Head of School Blog

A View of the Playground


Our Great(er) Community

This week, I am representing Bertschi School at two gatherings. Yesterday, I helped launch the Capitol Hill Business Alliance (CHBA) - A Program of GSBA. This alliance is dedicated to ensuring a healthy, vibrant, and diverse neighborhood business and non-profit community for all. Tomorrow, I will attend an exciting new conference that will convene folks like Microsoft President, Brad Smith, Alaska Air Group Chairman and CEO, Brad Tilden, and former Gov. Chris Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle. The conference aims to drive change in our community around homelessness, public safety, and transportation issues. I want to be sure Bertschi is “at the table” as we feel the impact around all these issues and more; for example, I am particularly concerned about housing affordability for our current and future staff.

Finally, nearly all of our teaching staff will be traveling to Tacoma for the 2019 Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS) Fall Conference. This year’s theme speaks to the teacher in all of us as we seek to Bridge Research and Reality: The Science of Teaching Learning. Over the next few months, check out this blog as we report on some of the highlights of our professional development including participation at the PEN 2019 Educating for Democracy: Navigating the Current and Channeling the Future of Progressive Education (where our PreK teachers presented), and the upcoming National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference in Seattle, where a dozen Bertschi leaders, trustees, staff, and community members will represent Bertschi School.

I believe that our quest to develop compassionate, confident, and creative learners in a global community must begin with our teachers. They show us the way by actively pursuing opportunities to learn as well as teach!


Guest Post: The "Why" of Bertschi School

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The beginning of a school year is focused a great deal on the “what” and “how” of doing school. What will the daily schedule look like? What field trips and projects will engage our students? How will we teach reading to this new class? How will our classroom routines support student learning? As administrators, we too, are caught up in the details of running school, ensuring that our policies reflect our values and that our structures enhance the teaching and learning in classrooms.

During the first full week of school this year, I had the opportunity to spend four days with our fifth graders at IslandWood, an outdoor school on Bainbridge Island. In this beautiful setting, I was able to take a step back from the what and how and reflect more on the why. Why do we do what we do? And how can our fifth graders show us? Our fifth graders are the outcomes, if you will, of our mission, values, program, and culture. Looking to them affirms the why.

And the more time I spent with our students–hiking, learning, and eating every meal with them–the more I was reminded of the why. As I watched them, I realized that why we do what we do is because we believe that this world needs citizens who are raised in a diverse and inclusive community where the virtues of compassion, creativity, and confidence guide our thoughts, words, and actions. This is why our teachers teach here. This is why families chose to come, and why they choose to stay.

So what did I see at IslandWood? Who are our children when they are out in the world? What do our mission and values look like in practice?

First of all, our students are creative. One field group decided that simply coming up with agreements and norms for working together was not creative enough. They decided to take their field group name, “Marsh,” and create an acrostic poem for their agreement: “M” for “Make Learning Fun,” and “A” for “Accept Responsibility.” Additionally, on talent night, Bertschi students were in full form, bringing the most skits to stage with impeccable comedic timing and rousing the audience to join them in a Bertschi kid-written jingle.

Our students are confident in the world. They were the first to volunteer for community jobs and raise their hands with questions. They were able to express their worries about homesickness and their fears around the dark, the dirt, bees, spiders, and heights; they then were confident and courageous enough to face these fears and carry on. They crossed suspension bridges, dug for bugs in the dirt, walked solo at night, and went to bed in the dark with no parent down the hall (even though they missed them terribly).

Finally, our children are compassionate. They took care of one another in team games that required cooperation and forgiveness. They taught other students how to use Rock, Paper, Scissors as a conflict resolution strategy in tag. I saw them consider the needs of a child who was deaf in one ear by turning their bodies fully toward him and raising the volume of their voices so that child could fully participate in dinner conversation. I saw them stop an entire line of hikers to take a detour around a slug. I watched them pause in wonder as two fawns ate salmonberries nearby. Finally, and this is true, I watched them hug a tree.

As we go through the busy days of the fall, addressing the what we do and how we do it, I encourage you to listen for, ask questions about, and commit to the why. Because at its heart, Bertschi School believes that children who are nurtured in a community such as ours can go on to change the world.

- Teri Barnett, Associate Head of School


Big Feelings Require Big Conversations

Last September, my blog post was entitled, “Welcome Back to a Hopeful Place!” Our schools will always be places where we invest in the future. We find a more hopeful vision for days yet to come in the eyes and hearts of our children. However, we would not serve the children well if we did not engage with them in conversations that help reject the climate of fear and violence that has become all too common. We must not accept this current reality as normal.

The resource I have selected for this year’s Back to School MegaByte, Raising Luminaries - Books for Littles, provides many developmentally appropriate opportunities to engage in these conversations proactively, rather than in the aftermath of tragic events when emotion and fear can paralyze us. We can teach our kids that emotions are a source of power and not an indication of weakness. But we can only do this if we give those emotions–present in them and in ourselves–some time and attention. In addition to suggestions on how to talk about mass shootings and gun violence, this resource opens up some other windows ranging from, “How do we empower kids to work through fear?” to, “How can we use problematic books as productive counter-examples?”

This is a resource for adults to help kids using the tool of children’s literature. The content is candid and passionate. If you find that some of these topics are uncomfortable, or there are books that you would not choose for discussion, let’s consider that some families do not have that choice.

Please join me at this year’s first Café con Rafael (October 25 at 9:30 AM) where we will visit this online resource together and discuss the physical and emotional safety of all children.


The Children

I had the absolute pleasure of visiting two places of learning that were beautiful in both form and function – the Panda Infant Toddler Center and the Gulliver PreSchool. Although the visit to Panda happened in the afternoon after most of the children had gone home, their presence was so tangible! After visiting Gulliver, my connection to the absent children at Panda became evident as the rich documentation provides a real-time image of their work that leaves a trace well into the evening and beyond.

At Gulliver, adults first described what we would see, perhaps a bit of “old fashioned” programmazione. However, it was the progettazione or the “leap forward” that really touched upon the DNA of Reggio, perhaps the means toward some degree of replication in our own contexts. We all became part of the leap as our observations actually became part of the phenomena that we were observing.

The atelierista was working with four children in a space that combined science, technology, and an artistic aesthetic. The children sculpted and constructed but also participated in a collaborative artistic composition of color and form. They were bringing to life a question they posed after the chance discovery of a snail in the plants brought into the atelier. They wondered, “What other life might be hidden in plants?” And here they were, installing their own clay insects into a leafy, green composition!

Across the hall, the same aesthetic was evident in the Gulliver Museum, a semi-permanent installation of learning and experimentation. It was clear that the museum was birthed from the atelier and the ongoing research the children have conducted in that space.

Back in that atelier, the atelierista documented in real-time the work of the children using both photos and a detailed written/sketched record that will inform individual progress, communication to parents, and perhaps a future project for all the schools in Reggio!

In adjacent spaces, I witnessed explorations with light in a darkened mini-atelier that contained various forms of luminosity and shadow. Nearby, children explored color with multiple avenues for connection to light and shadow using clay, painting and patterns. There were two boys playing a game that used colors to express different emotions. In another small space, a digital drawing tool was used to create detailed and beautiful images of a human eye.

All this concurrent activity was carefully orchestrated to achieve rich environments that tied together beautifully through the chosen themes of color, light and nature. As children move through these various environments, they make inevitable connections that are unique to each child, but facilitated by the richness of the environment – the "100 languages" that are available in a Reggio space.

At one point, all the spaces slowed down with an intentional shift toward larger groups that participated in story-telling, games, and dress-up in a charming circular "open closet." This change of pace led very naturally to the children putting on coats and being led outside for play. I was sitting by the exit, and many of the children asked me what my name was. "Rafael," I said, again and again. I felt welcomed and a part of this community – even if only for a morning.

- The Reggio-inspired PreK at Bertschi contains and reflects all the elements of wonder I describe above, AND it mirrors the context of 21st USA, Seattle, and the Berstchi community of learners. In fact, the fundamental image of the child as a competent and powerful being is alive throughout our campus and in all our grades. We may be hosting a delegation or two from across the planet in the next few years!

- One could argue that Bertschi School itself is a "mega-atelier" that provides children opportunities for invention and research alongside practitioners in art, music, drama, movement, sport, science, technology and the Spanish language.

- There is an intentionality at Bertschi that unfolds throughout the day for both children and adults. For newcomers, it feels like home. For long time community members, it provides a mindful context that allows space and time for the unexpected and the wondrous.


- Can we find more opportunities for our resource teachers, our atelieristas if you will, to interact with each other and with each grade level and division – not just in working with the children, but in professional dialogue with each other about the work of the children?

- As we review and revise our classroom spaces – year to year as well as with a long-term view – can we explore the crossing of boundaries? For example, bringing the outdoor world indoors and vice versa, blurring the digital and analog to create environments where children can enter microcosms or explore the infinity of space. This might be done through virtual reality or using an old fashioned overhead projector!

- Can we maximize the dialogue with our Bertschi kids? When we invite children to negotiate their chosen activity, when students help shape their mathematical explorations, when we invite older students into the world of younger students, when we give children an active role in the parent-teacher partnership, when we do these things – we validate each child as a respected citizen of our community.

1 Atelier Preschool
3 Classroom Infant Toddler Centre
7 External Area Preschool


“Progettazione” – The ongoing project that is Reggio Emilia schools

Monday morning, we received a warm welcome from Vice Mayor, Serena Foracchia. She describes Reggio Emila as a “city of rights,” and a community that has chosen education as a strategic initiative. As the town has moved from cheese (still amazing!) and trains (an industry that is now defunct) toward a center of innovation across disciplines – including education – it seeks to foster a sense of planetary citizenship among its citizens, especially its children.

As inspiring as that welcome was, the presentation by the experienced pedagogista, Daniela Lanza, provided a moving journey into the ethos of Reggio that included many student videos that I wish I could share. These videos provided tangible proof – again and again – that children should be respected members of our cities and nations because they have BIG ideas and unbounded imagination.

While most of the components of the Reggio approach seem self-evident: environment, organization, professional development, and participation; others are not translatable: progettazionne and the atelier. Daniela revealed the layers below some of the components and highlighted some universal questions for all schools to consider.

What is our image of the child?

The answer to this question shapes how we engage with children day-to-day. It’s the first step in taking theory into practice as we work side by side with children, not a step ahead of them and not a step behind, but as companions on the learning journey. Daniela further reminded us of the power of silence as a trigger for further learning.

What is the best environment for learning?

At Bertschi, the classrooms of the future are here! The Science Wing (the 4th Living Building in the world) and adjacent Tech Lab, the Drama Lab, la clase de Espanol, the Bertschi Center with our Art and Music Studios and a multi-purpose gym were all built with the richness of the environment in mind. You cannot walk into any one of these spaces without sensing that you are in a place that is rich with possibility. Is it time to look at our other classroom spaces and revisit the work of the Classroom of the Future Initiative? In doing so, should we reaffirm the timeless aspects of the Bertschi campus: the gate that leads to our version of a "piazza" and “the feeling of village,” the circularity of the child’s daily journey from entry to exit, and the commitment to green and sustainable practices that have brought the school so many accolades? The Bertschi environment is a spectacular one that can be made even more spectacular with a future-oriented vision.

After considering our image of the child and the environment, then we ponder how we organize.

Daniela described the Reggio approach as a shared responsibility to each other as educators and to “the project.” The project or progettazione can be viewed in many ways: a specific project involving children in learning, the over-all daily experience of the child, the annual work of a school, and the collaborative work between city and schools. Reggio views each of these as a project, and Daniela was very specific about the contrast between programmazione, writing in advance, and progettazione, a kind of “throwing ourselves forward” with a commitment to assessment, adjustment, and iteration along a path that will be surprising and wondrous!

How do we provide for and carry out professional development for ALL the adults working on behalf the children?

In Reggio, professional development involves teachers and staff, children, and families – all learning with each other and from each other. At Bertschi, an innovative teacher observation culture has been built using a rigorous theory of action that will provide a scaffold for innovative thinking among our teachers. We are also recognizing more and more that families need the same teaching tools as teachers but in a parent-friendly format. Much more can and will be done, AND how can we involve our children as co-teachers and co-learners in these space?



Context is everything!

My dialogue with the schools of Reggio Emilia and with colleagues from 46 nations has begun. My hope to sit with some confusion, with questions, and with uncertainty has been fulfilled - and so much so!

Paola Cagliari, the director of preschools and infant-toddler centers of Reggio Emilia, provided both the historical and cultural context for “Reggio” and cautioned the assembled educators that we would not leave with a methodology, but with a set of questions and wonderings on how to engage our own educational communities in order to further explore our local context for educating children.

According to Paola, the story of Reggio schools is rooted in the process of rebuilding Italy after WWII and after 20 years of fascist dictatorship. Local communities like Reggio Emilia decided to rebuild the schools because they wanted something “new and different” for their children. They recognized education as a “common good” that would be owned by the greater community of each city. The empowerment of women in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s also prompted the expansion of education for 0-6 year old children. The city made a commitment for the collective care of children from birth in order to ensure equal professional opportunities for men and women.

Today in Reggio Emilia, education is a right for each child and the responsibility of every adult. In a small city that embraces citizens from over 100 nations, it is clear that race and culture are significant factors in the ongoing and endless reconstruction of society, in a time, according to Paola, when the “winds of intolerance and racism are blowing world wide.” Schools need to be spaces for human rights, including the rights of children. The piazza, an open space that is built into all Reggio schools is not just an architectural feature, but also a declaration of welcome, inclusion, and – ultimately belonging.

So, I am inspired to learn more, and I am filled with both affirmations and questions as I think of our own context and culture at Bertschi School.


Often described as a village, our “piazza,” just past our gate, welcomes both children and adults in the morning and in the afternoon into a gathering place for conversation and play.

Our strategic commitment to “develop and strengthen our competency around issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice together as a community” is once again affirmed.


In a time of worldwide turbulence when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, how do we as a Bertschi community determine what is within our capacity to influence? I believe that a lens that always considers the child’s perspective will always help guide the adults as we seek to think together without necessarily seeking agreement.

Have the rights of women been fully realized in the United States? Why is the education of our youngest children not considered a common endeavor that should be accessible to all?

These are just some of my initial thoughts and wonderings. On Monday, we start our first full day together with a deep dive into the values and the organization of the “educational project” of Reggio Emilia. I will also have an opportunity to visit the infant-toddler center, Panda, named after the icon for the World Wildlife Fund.

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Willing to be Disturbed

Last Saturday, as a prelude to my trip to Reggio Emilia for a one week institute, I attended the local Day of Dialogue centered on early childhood education at the Day Break Star Indian Cultural Center. After a very powerful welcome by Ken Workman, the great-great-great-great grandson of Chief Seattle, we found an article by Margaret Wheatley on our tables entitled, "Willing to be Disturbed."

As someone who is often expected to be confident and have answers to problems, I must admit that my training in not knowing and sitting with confusion has been limited. This makes me wonder how many of us spend enough time with questions and uncertainty. We have entered into an intergenerational space where we adults can no longer anticipate our children's future with some degree of certainty, and this can be unnerving. Ms. Wheatley suggests that changing our world for the better depends on how curious we can become about what others believe even as we hold on to our own fundamental beliefs and values. Teaching our children how to acknowledge "the other" may be essential for all of us to thrive in the future. Furthermore, we can learn from these children how to notice and listen for what surprises us. Yes, for what disturbs us! Our youngest learners wonder and challenge our adult view of the world everyday.

I am excited to start my weeklong conversation with the children and educators of Reggio Emilia. I will be listening to them with curiosity rather than certainty, with both hope and fear, with the notion that we don't have to agree with each other to think together.


Is SEL the Key to DEI?

Two weeks ago, I presented my view that social-emotional skills are not “soft skills,” but rather essential skills that help children understand the complex journey through friendships and other human relationships. The ability to successfully navigate these relationships plays a huge role in helping them to become successful and happy adults. And, yes, these skills can be taught and should be practiced.

In her blog post entitled, “The Road to Equity Is Paved With Emotions,” Elena Aguilar reminds us that when a school commits to equity, it commits itself to some really hard conversations. These conversations will inevitably bring up big emotions for kids and adults alike, including anger, rage, grief, shame, and fear. We will feel these emotions personally and in community with other folks around us. We will need tools to strengthen our emotional literacy so we can feel what we feel in ways that are mindful and helpful in moving us all forward.

I am particularly struck by the notion that emotions are a source of power and not an indication of weakness. Feelings should not be buried, but surfaced. As Aguilar tells us:

I'm…finding that when I give (emotions) some time and attention, they respectfully move to the side and allow me to keep getting the hard work done. There's enough space in my mind, heart, and life for feelings, and there's no way to avoid them…

Our children need to deploy their Social Emotional Learning (SEL) toolkit in order to navigate their experience at school, and to discover who they are becoming. As their adult village, we can teach them that this journey of becoming is a forever journey, and we can join them in flexing our own SEL muscles with the future in mind. Transforming our schools and our world in systemic ways cannot happen unless we talk about feelings.


Social-Emotional Skills Are Not “Soft Skills”

Recently, the Aspen Institute published a report entitled, “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope,” which examines two decades of research across a range of disciplines: psychology, social science, and brain science. This research supports the notion that the social, emotional, and academic dimensions of learning are woven together and cannot be separated. Furthermore, social-emotional skills can be taught, and they grow and change over time. Children need to practice the skills in their social-emotional learning (SEL) toolkit just as they practice math facts and spelling. Because the growth of these SEL skills is based on children’s environment and experiences, schools should be places that allow children to practice, fail, revise, and celebrate success with SEL moments.

This year at Bertschi School, we are working in partnership with the Institute for Social Emotional Learning (IFSEL) to assess our school’s SEL toolkit, expand it, and hone our intentional lessons. Just this week, IFSEL is working with our entire village: faculty, children, and parents. Today in first grade, kids learned that a guided visualization can help them regulate their emotions and find a place of personal calm. Second grade explored ways to craft win-win situations when faced with a disagreement. In fourth grade, IFSEL facilitators led a lesson on assertive voice and conflict resolution, and all of our fifth graders gathered in the gym to examine the concepts of competition versus cooperation.

At last night’s interactive parent presentation, IFSEL provided parents with the same SEL toolkit provided to teachers, so that the skills taught in school can be further developed and reinforced at home. There was also an activity involving the manipulation of two wires as a way to make feelings more “feelable.” While adults found the activity very helpful, our kids participated in the same activity and their responses were profound. They described feeling tangled, jumbled, happy, jealous, and jumpy, identifying points of inflection during their day when these shifted. These inflection points ranged from interactions with friends to a particularly engaging lesson in science. At one point, a child described the beating heart of emotions, the breathing that comes with them, and even having to go to the bathroom, all using his wire! The exercise proved to be a window into their hearts and minds.

I believe that SEL skills are not “soft skills.” We now know that supporting social and emotional development alongside academics has a positive impact on more traditional measures that we also care about: attendance, grades, test scores, graduation rates, college and career success, engaged citizenship, and overall well-being. Developing these SEL skills is important for all students, and an equitable approach also calls us to acknowledge that each student is different. “Just right learning” means calibrating our tools to match each student’s individual strengths and needs.

Next week, I will explore the connection between SEL and DEI work. Engaging in the work of equity and inclusion brings up big emotion for kids and adults alike. I will begin the exploration with this blog post by Elena Aguilar, The Road to Equity Is Paved With Emotions. You can also find it on my Twitter feed @rdelcastillo13.


Guest Post: Bertschi Teachers are Life-long Learners

Good teaching is more than designing and implementing effective lesson plans. Independent of how carefully a teacher plans a lesson, the classroom culture determines what that teacher decides to teach, how receptive students will be to that topic, and how deeply students will be able to explore it. But how do we create culture? How do we shape and mold it so that it supports students’ development as thinkers and learners capable of deep understanding?

Last Spring, a team of nine Bertschi resource teachers, classroom teachers, and our instructional coach Julie, identified these questions as an area of interest and enrolled in an online course from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education entitled, “Creating Cultures of Thinking.” This fall we dedicated time outside of school to study the course material, process it with our fellow teachers, implement ideas from the course in our own practice, and even engage in dialogue online with a group of educators from around the world.

One of the cultural forces we spent the most time thinking about was Time. Our readings and discussions affirmed the importance of giving students time to fully flesh out their thoughts and share with their classmates. Often teachers can feel pressure to move through their curriculum as efficiently as possible in order to meet all of the learning objectives that have been set in place. Meanwhile, if students are not given time to ask questions about what they’ve learned, to discuss it with their peers, or to simply follow their own independent thinking wherever it takes them, they are only scratching the surface. Classrooms where students have time to delve into discussion, consider evidence, or take other deep dives into thinking represent that the teacher and school as a whole believe in the importance of that work.

We also focused on thinking about the difference between deep learning and surface learning, and how this relates to our school’s work around developing students’ “growth mindset.” Having a growth mindset is a way of approaching challenges that makes us open to different perspectives and seeing ourselves as constant learners, rather than possessing a fixed set of skills. We thought about how the language we use with students, the way we model for students our own mistakes, the opportunities we provide for students to take risks can promote this attitude and way of thinking. For example, when we use language that asks, “What are some ways to solve this?,” “What went well in your process?,” and we model thinking in terms of, “I used to think…, now I think…” and “I’m noticing…, I’m wondering…,” we are promoting the idea that there are different ways to make sense of concepts, that failures are temporary setbacks, and that learning is a continuum.

Now that we’ve finished the class, we feel appreciative that many of our Bertschi colleagues are engaged in honoring learning and thinking. We recognize that we are all life-long learners, and that as educators we should continue to reflect on our practice and work on promoting learner agency, independence, and deep thinking. This course provided our group an opportunity to do this work together and helped us refine the culture of thinking at Bertschi.

Mia Santos Hermann & Dustin Stoddart


Help Us Stay Safe Around Our Urban Campus

As an urban campus, we all face the daily challenge of getting to and from our school safely. For years, Bertschi has been in constant contact with the city and its leaders about our concerns including the flow of traffic and the crosswalks along 10th Ave E. Did you know that Mayor Jenny Durkan is a former Bertschi parent?

We did make some small progress recently. Over the summer, the city modified the four-way traffic light at 10th Ave E and E Boston so that all lights turn red and pedestrians get a few seconds of crossing time before the lights turn green. We are also taking steps, in partnership with the city, to slow the traffic flow along 10th Ave E. This includes a more regular police presence during afternoon pick-up time and enhanced signage to identify our school zone between E Lynn and E Boston.

We also need YOUR help! We can all contribute to safer drop-off and pick-up by revisiting the Parking and Transportation section of the Student and Parent Handbook. On Sunday, November 4, we “fall back” as daylight savings time ends, which means darker commutes. We urge you to recommit to our parking and transportation guidelines, in particular:

  • Parking:
    • Observe parking distances. Especially important is to avoid “no parking” zones or blocking driveways. We regularly hear from our neighbors about vehicles parked less than:
      • 20 feet from crosswalks
      • 30 feet from stop signs
      • 15 feet from fire hydrants
      • 5 feet from driveways
    • Consider parking a block or two east of 10th Ave E and south of E Boston, where there are generally more open spots.
    • Do not park in the bus zone, on planting strips, or in designated disabled parking spaces without a permit.
  • Morning drop-off:
    • Move all the way up in the drop-off zone as directed by staff, and help kids be ready to drop off. This helps facilitate traffic flow behind you and along 10th Ave E.
    • Merge carefully back into traffic. Always consider the bicycle lane.
    • Consider using E Miller St to access 10th Ave E from the north instead. We continue to discourage traffic along E Lynn St between Harvard Ave E and 10th Ave E because the street is so narrow.
    • If you have a nanny, babysitter, or other family member who does drop-off and/or pick-up for your family, please share these guidelines with them and require that they also comply.
  • We continue to strongly discourage use of the E Lynn Street crosswalk to cross 10th Ave E, which can be very dangerous. Instead, use the crosswalk at 10th Ave E and E Boston, where there is a stoplight and a crossing guard during drop-off and pick-up times.
  • If you are not already in a carpool, consider joining one. The carpool map is available here.

Bertschi School places particular importance on our role as thoughtful and responsive neighbors. We are in regular communication with neighborhood community groups and are committed to limit our school’s impact on the residents surrounding our campus. Please help us be good neighbors, and keep all families safe.

Independently, you can also provide feedback directly to the city. We strongly encourage you to help create a groundswell to solve the safety issues around our campus. Submit a service request here.


Our Youngest Learners Are “Digital Naives,” Not Digital Natives

Around the turn of the century, I started to hear the term digital native used to describe a person who grew-up in the digital age. Those of us who acquired familiarity with digital systems as an adult became digital immigrants. Both terms were popularized by Marc Prensky in his 2001 article entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. Educators started to accept the notion that the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology changed the way students think and process information, made it difficult to excel academically using outdated teaching methods, and required a media-rich learning environment to hold the attention of our students.

Like many educational trends, this one has run its course. Education is a balance between what is timeless and what is informed by ongoing research on how a child learns best. The goal for each child should be deep learning that requires mastery over time and multiple representations of a concept. Of course, we must ask, “What’s next for our children?” and prepare them for their future. However, we can never abandon the power and promise of the present moment for our youngest learners. Every interaction a child has during the course of the day shapes his or her future, and shouldn’t most of those interactions involve actual reality and the people who surround them?

So what to do in a world that is immersed in technology more and more each day? I think we need to approach technology in a gradual and developmental way. We would never ask a kindergarten child to write a three-paragraph essay. Likewise, we should not expose our “digital naives” to technology and devices that they may be able to manipulate, but do not fully comprehend. The use of technology in elementary school should follow a few basic principles:

  • Delay, and delay again – Years of navigating and negotiating play, interacting with a rich environment, and making learning visible should precede technology use. As kids head off to middle school, the Wait Until 8th movement is taking off, allowing kids to be kids just a little longer.
  • Smart kids will use smart devices in smart ways – Make sure your child is smarter than the device being used. It’s not just about the content that becomes accessible to them; it’s also about being digitally smart. Developing digital citizenship can start well before any device is even in the picture. Common Sense Media is a great resource for teachers, families, and schools.
  • An integrated and developmental approach – Robots and coding are so much more developmentally in line with young learners than tiny keyboards. Programming a robot to disco dance lights up all parts of the elementary child’s brain and helps develop that slow knowledge, in community, and having some fun all the while.
Bertschirobots 768X446


Welcome Back to a Hopeful Place

Welcome back to a hopeful place!

The latest addition to my recommended reading list is Hope is an Imperative by David Orr. Orr wrote the foreword to Living Building Education, the wonderful book featuring our Science Wing, the fourth living building in the world! In that foreword, he writes:

The students who attend Bertschi School are very fortunate to be in an innovative learning environment. They are taught by remarkable teachers in brilliantly designed and beautiful facilities. And they are mentored and nurtured in a school that is the physical manifestation of a world informed by charity, foresight, and forbearance, not fear.

Welcome and welcome back to a place where Bertschi kids, and Bertschi adults, dare to fail. We embrace this fearless approach to learning and living together, and we live our mission to “educate children to become compassionate, confident, and creative learners in a global community.” Together, we seek answers to questions that are generated in the science lab and in the music room, in the tech lab and in the art studio, in a math book and in the writing of a play, in the way we move and in the way we communicate. Learning " in community" is the key, isn't it?

More and more, we rediscover the timeless elements of education even as we seek guidance from the latest research in brain science and human behavior. In another book recommended to me, The Knowledge Illusion, the authors remind us to never think alone. It turns out we think we know more than we actually know. For example, how does a toilet work? Our collaborative minds are capable of amazing things. True genius can be found in how we deliberate with others to develop "slow knowledge" that stands the test of time. I believe that at Bertschi, we are making sure that the intuitive, individual-oriented approach is always tempered by the wisdom of “the village.” During our annual Founder's Day, I asked Brigitte Bertschi what she sees as the timeless elements of education. She paused and then said, "It can be found in the children. They live the mission everyday at Bertschi! If we ever lose our way, just ask the children."

Bertschi kids fill my heart with hope everyday.


Freedom of Speech: A "Regular Day" at Bertschi

This morning some of our Bertschi faculty and staff walked out for 17 minutes as a reminder that children continue to lose their lives on our country’s school campuses. The signage made it clear that our teachers and administrators were also taking action, writing and calling their elected representatives to voice their point of view–whatever it might be. Our Founder, Brigitte Bertschi, was among them, and in a 4th grade classroom window, kids wrote out the number 17 using Post-its.

Later today, during our regularly scheduled lunch with 4th graders, Teri and I posed the question, “How was today?” Around the table, the students reported “a regular day” at Bertschi. Then something remarkable happened.

Prompted by one of their classmates wondering about the walkout, these 4th graders taught us a lesson on freedom of speech. When asked how we can exercise this freedom in our country, they listed: walk out or protest, boycott, and speak up directly or through letter or email. However, it did not end there. One student reminded us that there are limits to freedom of speech, and that if you “cry wolf” too many times, your words could lose their impact. Another student pointed out that the walkout had a symbolic component, as the 17 minutes represented the 17 lives lost. “It wasn’t just about guns,” he said, “it was about people.”

Another student asked us if we had been alive during the Vietnam War (we were secretly pleased that he was unsure), and went on to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers and how important freedom of the press is within the context of freedom of speech. I am not making this up! Finally, one student pointed out that when speaking out, we should always meet hate with love. One of his classmates quietly said, “Yeah, MLK.”

This is “a regular day at Bertschi,” and though the day started with some trepidation for me, it ended with my heart filled with hope!


World Peace Begins With a Peaceful Playground

In the last week of January, Bertschi 4th and 5th graders held a “Peace Talk.”

You see, it seems that we were caught in a situation of “paying it backwards”, to quote one student. As is often the case at school, older students can sometimes wield power and influence over the grades below them. Even as our “big kids” continue to treat our youngest learners with kindness and care, they are also growing up and occupying more space on our campus.

The playground situation could have been left to resolve itself, but these kids were challenged to find solutions–and they stepped up! With a little shuttle diplomacy, students entered the Bertschi Center gym ready for a Peace Talk. Coordinated by our Assistant Head of School, Teri Barnett, and about ten other adult leaders, students brainstormed solutions rather than dwell on the problem itself or listen to an “adult lecture.”

At Bertschi, we very often call on our Virtues, kids and adults alike, for inspiration and to inform our actions. Well, through the virtues of creativity, tact, and respect, our Bertschi kids came up with the following top solutions:

  • Open up the gym at lunch recess as an activity space as an option to get out of the rain
  • Treat everyone as if they are a friend. Be nice to 4th grades and 5th graders!
  • Make a shared grassy field schedule so we don't argue over games

There were also over forty other solutions shared by the groups in the gym including:

  • Talk with an adult
  • Think about when things are a big deal and when they are not
  • Self-reflect on what I can do as an individual to solve the problem
  • Leave it on the playground! Make sure you resolve it before you go inside or else it will always be with you
  • Don't brag if you win
  • If there is a problem, get involved in non-aggressive ways

Stay tuned as we implement the top strategies together, as adults and kids working together.

This whole process reminded me of the 5th grade World Peace Game. Did you know 5th grade spends several weeks resolving ten “world crises” as part of their curriculum? I like to think that one day, two of our 5th graders might be sitting across from each other at the United Nations resolving a real crisis, and they will apply not only the lofty lessons of the World Peace Game, but also the virtues of empathy and dignity that they developed on the Bertschi playground.

Here’s to paying it forward!


Happy 2018 to all of you and to all your loved ones!

2017 was a challenging year for many of us and for this institution. We experienced loss and change and uncertainty. I think that you, our dear families, are looking to us to provide a touchstone for you and your kids that feels safe and welcoming. I hope we are meeting that expectation, and if not, I would like to hear from you!

I want 2018 to be a great year for all of us, and I hope you will join me on a journey of finding joy in the face of adversity. I was inspired by Linda. She and I were having a conversation about 2018 and beyond. She brought this book with her, and I was immediately moved to choose it for me and for our community for Head's Book Club. I hope many of you can join me tomorrow morning and on February 8th.

Here is the teaser:

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than fifty years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—they are two of the most joyful people on the planet. In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate His Holiness's eightieth birthday and to create what they hoped would be a gift for others. They looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life's inevitable suffering? This book offers us a rare opportunity to experience their astonishing and unprecedented week together, from the first embrace to the final good-bye.


In a future post, I will report from the classroom! I am working with our faculty member Dustin Stoddart, Coordinator for Advanced Learning, to finalize a plan for me to provide meaningful support for the faculty's remarkable work differentiating math instruction this year. Stay tuned for some fun and insightful stories.


Thank You for Growing With Us

Dear Families,

Thank you!

Simply, directly, and sincerely, I want to thank each and every member of our Bertschi community.

Thank you for trusting us as partners in raising compassionate and confident children.

Thank you for all the creative ideas that informed our new Strategic Plan 2018+ that we will share in January. It calls us to invest, thrive, and steward as we serve our current children, always with an eye toward serving their future children. We have exciting work ahead of us!

Thank you for your generosity during the Bertschi Fund campaign for 100% participation in 100 days. We hope that if you have not yet given, you will consider a gift or pledge before the end of 2017. I also want to join with the Bertschi Parent Council in reminding you that contributions to the gift collection for faculty and staff are due to the front office by end of school on Thursday.

Thank you for growing with us--during great times and during difficult times. “Dare to fail” means that we sometimes fall, but at Bertschi there is always someone to help you back up. When I ask our youngest learners about their favorite part of the school, they often mention the “giant playground.” Did you know that goldfish do not grow to their full size because they are kept in such small environments? When provided with a proper pond, they can grow to over 18 inches! At Bertschi, our pond--both physically and metaphorically--is expansive. It is well-stocked with provocative questions and creative, out-of-the-box answers. It is filled with a diverse group of learners who think differently but always compassionately about each other.

Finally, I want to wish many of our families a Happy Hanukkah and a Merry Christmas! Whatever your family tradition is during this winter break, I hope it is filled with special people and lots of love. During this season of celebration, please accept our deepest appreciation for growing with us!



Beautiful Questions

During our recent Parent-Teacher conferences, Bertschi was alive with “essential conversations” between parents and teachers. These exchanges are at the heart of getting to know each child and deploying “just right” learning for all. This dialogue should be rich with questions as well as answers, and at Bertschi, it is! At the center of all this conversation are the big and worthy ideas of the children themselves.

A few weeks ago, I was called over to a group of Pre-K kids who were deep in conversation with their teacher. One student asked me, “Are all single-celled organisms creepy?” Once I got past the fact that a Pre-K student was pondering the nature of microorganisms, I realized I could help. We went on to have a remarkable conversation about how some microorganisms could be both creepy and useful.

A few days later, I ran across their teacher and let her know how much I enjoyed that interaction. She was way ahead of me: a plan was already developed to deploy microscopes in the classroom, in order to use the emergent thinking of one child for the benefit of the whole learning community.

That’s Bertschi! We ask questions--adults and kids alike--beautiful questions. However, we do not stop at the answer. We see answers as invitations to further exploration, using a microscope in Pre-K, a multi-week simulation in grade 5 that seeks to achieve world peace, or a set of goals established at a fall conference.


From the Inside Flap

With the insights she has gleaned from her close and subtle observation of parent-teacher conferences, renowned Harvard University professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has written a wise, useful book about the ways in which parents and teachers can make the most of their essential conversation--the dialogue between the most vital people in a child's life.

"The essential conversation" is the crucial exchange that occurs between parents and teachers--a dialogue that takes place more than one hundred million times a year across our country and is both mirror of and metaphor for the larger cultural forces that define family-school relationships and shape the development of our children. Participating in this twice-yearly ritual, so friendlyand benign in its apparent goals, parents and teachers are often wracked with anxiety.

Essential book cover art

In a meeting marked by decorum and politeness, they frequently exhibit wariness and assume defensive postures. Even though the conversation appears to be focused on the student, adults may find themselves playing out their own childhood histories, insecurities, and fears.

Through vivid portraits and parables, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot captures the dynamics of this complex, intense relationship from the perspective of both parents and teachers. She also identifies new principles and practices for improving family-school relationships. In a voice that combines the passion of a mother, the skepticism of a social scientist, and the keen understanding of one of our nation's most admired educators, Lawrence-Lightfoot offers penetrating analysis and an urgent call to arms for all those who want to act in the best interests of their children.

For parents and teachers who seek productive dialogues and collaborative alliances in support of the learning and growth of their children, this book will offer valuable insights, incisive lessons, and deft guidance on how to communicate more effectively. In The Essential Conversation, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot brings scholarship, warmth, and wisdom to an immensely important cultural subject--the way we raise our children."

From the Hardcover edition. (Random House, paperback $11.83)



Dear Families,

With every new school year, it becomes harder and harder to make sense of the vast and growing body of knowledge that predicts our children’s success, competency, and happiness. At Bertschi, we are committed to having “the essential conversation” between parents and teachers. We do so through the lens of our mission to “educate children to become compassionate, confident, and creative learners in a global community.”

After a September filled with both challenge and success, we now prepare for the first formal version of the parent-teacher conversation. In less than two weeks, our Parent-Teacher conferences will bring our village together on behalf of our children. I describe the work of our teachers during the month of September as a deep study of each child, using both formal and informal assessments, and always mindful that not all of the things that “count” in education can always be counted.

I encourage all parents - and teachers - to take a look at this link, Can We Talk? What Parents and Teachers Want Each Other to Know, before conference time. And, inspired by our Assistant Head of School, Teri Barnett, my next choice for the Heads Book Club, Café con Rafael, will be , The Essential Conversation - What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other. I leave you with this wonderful passage:

  • "To parents, their child is the most important person in their lives, the one who arouses their deepest passions and greatest vulnerabilities, the one who inspires their fiercest advocacy and protection. And it is teachers - society’s professional adults- who are the primary people with whom the parents must seek alliance and support in the crucial work of child rearing. They must quickly learn to release their child and trust that he or she will be well cared for by a perfect stranger whose role as teacher gives [them] access to the most intimate territory, the deepest emotional places. Their productive engagement with the teacher is essential for the child’s learning and growth, and for the parents’ peace of mind. All these expectations and fears get loaded on to encounters between parents and teachers."

Thank you for the privilege of partnership in helping to raise your children to be great people. I hope to see many of you at Parents Night Out, conference days, and at the next Book Club on November 14.