Sidwell Friends School

April 23rd, 2009

Yes, it is private and expensive but wouldn’t it be wonderful for all of our children? The lower school has a team of teachers with younger students in classes of ten. Fourth graders are in classes of sixteen. They use themes to investigate important ideas in science and social studies while integrating math, language and the arts and utilize the community with field trips and service projects. The school is modeled on Quaker principles and an online photo shows children making their weekly apple crisp to take to a nursing home.

Teachers offer an early morning math class for parents who are interested in helping with homework, including algebraic reasoning for 4th graders. Another parent math class is entitled “125 Ways to Teach Thinking.” Teachers emphasize the uniqueness of each child. Individual learning styles are respected and expected. Weekly “Morning Math” problems are shared with parents as well as extra similar problems.

The Lower school has a long relationship with ‘Martha’s Table,’ a center serving the homeless and low-income families. Early in the school year people from ‘Martha’s Table’ lead an assembly discussion on their organization. Every Wednesday students bring a vegetable from home and take turns making a 50 lb pot of soup that is then delivered to the center. Every third Saturday, a class and parents cooks together at ‘Martha’s Table.’ They also have a relationship with another school with which they collaborate for reading and art projects. In addition, they visit a senior citizen center.

In the Lower school students enjoy a technology rich curriculum. First and second graders learn Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, digital photography and Adobe Photoshop, math including the Graph Club, idea mapping with Kidspiration, beginning programming in GEO-LOGO and Internet safety ( The technology curriculum is further developed in third and fourth grades. A school representative states, “. . . we believe that the appropriate use of technology can enhance the ‘rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum,’ provide ways for our students ‘to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world without borders.”

Fifth and sixth graders focus on cooperation and student-initiated activities. Language arts and social studies are integrated and taught in homerooms using novels and writing with a Middle Ages theme. There is a rigorous physical education program, special classes for the arts, science and Spanish.
Seventh and eighth graders are grouped in teams of about ten students with an advisor. Seventh graders focus on American history and the 8th graders on the rise of civilizations along with all of the special programs.

Sidwell Friends is typical of other progressive schools. Progressive education has a clear set of principles originally defined by John Dewey. Teachers focus on the whole child – mind, body and spirit. Students are engaged in meaningful active learning, cooperating and collaborating with each other. They work for social justice in the community. Teachers listen to students and together they guide classroom activities within the curriculum guidelines. I am proud to have helped create and taught at a progressive school in Minneapolis that continues to be excellent after forty years.

Launa Ellison

Letter to the President

April 19th, 2009

Dear President Obama,letter-to-president

What do you want your beautiful little girls to learn at school this year? Our national curriculum is filled with facts to regurgitate. I pray that with your leadership, your Secretary of Education will change the focus of our public schools for thinking rather than memorizing.

In the last ten years, researchers have learned much about how our brains learn. To learn effectively, a child must have good nutrition. Will your team improve school breakfasts and lunch so children in poverty start the day with as much nutrition as Michele provides your girls? Too often, school breakfast is a sugary roll and chocolate milk and lunch is whatever is that day’s inexpensive government extras. Please ask your Secretary to investigate and make recommendations for improvement. The public knows little about school lunches because they aren’t in schools watching how children’s behaviors change due to foods. During my 40 years of teaching I helped numerous students get off of ADHD drugs and strengthen their academics by improving their nutrition.

When I began teaching so many years ago I was instructed to be strict, keep students quiet and in their seats so they could pay attention to the teacher’s lecture. We now know those are the worst possible ways to promote powerful learning! All processing begins in our reptilian brainstem area that scans for threats. It then moves to our emotional limbic area before going to the cerebral cortex. Students learn best when they feel relaxed but alert. Students’ brains will shut down if afraid and, like all of us, they want a caring respectful relationship. In my classroom, the first week was devoted to helping everyone know each other and become comfortable. Our brains are also social, thus there are many teamwork experiences and my classroom was full of purposeful chatter. There are many 1st week activities described in my book, Seeing with Magic Glasses.

Before we study any new curriculum, I ask my students to brainstorm what they already know about the topic. Our brains must connect to what they already know in order to learn the new. A good learning environment is not the textbooks our schools spend millions on, but rather rich, complex investigative experiences that pushes students’ search for meaning. A teacher models and guides but does not spoon feed. Students learn by doing science, understanding social studies issues or investigating math. Students use the skills of reading, writing and art to express their understandings. The Internet has enabled students not only to gain and evaluate information but also to connect with other students around the world. After presenting their ideas, students receive feedback from their peers and I make comments for parents. In my classroom, there was no need for traditional grades because parents are given weekly feedback. On Fridays, students wrote and drew about their week. I lookd at them briefly, initialed it and sent them home.

Most of our current schools have been narrowly defined as reading, writing and math instruction for the purpose of national testing, often eliminating exercise which has been documented to encourage learning. Dr. Howard Gardner’s research on Multiple Intelligences must be our model. Every school must honor all eight intelligences. The Intrapersonal Intelligence, that you model so well, is of primary importance. The development of a strong inner self, self-knowledge and self-management are the bedrock of a strong personality yet most teachers are not comfortable teaching children in these areas. Our teachers have not been trained to help children learn these skills. As an example, how will your administration address the need for directly teaching the Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Intelligences? My second book, The Personal Intelligences: Teaching Social and Emotional Learning, details how I taught my students in Minneapolis. I would be happy to ask my publisher to send you a copy.

Dear Mr. President, what you desire for your beautiful girls must be given to all the children in our country. While you and Michele have the skills to guide Milia and Sasha’s education there are so many parents struggling with poverty who do not. Our new Department of Education must take the responsibility. I look forward to knowing more about your programs and would be honored to help in any way.


Launa Ellison (Launa is one of the editors of this newsletter)