movement happened as they were expecting. When Ilsa asked, Taylor and Sara told her they did not think the study worked to measure the effect they had observed during other class times. They felt the students had not wiggled as much as usual.

But it turned out, highly visible wiggle or not, it did work. We actually found that students sitting in a wiggle stool completed statistically significantly more math problems (with the same accuracy) than students sitting in a still stool. And in only five minutes! We suspect that this has to do with students being able to meet subconscious needs for micro-movement while also working more continuously. Instead of being a distraction to self and others, the movement can be better integrated with the class work, through the stool.

We were thrilled with the study results. Hillbrook is one of the few K-8 schools in the nation conducting this type of inquiry and it is so exciting to have significant findings we can share to inform further questions, and to guide decisions about how to design better spaces for children. In second grade, the study inspired the purchase of more wiggle stools. It also sparked discussions about ways to meet the physical needs of students who do not like the stools.

In his same lecture on wiggly objects Alan Watts continues “The physical world is fundamentally wiggly. We don’t notice this very much if we live in towns, and if we live in ordinary houses. Because, we build our streets and our homes so as to seem to be non-wiggly…. And so then we are also always in conflict with wiggliness.” He encourages his listeners to see their landscapes as blots, to recognize the contours and smudges that are present in the environment and to view what you are trying to create as emerging from these. At Hillbrook, we are continually striving to see our students as they are–to know them individually. Research studies like these allow us to isolate and measure the impact of specific actions or changes. And the results inform us all as we create ways for them to thrive as learners, both wiggly and still.

Testing our Center of Gravity

Testing our Center of Gravity

A few weeks ago, I was outside the art studio and a rush of eighth graders ran by. They were in a hurry because it was recess and they wanted to finish a petition. In it, they were demanding the “re-messification” of the art studio. They told me that it had become too organized, too adult, and needed to be returned to its former state. Across the Hillbrook campus this year, the buzz has been building; classrooms are changing and everyone has something to say about it.

Taking a look around campus, you may notice many of these changes. Over a dozen teachers last May nominated themselves to kick-off our experiments with the physical classroom. They agreed to spend time substantially altering their space, to asking questions about how the changes affected teaching and learning, and to sharing their stories. The changes included both physical redesigns, and a re-thinking about students’ role in that design. We asked, “how can we include students in the setup of the classroom, and in real decisions about its use? How can we offer students in the same classroom more choices about how they want to work?”

whiteboard-tableHillbrook is not alone in re-designing spaces. Visitors to campus tell us about “21st Century Classrooms,” “Innovation Labs,” or multi-grade classroom areas with no walls dividing them. And they come to visit us because we are re-designing differently: leading with questions, and following up with research and reflection. Rather than having architects determine the designs, teachers at Hillbrook planned their own changes, starting with the question “what do I want learners to look like in my classroom?” And because we have altered each classroom in a different way, and not all the rooms at once, we are in a unique position to observe differences, and to ask testable questions about the effects of our changes.

Take the arrival of whiteboard tables to some lower school rooms, for example. When replacing the individual desks, we had a lot of questions about how students would respond. How would their sense of belonging and place be altered when we took away “their” desk? Now that the whiteboard tables are in, we are noticing they create a different feel in the classroom. We notice that students (and teachers) feel more free to pull up a seat at a table than they did to join someone’s individual desk. We notice that we feel more comfortable adding to someone else’s writing surface, when it is erase-able, large, and not seemingly owned by an individual the way a paper is. We think we are seeing people apt to write more on whiteboards during brainstorming tasks, or to take more risks working out math practice problems. And we intend to find out.

Other teachers are focusing on physical movement. They have added new types of seating that include bean bags, chairs with wiggly seats, rocking stools, and sofa benches. One group of teachers observed that their wooden stools are being broken by students who are trying to use them as rocking stools. Do the rocking stools help students focus? Can we see a difference in productivity or engagement when students are able to meet their needs for movement while also doing classwork? Others are curious whether student choice of seating will improve their experience taking tests. Can you take a quiz productively in a bean bag? And does it lower your stress level to do so? We intend to find out.

We know that environment is not neutral. Every space invites and affords certain behaviors and types of thinking. When we as adults walk into a meeting with row seating, or a giant u-shaped table, or little circles of chairs, we understand a different kind of participation will be asked of us. And we intuit the range of tolerance for behaviors like snacking, whispering to our neighbor, or standing to stretch our calves. What do our classrooms say to our students when they walk in? What are we inviting them to think about or to do by the arrangement of our furniture, and the choices they have about how they use it?

At a recent Faculty Meeting, Alfie Kohn asked us what it would be like to move our school’s “center of gravity” away from the teachers and parents and towards students. How can we rethink what we ask students to do and not do, and what choices we give them, starting with what they want? How are we already doing this well and where could we benefit from taking a second look?

Last weekend at Open House I was at the table in the gym that advertised “Reimagining Classrooms.” In front of it were a desk chair, and a rocking stool. A visiting child approached, jumped on the rocking stool and laughingly declared, “Whoa, this is way too crazy a chair.” His mother and I chatted while he checked the limits of its sway–how far he could tip without falling, and whether when he sat at a table his arms on the surface braced his motion. The stool invited him to take a risk, and to share what he thought. And it turned out what he thought changed quickly with experiencing it. After a minute or two, having found his balance, he grinningly remarked, “I think I’m used to it now”. I hope we can continue to uncover similar surprises.

The Classroom as a Teaching Tool

The Classroom as a Teaching Tool

iLab fisheyeDesigner Signo Uddenberg from MKThink and Hillbrook School teachers shared insights and reflections on redesigning classroom spaces that inspire learning. Recorded live online Tuesday April 21 from 3:15-4pm.

The Third Teacher

I came to Hillbrook last year as a Resident Teacher. Modeled after the medical practice of resident training, in this program I was meant to be a second teacher in the classroom. My job was to teach shoulder-to-shoulder, to observe and to ask critical questions so I could stretch my own practice. Being a second teacher in the same classroom everyday, I was also in a unique position to serve individual students on a just-in-time basis. I was an extra resource, a different perspective, a partner for reflection for both students and my co-teacher.

Coming from a background as a classroom researcher, I was accustomed to having two teachers in the room. I was also used to paying attention to the individual experience of students and the factors of the learning environment that affect them. As researchers we designed a lesson in our lab, and brought it to dozens of different schools. We knew learning was not as simple as the lesson we designed yielding an outcome. It met and meshed with each environment where we brought it. While running a study, the second teacher in the room was responsible for noticing the factors that might affect or explain our results. Which students appeared unfocused? Uncomfortable? Were we only engaging a certain identifiable subset of students? In order to explain our data, we had to identify what factors of the students and the environment might be most important to interpreting the learning outcomes.

Having a second teacher in the room at Hillbrook allowed Brian Ravizza and I to notice similar details. We spent many hours reflecting on individual students, and group behavior patterns. We experimented with ways to differentiate. Some of our solutions focused on adjusting the lesson: scaffolding the content, or giving more choices. Others addressed the limitations of the physical room, the tables bolted to the floor, the metal stools, the single whiteboard and projector at the front of a very long room. We noticed the differences in energy and style of thinking that happened when a teacher sat at a student table, when we worked outside, or split the science lab in half. These different physical formats implicitly communicated different expectations about where students could sit or stand, whether they had permission to move around the room, whether and how they should collaborate, and what they should be doing.

During that same time last year, I was invited to apply my research training to a study Christa Flores and Don Orth were conducting in the iLab. They hypothesized that the new space would provoke different behavior and styles of thinking in students because it effectively communicated different classroom norms. They wanted to measure specific behaviors in the iLab to identify how the space affected learning.

We tried out a lot of methods. We surveyed students and teachers, interviewed them, watched time-lapse footage of the room’s use, and did behavioral counts. We ended up with a lot of data and sparked a lot of conversation about the space. As I stood in Christa Flores’s classroom with my clipboard and stopwatch, students often asked me about what I was doing. And as we interviewed students about how the iLab compared to other classrooms, students became apt to initiate conversations about space themselves. Teachers from across campus were encouraged to use the iLab, and they were also interviewed.

Their stories echoed what I had seen as a researcher at Stanford: the same lesson done in two different spaces became two different lessons. The iLab was a drastic shift in environment. We were not surprised that students felt differently about the space, and felt it was better suited to their work than most of their other classrooms. But we were not prepared to explain exactly why.

Last summer, a few Hillbrook teachers who were intrigued by their experience teaching in the iLab converted their own classrooms into more agile spaces. When deciding what to change, we reviewed our data. When students and teachers spoke of the iLab they lauded its flexibility; it could be several little cubicles, one big stage, rows or circles of chairs, all within a few minutes. Students also reported on how they felt in the iLab and a story about student ownership, choice, and freedom to move emerged. Julia Rubin, Christina Pak, Shushan Sadjadi and others made changes to their furniture including whiteboard tables that rolled, and flipped to nest against the walls, and some comfortable, soft-seating options. They removed teacher-decorated wall space and replaced it with whiteboard or peg-board to become student-owned space. They even experimented with getting rid of, or minimizing their teacher desk space. They wondered how the new space would better enact their existing lessons, and what new student behaviors and types of thinking it would afford.

We all associate different spaces with different activity. Whether we intend to read, do our taxes, or socialize, we choose a fitting place. And we know that the “fit” varies for different individuals. When students enter the classroom, we ask them to take on many different activities. What kind of space do we give them? Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian teacher and psychologist, began writing in the 1940s about the impact of a student’s environment on their development. He considered it so important that he dubbed the learning environment the “third teacher.”

The energy and excitement about learning spaces at Hillbrook is building. Next year, approximately a dozen more teachers will be redesigning their space and engaging in conversations with each other to reflect on and measure the outcomes. We’ve learned some things from the changes so far. And are looking forward to making further, incremental and intentional changes.