February Message from the Principal
Tue, Feb 13 8:51am
Walnut Acres Elementary

Happy Valentine’s Week to you, Walnut Acres parents!

I experienced an amazing early Valentine’s treat recently and thought I would share it with you, since you indirectly played a role. Last week I returned to our site following a tedious professional meeting full of bureaucratic but necessary conversations about policies, procedures, regulations, and financial woes. Feeling tired and worn, I trudged to my office abstractly considering how to apply new requirements to our site in a way that would not impede our work. And then my Valentine’s miracle happened. A little voice broke through my frustrated thoughts by shouting my second-favorite name in the world, “Hi, Mrs. Dr. Dowd!” I looked up with what was probably a scowl and was greeted by tablesful of lunch-eating children smiling expectantly and vigorously wiggling various extremities as they waved me over. I immediately felt a little better and approached the children, who eagerly asked me to look in a mouth where a tooth used to be, offered leg-height hugs, and animatedly described ladybug-catching plans for recess. When I finally turned back towards the office I felt energized and hopeful, grateful that the children had been eating outside, and thankful to you for sending them to Walnut Acres! They reminded me of why I love my job and of whom I strive to be professionally for them.

Your children are such a gift; every single one of them has unbounded potential. They are a Valentine’s miracle of love every single day, full of joy and endless possibility.

And what do we do with all that potential here at school? It is our intention to work as a team to teach our children to be happy lifelong learners. That means helping them master some basic cognitive abilities, like reading and writing effectively, as well as teaching basic social/emotional skills, such as identifying emotions and active listening. It also means teaching our children more sophisticated skills involving critical and creative thinking as well as collaboration, so they can process challenges and problem-solve to best serve their needs and those of their communities.

If you have been at Walnut Acres for a while you know that I am very proud of the work WE (and I mean every teacher and each parent who has participated in PFC fundraising/volunteering activities) have accomplished to help achieve our overarching goal of creating a more effectively differentiated, strengths-based, student-owned learning environment at our site.

  • Our Reading and Writing Workshop process has been a pivotal instructional component of our shift. It allows each teacher to provide strategies for becoming an excellent reader and writer while encouraging individual students to choose their next steps towards enhanced reading and writing skills.
  • Our design thinking structure has also been foundational in allowing us to pursue a growth mindset at our school. Through our instructional activities infusing the design process, our students understand that failure is to be celebrated as a step towards success, as long as one doesn’t stop when confronting inevitable failures along the way.
  • Our life skill focus continues to guide our efforts to support social and emotional learning at Walnut Acres. Our consistent Jaguar Rules, positive climate efforts, Sing-outs, and class circles all provide guidance schoolwide, while our chill-out zone, positive behavior plans, and counseling groups provide individualized opportunities for social skill development.

Since I am writing about life skills, please note two events this month:

  • We will hold an anti-bullying assembly by grade level on Wednesday, 2/21. The assembly is called “Bystanders to Upstanders,” and at each assembly our Soul Shoppe presenter will explain that when children bully it is because their “balloon is full.” The presenter will offer ways to empty balloons more successfully and talk to children about supporting one another at school. We will meet by grade level so that the presenter can tweak each presentation to the developmental age of the audience.
  • Our next Sing-out will take place on Wednesday, 2/28, and our topic is fairness.

Our daily curriculum supports life skills as well.

  • Our project-based learning (PBL) across grade-levels is another routine strategy for supporting our overarching goal by promoting student interests and teaching students the strengths and challenges of group work. PBL also offers powerful opportunities for reflection which promote student ownership and deeper understanding.
  • Our technology efforts support our goal as technology is infused more frequently and rigorously into daily instruction, with students using devices as consumers and producers. We also provide a focus on technology itself through digital citizenship classes, as well as routine coding opportunities and a small but burgeoning robotics program in the Colab.

We need more devices to support our growing technology infusion and we hope our Auction Fund-A-Need will address this challenge.

So, have we achieved our overarching goal with all these good processes in place?

No, there is more work to be accomplished. We will continue to hone our skills at implementing current strategies and we remain focused on two 2017-18 priority instructional practices.

  •  I have told you that we see the need to implement a more articulated, multi-sensory approach to phonics in our lower grades, and we are currently on target with our timeline to identify the right strategy for our children. We have rejected two potential programs at this point; we are piloting a third now, and we hope to preview and experiment with one more commercial program before making our decision about a Walnut Acres phonics support program. 
  • We are having ongoing conversations at the district level and at Walnut Acres about math. I have shared with you that we see the need for a more articulated, conceptual math approach. That was the topic of our site time yesterday afternoon during our Professional Development Day. We had a speaker from Silicon Valley Math Initiative (SVMI) here with us and moved our thinking forward. Our planning will continue.

Meanwhile, we are pleased with our routine implementation of Math Talks in every classroom  to support divergent thinking and conceptual understanding, and we are having success with math fluency using Reflex and other online and offline math games.

Our latest effort to introduce rigorous math learning that will support our overarching goal is our implementation of Problem of the Month (POM). POMs are non-routine math problems designed to be used schoolwide to promote a problem-solving theme across a school. Each problem is divided into five levels of difficulty, from Level A (primary) through Level E (high school), to allow access and scaffolding for students into different aspects of a problem and to stretch students to go deeper into mathematical complexity. The Problems of the Month were developed by SVMI and are aligned to the CA Standards.

You may have noticed the student posters taped on our playground sheds and along the eastern side of Wing B that proudly display student group work accomplished with our first number sense-themed POM, “Party Time.” We have recently started a new POM, “The Shapes of Things,” which focuses on geometrical investigation. Again, you are invited to review the visual display of our K-5th grade students’ thinking at the end of February.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Staff and students alike will continue growing and learning here are Walnut Acres. We are grateful that you help make that journey possible through your support and share that journey with us as dedicated parents.

I close with words of wisdom from Thomas Merton, who had many great insights about love. He wrote, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another.” Enjoy your Valentine’s Day and may you, like me, learn today and every day from your beautiful children!

Lucky Walnut Acres Principal,

Colleen Dowd