Tag Archives: curriculum

Boosting Our Math Curriculum With New Resources

One of the challenging but rewarding aspects of my role as Director of Curriculum and Instruction is making sure that Morgan Park Academy students and teachers have the educational tools and resources they need for 21st-century teaching and learning.

This fall, we have been excited to debut two major improvements that have boosted our math curriculum for grades 3-12. The numbers at the core of mathematics haven’t changed, but the tools and approaches our teachers employ to convey this often-vexing subject are ever evolving.

The principals, teachers, curriculum leaders, and I dedicated a lengthy review last year to our textbook needs for math in grades 3-8. In analyzing several options, we found an amazing package from educational industry leader McGraw-Hill that aligned well with MPA’s approach to teaching and learning. It offers digital accessibility to the textbook and materials, allows teachers to customize content, and provides supplemental tutorials and resources online.

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Why I like being a teacher in an ISACS school.

Over the past two months, I have had the opportunity to experience three professional development opportunities: I presented at the Illinois Science Teachers Association (ISTA) in October, I went on an Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) accreditation team visit in late October, and I presented at the ISACS Annual Conference in early November. These three experiences reinforced the rewards of being a teacher at an ISACS school.

At the ISTA conference, I gave a presentation titled “Back to BINGO for Bio Vocab” in which I shared some tools that I use to help students learn complex biology vocabulary. Although I had been to ISTA as a participant for several years, this was my first time presenting and I was reminded of how intimidating it can be. At MPA, we constantly encourage our students to demonstrate their understanding of material in a variety of ways. We encourage our students to speak up in front of the class, design models of scientific inquiry, and propose new solutions to problems. We also have students present on a regular basis and they have developed the tools to collaborate with each other and be comfortable in front of a group of their peers. Presenting at the conference reminded me of how important it is to have opportunities for students to “show what they know.”

drownCurrently, I am in my 16th year of teaching at MPA, during which I have been through two ISACS self-study processes, a process that occurs every seven years for each member school. In late October, I had the opportunity to serve on an accreditation team for the first time and see the other side of this process. The collegiality and collaborative effort that is needed to be a successful accreditation team is tremendous. In the span of three days, the team needs to have a good understanding of the school they are evaluating and work together with other members from several schools in order to complete a detailed report. With this experience, I was again reminded of how well-prepared our students are to encounter situations such as these. Through activities such as Project Week, Service Days, and cross-division events, our students are exposed to many opportunities to work with people in different learning environments and achieve goals with people whom they have just met.

Finally, although I have attended several ISACS conferences over the past years, this was also my first time presenting at this conference. I delivered “Back to BINGO for Bio Vocab” to my ISACS peers. This session was extremely productive because although I was the official presenter, the collaborative effort in the room was fantastic. The proposal of new ideas and the contribution from all teachers present in the room was amazing. I came away from that opportunity feeling validated in strategies I was currently using and also challenged to think of alternative ways to continue building on tools that I currently use. This is another reminder of how at MPA we encourage discussion and sharing, and how we want students to be able to review the work of their peers and provide constructive feedback.  

In each of these three opportunities, I was reminded of the ISACS mission and vision: ISACS leads schools to pursue exemplary independent education. ISACS schools empower students to contribute and thrive in a diverse and changing world.

MPA is a place that embraces these goals and I am pleased with the opportunities that teachers in Independent Schools have to continue their learning.

By Emily Drown

Mrs. Drown is an Upper School science teacher and the Curriculum Leader for our Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Department.

Is my child ready for Kindergarten?

Most parents begin asking this question as their child approaches the age of 5. This is one of the first questions that parents ask at admission events and it can cause unwarranted anxiety and worry. Due to the focus (or over-focus) on common core standards and standardized testing in many schools, parents often think children need to enter Kindergarten knowing how to read and write. You may have even heard that “Kindergarten is the new First Grade.” While it may be true that the Kindergarten curriculum has become more academic, educators still recognize that students enter Kindergarten from a wide variety of experiences and settings. Therefore, expecting them to know and to be able to do the same things as one another doesn’t make sense.

KariAt Morgan Park Academy, we do not believe in a rote, strictly skills process for admittance into Kindergarten. Instead, we conduct an assessment screening that determines if a child is developmentally and emotionally ready for school. In addition, we offer a play date experience to further observe a child’s social interactions with same-age peers. So, what does Kindergarten readiness look like?

Here is a basic checklist with a few questions within developmental areas that help determine a child’s success in school:

  1. Social/Emotional Skills: Does your child…
    • Share and take turns?
    • Get along with peers?
    • Initiate social interactions with peers and adults?
    • Separate from adults without anxiety?
    • Handle emotions and possess coping strategies?
    • Participate in group activities?
  2. Intellectual Skills: Does your child…
    • Think logically?
    • Sit still and listen to a story or group activity?
    • Follow simple directions?
    • Possess a solid oral vocabulary and the ability to express themselves?
    • Express creativity in thought and play?
  3. Self-sufficiency: Is your child able to…
    • Put own coat and shoes on?
    • Use the restroom independently?
    • Hang up and pack/unpack belongings?
    • Ask for help if needed?
    • Express the desire to be independent?
  4. Interest in learning: Is your child…
    • Curious about the surrounding environment?
    • Inquisitive?
    • Able to persevere when faced with difficulty?
    • Excited about learning and school? 
  5. Physical Development: Does your child…
    • Exhibit sufficient stamina for a full-day program with many transitions?
    • Walk up/down stairs?
    • Enjoy playing at the playground?
    • Participate in gross motor activities such as jumping, throwing a ball, hopping, running, etc.?
    • Have experience with basic cutting, drawing, and other fine motor skills?

You may see your child as having strengths in some areas of development, but challenges in others. This is not uncommon. A good Kindergarten curriculum provides support in all developmental areas based on the individual needs of each student.

So, what is your role as a parent in preparing your child for Kindergarten? Read, read, read with your child for pleasure! Play games together. Spend time outdoors. Enroll your child in group activities with same-age peers. And lastly, don’t stress!

By Kari Misulonas

Ms. Misulonas is our Early Childhood Curriculum Leader & 
Director of Student Support Services.

Service-Learning in the Lower School

A common thread throughout our Lower School teaching is that students learn by doing. That underlying principle is woven into service-learning, too.

lizAccording to the National Youth Leadership Council, KIDS Consortium, service-learning projects work best when they fit the ages and developmental abilities of the participants, include interesting and engaging service-related activities, explore the context of the underlying societal issues the service addresses, and address needs that are important to the community being served. While these goals may sound lofty for our youngest students, our Lower School teachers prepared meaningful and personally relevant service activities for their children that encompassed all of the above.

The Upper School Service Council selected Conservation as a theme for the October All-School Service Day. Over the course of a couple of weeks, Lower School students investigated and addressed real-world issues using 21st century skills of collaboration, open-ended inquiry, and problem-solving. Meaningful learning was a result of an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to teaching. Below are highlights of grade-level activities.

After reading The Earth Book by Todd Parr, students in PK3 talked about keeping the Earth clean and what the recycling symbol means. They became recycle detectives and hunted for the symbol around campus. Sorting games provided practice for separating garbage into appropriate cans and then students created large recycle bins. The preschoolers also set conservation goals including: using only one paper towel to dry off their hands after they wash them; remembering to turn off the water after they wash their hands; and, eliminating paper cups at snack time, using instead the reusable cups they made.

Although rain prohibited the students in PK4 from beginning their preschool garden, their conservation efforts were not dampened. Using puffy paints, students made Earth pictures and discussed ways conservation and recycling can protect the Earth. They decorated water bottles that will stay at school and be used in lieu of paper cups. A recycle versus garbage sorting activity helped students see how much trash they can actually reuse.

Students in kindergarten focused on recycling and discussed big ways their small hands can take care of the Earth and nature. After reading stories about helping the Earth and watching a video about what happens at a recycling plant, students wrote in their journals and created a Recycled Robot out of recycled boxes and papers. After examining their lunches, students found ways they could reduce their garbage, such as using reusable or recyclable containers and cloth napkins.

First graders learned about filtered water, which is an important part of everyday life. Humans need to drink water to survive, and clean water allows them to drink healthy water that promotes well-being. Students discovered filtering this water takes work! A hands-on science activity showed students how water filters remove sediment and other substances from drinking water.

Second graders  studied different energy sources and realized that some are renewable and others are non-renewable. They found examples of various energy sources in their lives. The children sang about several types of energy. In a “Today Show, Friday Summer Concert”-fashion, students presented their findings in several songs and interviews, using resources from the National Energy Education Development Project. Their Energy Rocks! series included student groups such as Bruce “Hot” Spring Steam and the Geysers singing about geothermal energy. Bernie and the Biomasters sang about waste heat. Madam and the Spillways harmonized about hydro-power. 10,000 Methanics, performed their hit single “Home on My Range” and taught listeners about natural gas. Unveiling their hit song “Solar Collection,” the band Fusion shared with listeners the power of solar energy. Darrieus and the Wind Spinners debuted “Watts on the Wind” and gave listeners a glimpse of blade power in wind energy.

Third graders drew inspiration form their summer read. In the novel, Marty McGuire Digs Worms, students were challenged to make something that is good or helpful to the environment. Our MPA students began working on an up-cycle project and created designs from recycled materials. Students presented their creations to their third grade peers.

In fourth grade, Middle School students visited and helped up-cycle cereal boxes and Lysol containers to make them more beautiful and useful for storage. The sixth grade class also shared books on conservation. We ended our service day with whole class and small group discussions on ways they could conserve in our community.

Fifth graders discussed conserving resources in school and at home. They focused specifically on recycling their garbage and conserving electricity. Students created signs for recycling bins to help them know what should go in recycling at home. They also designed covers for their light switches to help family members remember to turn off the lights when they leave the room.

Teachers set their students off on a path of guided-discovery and as a result, the students’ notions of conservation are both internal and personal. Because their learning was meaningful and developmentally appropriate, Lower School students’ understanding of conservation will last well beyond Service Day.

By Liz Raser

Mrs. Raser teaches second grade, is our Assistant Lower School Principal, and is the Curriculum Leader for the Elementary Team.

The Importance of PBL in Today’s Classroom

Today is April 8th, 2016 and I sit in a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee. Though the hotel is beautiful and there is so much going on around it, that is not the purpose of my visit to Nashville.

danI am here to learn more about the world of project based learning (PBL), a new and exciting movement within education. But with most things, change is slow. So often, teachers cling to “tried and true” methods of instruction and assessment; if it worked in the 80s and the 90s, it should still work in 2016. Well, unless you want students to become fact-factories that cram information into their brains for a short-term outcome, or recreate projects that have not changed since the creation of the personal computer, this method is no longer effective or applicable. Educators are supposed to be training students to think and to be prepared for an unpredictable world and workplace.

You may be thinking, “But, Mr. Peters, students need structure, rules, and guidance before they can own their learning.” And my answer is of course they do, but if we teach students using the methods of yesterday, then how are we preparing them for tomorrow? This is where PBL comes into play. I challenge every teacher at every school to use PBL – it is the future and it begins with authentic projects and outcomes. For example, as a history teacher, I could easily assign my students a 5 page research paper with the prompt, “Why did the Allies win World War II?” Students would do their research, write the paper, turn it in, and make sure they have a proper works cited page. Or…I could make the project authentic with this prompt: “The President comes to you as a trusted advisor, asks you to investigate the military strategy of World War II, and to create updated tactics to be implemented by all NATO members. You will have two weeks to research and create your recommendation and you will present to NATO.” Now, as a history guy, the second option sounds way more interesting than just doing a research paper. Sure, some students may say I just want to do the paper –  it is easier and less work. But once you have taught them how to work in teams, taught research and presentation skills in addition to content, the second option is better because students have been taught lifelong skills that will benefit them in college and in their careers. PBL assignments offer students the chance to work on the 21st century skills that are so coveted by universities and the real world: creation, collaboration, and critical thinking.

There is a blog post by John Larmer that we read in our conference about authentic projects. It is excellent for teachers and administrators looking to challenge faculty or departments to step up to the 21st century way of teaching and learning. Remember, even in PBL, you can still use direct instruction, note taking, listening, short writing prompts, and other “traditional learning models,” but they shouldn’t be the only way you teach students. There is that old saying, don’t be the “sage on the stage but the guide on the side.” I want teachers to be everywhere: center stage, side stage, and backstage. Teach your students today where they live; what I mean by that is use what students find interesting and engaging already. Use social media and other technology. Allow students to use Skype and Facetime to interview experts from around the world.

Lastly, I attended a discussion about teaching math and the old adage of when will we ever use this in real life? PBL is the answer math teachers. Use real world applications to teach math: algebra to explain carpentry, or geometry to explain Google maps and how to plan a trip. By giving students in math class the opportunity to apply the math principals and to meet with an expert that uses math every day, they will see the value and get excited to learn math. We need to focus on prepping for the future and not become fact collectors, because students all have smartphones and can look up any fact. Teach skills that create original content, that reinforce the important content of each academic department, and implement authentic learning experiences in the classroom that challenge students and get them excited about class.


Source: John Larmer Blog


By Daniel Peters

Mr. Peters teaches Middle School social studies and coaches basketball and golf. He also is Middle School assistant principal and our curriculum leader for physical education at Morgan Park Academy, a Chicago Private Independent School.

Why are 21st Century Skills Important?

21st century learning shifts the focus of learning from memorization to application. Often students think that 21st century learning means using smartphones and tablets daily in a classroom, that all projects and learning activities will be completed on a computer, and that all research will be done on the internet. Now, those are not completely incorrect assumptions, but 21st century learning is more than just using technology to learn content in the classroom; it is also about skill-building and collaborating with students that may not be in your immediate social circle.

dan21st century learning is about problem solving, not rote memorization of facts. It is thinking critically, not expecting all thinking to be done by the teacher or a fellow student. Students must be self-motivated and driven to think and solve today’s complex problems. 21st century learning is learning by doing, which, at times, means learning by failure, a sentiment aptly captured by Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” In the 21st century, we need to realize that real learning comes from doing, failing, learning, doing again, and then succeeding. We want students to be adaptable to the future so when life gives them lemons, they make lemonade. The four major components of 21st century learning are:

  1. Skill building: Skills are essential when preparing students for Upper School, college, and the real world. Teaching skills allow students to be adaptable. Teaching research methods, using debate and discussion in class, and emphasizing problem solving are the types of skills that allow students to engage with content. At Morgan Park Academy, teachers teach skills as a way to engage with the content; they do not just lecture. As a history teacher, I love the content that I teach. History is my passion and I want to share that passion with my students and help them to become better writers, researchers, debaters, creators, and students than when they entered my classroom.
  2. Collaboration: This 21st century skill is one of the most necessary in education and society today. As the world continues to become smaller because of new technology changing the world daily, students need to learn to be able to work with those that have differing viewpoints and different abilities as them. It is not always easy to work with someone that you may or may not be friends with, but those opportunities can bring about the most real learning. Being challenged by a different viewpoint or a way of completing assignments can bring out true collaboration. Steven Spielberg stated, when I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it’s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.” What Mr. Spielberg describes is what 21st century learning is all about. Appreciate the different talents around you and realize that there is not always one way to get to the answer.
  3. Problem solving and critical thinking vs. rote memorization: This 21st century skill is the most important in my opinion. Today, we have iPhones, Samsung Galaxy phones, iPads, and Macbooks that are all connected to the internet. The internet gives students access to knowledge from the beginning of recorded history and predicts what will happen in the future. So why teach students to memorize facts, figures, and functions? Instead of focusing on memorizing content, 21st century learning challenges students to see a problem, then solve it. Collectively as an educational community, students, parents, and teachers need to realize that knowing lots of factual information is not preparing students to think on their feet.
  4. Learning by doing: This 21st century skill manifests in Lower School and classes like art and music. Of course we “do” in those classes. Called Project Based Learning (PBL), PBL has become an important change in the way students approach learning. PBL takes all of the 21st century learning skills and puts them together to complete the ultimate task. Learning in a way that will not only challenge students, but challenge the world they are going to inherit from us.

21st century skills may be the new buzzwords in education, but they are so much more than that. These skills represent good teaching. Students need to be able to explore,fail, and pick themselves back up once and awhile. Students need to work within a group and realize they might not be the leader every time, but that they are still an important part of the group. Students need to use technology in an appropriate way to make learning more accessible to them so they may solve the problems posed to them during class. Parents need to support these 21st century learning skills and cultivate an environment where exploration and curiosity drive learning,not grades. Teachers need to adapt to the student of today and meet them in their world, instead of the other way around. In closing, education is a place of wonder and exploration and every day I learn something new because of the talent, drive, and care that students at Morgan Park Academy put into their education.

By Daniel Peters

Mr. Peters teaches Middle School social studies and coaches basketball and golf. He also is our Middle School Assistant Principal.


The iPhone was introduced in 2007? Say what?

Yes, you read that right. Just 2007. Imagine a world with no iPhone? When I read that I had to sit down!

ambergI was seriously blown away at how much the world has changed since then and it’s not slowing down. What else has changed in that time? There are now millions of apps, the entire social media platform (the explosion of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), the iCloud (which I’m still trying to wrap my head around!) – just to name a few. Put these things together and think for a bit about what the world was like pre-iPhone and pre-Facebook. It’s hard to do! And it wasn’t that long ago! We are living in an unbelievable time in history. But we can’t slow it down enough to realize it.

So why does that matter? Well, for as much as the world has changed, schools in most respects, for most students, have pretty much stayed the same: industrial, factory style, bell-driven, segregated subjects, one answer, test driven.That needs to change and is a change we have already implemented at MPA.

Our students are growing up in a world that is on many levels radically different from that of their parents’ and teachers’. They will not be walking into factory jobs like their grandparents; many of the top jobs of today didn’t even exist as jobs 10 years ago. Apparently there’s a need for Chief Listening Officers today! Who knew? If so many of the jobs in big demand today didn’t exist 10 years ago, why then does school, in general, not reflect this new world?

If we are to do right by our kids, here are 3 things we need to understand as parents and educators:

  1. First, information is not a scarce commodity anymore. It’s everywhere! Teachers don’t hold the answers to the questions students ask, Google does. Kids don’t come to school to get information from the classroom like they used to do – the world literally is their classroom. The student today brings the information to the classroom and it needs to be our job as teachers to help them learn to decipher and evaluate it. This takes time and requires us to look hard at the content we teach and ask, “What can we let go of?” Instead of focusing so heavily on content, as teachers we need to teach students to ask questions of their content like, can you trust it? Is this accurate? Where did it come from? What’s the bias? With the amount of information out there today, this is an exhausting job, but it is the new reality and if we do it right, we will help raise globally responsible citizens.
  1. Because of the overwhelming amount of information we have access to, it is important that we become comfortable with the idea of not knowing. It’s ok as students, teachers, and parents to NOT know an answer. Having gone through school in the 80’s and 90’s, for me, this idea can be downright frightening. But think about how much information we are talking about. With the internet, students literally have this rapidly changing world at their finger-tips! What student can be expected to know all of the answers, all of the time? And besides, Google can oftentimes get the answer faster than recalling it. Admitting we don’t know is both humbling and liberating. Humbling because we are reminded, as Socrates stated, that there is much we do not know. And liberating because as teachers and parents we allow ourselves to be human in this new world.
  1. The rapidly changing world with its unpredictable future leads to the need for schools to see value in creativity, global education, and service, like MPA does. In public schools, creativity is often squashed out of our kids through the educational process. “Kids enter school as a question mark and exit as a period.” While I first heard this more than 20 years ago, it is an eerie reflection of today’s public schools. Art programs are cut and music is frequently slashed. Those making decisions too often deem the arts as less important than “core” subjects, or the money’s just not there. Somewhere along the way, creativity is not just lost, but authoritatively stamped out of students. This is not just sad, it’s dangerous. Why are we homogenizing our children’s talents in school when homogenized skills are increasingly being done by machines or outsourced?

Divergent thinking is what is needed to solve the global issues of our time. There is no single answer to ridding the world of poverty, terrorism, global warming; curbing population growth, consumerism, and disease; sharing resources and improving education globally. If we want students to see themselves as global citizens, schools need to give students the time, exposure, opportunity, and guidance to explore real world issues. These are the questions of their time and they’re not going to be answered independently. Instead, an organic classroom that allows students to collaborate and investigate naturally encourages the exploration and exchange of ideas as they emerge. Flexibility matters in today’s classrooms.

To do this, ideally, schools need spaces for kids to create: maker-spaces, green rooms, seminar spaces, and global forums. When we change the space, we change the learning that takes place.

So if divergent thinking is so important, why is the focus in traditional schools based on convergent thinking? The answer is simple – convergent thinking is easily tested. The information can be quantified. But being human is so much more than what can be measured on a test. Think about the other parts of the child that go unrecognized when we do this: how do we measure things like creativity, empathy, alertness to opportunity, global competency, and passion, among others?

I think the answer lies in reflection – something we too often leave out of the process to save time. If we could slow the world down long enough to honestly consider what kind of learner we are creating with our current system, what kind of human being we are nurturing, and what type of society this person will construct with their education, maybe then together we would demand better for all of our children. Imagine that.

By Colleen Amberg

Ms. Amberg teaches Middle School English and Social Studies. She is also the Director of Global Learners Program.