• Curriculum
  • field trip
  • high school
  • PBL
  • Progressive Education
  • Upper School
  • winterim

The Power of Field Trips to Transform Hearts and Minds

by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

Field trips provide rich, experiential opportunities that allow students to take in and engage with learning in multi-sensory ways. They have the power to expand the walls of the school and bring learning to life. Instead of only listening, discussing and/or reading, students experience the world. Students take an active role in their learning, doing so in their own way and at their own pace. As such, they experience the joy of exploration and the wonder of discovery. Sparhawk’s Winterim master class is an excellent example of the power of field trips to take learning to a higher level. It is also an excellent example of one of the things Sparhawk faculty do best: they create rich learning opportunities for students that push them to expand their hearts and minds.

In the interim between first and second semester (Winterim), Sparhawk students in grades 8-12 go on many of field trips! They travel locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Four years ago, we enhanced these trips by adding master class. Before this, students traveled for a week to ten days. The experience was wonderful, but the master class has added a rich new dimension by preparing them for what they will encounter and experience.

In a master class, teachers and students study topics of interest deeply all day, every day for the month of January. In contrast to a survey class, which is designed with a goal of achieving a broad but cursory understanding or skill, Winterim master classes are designed with the goal of deep learning in a specific area of focus.

To teach a master class well, teachers must dig in and develop their own deep understanding of the topic area first. Ideas for master classes often come from their past experiences or from their own curiosity, passions or interests. Teachers then guide students to develop a thorough understanding of the topic. The learning is then enriched with a field trip or trips that further expand their minds by exposing them to the world beyond the pages of a book and the walls of the classroom.

The experience of master class promotes growth in students not only intellectually and academically, but also socially and emotionally. And as faculty, we bear witness to this, which in turn impacts us as well. As one teacher describes “Winterim feeds my soul.”

Teachers remark that some of the best parts of Winterim are watching students discover something about themselves they didn’t know. For example, teachers in the fitness Winterim enjoyed working out alongside some of their self-proclaimed “non-athletic” students as the learned that practice and working hard allowed them to improve and excel beyond what they had imagined they could do. This shift in mindset can provide a powerful reminder of how perseverance can pay off in any challenging learning scenario.

Another example comes from teachers of the marine biology class, who were astounded by the power of field trips to teach when they saw how facile some students (who were never exposed to a snorkel before) became at differentiating between similar fish at the species level in a very short time. It is hard to imagine any pneumonic device, flash cards or drills that could achieve the same result.

The concentrated and extended time with a smaller group of our students also allows us to be present for many joyful and poignant “aha” moments (when we believe we see sparks jump and a student’s mind or heart is forever altered). Below I compile a few of these moments from Winterim 2019:

Sparhawk students who studied the history and culture of New Orleans landed and began their trip by helping rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth District of New Orleans. In the classroom, they had learned that homes in this district were largely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (the year some of the students in the class were born). As a result of their work rebuilding houses, our students discovered and experienced injustice on a very personal level and in a way that is mind and life altering.

The teacher put down his hammer to text me about the “birth of a social justice warrior.” When one student, who lives a very privileged life, met the people of the Lower Ninth Ward and realized they were rebuilding their homes one nail and one board at a time, without any formal government assistance, he looked at his teacher and pleaded “No one is helping them. We have to do something.” As educators, this transformation and deep emotional connection with learning is something we cannot achieve without an experience. It provided students with personal moments with other humans who they come to know. It is our Credo in action: treating others with the kindliness they deserve. These connections impact our students for the rest of their lives.

Another student after exploring the ancient ruins of Rome, seeing Medieval “high rises” of San Gimignano, and many other wonders across Italy, sat staring at Michelangelo’s David in Florence and remarked to his teacher “Oh my God, this is so worth the hype. It is as amazing as they say it is.”

These goose-bump provoking moments are not limited only to students who travel the world. Walking by a math classroom turned woodshop, I marveled at the joy and total engagement of every student in the room. Inspired by local trips to see and learn about colonial architecture, they milled around busily cutting, sanding and shaping popsicle sticks into models, complete with features that they excitedly explained served both form and function.

The students in the mural arts master class, spent the month planning, proposing a mural and then creating, glazing and firing tiles and finally tiling a wall in the school. One day, I witnessed as a mural arts student stepped back from the mosaic work unfolding on the wall before her as she whispered “Wow, this is going to make our school really special.” Oh what a feeling to be, not only reading about their world, but also experiencing and transforming it with their hands before their very eyes! I hope these anecdotes provide another dimension to the picture that is emerging in your mind’s eye of how very transformative Winterim master classes and field trips are for our students.

After four years of master classes, this year I believe we have hit our stride. Winterim 2019 Master Classes were awe inspiring! Here are some facts and figures: master classes this year included “deep dives” into Renaissance art and history, New England colonial architecture, mural arts, marine biology, the history and culture of New Orleans and fitness. We did so much: we connected, created, competed, snorkeled, explored, marveled, bonded and got fit. We learned new skills and tried new foods; we mentored; we helped; we laughed, we made friends; we shed tears; we experienced new cultures and we pushed our boundaries. We traveled to local cities like Portland (Maine), Lynn, Lowell, Ipswich, Salem and New Bedford. We traveled nationally to New Orleans and internationally to Belize City, Dublin, Rome, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano and Venice. We collectively clocked around 35,000 miles in cars, buses, trains, planes and boats and walked hundreds more miles on foot.

On January 25th, faculty and staff of the Upper School gathered, as we always do on  professional days, to share breakfast before starting the day. Along with the smell of sausage and waffles, the kitchen was filled with excited voices relating stories, sharing their “aha” moments, joys, challenges and new insights into the hearts, minds and characters of our students. I am proud of the work we do and honored to be part of this community of lifelong learners. I can hardly wait to see what is in store for Winterim 2020. Our vision couldn’t be brighter.

To learn more about the power of field trips to provide access to learning and spur cognitive, socio-emotional, and academic growth read:

Behrendt, M. & Franklin, T. (Jul 2008). A Review of Research on School Field Trips and Their Value in Education. In International Journal of Environmental & Science Education. V3, 3 (9) pp. 235-245. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1031445.pdf

Berer, S. (Apr 15 2015). The Benefits Of Learning Through Field Trips. In TeachThought. Retrieved from https://www.teachthought.com/learning/the-benefits-of-learning-through-field-trip

Green, J. P., Kisida B, Bowen, D.H. (2014). The Educational Value of Field Trips. In (14)1. https://www.educationnext.org/the-educational-value-of-field-trips/

Kulas, M. (n.d.) What are the Benefits of Field Trips for Children? In Livestrong.com. Retrieved from https://www.livestrong.com/article/127612-benefits-field-trips-children/

Meg. (2018) Benefits of Field Trips. In Explorable Places. Retrieved from https://www.explorableplaces.com/blog/the-benefits-of-field-trips

  • connections
  • elementary school
  • experiential education
  • place based learning

The Value of Place Based Fieldtrips

by Sarah Guard, Lower School Teacher

You may have noticed that we love to take field trips here at Sparhawk School, from preK to High School we give students real-life enriching experiences that relate to our school-wide theme. Whether it's a trip to a museum in Boston or a walk down the local bike path these place-based learning opprortunities offer windows into the real world that a classroom does not.

Last year, the children in my class were eager to learn about pumpkins. To foster this enthusiasm I decided to take the children on a field trip to a local farm that had a pumpkin patch. I wanted to show the children where the life of a pumpkin begins, give them an opportunity to touch and feel a real pumpkin plant and to meet a farmer so they could ask questions. This field trip sparked excitement and provided the children with an opportunity to learn through experience.

The Sparhawk Lower School theme for the year is "Connections." To provide our PreK and Kindergarten students with a community connection we have teamed up with the Greenleaf Day Program at the local Amesbury Senior Center. The children will be taking multiple field trips over to the center to "connect" with the seniors who attend this program. Our first visit provided a festive time where the children and the seniors sang, danced, and read together. They also brought cookies to share with their new friends and seniors attending the program presented each child with handmade ornaments. This rewarding place based fieldtrip offers a real-life window into our local community that the children may not otherwise experience.

These two examples are just a small insight into the many out of school trips we provide. As a teacher and parent here at Sparhawk, I have seen first-hand the incredible educational impact that place-based learning has on our children.  Learning through experience, gives our students tangible context to navigate the world around them.

  • experiential education
  • fieldtrips
  • place based learning
  • clubs
  • robotics
  • team
  • Upper School

Sparhawk High School Robotics Kickoff

by Jennifer Esty & Nate Velluto, Robotics Coaches & Upper School Teachers

Robotics season starts January 5th, 2019 but Carriagetown Robotics have been working hard since July to prepare.  The theme this year is Deep Space.  Our competitions are scheduled to be:

                        March 16-17 at Reading, MA High School

                        March 23-24 at Revere, MA High School

The Software team attended a boot camp one weekend in July and have been getting together every few weeks with local FRC teams as part of the North Shore FIRST Software Alliance (NSFSA).  In December they visited WPI to meet with the FIRST library manager and came away with great insight into software architecture, new tools to help build software faster and of course, a tour of WPI!

The Build team inventoried and organized fasteners (AKA as sort the bolts and nuts) and invited in representatives from NEEF, a local 80/20 supplier.  Their 80/20 cart was impressive and allowed the team to see new fastening techniques and get ideas for this season.

The Drive team has been practicing and testing out software on our new driver training robot.  The goal is to continue to update this robot (hardware and software) so driver training can continue while our competition robot is built.

The Business team has been busy fundraising, finding sponsors and planning finances.  Their success includes funding from Merrimac Tool, Test Equipment Depot, a Grant from FIRST sponsors, Amesbury Youth Services and, hopefully, Analog Devices.  Our fee is paid and we are able to purchase items to build the robot!  They won’t rest though, as they work to secure next year’s fee in the bank!

The Scouting team is working behind the scenes to create a new scouting system!!  It will be tested starting in January allowing Carriagetown the ability to collect data on matches and provide summaries live for the Drive Team!  

Many of our girls attending the FIRST Women in Technology conference at FIRST headquarters in Manchester, NH.  The speakers were inspiring and the panel discussions gave great insight into career options.  One member even decided to change her career path after the day!

Part of the Business team our logo and all things visual, Colin Elmer has completed his last logo as a team member.  We are excited to use this on our new “spirit wear” which will debut in January.

Drop in the Maker Space 1/7 – 2/19 to see the progress on this year’s robot!!  Thanks again to our sponsors and supports.


  • first robotics
  • robotics club
  • clubs
  • middle school
  • project based learning
  • robotics

FIRST Things First: Where Our Robotics Program Begins

By Mitch McDonald, Junior Robotics Coach and Upper School Math Teacher

Many of our lifelong passions are spurred when we are young, when our imagination runs wild with all the possibilities that lie before us.  Childlike wonder injects a thirst for knowledge that cannot be underestimated. This year’s FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition plays right into the hand of that wonder and amazement. The theme, Into Orbit, challenges students to provide food to astronauts, maneuver rovers, and extract pieces of the moon’s core. After constructing, satellites, equipment, and our miniature sized astronauts, our team will attempt 15 challenges that work all problem solving centers of the brain. We hope to showcase our skills at local robotics exhibitions in the area this spring.

Our season consists of two phases, the build season and our challenge season. In our build season our team well...builds. Working together to ensure accuracy and to save time, our team constructs each apparatus that we will need in order to attempt the challenges to come. During this process each member’s patience is tested as we get further into this part of the season. The fun of building starts to die down and the desire to start the challenges burns greater. As the build season comes to a close, we put down the proverbial hammer and nails and begin to work with Lego Mindstorms and flex our programming muscles.

In the challenge season, we get to work on the missions at hand. Students will work together in teams to attempt these challenges to obtain the maximum point values possible. There are penalties for having to pick up and manually move your robot and for missing drop zones. Each challenge will reward great work but also allow for partial credit if they make minor mistakes. This teaches them a valuable lesson that you need to focus on the mission at hand and revise and improve strategies later to be more successful in the future. That being said, in the real world if a rover were to collect and transmit important data, only to explode shortly thereafter, it still accomplished the mission. These interesting facts lead us to debates on what is critical to the mission, how to safely ensure the rovers return, and how to program said robot.

While FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, Carriagetown Robotics, readies themselves for what is certain to be another exciting season, we are laying the foundation for the program for years to come with our outstanding Junior Robotics members. The excitement and joy they bring to our meetings each week inspires me that here at Sparhawk we are accomplishing our mission. At our Upper School the credo (Mission Statement) is what drives our community every day. The first line reads, “Sparhawk Students are willing to learn”. While that is a worthy goal, true mastery and happiness comes when that learning becomes fun, encrusted with passion, and the true childlike wonder that our team has. Keep an eye out for a chance to see our team in action this spring!

  • first robotics
  • FRC
  • lego league
  • robotics
  • middle school
  • pbl
  • project based learning

Hands & Minds-On  Applying Knowledge to Real Life

By Diane Hichborn, Middle School Teacher & Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

At Sparhawk Middle School, “minds-on” learning turns to Project-based Learning opportunities whenever possible. Sparhawk Middle School students apply their knowledge of this year’s science curriculum; forces and motion, towards two project-based learning units this year so far; the Science of Rocketry and Data Arcade Sportslab.

During class time our young scientists learn about action and reaction forces, thrust, trajectory, and experimenting with velocity and gravity by building and shooting off air-propelled paper rockets. They were able to experiment with fin design and placement to see how it affects the rocket’s flight path. Our second project based learning venture is the Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge, which we will continue to work on until mid January.

In fact, while the High School students are delving into their annual Winterim Session during January, middle school students will be spending their days taking deep dives into various academic areas. In these PBLs, they will be exploring Castles, Catapults, and Cathedrals, exploring a variety of cultures and romance languages, learning about geometry and finishing their design of a new Parkour shoe. Below are the descriptions of the January PBL courses for Middle School this year:

Castles, Catapults, and Cathedrals

Driving question: What effective architectural designs protect castles from a siege? Using that knowledge, can we build a better catapult to effectively siege a castle?

Our Language Arts and History classes will be joining thematic forces in this unit where students are immersed in the dark, yet exciting days of the Middle Ages with knights in shining armor, dragons, catapults flinging Greek fire into the air towards enemy castles and the ominous Gothic cathedrals that took center stage in the medieval townscape. Students will learn about the prominent characteristics and driving forces behind the architecture the Middle Ages. They will select a castle or cathedral to research its design and history. Each student will then create an historic fiction short story where they take on the role of themselves living in the feudal system. The castle or cathedral that they researched will be a major part of the setting for their story in which they will incorporate descriptive details from their research. Models and “stained glass” windows will be constructed to help illustrate each project. This unit will culminate with building catapults, learning how a castle siege works, and then actually using our catapults to siege a ‘castle’.

Geometry is Just Plane Fun

Driving question: How can we use geometry useful to design a Medeival castle or cathedral?

Sir Cumference and Lady Di Ameter will take our young mathematicians on a journey to geometry for the month of January. Geometry is all about shapes and their properties. In this unit, we will have fun learning about plane geometry; flat shapes, lines, and angles, as well as solid geometry, which is about three- dimensional objects like cubes, prisms, and cylinders. Students will become familiar with the terminology of many angles and shapes, plot coordinates on the coordinate plane and learn how the world around us is greatly driven by geometry: shapes, scale, patterns, parallel line, perpendicular lines, and angles. In combination with what they learn in the Castles, Catapults and Cathedrals PBL above, students will learn to use architectural tools to design and draw the plans of their own castles and cathedrals.

Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge:

Driving question: Is it possible to create a new and improved parkour shoe?

In January, students will complete the Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge that they have started in science in the fall. Data Arcade Sportslab Challenge project is (a National Science Foundation funded research project designed by TERC) is a game-based design challenge. Students do work online (learning about the sport) and hands-on in the classroom (design, testing, etc.). They work on teams to collaborate, plan and track their progress through the on-line tool as they collect data, engage in design activities, and pitch deliverables (design of a new shoe). Students also watch and interview real athletes in action.

Students use what they are learning in the Forces and Motion unit of our science program. They test the coefficient of friction on many sneaker outsoles and test how the force of jumping affects the design of the sneaker’s midsole. After interviewing each other, teams work together to build models of sneakers that enhance the shoelace tying experience. Last year, one team used biomimicry to do away with the laces using an octopus-like strap that secured the sneaker with suction cups.  Through the process, each student creates their own deliverables and then joins forces collaboratively in designing a final product that best illustrates their team’s exploration of the anatomy of sporting footwear.

A Little Mix of Spain and France

Driving question: How are food, language and culture interconnected in Spain and France?

Students will shift from learning Mandarin for the month of January to getting a taste of both Spanish and French languages and food. Two mini classes will allow our middle-schoolers the exploration of foods and language in Spain or France. Students will begin by independently researching traditional foods. Then they will come together to share their findings and choose the foods that they’re going to prepare as a class. The class’ meal will be comprised of key elements such as an appetizer, salad, main course and dessert. Next, they will break into small groups, and each group will have a target-language recipe corresponding to their particular dish to follow. After the final meal, students will journal and describe the foods, compare and contrast the foods and cultures and discuss which types of food and preparation they enjoyed.  

  • experiential education
  • middle school
  • PBL
  • Project Based LEarning
  • elementary school
  • experiential education
  • lower school
  • pbl
  • progressive education
  • project based learning

Sparhawk Pizza Company: Project-based learning in the Upper Elementary

By Lisa Hughes, Lower School Teacher

We Sparhawk parents know the real value of Pizza Fridays: it’s one day out of your busy week in which lunch is covered. My sympathies are with those whose children can’t or won’t eat pizza on Friday, and, as the Pizza Company faculty liaison at the Lower Campus, I sincerely wish we could order a grand buffet of options, both hot and cold, for students to enjoy. It’s just not possible.

But I digress...I’m here to talk about how the fourth and fifth graders know a different value in regards to Pizza Fridays - that it is hard work that must be accomplished with grace and care. And, since it’s been a tradition at Sparhawk for over 15 years, Pizza Friday is tradition to value as a right of passage in the upper elementary. It is something to take seriously!

So, when you or your child signs up for 2 slices of cheese on a Thursday morning, or when you are scrounging once again to put together a couple of bucks to stash in your child’s lunchbox (you certainly don’t need another IOU this week!), just know that a little piece of that tradition is continuing on with your consumerism. You are keeping a little tiny and important business afloat!

To help paint the picture, as it were, of the behind-the-scenes activity that goes on each Pizza Friday, here’s a quick rundown...remember, we teachers consider Pizza Friday “project-based learning”, and therefore it must include the following elements: Role-playing, Authentic assessments, Authentic audiences, Real-world expertise brought into the classroom, Student choice & Collaboration (among many other things)!

Here goes -

9:00 - The “Pizza Friday” song is sung in the Village Meeting. There’s nothing like a chant to drum up support from your customers. I do a little dance and everyone cheers. Good fun.

10:15 - The Fifth grade math class tallies the spreadsheet orders and calculates cost, including tip. The call to the restaurant must accommodate each and every student’s order in the number of pies requested (hopefully with extra slices, in case of students without a lunch)

12:15 - The pizza is delivered and money exchanges hand. The fourth and fifth grade classes trade off responsibilities - one month, a class is serving, the other is on clean-up duty. The next month it switches.

Student jobs include cashier, server, orderer and juice-maker. We need a crew just to serve the Woodsview population, and the rest handle the Farm building. Everyone gets their choice of job and is encouraged to try new jobs over the course of the year.

12:25 - The customers arrive, hungry, excited, noisy, throwing money at us. Believe or not, a lot of the hard work is in getting children to remember to grab their change! The order for each child is called out, the appropriate number of slices is put on the plate, complete with cloth napkin. Money is exchanged and assistance is given to the younger children who may struggle with carrying a cup of juice with a plate. No one needs their slices to hit the floor. The stress level is very high during the lunch rush, and the pizza employees really need to keep their cool under pressure. Focus is expected. The teachers monitor and critique the work ethic of the pizza employees during this time - anyone slacking off or fooling around may find themselves out of a job soon enough. Customer service is paramount, and there is no touching your hair or itching your nose!

1:00 - The customers head out to recess and the clean up crew arrives. IOUs are written out and taped to lockers. The floors are swept, cash box is returned to the office, the boxes are recycled and our reusable plates and cups are rinsed and head into the dishwasher. Paula Renda has the best clean up boot camp I have ever seen. No wonder - she is the oldest of six girls after all!

And this happens almost every Friday throughout the year. We also revisit the pizza options in the Amesbury area each fall, complete with cost comparison and blind taste test. As you can see, Pizza Friday is a whole piece of our upper elementary curriculum that stands on its own.

So thank you, again, if you are a dedicated customer to our little business. Each year, we make enough money  to feed our students week to week, take a trip to Canobie Lake in June, and use the remaining funds to purchase something new for the playground, be it dodge balls or climbing elements. Here’s to you, and to those hard-working Sparhawk students dedicated to keeping the Pizza Friday tradition alive for another year - Mangia!

  • elementary school
  • experiential education
  • PBL
  • private school
  • project based
  • cooperative
  • Curriculum
  • PBL
  • Progressive Education
  • Upper School

Project-based Learning and Sparhawk’s Curricular Approach

By Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

Sparhawk has a long history of favoring hands-on learning. Hands-on learning becomes minds-on learning as children move from concrete to more abstract thinking. Minds-on learning at middle & high school, takes the shape of driving questions to be answered and problems to be solved.

I’m happy to say that I see the fruits of students’ labors every day as they transfer the skills they are gaining in PBL to other aspects of their lives, in the poise as they talk to adults, the confidence with which they carry themselves, the capacity for working through problems and the skillfulness as they propose and pitch new ideas. PBL is only one of the many facets of Sparhawk’s overall program that seeks to build critical and creative thinking skills in students who can also collaborate and communicate effectively.

At Sparhawk High School, Project-based Learning (PBL) is done in classes throughout the semester, but in addition, we dedicate a large portion of Friday afternoons to PBL with the sole purpose of developing 21st century workplace skills.

Faculty begin the development of “PBL’s” by developing a compelling driving question. Some PBL questions focus on the theme for the semester and others are problems of today or issues being discussed in the news. Since personal choice is the first step toward deep engagement (an important component of good learning), students choose one of those questions during course selection each semester.

Each week on Friday, high school faculty help students hone their 21st century skills as a means of answering the driving question. Students make decisions on the process, on the way it should be assessed and on the product to be developed. They work together, pitch ideas to peers and mentors, develop solutions, iterate products and end by communicating the results to an authentic audience of parents and community members.

As the director, my favorite days at Sparhawk are the days when we, as a school, get ready for the PBL Community Presentation Night. The halls are filled with engaged and active learners as they put the finishing touches on their projects. The afternoons are spent presenting and critiquing.

On November 29th, we held our Fall 2018 PBL Community Presentation Night. If you were in our audience, you saw some polished products, but you also saw and heard students reflect on the process they went through. We feel both are important. Since hindsight is 20/20, students learn as much, if not more, from reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work. So we applaud both successful products as well as good reflections. I’m proud to say that this semester’s PBL presentations were some of the best I have seen in the time I have been here. Below are the courses and driving questions students worked to answer during the fall semester:

Children’s Literature

Driving Question: How do professional authors craft meaningful children’s picture books?

In this PBL, students worked in small groups to storyboard and draft children’s books. Groups chose to teach, motivate, or expose children to bigger concepts and worked to craft their story with that goal in mind. After spending the semester creating their own books, they will take them to the Lower School to test them on young students.


Chad is Sad by Nate Elmer, Atticus Chiasson, and Joseph Shannon

The Problem with Ploos by Sabina McLaughlin, Lauren Rochford and Eunwon (Kiley) Huang

The Adventures of Tee and the Cavity King by Vincent Brogan, Guanshujin (Jarvis) Yang and Clementine Cashmore

Faculty mentor: Nate Velluto

Ancient Sailing and Seafarers

Driving question: How did geographical locations/problems influence advances in technology, navigation methods, and the way different societies solved problems common to water travel?

In this PBL, students looked at how and why seafaring peoples ventured onto the deep blue sea, for trade, adventure, and/or conquest. Teams of students looked at how environments and situations influenced technological advances, navigation methods and more. They considered how different societies solved problems common to water travel: stability, buoyancy, movement, and direction. They also examined the technology and physics of sailing while building their own sail cars that move upwind.


Phoenicia Ancient Sailing & Seafaring by Annika Ainsworth, Natalya, Rowan Brennan,and Yifei (Heidi) He

Ancient Chinese Vessels - Strummer Barr, Sam Dellea, Richard Lally, Chase Sweet and Jonah Smith

Hokulea the Great(Hawaii) by Nora Hickey,Samantha Jordan, Sivan Kotler-Berkowitz, Olivia Riley, and Madi Whitlock

Faculty mentors: Bob DeLibero and Jennifer Esty

Next Stop . . .  

Driving question: Can television be an intellectual medium?

In this PBL, students watched the genre-bending classic The Twilight Zone and analyzed the show through both a cinematic and philosophical lens. They considered how to create compelling, watchable drama while also exploring vast and thorny ideas. Finally, students worked on teams to produce their own Twilight Zone episodes, either in homage or spoof of the source material.


Solitude- Jacob Adamsky, Sarah Cox, Richie Labritz, and Jonah Thompson

Live Without -Dyani Monclova, Charlotte Strovink, LiAm Wexelblat, and Lyupin (Sway) Xu

Where am I?- Ryan Brennan, Jackson Musial,Will Tessmer,, and Yuxuan (Kevin) Zhen

Faculty Mentors: Lee Ford and Casey Wright


Beauty of Acceptance

Driving Question: How has the idea of beauty in America changed over the last hundred years? How has it differed for different groups based on lines of race, gender, and class? Who has benefited from these ideals, and who has suffered?

Students will research the roots of Beauty that trace back to ancient Greece, and chart its evolution in American society through the last hundred years. They will apply a critical and intersectional lens to the concept of beauty in order to examine its impact on the individual and society. Students will produce a documentary film that they will present in two showings to a live audience that answers these questions and poses new ones.

Research and Project Team:

Yamilette Espada, Téa Flach, Yifei (Heidi) He, Lydia May-Broyles, Parker Rogers, Anayah Tejada, Anna Tessmer, Huiru (Sarah) Zhang and Yanan Zhang

Faculty mentor: Eric Schildge

Sparhawk Geographic

Driving Question: Can we create a magazine that depicts the nature and history of the surrounding areas?

In this PBL, students spent the semester creating their own National Geographic-type online magazine of the surrounding areas. They picked topics and pitched them to the magazine executives. Once approved students became journalists, editors, photojournalists or designers. They worked on an "editorial team" to edit each other's articles and worked to formulate the final product: Sparhawk Geographic

Article Locales:

Parker RiverWildlife Refuge by Kaiwen (Kevin) Chen, Tianshi (Tony) Li and Chloe Weiss-Curry

Sparhawk School History by Leticia Baptiste, Jacob Foti, and Lyndsay Morris

Arrowhead Farm by Matthew Lichtenberg, Maia Panthera-Allen, Maritza Ramirez

Faculty mentors: Joanna Tomah & Dana Nuenighoff

I’m happy to say that I see the fruits of students’ labors every day as they transfer the skills they are gaining in PBL to other aspects of their lives in the poise as they talk to adults, the confidence with which they carry themselves, the capacity for working through problems and the skillfulness as they propose and pitch new ideas. PBL is only one of the many facets of Sparhawk’s overall program that seeks to build critical and creative thinking skills in students who can also collaborate and communicate effectively.

  • PBL
  • Project Based LEarning
  • sparhawk high school
  • Curriculum
  • PBL
  • Progressive Education
  • Upper School

Excellence in Education - Assessment at Sparhawk Upper School

by Yvonne Domings, Director of Sparhawk Upper School

The purpose of assessment in any form is to look for evidence of learning. It is an integral part of teaching. Yet, in common parlance, the word “assessment” has a negative connotation due to the rise of the use of standardized assessment. At Sparhawk, we believe that assessment should be as varied and dynamic as the process of learning. In one moment or in one day, it would be impossible to measure what we, at Sparhawk, value most: the child’s process of learning how to think both creatively and critically in service of developing themselves. Rather than a snapshot, Sparhawk assessments capture a collage of the learner as a whole, multi-faceted person on a path toward lifelong learning.   

We begin curriculum design by setting the destination of where we want students to end up. In the same way that GPS would be useless if you don’t set a destination before you begin, creative and varied assessments are not effective if they don’t focus on a goal. Teachers ask, what skills do I want my students to gain and big ideas do I want my students to explore? The answer differs for different students at different ages and stages of development. So before designing projects and instruction, teachers ask themselves what “evidence of learning” could look like. It is at that point, that they begin to design clear expectations and guidelines that will eventually be communicated to students.

Like a GPS that continuously checks progress toward a goal and makes adjustments, good teachers are constantly asking questions, checking in and observing their students ability to participate purposefully in class, reflect upon their own process, produce meaningful notes, benefit from a socratic seminar or work on a team to solve a complex problem. These “formative” assessments are like litmus tests that guide the teacher to effectively respond to the needs of the different learners in the group. Formative assessments also keep instruction interesting yet focused on the goal. In doing so, it is easy to give varied learners choice and latitude in way they will be assessed.

As a progressive school, teacher and learners often co-design summative or “end-of-course” assessments. These less often include a traditional test of skill and understanding, and more often include measures that provide evidence of growth and development of deep learning. Evidence of deep learning can come in varied forms such as the ability to apply math and science concepts to a complex problem, to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills in a piece of analytical writing, to perform of a monologue or create a piece of new media (video, blog). In the end, teacher and learner reflect both formally and informally not only on the content, but also on the process and the end result.

During the final semester of senior year, students prepare for their final assessment at Sparhawk: Graduation by Exhibition. Graduation by Exhibition is a final reflection on themselves as a learner. Seniors spend the spring semester going through old papers and projects and considering themselves as a younger, less mature learner. They ask themselves: How did I develop into the learner I am now, what worked and didn’t for me and how can I use this information in the future. This can be a challenging process, but one that we value as a means of setting our graduates up well for the next phase of education. Graduation by Exhibition culminates in a review of the portfolio with a faculty of choice and their advisor. The result is an introspective look at who they have become: multi-faceted, competent learners. This is a joyful moment for our students and one that we celebrate as a school as each senior completes the process. This reflection is the ultimate example of assessment at Sparhawk, a dynamic assessment of the learner, by the learner and shared with the entire community.

*Standardized assessment is a large-scale test that measures a student’s understanding as compared to a norm or an academic standard. The widespread use of standardized tests began to rise after the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” suggested that the poor performance of US students on standardized tests when compared to international peers put the US at risk of economic failure.

  • assessment
  • progressive
  • sparhawk high school
  • sparhawk middle school
  • connections
  • lower school
  • progressive education

Creativity at the Heart of Progressive Education

by Suzanne Atkins, Director of Sparhawk Lower School

Our global world is rapidly changing and we have no idea what it will look like five years from now, let alone when our students will be adults.  As the educational pendulum has swung radically over the last thirty years, one is left to question what truly is best practice. How then can we best prepare our children for the unpredictability of the future?

As with many ideologies, extremism is often not the answer and particularly in a time of rapid change and growth. At Sparhawk we believe that progressive education is not just one thing, but a fabric of interwoven beliefs that support and complement one another. One core belief that drives our mission is that of creativity.  To some this word may simply conjure up artists, and while we have a high regard for and a very strong arts program, in reality tapping into one's creativity is at the heart of all learning within progressive education.

In an age where many schools are forced to squelch creativity as teachers are pressured to teach to a test, (Do Schools Kill Creativity - Ken Robinson) at Sparhawk we are doing the opposite.  We are celebrating the process, we are excited about what mistakes can teach us and our students not only use their creativity as a vehicle to learning, but also as a way of showing their learning.  There is often no one right way and so we value the individual’s desire and ability to do things differently and not as necessarily prescribed. This is true in all areas of focus where we foster the innovative spirit and a willingness to face challenges, make mistakes, think creatively and approach questions and issues from multiple perspectives. These qualities can only spring from a creative mindset (The Power of Progressive Education: Can Creativity be Taught? | The New School).

From an early age, children ask thousands of “why” questions. We respond with, “what do you think” or “how can we find out?” We want to foster this intellectual audacity from a very early age. We also greatly value play and ample time outdoors. Children are intrinsically motivated to explore and to experiment.  Just watch our third graders building a city in the sand box, there is intent in the process and careful thought put into the integrity of the structures. Witness the fourth graders digging a long trench in order to divert the water flow in certain ways. No one asked them to take on these tasks and yet they attend themselves with great concentration and commitment to the task. There are social roles being played out in the process as well, negotiating responsibilities and taking turns at leadership. Back in the classroom, their joy in learning continues in collaboration, experimentation and hands on experiences.

On the lower school campus one of the greatest examples of how creativity plays out every week is when the Kindergarten through Fifth Graders gather in their “family” groups to explore the year long theme, which this year is Connections. Weekly a pair of teachers put a tremendous amount of time and energy into creating an experience that will lead to student inquiry and which will naturally include multiple disciplines while students are asked to figure questions out through “doing”. Never the same and always deeply interactive, these experiences are often among the most memorable. Recently we had a fourth grade student visiting from another school who was here during theme time.  At the end of the day, he reported that never had he enjoyed a day at school so much and that he could not believe how much he learned in one short day, especially at theme time. Creative education at its best!

  • community time
  • progressive education
  • sparhawk school
  • Academic
  • experiential education
  • holistic
  • school environment


By Casey Wright, Upper School Teacher

When the industrial revolution was in its heyday between 1760 and 1840, social scientists began to look at medicine and education through the lens of a “machine model.”  Bodies were seen as mechanical systems, with cures developed based on “fixing a broken machine.”  Similarly, education was seen as an accretive process – constructing machines along an assembly line in order to have a completed and predictable mechanism ready for distribution within society upon graduation.

During the past 40 years or so, enlightened physicians and educators, realizing that a mechanical model of physical and mental development is neither accurate nor appropriate, began to question the comparison between machine assembly and the complexities of the human spirit.  Sparhawk School has long championed the concept of education that presumes each child enters its doors as a fully-functioning and successful individual, equipped to engage with and to benefit humanity.  Each day is a revelation of confidence, intellect and creativity within all of us within the Sparhawk community.  In many ways, however, these foundational assumptions run contrary to the normal accretive process in other schools – teachers filling empty minds with formulaic information, so that students enter society as homogenous contributors suited to a “one size fits all” world.

At Sparhawk we utilize a holistic approach that allows students to express their inherent intellect and grow into unique and contributing citizens. Those of us fortunate enough to witness this learning in progress serve as catalysts to a process that is as natural as the blooming of a flower.  In my math classes, students work in groups to explore new concepts, while searching for real-world applications.

Utilizing thinking practiced in Finland and other countries, I use class time to collaborate with students as they explore new math concepts, practice processes, learn equations and formulae, and challenge textbook assumptions.  Having worked hard within class, students are not expected to dedicate their evenings to additional practice.  Rather, students are encouraged to rest up, enjoy family time, and allow their brains to wrestle with and accommodate the new concepts.  In this way, they return to school refreshed and ready to contribute new ideas that they have contemplated (often subconsciously) during their time at home.

In addition to the social and educational facilities and programs, Sparhawk maintains a chapter of the National Honor Society (NHS), for which I serve as adviser.  Our NHS chapter recognizes students who have demonstrated excellence in scholarship, leadership, character and service – qualities spoken of in the Sparhawk Credo as essential to the development of contributing citizens.  The Sparhawk educational model is the perfect platform for incubating student tendencies toward excellence befitting of membership in NHS, and we encourage all students to strive toward consideration for admission in this active and fun chapter.

Education should be a joyous and fearless exploration by students and teachers as they progress through the wonderful adventure of life.  That adventure begins with a clear understanding that we each possess a natural and lifelong inclination toward learning.  Teachers and students are encouraged to discuss, explore, question and grapple with ways to utilize our individual and unique mental gifts to contribute to a more beneficial existence for all humanity.  The continuous questioning of modes and methods outgrown, the exploration of new concepts yet to be considered and the joyful partnership between those of us tasked with presenting ideas and those who have previously not contemplated them, is the reason I am so grateful for each new day at Sparhawk School.


  • experiential education
  • Hands-on learning
  • the arts

Open Studios | Connecting Our Community

by Jen Silver, Director of Marketing 

We just wrapped up our fourth annual Open Studios weekend here at Sparhawk School, and it was spectacular.  Four years ago, we hitched our star to Amesbury Cultural Council's Open Studio Weekend, a town wide arts event, as a way of creating a deeper connection between our school and the community as a whole. Each November we welcome families from far and wide into our school to ideate, build, create, explore, interact with and participate in art.

Traditionally, Open Studios artists are showcasing their artwork, gallery style, for patrons to view, appreciate and perhaps purchase.  These events often keep the attendees at bay however, with little interaction with the art process outside of observation; Enter studio, talk to artist, ask a question, observe, but DON'T TOUCH.  In creating our version of Open Studios, we were really looking to turn this concept on it's head.  Our entire event is designed to fully engage our attendees in the experience of making art.

We begin planning Open Studios activities months in advance, assembling Pinterest boards with inspiration.  Each event typically has at least one sculpture and mural activity as well as several smaller scale process-based options that are designed to engage humans of all ages.  This year we adopted the Lower School's theme of Connections for Open Studios.  Each activity tied back to this theme to showcase how we are all connected to our family, friends, community, world and galaxy.  

Our activities included:

  • Sol Lewitt inspired Human Connections Mural
  • Sumi Ink Club Collaborative mural
  • Geometric String Art Sculpture
  • Louise Nevelson inspired Monochromatic "My Family" Sculpture Boxes
  • Galaxy Charm Necklaces
  • Ojo de Dios Sculpture
  • Dreamcatchers
  • Teddy Bear Rollout Printmaking

Like most events at Sparhawk, Open Studios would never be possible without the incredible contributions from our community.  We extend a huge thanks to our students, teachers and parents for their generous donation of time and materials.  Many thanks to all of our incredible attendees as well, we had a blast making some really cool art with you!  

  • art
  • experietial education
  • Open Studios
  • process-based learning

Experiencing Personal & Team Success in High School Athletics

by Jennifer Esty, Sparhawk Upper School Teacher & Athletics Director

High School level athletics have been offered to Sparhawk students for three years.  The program started with one student in a fall sport and now has grown to six students in all seasons (fall, winter,spring) on teams at three local schools and is growing each season.  Sparhawk provides opportunities to students athletes by joining with other local schools in a cooperative team arrangement through the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA). 

Joining the MIAA was in response to a few students requesting the opportunity to participate in high school athletics however the program has brought many benefits to the Sparhawk community.  In addition to participating in the athletics, Sparhawk has participated in the Student Ambassador program which focuses on being leaders in community service; attended several workshops regarding teen health; provided our perspective in gender issues in athletics; offered leadership training to our student athletes; free concussion training for students and staff and opportunities for scholarships and recognition.  MIAA describes the role interscholastic athletic competition as follows:

"Interscholastic athletic competition is an extension of the classroom and an educational activity that provides outstanding opportunities to teach life lessons.  Through participation in such programs, young people learn values and skills that help prepare them for the future.  Leadership, goal setting, teamwork, decision making, perseverance, integrity, sacrifice, healthy competition and overcoming adversity are inherent in the interscholastic athletic framework and also support the academic mission of schools.  Student-athletes earn the privilege to participate by succeeding academically, and the resulting positive outcomes continue far beyond graduation.  These programs exist to prepare young men and women for the next level of life, not the next level of athletics.  Wins are achieved through athletics by developing successful athletes and teams, but more importantly, wins are achieved through the educational experience by developing successful and responsible students, leaders and community members”.

Woven in the Sparhawk Mission we see similar strands of purpose for interscholastic sports.  A “foundation of academic strength” aligns with data tells us student athletes achieve higher success than those not participating.  "Qualities of character” can be built and tested during athletics training and competition as students overcome personal or team adversity.  An important skill for our high school students is critical and creative thinking.  While this is often consider an academic strength to grow at Sparhawk, it is well tested as students athletes gain the personal skills required for time management and prioritization to balance academic and athletic endeavors.  This all builds a foundation to sustain Sparhawk students throughout their lives.

Fall 2018 athletics had personal and team success.  Richie Labritz greatly improved his cross country times and was able to participate in a Freshman/Sophomore meet where he attained his personal best (PB) of 19.32 seconds for the 5km race.  Maia Esty and the Amesbury girls soccer team have a very successful seaon with 11-3-4 season and are now deep into the playoffs with a game against St. Mary’s in Lynn 11/8 hoping to make it into the North Sectional Finals on Sunday.

In addition to high school Interscholastic athletics, some Sparhawk students participate in athletics in clubs.  We are looking forward to seeing Jackson Musial back on the slopes after a very successful season skiing last year as part of the Attitash Race Team he attended and metaled the 2018 U14 Can-Am’s.  Matthew Lichtenberg swims for Crimson Aquatics and Joseph Shannon with Oyster River, we look forward to cheering them on throughout the season!

If you have any questions or wish to learn more about the program please contact Sparhawk’s athletics director, Jennifer Esty, jesty@sparhawkschool.com

Building Cooperation Through Athletics

by Bridgette Beaulieu-Mammah, Lower School Teacher & Athletics Organizer

We recognize and honor the importance of movement, physical activity and outdoor play and its impact and influence, on the cognitive, social-emotional and physical well-being of our students. Kinesthetic and outdoor learning is imbedded in our curriculum is an imperative part of our everyday learning at Sparhawk.

This year, in addition to our imbedded kinesthetic + outdoor curriculum, we have added structured athletics to ‘A Day in the Life’ at Sparhawk School. Taking part in team sport builds compassion, good sportsmanship, teamwork and spirit. I use my experience as a teacher and a professional athlete to design group activities where, to be successful, students need to cooperate in order to achieve a positive end result. As the group facilitator, I take great joy watching the student dynamics as a game unfolds and participants are encouraging their teammates and cheering one another on!

Many important lessons and coping strategies are learned when children encounter competition. In addition, giving students a time to burn off this energy in an organized fashion allows for the brain to refuel and return to academic lessons ready to focus. For me though, a the bottom line is to encourage the students to get in some good exercise while having fun! Having extra outdoor time and good fresh air gives everyone the burst of energy which is often needed within a school day.  


  • a day in the life
  • athletics
  • cooperative learning
  • sportsmanship
  • team

Outdoor Education & Its Importance in the LEAP Program

by Mitch McDonald, Upper School Math Teacher, LEAP Study Skills/ Outdoor Ed 

As our 8th grade LEAP students prepare to transition to the 9th grade, there are many important skills they must work to improve and build upon. At Sparhawk we approach this transition from variety of aspects, both inside the classroom and out. Perhaps one of our most important out of the classroom experiences is our outdoor education program. On Mondays and Wednesdays the 8th grade works on projects of their own choosing outside on our campus. This year, students chose to work on clearing out trails behind the school so our community could explore and enjoy more of our campus. Other students are working to build grass huts and to create a low ropes team building course out in the woods behind Sparhawk.

While students enjoy the opportunity to get some fresh air, they are learning to be responsible, work as a team, and take ownership of their community to become better humans. Learning to use tools such as cutters and a bow saw safely, students can make real progress in their projects and see their hard work pay off. There is a sense of teamwork when we venture out together in sometimes not ideal weather conditions. 8th grade LEAP student Richard Lally said it best when asked what he thought the goal of outdoor education was when he said,” Going outside gives us a chance to learn hands on and do things school normally wouldn’t let us do.” In a Google centric world, the chance to release from the bind of technology to explore the outdoors gives students a different way to express themselves and practice 21st century skills that in some places have gone by the wayside.

The responsibility piece of outdoor education is a large portion of our focus. Sending detailed plans of their project to their teacher, discussing plans respectfully with classmates, and coming to class prepared are key aspects of being ready to learn in Outdoor Education.  John Lubbock once said, “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach of us more than we can ever learn from books.” We at Sparhawk believe that spurring the curiosity that lies within each of our students is our mission and will serve our students well as they take the LEAP into the 9th grade and beyond.

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Hands-on
  • LEAP
  • outdoor education
  • community
  • experiential education
  • Hands-on learning
  • school environment
  • school habitat

From its humble beginnings to its current larger than life status, Soup and Cider is indeed an EVENT. While preparations begin weeks before with planning, organizing and crafting bowls, it is the week leading up to the event where the momentum kicks into full speed and its all hands on deck.  Connections unfold across campuses in every way imaginable and unimaginable.

Excitement mounts as the bowls emerge from the kiln and students and adults alike proclaim adoration and claim their stakes. The day of, from any corner of any classroom, the wafting smells of simmering soups and baked goods permeate the air. Just how a small kitchen in an 18th century house turned school can operate as a booming gourmet soup factory is simply pure magic. And with educational associations no less, from adding fractions, to literary, cultural and seasonal connections, teachers, students and parents seize the moment. 

Raffle baskets begin coming in with new levels of sublime. The upper campus student center transforms into a banquet hall and classrooms into venues for service and entertainment. And voila, the party begins. Food, frenzy, laughter, music, joy…

Last Friday morning, at our all school Village Meeting, I scanned the crowd and noted what each and every student and teacher had done to contribute to this event be it baking, sculpting, glazing, chopping, shopping, serving, cooking, cleaning or a combination of those things. Not to mention the generosity of parents by way of time, ingredients, donations, and attendance at the event. As we cross off checklists throughout the week, at times with nervous excitement (will there be enough soup?!), its easy to default to a mindset that everything will come together on a “wing and a prayer.” As I moved through the motions Friday, from morning through night’s end, it was clear that it is not a wing nor is it a prayer that makes Soup and Cider come together. Ultimately, what makes this an EVENT, is the sense of community, camaraderie, generosity and shear willingness to support and celebrate together. That is the heart and the life of this event. It is what makes it what it is.

Thank you to each and every one of you who contributed in any way possible. There is a saying: “Fall and the net will appear.” The Sparhawk Community, students, staff, and parents together, are indeed an awesomely interwoven, sturdy net. And we sure do have a good time together. 



Life Long Learning

by Diane Hichborn, Middle School Teacher

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit in on our headmaster, Louise Stilphen’s ballroom dance class and watch in amazement as she moved with ease across the floor in a lovely bejeweled gown. She followed the steps of the instructor, collaborated with other dancers, and practiced her moves. Two days earlier, Louise was showing pictures of her competition dress to me and two of my young impressionable students. She told of how she used to do ballet and was now learning ballroom dancing. I could see by the expression in her face and the excitement in her voice what this new learning experience meant to her.

Life long learning is what we as good humans need to accomplish for both personal and professional development. We do this by creating and maintaining a positive attitude and setting goals towards each learning experience. We are all born with natural curiosities and as a teacher at Sparhawk School, I find that my own curiosities get me excited to explore new topics to share with my students. I am a designer, but I have never thought about designing sneakers, for a sport called; Parkour. Non the less, last year I found myself learning the anatomy of sneaker design along side my group of eager middle schoolers. It was a fantastic project-base learning opportunity with a great ending. Along the journey students learned math and science skills by using them in a real life application. Projects like this afford enriching moments for students to experience the love to learn more.

It is part of our teaching at Sparhawk to make certain that when students move on to the next level, they don’t see an end to the old, but take ownership and leadership of what they have achieved and gain the confidence towards achieving new tasks. While I watched Louise that night at the dance studio, I could see that she had the the spirit of adventure and the willingness to learn.

College Guidance BlogGuidance for the College Application Process

by Kate Widener, Assistant Upper School Director & College Guidance Counselor

The air is getting crisper and the days are feeling shorter as we come to the close of October.  With the turn of the leaves also comes the collective panic among our beloved seniors as they work with a fury to finish their college applications before the looming November 1st early application deadline.  We notice that our once calm senior class are now obsess over details of their applications. Applying to college can be fraught with feelings of insecurity, self-doubt and fear of failure, but despite the media hype around selective admission, it is not a matter of life and death. Students should not feel like they are being held captive by an application during what should be an exciting opportunity to imagine a bright future. Regardless, with a deadline looming, seniors are understandably nervous and so I offer some “do’s and don’ts” for applying to college:


Do…stay engaged and on top of your work. Keep in mind that your teachers are likely writing your college recommendations and you want them to think highly of your effort and quality of work.


Do not…submit test scores if a college is test optional and your SAT/ACT score falls below the school’s average for admitted students. A list of test optional schools can be found at www.fairtest.org.

Do…send official test scores (if required) ahead of the deadline. It takes the testing agency (www.collegeboard.org or www.actstudent.org) from a few days to weeks to deliver test scores to colleges, so make sure you allow some processing time before the deadline.


Do not…ignore these important opportunities to expand on your interest.

Do…explain both why the specific school would be good for your goals and interests and what you will bring to their college in terms of contributions to academic and campus life.


Do not…underestimate the benefit of visiting a college. It is helpful to get a sense of the community and if you can see yourself in that environment.

Do…interview. If the college offers interviews—either on or off campus—take advantage of this option, even if it is after the deadline. Interviews can only help strengthen your application and make you stand out off the page.


Do not…”shop it around.” It is a good idea to have one or two people (teacher, parent or friend) review your college essay, but be careful of seeking too many opinions in which you lose your voice.

Do…proofread. Don’t just rely on spell check. Read the essay out loud to yourself and be aware of homophones (there is an SAT word) like our and are, knew and new or their and there.

Financial Aid:

Do not…overlook financial aid deadlines. Often students are so focused on submitting the early application that financial aid is an afterthought.

Do…be clear on all the forms that each college requires for need-based aid applicants. All schools will ask for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) but many also require the CSS Profile and sometimes their own institution specific forms.

Honing 21st Century Skills in Elementary School

by Michelle Kimball, Lower School Teacher

Literary Cottage PhotoWe hear a lot about the importance of fostering 21st century skills in children of all ages, but what does that look like at Sparhawk?

At the Lower School we are fortunate to be able to work with children in small groups which enhances our ability to provide opportunities for cultivating what's known as the "6 C's" - Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Citizenship, and Character education. 

These ideals are practiced everyday at Sparhawk, both in our indoor and outdoor classrooms, but especially during our Project-based Learning (PBL) initiatives where student groups tackle real life questions or problems. Last year's Whittier Literary Cottage project is a great example of a year long PBL. Students renovated an under utilized campus structure to create their masterpiece. They collaborated while researching and planning the renovation, using critical thinking and problem solving skills frequently in the process. Creativity was used in the design stage with the skilled support of a parent architect. During the ribbon cutting ceremony, with the mayor of Amesbury and other guests of honor in attendance, Sparhawk students shined as they communicated their renovation journey as proud, productive students and citizens. 

Did teachers and other adults help with the project? Of course. They acted as guides when needed but let the students struggle with problems and make mistakes along the way. Why? Because it is in the struggle that much of the most important learning for their future success happens.

A look into the assessment checklist process at Sparhawk Elementary School.

Assessments & Evidence of Learning 

by Suzanne Atkins, Lower School Director

All schools assess students and share their findings, yet schools certainly are not uniform in approach. At Sparhawk Lower School, parents receive three forms of “evidence of learning” about their child’s growth throughout the year: a bi-yearly skills checklist, two student portfolios and a cumulative narrative.

At the foundation of our approach, we  begin with the question of “why?”  The simple, yet fundamental answer is, “to know each child deeply and to treat each as an unique individual.”  But what does this really mean in a school setting? At Sparhawk we teach to the whole child, nurturing who each is academically, emotionally and socially. This ideal is not just because philosophically it is ethical and kind, but also because it drives how we teach.

Teachers are careful observers, noting students’ responses to tasks given, questions asked and approaches taken. Teachers also pay close attention to how children present emotionally, between each other, with adults and within the community. We carefully observe what the child does when charged with a task.  Does she get right to work, need time to think, have difficulty getting organized or show a need to move a lot? What happens during less structured times, who are his friends and what does he enjoy doing when given open choice? Understanding what intrinsically motivates each child gives us great insight into that child as a learner. This perspective, along with the low child to teacher ratio, allows for as many different teaching approaches as there are children.

How then do we know that our students are being optimally challenged with this methodology?  Evidence presents itself in many ways and students benefit by being able to showcase learning through many means beyond pencil and paper.  When the student is asking good questions, persevering through difficulty, trying, falling and trying again, we know learning is happening and students are pushing on their edges.  A more traditional model looks for the end result, for the culmination of learning through a correctly-solved algorithm, a well written paper or a correct response to a finite question. While this model has its place, we can uncover so much more about the learning growth by understanding the course of how that learning happened. In fact, finding out where there are inconsistencies or mistakes can tell us just as much about the learning process as a correct “answer”.  We also believe in the importance of students developing tools to be reflective of their own process. The ability to be metacognitive about one’s own learning is a developmental process that can be taught and acquired over time. When one takes ownership of their personal learning, their investment in the experience is naturally deepened, and for a Sparhawk student, this in tandem with the teachers’ nurturing guidance, is part of the journey.


  • assessments
  • checklists
  • elementary school
  • evidence of learning
  • Curriculum
  • foreign language

Upper School Foreign Language Teaching and Learning

Introduction by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

How many of us remember much of our high school and college foreign language courses? I certainly remember my high school French teacher, who was lovely, but spoke French with an American English accent and did a lot of “drill and kill” activities like memorizing vocabulary while tossing a bean bag around the room--very effective in terrorizing the student who was the target of the next toss, but not particularly engaging or effective.

In reflecting back on my language learning experiences both in high school and college, I realize that I learned more about parts of speech (e.g. first person singular and plural) and about how the target language compared to English than I did about how to communicate in the target languages. In studying the learning sciences in graduate school, it became clearer to me that this language learning technique was similar to the way I had learned math: memorizing formulas in math was like memorizing vocabulary in language class. Although useful for the test, it was not actually useful when I tried to apply it to real life! Needless to say, to this day I know a lot of vocabulary, but still choke when it comes to speaking any of the three languages I have studied in my lifetime.

I’m proud to say that at Sparhawk School, we believe strongly in not only making learning fun, but also in making sure learning can be applied to real life. By varying the way we present information, varying the way we allow students to demonstrate what they know and varying the way we engage students with the material, we have a better chance of reaching all of the students in our classrooms (CAST.org). In our foreign language classes, we do all of this and more. Languages cannot be fully understood without a real understanding of the way people who speak those languages think and view the world. We teach culture alongside language as the other side of the coin. Many of our students supplement foreign language learning with a trip during Winterim that allows them to not only practice speaking the language, but also to expand their worldview and develop global awareness--an important 21st century skill (P21.org).

As a school, we are fortunate to have foreign language teachers who are all native speakers of the languages they teach. In addition, each of them have a deep understanding of the culture(s) in which these languages are spoken. This knowledge adds a richness to language learning that is vital. Each of our teachers are amazing pedagogues who believe that application of language from the beginning (learning to read, write, listen and speak in the target language) is as important as memorizing vocabulary. Below, I present to you, a description of the exciting ways that each of them excites our students by making this magic happen every day in their classrooms.

Spanish Upper School

By Marta Kelley

When I was studying English back in Spain, I never thought I would end up having to use it on a daily basis here in the States. You never know where life is going to take you, which is why I always remind my students of how important it is to take learning a language seriously. Languages open doors and connect people from different cultures. Languages help us grow and be more understanding of others. Besides, let’s be honest, being fluent in a foreign language? That’s pretty cool too!


My goal as the Upper School Spanish teacher at Sparhawk is to help my students be able to speak Spanish in real-life situations. In my opinion, languages need to be taught within a context and used in meaningful ways. For this reason, while more traditional activities are always useful to give the students a structured grammatical foundation, I always like to organize my units within themes and topics. An example of this can be seen with my Spanish 5 students, with whom I have started a unit on work life and who are currently learning how to write and structure resumes and cover letters in Spanish.


For me, culture and history also play an essential role in language teaching, which is why they are always present in my curriculum. My students learn about the Spanish Civil War through documentaries, research, movies and class discussion. They celebrated the Day of the Dead at a Mexican restaurant, where we were able to taste “Pan de Muerto”, a typical sweet bread eaten on that day. They had a cooking class at the end of our unit on Spanish tapas. Finally, they have learned about the different languages spoken in Spain and have had an opportunity to hear what those languages sound like. My Spanish 2 students learned and discussed the challenges Spanish-speaking immigrants face when crossing the border and starting from scratch in a different country. My Spanish 5 students read and analyzed poems written by well-known Spanish and Hispanic writers, after having learned about their lives.


Last but not least, at the end of every unit, I try to assign fun projects that allow them to demonstrate the skills in a context. To conclude our unit on the conditional verb tense, for example, I asked my Spanish 3 class to create a one-page comic strip where they included two examples of the conditional while creating a cohesive story. To finish our unit on shopping and clothing, I assigned my Spanish 1 students two projects. For the first one, they had to create their own shop and include information such as: name, location, hours of opening, products, sales, etc., which they then had to present to the class. They did an amazing job! For another project, they had to pretend their best friend was getting married, but they still had not bought an outfit! They had to draw an outfit and write a paragraph describing it, using the vocabulary and grammar structures they had learned in class. In each of these projects, they demonstrate understanding of a specific goal (e.g. the ability to use the conditional tense) without needing to be drilled on vocabulary and grammar. My Spanish class is a place for students to learn and grow in a fun and enjoyable way, while also being challenged and asked to leave their comfort zones!

French Upper School

By Anne McCoy

As a language teacher, I strongly believe that learning a language should be a lively experience. It’s very hard to understand how a language is used if you’re just sitting at a desk and filling out worksheets. Students learn better when they move around the room, use their bodies, and try to relate to the people who speak the language they are learning. I use a lot of  different materials, not just a textbook, but props, videos, music etc. It is very important to play with the language in various ways: we say, write, draw and act out the words. Students make things, since a lot of students learn by creating. They can show their talents in drawing, painting, etc. That is why I believe that projects are very important. Students are more engaged in their work when they study something of interest to them.

I also believe that learning a language should be fun. It is fun to realize that without much knowledge, you can make yourself understood. You can use pictures, body language, sounds—all sorts of tools that can help you communicate. That is what we do in French class. We don’t just learn words, we communicate using various means. We keep it simple at first and build up from there. We use the new vocabulary or grammar rule in context. We do regular activities, such as going over vocabulary words and grammar rules and practice them until we can use them in sentences and in dialogues.

When I introduce new material, I try to make it personal right from the beginning to make it real for the students. For example, in French 1, we often start a chapter by brainstorming some words, and then dive into the new vocabulary. Quickly, we make it personal: “Here is a house, here is an apartment”...”So what about you….where do you live? In a house or in a apartment”, “what town is it in”, and so on. After the learning the new vocabulary, we write it down and practice at home on Quizlet. We then use it in class again, with a starting activity that puts us in a speaking mode right away. The students like to draw, so we draw a lot such as when learning the vocabulary about houses and apartment, we drew them, on paper, on the board, and then they did a project where they described a house for sale. Another way for the students to appropriate the language after being exposed to new vocabulary and grammar, is to carry out surveys with their classmates and report their findings on a chart. We did this exercise when we learned verbs (such as: do you like to watch TV? Do you like to talk on the phone?, etc).

For our first projects, our French 1 students, chose regions of France they had to locate, in addition to finding some fun facts about them and some culinary examples. In French 2,3 and 4, we do most of the same things but with more writing and reading. Our goal in the High School is to be able to communicate orally but also in writing. This year, we varied our reading and written pieces, pushing it to including mysteries! We read some murder short stories from France and had to figure out who the murderers were. It was a great way to use the imperfect and passé composé tenses that the students had just learned. In addition to our reading and writing activities, the French 2-3 made a video of their own story. They acted out, filmed and wrote the story. Then the inspector explained how he found out who the murderer was. It was very fun!

In French 4, we focus more on life in France and outside of France. We talk about the media and teenagers, young people’s languages, their hobbies and how they spend their money. We try to compare France with the U.S.A. but also with other French speaking countries. This year we took some time to study an animated movie entitled A Cat in Paris. It was a nice way to review a lot of old vocabulary, as well as to study the cinematography and the music played throughout the movie. The characters were interesting and the story unique.

Finally, a very important part of teaching a language is teaching the culture. A language comes with its cultures, not just one culture, but the many cultures where the language is spoken. Cultures vary from one country to another, and that provides a richness that I can teach to the students. The students love to learn about other cultures, so we always celebrate the main traditions in France, such as Kings’ Day (with our cake), April Fools’ day (with our fish), birthdays (with our French song), and Mardi Gras or la Chandeleur (Candlemas, with our crêpes). We like to include French food. Even when we study regions of France, the students find a way to bring French food to class.  Through language and culture, learning a language is learning other ways of thinking and seeing the world.

Mandarin Chinese, Upper school

By Jasmine Carbone

As a Mandarin teacher at Sparhawk Upper School, my role is not only to teach the students language but also how to use the language. My curriculum is designed around project-based learning (PBL) and topic-based learning (TBL). Both are great ways of developing language skills via meaningful tasks. Throughout the task-completion process, the applicable materials are identified and explained as the task is being carried out.  Students use the topics to build up vocabularies, working with rising sentences (forming sentences using the vocabulary), as well as learn the relevant cultural aspects. For example, an e-book mini-biography project for Chinese 3 & Chinese 5 class: students and teacher work together to identify an interesting context, study the materials, then apply the learned knowledge into delivering the task. While students seek out the language skills to use in their projects, they develop a deeper understanding and grow to appreciate the language.  

The Upper School Mandarin classroom is a student-centered classroom. My teaching philosophy is to motivate and push the students to reach their full potential. We use lots of hands-on activities to make learning fun and efficient.  Students write and draw, watch videos, play games (i.e. Pictionary, Bingo), and use applications like Quizlet and Kahoots. The students work in pairs and groups, such as interviewing each other, making their own videos, to gain more language exposure in an authentic and cooperative way.  Often the students are so engaged that they are not aware the class time is over.

  • Curriculum
  • Humanities
  • Progressive Education
  • Socratic Seminar
  • Upper School

Sparhawk Upper School’s humanities curriculum is thematic; that is, students read and analyze literature and learn about history by looking through the lens of a theme. Thematic curriculum provides a frame of reference for integrating content knowledge from a variety of subject areas and perspectives.

Humanities Theory, Curriculum & Practice At Sparhawk

Introduction by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

Sparhawk Upper School’s humanities curriculum is thematic; that is, students read and analyze literature and learn about history by looking through the lens of a theme. Thematic curriculum provides a frame of reference for integrating content knowledge from a variety of subject areas and perspectives. Rotating over four years, the themes that we explore at the high school follow a timeline from Becoming Human to 20th Century & Beyond.

The focus of our history courses is historiography “the way [history] has been written, the sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by those writing about it over time, and the way in which such factors shape our understanding of the actual event” (Conolly-Smith, P., 2007). Students learn to consider historical events through varied lenses, source documents and multimedia. As a result, they come to understand that historic understanding is crafted by examining primary source documents not only those created by the victors, but also by examining evidence from the experiences of ordinary people (memoirs, diaries, etc.)

In English Composition and Literature courses, we choose engaging literary works of fiction and nonfiction in varied genres and help students focus on developing analytical and evaluative skills. Research suggests that the amount of reading a child does is correlated with academic achievement across the curriculum (UofL, Institute of Education, 2013) and even reluctant readers read voluminously when passionate about the subject matter (Fink, 1998, 2007). Therefore, we try to choose highly engaging reading material to not only convey information about the theme, but also to help students gain skills to read for purpose and then spend time in exploring, analyzing and evaluating ideas in discussion and in writing.

Students are encouraged to make connections between the literature and history courses. In examining mixed perspectives through the lens of a theme, students gain valuable insights that help them to develop higher order thinking and communication skills. As a progressive school, we encourage students to test out and trust their own ideas and to learn to communicate them effectively both verbally and in writing through Socratic seminars, presentations and traditional research papers.


Middle School in the Middle Ages

by Eric Getz, Middle School Teacher

The Middle School humanities classes are all about the Middle Ages this semester. Guided by our reading of Romeo & Juliet, we’ve separated our classes in the Capulets and Montagues, explored iambic pentameter, staged Shakespearian insult contests, written sonnets, and delved into Elizabethan England (the good, the bad, and the stinky!). 

In our History classes, we jumped into our ‘wayback’ machines to investigate the causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire—which turned out to be the western portion of that empire as the eastern portion or the Byzantine Empire continued to flourish for another 1000 years. Over the remaining two months of the school year, our studies will take us throughout Medieval Europe where we will meet all kinds of royalty, knights in shining armor, grand fortresses, the Black Death, and the peasants who may have been more educated and better organized than we have been led to believe.


At the High School, this semester we are exploring these essential questions in our Global Village theme: What is culture? How are gender roles defined, perceived, and perpetuated in diverse cultures? How do our own biases affect our understanding of other cultures? How do literature and arts shape and reflect a culture? Are there universal characteristics of belief systems that are common across all cultures? What are they and how can they bring us together?

Exploring Varied Worldviews

By Bob Delibero, Upper School Teacher

As a humanities teacher, I’m always looking for opportunities to help my students expand their worldview by reading the works of authors from different cultures, both historical writing and literature and to confidently and effectively communicate their ideas both in speaking and in writing. This semester’s theme in particular provides students with rich opportunities to do so.

My African literature course has been a detailed introduction to the major writers and diverse literary traditions of the African continent. We have read a novel, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, and are currently finishing up another by Mariama Ba titled, So Long a Letter. Discussions and writings have been centered around the culture, rituals, and traditions of the African people, especially the plight of African women.

My Eastern Ethics class has been delving into the philosophical study of morality, including the theory of right and wrong behavior, the theory of value (goodness and badness), the theory of virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc. In contrast, we have researched and discussed the works of Western researchers Kohlberg and Gilligan and their theories on moral development. The students have been wrestling with ethical dilemmas and have had to work their way through them this using reason, logic, and critical thinking skills. We have held Socratic seminars on several current topics, and continue to explore ethical questions that have arisen in indigenous cultures both internally and externally, and discuss how they affect or have changed today’s global society.

The Value of Considering Mixed Perspectives

by Nate Velluto, Upper School Teacher

As a history teacher, I believe it is essential that students are able to form their own perspective on history. To this end, I strive to provide them with mixed perspectives on historical events and concepts. An example of this would be in my World War II class during our study of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The students were given multiple articles—totaling fifteen or so--which all gave contrasting viewpoints on the use of the atom bomb. Students were given time to read and discuss the articles. We then hosted two debates: students took both sides, once advocating for use of the bomb, once protesting its necessity. Finally, each student wrote a paper expressing their own thoughts on the bomb. Papers weren't graded on the opinion they held, but on the quality of writing and use of evidence to support their claim. In an age where our youth are flooded with information, being able to evaluate and synthesize viewpoints is becoming far more valuable than memorizing facts.

To this end, another tool that I find incredibly useful is Socratic dialog. Often, whether in history or in English, I will give students a topic or question with which I would like them to wrestle. After time to prepare, students engage in a dialog in which they strive to explore the point at hand to find deeper meaning. In this exercise, it isn't important to find what's correct; instead, the exploration of themes and information at hand leads to deeper understanding of the topic as a whole. For me as the teacher, it can be excruciatingly difficult not to jump in to add my ten cents to theses dialogs, but it is essential that the students work as a group to build understanding. Oratory, supporting evidence, and rhetoric are all skills that Socratic dialog builds upon. 

 Learning to Dig Deeper in Eastern Philosophy

by Lee Ford, Upper School Teacher

As a humanities teacher, I want students to dig deep to learn more about the topic we are studying. To do so, we are exploring thematic texts that present very different ideas from those that students have considered before. Doing this well requires students to closely read texts, consider them at length, discuss them and make connections.

This type of “deep dive” is illustrated thematically this semester in Eastern Philosophy where students are digging—reading, analyzing and interpreting ancient South and East Asian texts. In the process, they are connecting religious and philosophical movements to historical events. They began our course of study in India with the Bhagavad Gita, and from there spent much of March and April learning about the origins, history and philosophy of Buddhism. Most of these ideas expose them to different ways of thinking than many of our students are accustomed to considering. Students have been fascinated by these ideas, which in turn have provided rich opportunities to think deeply about them and work through them with their peers in socratic discussions in class.

Student voice

by Shelley Carpenter, Upper School Teacher

From my perspective, an important part of being a teacher is not only leading discussions with intriguing questions, but also sitting back and listening to student voices. I want students to learn to lead as well as to follow. They need to find their voices in the classroom, to share their thoughts and to respond to others both verbally and in writing. This is a skill that needs to practiced and skillfully honed in high school in order to prepare students for college and beyond.

This semester in Contemporary Voices from the East, my students have been immersed in Eastern fiction. They are currently reading modern short stories and flash fiction from Thailand, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan. By reading engaging texts, they have become invested develop an opinion and express it with ease. My students engage in literary criticism each day in class. They then learn to apply their ideas in their writing by comparing and contrasting literary elements and discussing literary mechanisms such as points of view and flashback.

Students in my Chinese Cinderella and Other Young Voices class have finished their first novel, When My Name was Keoko set in post WW2 Korea. They have been intrigued by Korea’s history and the characters in the story who navigated through the Japanese occupation. As a result, much of the class is spent in lively discussion. This week, they will begin reading their second novel, Chinese Cinderella a memoir about a Chinese girl who lived a Cinderella-like existence from Post WW2 China through China’s Cultural Revolution. I’m looking forward to hearing their reactions to the story and their literary criticisms, as well.

Works Cited:

Connolly Smith, P. (2007.) Writing on History. History Dept. at Queen’s College Retrieved from https://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/writing/history/index.html

Fink, R. P. (1998). Literacy development in successful men and women with dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 48, 311-346.

Fink, R. P. (2007). What Successful Adults with Dyslexia Teach Us about Children. In K. W. Fischer & J. Holmes- Bernstein (Eds.), Brain bases of learning disorders: The case of reading. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education. (11 Sept 2013). Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, study finds. Retrieved from http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/news.aspx?itemid=2740&sitesectionid=27



  • PBL
  • Progressive Education

Project-based Learning (PBL) at the High School

Introduction by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

As a progressive school, Sparhawk has long put high value on teaching students to do more than memorize information. Sparhawk teachers spend countless hours designing and developing interesting curricula that help students learn how to think critically and creatively. Project-based Learning (PBL) is a great example of a progressive approach where teachers present students with a complex and authentic question, problem or challenge and structure tasks and activities in a way that allows them to gain deep knowledge and skills.

PBL, when done well, is supported by research that indicates:

  • Improved academic outcomes across age groups, ability and achievement levels (Boaler 2001)(Halvorsen, Duke et al, 2012).

  • Improved ability to transfer skills and understandings to new contexts (Barron & Darling Hammond, 1998).

  • Improved student engagement in learning (Barron & Darling Hammond, 1998)(Holm, 2011).

  • Improved collaborative and problem-solving skills (Barron & Darling Hammond, 1998)(Ackermann, n.d.).

  • PBL supports identity development when students work on teams that require both independent and collaborative work (Langer-Osuna, 2015)(Langer-Osuna, 2011).

Although PBL is used in our Upper and Middle School classes in various ways, we dedicate Friday afternoons to PBLs that focus squarely on helping our students develop the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity that have been called out as crucial for success in 21st century college and careers (Partnership for 21st Century Learning).

If you visit the Upper School on a Friday afternoon, you will find classrooms and hallways alive with students actively working on real-world problems. You will see student historians, scientists and researchers, textbook editors, mathematicians, marketeers and movie makers. This wide range of roles provides opportunities for them to try on different “hats” within a project, thereby leveraging their passions and strengths to mediate their challenges (Langer-Osuna, 2011 & 2015). Students make key decisions, develop and live within timelines. They innovate and collaborate, pitch and test ideas, collect data and reflect upon results. At the end of the semester, students communicate their experience and learning to a real-world audience at PBL Exhibition Night.

What follows are descriptions of each of the PBLs that students are working on this semester. We invite the entire Sparhawk community to join us for the PBL Exhibition night on June 14, 2018.

Back to the Roots

by Lee Ford (with Dana Nuenighoff)

Driving question: How can we construct an aquaponics unit that uses the waste from fish to fertilize plants?

As a teacher who generally teaches the Humanities, it has been both inspiring and refreshing to help co-facilitate a science-based PBL with Dana this semester. Every Friday, our students gather in small groups to research, design and construct their own aquaponics system (a method of growing that allows for the cultivation of animals and plants in a shared, symbiotic environment).

They are also learning to collaborate and work through design iterations through which they hold each other accountable to back up their choices with analysis and research. I love the way this particular PBL allows students to explore a wide range of skills and disciplines in a single afternoon -- relying on chemistry to monitor the pH in the water, troubleshooting engineering challenges in their design, or becoming ecologists and botanists in order to determine the best species to include. In addition, I love that sustainability and agricultural innovation have a place in our science curriculum at Sparhawk. Who knows -- the students problem-solving their fish tanks today might be the ones to pioneer new ways to feed our growing planet tomorrow.

Voices and Visions of the East

by Shelley Carpenter

Driving question: How do we develop a text that represents the voices and visions of the Eastern world?

The students in the Voices and Visions of the East PBL, have been spending the last few weeks researching India. In this PBL, students are working as a group to develop an online “textbook” that can be used to teach and learn history from the perspective of voices of the Eastern world. In the first two PBL meetings, students shared their research in presentation format as they proposed topics to the group. After several round table discussions about their central content focus, the students decided to pursue areas of interest relating to Indian culture such as Art, History, Medicine, and Religion.

Each week, students begin with a round table discussion where they pitch ideas, share their progress and get feedback. The students are writing individual research papers that will evolve into an online text - one article and two side bars relating to persons, places, and events in Indian history.  In the second phase of this project, students will choose a platform and produce the online text. Although I continue to support the process, my role as direct facilitator has ceased. I have turned over complete control of the PBL to the students. This PBL utilizes and builds twenty-first century skills such as: critical inquiry, evaluation, analysis, synthesis and Socratic discussion.  

Behind the Numbers: Decision Making in Sports

by Mitch McDonald and Jennifer Esty

Driving question: Can we create a model for sports performance that helps to select an ideal team using common sense and statistical data?

The Behind the Numbers PBL allows students to dig into the math behind sports.  Some students walked in hoping to just talk about sports and study their favorite teams. They thought they would be able to ignore the math! However, what they have found is the math of sports is fun!  

We began the semester by debating questions like: Who is the best soccer goalie in the world… do you use total goals saved or allowed?  Minutes played? A great goalie with a great defense in front of them will have numbers that look fabulous, but what about that goalie on a lesser team that is playing a better team? The answers require research, analysis, evaluation and critical thought. They stimulate great debates and require students to use the numbers to back up their position!

Each week, students work on small groups to do research and decide which statistics and aspects of their sport chosen are essential to success. Students are learning to use sports databases, R software, and their own creative ideas to draw conclusions about of what creates athletic success. They may study simple statistics like goals scored or minutes played, or they may investigate more advanced metrics such as PER (player efficiency rating) or 4th quarter scoring. These more complex statistics involve truly understanding the sports being studied. In some groups, students have background knowledge on the sport chosen that allow them to filter through how data is relevant to their analysis. As in a front office of a sports team, the viewpoint of fresh minds collaborating with sports fans help to make business decisions. In the end, students strive to answer: What combination of statistics best describes and predicts the qualities of a winning team or a successful player?

Power of the Podcast

by Nate Velluto

Driving question: How does one create a persuasive, powerful podcast?

Podcasts give everyone a voice because anyone can make them. In this PBL, my students are working hard to create their own podcasts. They have researched professional podcasts and come up with elements they would like to emulate and those they would like to avoid. They are developing podcasts on a diverse range of topics, from Chinese history, to video game reviews, to discussions of various issues affecting teens today.

Students are working in groups, some to record, others as peer-editor groups. The students have worked to solve such problems as what recording equipment to use, how to integrate introductions and closings with music, as well as how to script multiple episodes in a short time period. We are working to have our podcasts finished and uploaded for consumption by the end of the semester. Be watching for our podcasts on iTunes and Soundcloud!

Making Movie Magic

by Bob DeLibero (with Casey Wright)

Driving question: What elements, when combined harmoniously, lead to the magic of successful films, documentaries, social media and advertising?

This PBL team has been busy learning about lighting a scene, camera angles, storyboards, and sound techniques. During the first half of the semester our students, working solo and in small groups, have been practicing their skills while filming 2 and 5 minute short videos on a variety of topics. Currently, they are in the process of brainstorming and creating their own story to shoot from the ground up.

This project entails writing an original piece, planning the shots, music, lighting, film style, casting, directing, etc. The groups are responsible for all pre and post production work on their video, as well as the actual filming. The goal is to create an 8-10 minute short film which will be viewed by an audience of friends and family.

Works cited

Ackermann, E. n.d. Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference? Accessed January 30, 2018. http://learning.media.mit.edu/content/publications/EA.Piaget%20_%20Papert.pdf

Barron B & Darling Hammond, L. 1998. “Teaching for Meaningful Learning: A Review of Research on Inquiry and Cooperative Learning. Edutopia. https://backend.edutopia.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/edutopia-teaching-for-meaningful-learning.pdf

Boaler, Jo. 2002. “Learning from Teaching: Exploring the Relationship between Reform Curriculum and Equity.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 33 (4). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:239–58.

Halvorsen, A L, Duke N K, Brugar K, Block M, Strachan S, and Berka M. 2012. “Narrowing the Achievement Gap in Second-Grade Social Studies and Content Area Literacy: The Promise of a Project-Based Approach.” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED537157.pdf

Holm, Margaret. 2011. “PROJECT-BASED INSTRUCTION: A Review of the Literature on Effectiveness in Prekindergarten through 12th Grade Classrooms.” Rivier College.

Langer-Osuna, Jennifer M. 2011. “How Brianna Became Bossy and Kofi Came Out Smart: Understanding the Trajectories of Identity and Engagement for Two Group Leaders in a Project-Based Mathematics Classroom.” Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 11 (3). Routledge:207–25.

Langer-Osuna, Jennifer M. 2015. “From Getting ‘Fired’ to Becoming a Collaborator: A Case of the Co-construction of Identity and Engagement in a Project-Based Mathematics Classroom.” Journal of the Learning Sciences 24 (1). Routledge:53–92.

  • curriculum
  • PBL
  • Authenticity
  • experiential education
  • Hands-on learning

Project Based Learning (PBL) is alive and well here at the Lower Campus and a great place to see an example of it is the enrichments. Enrichments are six-week-long courses that provide learning experiences outside the regular curriculum. This curriculum allows students to sample from a variety of topics, skills, and experiences they might not otherwise discover. I will take you through my process, using the elements of PBL, as I develop the curriculum for the next enrichment I will teach.

First some background is needed. Several weeks ago, I visited the Peabody Essex Museum and there was this incredible piece by artist Pedro Reyes called “Disarm Mechanized II, 2012-2014.” It is made up of several Dr. Seussian-like musical instruments made up entirely of the broken down parts of weapons, played via compressed air. The music it created was enchanting and I must have stood there for 15 minutes entranced by it. Then it hit me – wouldn’t the kids have fun doing something like this! Of course, we won’t use decommissioned armaments, but what if we used found objects and recyclables to make musical instruments? This was the question that I used as I thought about how I could make this work.

There are seven essential elements in PBL. The first is having a challenging problem or question that is the heart of the project. In this case, the specific problem to investigate and solve, or Driving Question (DQ), would be: “How can we make musical instruments using found and recycled objects?” The problem/question should be challenging without being intimidating. A question I have to ask myself is, “Can the students finish this project in the six hours that they will have to finish it?” As the facilitator, I have to make certain that this is possible.

The second element is “sustained inquiry,” which is a more active, in-depth process than just “looking something up” in a book or online.  The idea is that the DQ should require students to generate questions, find resources to help answer them, and then ask deeper questions. Projects often incorporate different information sources, mixing the traditional idea of “research” – reading a book or searching a website – with more real-world, field-based interviews with experts, service providers and users. For example to answer the DQ posed for this enrichment, the students might have to figure out what type of instruments there are, what materials they are usually made of, etc. The students also might need to inquire how they can best create an end product to share with others. They might ask Lucy, the Lower School Music Teacher, how to write a musical piece to play,  or ask a parent who know about video recording how to shoot a music video.

The third element in PBL is “authenticity.” In education, the concept has to do with how “real-world” the learning or task is. The belief is that authenticity increases student motivation and learning. One question I asked myself as I plan this specific enrichment is, “Will this project involve solving a problem faced by people in the world outside of school?” Or in other words, is the context authentic? Reyes’ piece made something beautiful out of something quite ugly; the kids would be make a similar statement. They would be showing others how something beautiful like music can be made by upcycling garbage. The second question I ask is, “Does this project utilize authentic processes, tasks and tools?” The kids might have to score a sheet of music, or learn how to use video editing equipment, so the answer is, “Yes.”  Most importantly, does this project provide personal authenticity – does it speak to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives? As facilitator, it will important for me to help guide them to make the project meaningful for them.

The fourth element is “student voice and choice.” I want to enable a sense of ownership in the students. They will have input and (some) control over many aspects of the project by the questions that they generate, the resources they will use to find answers to their questions, the tasks and roles they will take on as team members, and the final product they will create.

Reflection is the fifth element. John Dewey, the American psychologist and educational reformer wrote, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Throughout this project, the students and I will reflect on what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and why they’re learning. This reflection will occur informally as part of an ongoing dialogue. In addition, the students will be asked to reflect during a public presentation of their final piece that will be shared with the Sparhawk community. 

This built-in weekly reflection will lead to the sixth element, “critique and revision.” Each week the students will look at where they are and what else needs to be completed to finish the project in the allotted time. This will require that they make decisions about process and revise their ideas as needed.

And finally, the seventh element, “public product” will entail a finished piece that can be shared with others in the community. It might be a performance during a community meeting or the production of a music video that is shared. The students themselves will determine what form the final product takes.

This is just an example of how a teacher might use PBL as a framework for curriculum planning.  If you were to look, you would see many such examples in the classrooms on the Sparhawk School Lower Campus. 

  • experiential education
  • school environment
  • school habitat

Middle school is truly the time when students are finding their individual voices, developing a sense of being and building their self esteem.  They are also at a crucial and pivotal place in both their academic and in their social and emotional development.  Let's be honest, their bodies and brains are going absolutely bonkers and it's our job to help them reign it all in, all while keeping their love and excitement for learning.

How do you do that, right?  We have found that teaching our middle school students experientially is our best tool in the vast teacher toolbox.  We want our students to be themselves, and we want to hear their unique perspectives on the thematic subjects that they are studying.  We have found traditional education methods only get students part of the way there.  

Experiential education:

  • Keeps the excitement in learning!  Who wants to be bored and have someone talk AT you all day?
  • Allows students the movement that their active bodies require- It is counter intuitive to expect a growing body to sit in one place for eight hours a day (As an adult it's kind of torture, am I right?).
  • Builds critical and creative thinking skills necessary for 21st century minds- Who are you as a student and how do you approach this problem.
  • Helps students identify HOW they learn best - In many cases our students have at least eight more years of education ahead of them, they need to know who they are as a student so they can be successful!  
  • Allows students to fail (often more than once!), rebuild, gain knowledge and find a solution- Life lesson, you are going to fail, if you don't fail, you don't know what to fix.
  • Teaches students to work co-operatively and independently to problem solve- Building both skills sets will serve a student long past their educational career.
  • Creates moments where students must advocate for both themselves and their classmates- This one is HUGE!  

So what does an experiential lesson look like for a middle school student?  Glad you asked.  Our current theme in the middle school is Invent, Explore and Discover.  Here's some examples of our students becoming the thematic lesson. 

  • Studying Newtons three laws of motion: Students paired themselves off and wrote, created and starred in video skits that showcase each of the 3 laws.  
  • Learning about Maya culture: Students practiced adding and subtracting with sticks and rocks in the base 20 scale using the Mayan system of math.  Students also created Maya glyphs representing their names with traditional Maya shape structures.
  • Aztec art: Students created masks by plastering each others faces, building up the surface of the mask with clay forms and then adding the final decorative layer of found and forraged indigenous materials.

If you are interested in seeing this style of learning first hand, or exploring some of the work of our students, we encourage you to take a tour.

  • experiential education
  • progressive education

Experiential Learning- What does that even mean right?  Families who hear "Experiential Learning" on a tour probably can not grasp how or why our educational model is so different until their child does a day visit with us, or perhaps until hey are enrolled.  To us it's really about getting deep into the subjects that we are studying, first hand, up close and personal.  We become the lessons.  

It might seem a bit like a rebellious concept, and perhaps it is.  It rebels against the style of education that many of us grew up on (I certainly did!)- sit at a desk, read your textbook, repeat your textbook back, take a test so the teacher knows you understand the information.  But, do you really understand the information?  How do you know what you know? All you can really tell is that someone can repeat back exactly what they were told.  

Whereas, in our experiential model, a student who is studying archeologists and artifacts at Sparhawk Lower School would be tasked with:

  • Learning excavation techniques, methods and best practices by studying them and then by physically becoming archeologist and digging up artifacts 
  • Creating a Cartesian coordinate system to map the recovery of artifacts - gridding the dig site and then mapping on paper the location of the recovered artifacts
  • Studying and categorizing artifacts once they are extracted
  • Students create their own artifacts out of clay and repeat the excavation and categorization process.  

We want students to immerse themselves in the experience, and by doing so they will have greater retention of information than if they simply read about the process in a book.  An experience connects all of your senses- it has smells and gives you a feeling, you witness, observe and connect information.  As I said, we become the lesson.  

  • education
  • experiential learning
  • Lower School

Originally published September 2015

Postcard from Hog Island

An Audubon retreat for educators provides a rich habitat for a Sparhawk Lower School teacher.

Starting off the 2012-2013 academic year was your typical enthusiastic sort. And, like any class at the Sparhawk Lower school, they had to decide on a class "bird name", the name to which they would be referred to as a group by me, other teachers, administrators, parents and students for the school year. As you can imagine, there are too many too choose from at first, and each one is just perfect at the start.

The Gannets. The Purple Finches. The Harpy Eagles. The list begins broadly, but is whittled down by a system of votes and teacher guidance. I've gotten quite efficient at this over the years, and for this particular class three years ago, the grand winner was the Atlantic Puffins, which was my first seabird name, and come to find out, a bird with a remarkable legacy. 

You see, the Atlantic Puffin underwent a steep decline in the 19th century across its breeding grounds on the Maine coastal islands due to habitat destruction, invasive predators and hunting for their meat and eggs. The birds are monogamous and each pair returns to their burrows on rocky island outcrops each year to hopefully lay, brood, hatch and raise a single chick before taking off to the open ocean once again. All along the northern Atlantic, from Scandinavia to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada these birds could still be found. But there were dwindling or extirpated colonies in Maine.  Until, that is, the early 1970’s, when Stephen Kress, who worked for Audubon, began his life's work, which was to bring the Puffin back to one former colony, Eastern Egg Rock Island, in the Muscongus Bay region of Maine. This project continues today, known as "Project Puffin”.

Project Puffin was a wildly exciting idea for me and the class back in 2012. We loved it, and quickly researched that we could adopt one or more of these Puffins, and thus support the continued work of Kress and his team. We set up our first bake sale fundraiser of the year, and sold enough to adopt two different couples. I promptly received glossy photos, biographies and newsletter updates about our happy puffin colony on Egg Rock.

Then one day came a mailing about something different: the Audubon Camp in Maine, featuring a gorgeous Maine Island and seven different weekly programs, including one just for educators. I was sold on the idea immediately.  One summer, soon, would be the right time to go...

Well, that right time finally came, this year. On Sunday, July 19th I hopped in my car and drove 2.5 hours up the coast to Bremen, Maine, for what was certain to be a grand adventure. My clothing options were functional: I had flip flops, water shoes and hiking boots. My bug spray and sunscreen, and most cherished, my Canon DSLR and a waterproof pair of binoculars for some serious wildlife viewing!

You see, since embarking down the road of adopting those puffins three years ago, my appreciation and fascination for the world of birds and just about anything else wild and natural has become a major interest in both my personal life and in my classroom. The bird memorabilia my students gift me each year has easily doubled. Each new academic year, are now raising bake sale money for multiple conservation programs, always looking to out-do ourselves. I am a total nature geek, and here I was pointing my GPS to an island about to be inhabited by 55 fellow like-minded nature loving educators, all looking to get jazzed about teaching children about appreciating and caring for nature.

I was certainly not disappointed. The entire experience was top notch, from the history of how the island came to be under Audubon's care to the rustic 1900's era buildings to the amazing oceanfront view and wildlife.  During my week, I worked with educators from all over the country (there around 50), and wonderfully enthusiastic and talented instructors.  For five days, I was inspired by the programming, intrigued by my colleagues, and in awe of the delicious food.  What could beat that?

I very much enjoyed this adventure. And I highly recommend to you, reader, the programs that Hog Island Audubon camp in Maine offers during the summer.  I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I am considering becoming a volunteer in the island next summer, as well as attending the island during their family programming week. It was that good.

I could not have attended this program without the support of the Sparhawk PTO, whom have me financial support without question. I felt wonderfully appreciated and encouraged as a Sparhawk educator. I also have to thank the National Audubon society for their scholarship towards my tuition.

It was clear to me, as I listened to Stephen Kress speak to us teachers one night about Project Puffin, that had my class not gone down the road of choosing the Atlantic Puffins as our class bird name way back in 2012, that I probably would not have been sitting in the audience on this gem of an island on the Maine coast. I thought, "I guess even a seemingly small decision like choosing a bird name can lead to wonderful things." I felt that something remarkable had happened to me.

~Lisa Hughes, Grade 4&5 Teacher, Sparhawk Lower School

For more information on the Puffin Project, click here.

For more info on the Audubon Camp at Hog Island, click here.


  • Audubon camp
  • Hog Island
  • LGBT Safe School
  • school habitat

Originally published July 2015

Webster defines a habitat as the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives and grows.  Furthermore an environment is defined (medical dictionary) in two important ways:

  • The complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.
  • The aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community.

With a few tweaks to the lingo- that's exactly what a school is, right?  

Educational habitat- The place or environment where a human naturally learns and grows.  A school is the aggregate of its complex social and physical conditions that influence the life, form and survival of an individual or community.

Sparhawk Habitat | A Graduate's Story

Louise Stilphen, the founder and Headmaster of Sparhawk School, popped in my office yesterday and shared an email that she had just received from a former student.  The email was sent to her in response to a post that she had made on her personal Facebook page congratulating the US Supreme Court on their ruling that the guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 US states.  

As she read the following excerpt of the email to me, we both became teary-eyed. "I don't know if you knew it or not, but the community you cultivated played a pretty huge roll in my outlook on the world and how I viewed myself in it. Sparhawk was, and from what I hear, is to this day a very safe community in which to transition from the "closet" to being more open. I cannot express how fantastic it felt to be a part of such a community and to know the support was there, if I needed it, not just from my peers but my teachers as well.  Thank you for making it possible for me to be me!"  ~Connor Coggins, Class of 2009.

What a beautiful testament to the culture and habitat that each member of our community strives so hard to create.  Thank you to Connor for sharing his story, and to each member of our community that helped to influence this (young) man's life.

For information on how to create a safe school for LGBTQ students and families, check out the PFLAG Boston website at: https://www.gbpflag.org/SafeSchoolsProgram

  • choosing a school
  • community

"How do I know when a school is right for my child?".  How your child feels when they are at a school is imperative to joyful learning.  Here's a few tips on choosing the right one.

I was one of the first of my friends to have a child, and it just so happens that I work in education- this automatically makes me the prime candidate for school related questions in my circle.  Undoubtedly the most frequently asked question is, "How do I know when a school is right for my child?"  

Here is my answer, always.

  • Do your homework, explore your options and choose a few (at least three) schools to tour that mirror your child's interests, learning style and needs.  
  • Make sure the school is within your budget (or ask about financial aid, most schools welcome that conversation!)
  • If your child requires services, make sure they are available.  
  • Call, ask the questions that are important to your family.
  • Book a tour and then GET OUT OF THE WAY.

Here is the most important part of my answer- When you tour the school, bring your child and pay close attention to how they feel.  You know your child better than anyone, and chances are you will know within five minutes if the school is the right fit for them.  The visceral unlearned response; that overall feeling that you get walking in the door, meeting the staff and students, is a mirror of that school's educational habitat.  Allow your child to explore that habitat, ask their own questions and make them part of the process.  It is SO easy to impose our own learned behavior and educational beliefs on our children but they are the ones who will be learning at the school.  Let them lead the way, your child will feel it, or they won't.  

Here are some good reads & videos on getting out of the way: 

Check out this story about a local mom allowing her child to feel the difference.

  • get out of the way
  • school choice
  • class size
  • school environment
  • school habitat

Originally written June 2015

A few weeks ago I had a huge "Aha Moment", a perfect storm of ideas that came crashing together over a period of days.  The over-reaching theme of this idea is habitat and how it relates to children and schools.  

About a month ago, I was listening to the Moth Podcast and I happened to see a featured story entitled Mothering in Captivity being shared by Molly Ringwald (yes, THAT Molly Ringwald).  If you don't know The Moth - it's all about real people telling real (short) stories on stage for their peers.  Check it out here, you won't be sorry.  

Now, back to Molly.  I am going to share an abbreviated version of her story with you, but I highly recommend you listen for yourself.  In the segment, Molly shares the story of her bright and gifted seven year old daughter, Matilda, and her educational experience moving from a private progressive school to a (highly rated) local public school.  Molly goes on to say that Matilda firmly refuses to move schools, but as parents, they did what they felt was best and chose the local school option for her.  This move was met with a very rocky start, including many visits with the teacher and school principal, culminating in the labeling of Matilda as a potential bully based on her behavior.  She was miserable and she was lashing out.  No parent ever wants to hear that about their child, and as any good human does, Molly started the long journey of helping Matilda work through this behavior.

One day as they were driving in the car together, Molly and Matilda were listening to a Radiolab podcast (another amazing podcast, check it out) entitled Inside Out Cage about Gorillas and the transition from concrete zoos to nature based ones. As they listened, the narrator talked about the gorilla's first experience in its natural habitat after having been in concrete captivity for years.  He explained the gorilla's movements of gently touching the grass and reaching toward the sun and sky for the very first time.  It's at this moment where Molly looked at her daughter in the back seat of the car and observed her mimicking the movements of the gorilla.  As she watched her daughter,  Molly realized that Matilda was not in her natural habitat.  Together, over the following years, they rebuilt that habitat for her, helping her to find the natural space where she could best learn, grow & thrive.  This was the start of my "Aha moment."

Habitat.  A humans habitat - What does that mean to me?  What does it mean to my son?  How is Sparhawk's habitat different- and what specifically makes it work so well for our family and so many others?  This really stuck with me, I thought about that word over and overagain for the next two days.  Frankly, I couldn't help but think about it, because we were visiting friends over the weekend whose child had just found her perfect school habitat, and then the city alerted them that they were kicking them out of their building, but more on that in a future post.  

I came into work at Sparhawk on the following Monday, and I bumped into my co-worker and fellow Sparhawk Mom, Jennifer Esty.  At the tail of our conversation she said, "Oh, I listened to the Moth podcast this weekend and I heard this actress talking about her daughters habitat...."  She barely got the words out when I excitedly interrupted "Molly Ringwald!  I heard it!  HABITAT!"  We both had the same "Aha Moment" over the weekend.  As moms, Jen and I have had extensive conversations about the Sparhawk School environment and what it has done for our children and the other students at this school.  In our conversations we often referred to this school as their environment, but it is bigger than that - in truth it is a habitat.  

  • community

Emily WhiteOne of the phrases that you hear most often about the culture at Sparhawk is that we "know our students well."  If you are unfamiliar with Sparhawk, you might think that we are just talking about their academic lives- Billy is a B+ student who likes robotics...  but, in truth, it's much much more than that.  

The Sparhawk culture has been both organically and intentionally created over the past 20+ years.  The cultural intention of Sparhawk can be ideated, but doesn't truly come to fruition without the actions of the community.  We CHOOSE to be invested in each other.  We share in each others' successes, and encourage one another during loss or challenges.  We seek to understand the intricacies of personalities, and celebrate individuality.  Most of all, we listen to our students and value their insightful contributions to our community.  

The depth to which we know our students is highlighted at our graduation ceremony.  Each year, members of our faculty stand before the audience and give individualized tributes and speeches for all of the graduating seniors.  Teachers weave together recountings, fond memories, achievements and joy, showcasing the deep connection and understanding that we have of each student.  Here's a snippet of a story that was shared at the 2016 graduation by Emily White about graduating senior Jordan Michel:

Ten years ago I started my Sparhawk career at the Farm Campus. I happily began teaching Italian for the 1st time in an elementary school.  And ten years ago, Jordan Michel, you too started your Sparhawk career at the Farm School and began studying Italian for the first time in your life.

After a decade, we can reflect on some of the most valuable things that Sparhawk has taught us both: fundamental ideas like patience, perseverance, openness to learning, trust, and bravery. These are just some of the necessary pieces to becoming a fair teacher and a role model student.

Indeed all of our graduates have some of these traits--There are countless memories I could share to demonstrate how they possess them, but I will talk about just three that I think best illustrate some of the finest aspects I see in you, Jordan. In my opinion, these are never-faltering parts of your personality. You embody these qualities and they define how you interact with others. 

These are also some of the exemplary features that turn people into what we like to call good humans. And Jordan, you are just that, a good human. 

Traveling to Nicaragua with you this past winter proved it; the trip allowed me to witness true and generous offerings from the heart. You find joy both in giving and receiving from others, and have much to share of yourself.

You never shy away from an opportunity to help those in need. This is your way of demonstrating kindliness.

It is hard to imagine a better role model for any young man than you, Jordan. You are the perfect gentleman--always holding a door, waiting for all to be served before eating, gracious and sincere. You are a compassionate friend--always supportive of your peers’ endeavors and willing to listen or offer helpful advice.  You are a welcoming smile to newcomers--you accept all without judgment, and realize the opportunities newness and diversity can provide.

Being such a role model, you can only imagine the great fortune I feel knowing that you have been this to many, but most luckily for me, to my own son Nico. Thank you, Jordan for being this to him and to others. 

In listening to this speech a few years ago, and rereading it now, I think the statement that "We know our students well" is too limiting.  The truth is simply that we know each other well.  To many of us, faculty and students alike, Sparhawk is a second home.  We are growing together, sharing defining experiences that will help shape our future choices and we are building human connections that will last a lifetime.

  • community of kindness
  • kindness
  • Academic
  • Differentiators
  • experiential math
  • Hands-on learning
  • Lower School
  • progressive education


At Sparhawk, students of all ages are given the opportunity to solve practical, real-life problems as well as those found in math books. In other words, we combine traditional skill- development and practical applications. The applications, often called “hands-on” or “experiential” learning, allow students to use and practice their emerging toolbox of skills, in context, and in ways that are intrinsically interesting and make sense to them. The result is greater enthusiasm, commitment, sustained interest and, ultimately, comprehension. This dual approach also illustrates the reason for math learning.

I have never heard a child ask why they need to learn how to read, or write.  Sometimes, however, kids ask, “Why do I have to learn math?” This is because math is hard work in a way that other academic subjects are not, and this is true even for those with math talent. Math is a new language, a foreign one in the sense that few students have much explicit experience of it before coming to school. Children, on the other hand, are immersed in language experiences even in utero. They learn vocabulary by listening as parents talk away to them and provide nouns for everything gaze or hands encounter. They observe social cues and use verbalizations to interact with others, even before they speak their native language. They literally dance the rhythms of syntax, internalizing the patterns while still very tiny.  These are the algorithms of spoken language.

On the other hand, parents don’t talk baby-math to newborns, and even if they did, it would not be “math,” per se; it would simply be words with no reference, and without reference, 2+2 or Pi squared is 9.869604401 are just pretty nonsense syllables, in other words more English, Chinese, or French. We don’t read math books to children. Not even math-talented parents do this. Yes, there are some early exceptions to this rule, but usually it is because a child is, seemingly, mysteriously endowed with some understanding from a rare brain’s organization, that is not attributed to instruction. We have had such children at Sparhawk. However, direct instruction and math immersion is rare in most families and language immersion natural.

Counting, is not math, it is memorization. One-to-one correspondence is a foundational skill that does occur naturally: One cookie for you and one for me; Let’s count the trucks on this page; but beyond that, for most children, the foreign language of math starts once they begin school. The direct parallel would be to imagine a child whose only experience in language arts, before coming to school, consisted of recitation of the alphabet. No stories. No conversation.

Math is not only a foreign language, it is an abstract, ordered, logical and convergent language that, in the earliest years, requires a connection to the real world; it needs reference to real objects. Otherwise, math is intangible and mysterious, abstract and untouchable at a time of life when much of experience and understanding is concrete rather than abstract, and in the absence of experience, meaningless. And, if one is asked to do hard work, one should discover, “What’s in it for me? Why am I learning math?” In the absence of sense-making, math can also be frightening, as we all know it is to many. To too many, in fact.

These are the reasons why experiential math activities are the foundation for our very youngest students, and as children move through early elementary grades and show developmental readiness, more time is devoted to abstract reasoning and increasingly formal instruction in the standard scope and sequence of math concepts. Number facts are memorized and students develop skill in solving mental-math challenges. The combination of traditional skill development, the tools, and enticing challenges to solve, makes for a successful and fear-less approach to math learning. Both text and touch are essential and synergistic ingredients in early math learning. 


The Learning Way: Meta-cognitive Aspects of Experiential Learning 

Hands On, Mulit-Sensory, Math Activities


  • experiential education
  • math
  • mathematics

Explore what differentiates Sparhawk School from a traditional model in regards to group and class sizing.

We are often asked, "What makes Sparhawk School different from public school?"  There are a multitude of answers, but first, I will focus on three related factors upon which all else depends. These defining differences are: our dedication to maintaining ideal teacher-student* ratios, overall group sizes**, and student-student*** ratios. The 'right' ratios are those that assure the best support for both our students and teachers.  

Research supports the common-sense wisdom that group size, not simply ratio, is what matters most in terms of best attention for students. Small group sizes makes everything else possible. Students in a group of 20 elementary school students with two teachers simply cannot get as much emotional and academic support as a student in a group with 10 students with one teacher.  

The reason stems from the nature of human needs, and the younger the child, the more important and immediate they are. The mixing together of the various wants, abilities, interests, needs and behaviors of each of 20 personalities creates an aggregate of complexities that is greater in combination than what would exist in two groups with a 1-10 ratio each.  In a larger group, there are more distractions, in general, including visual, spatial, and auditory stimulation, and greater diversity of social challenges. If two students require attention in a classroom of 20 students, that leaves 18 children remaining with all of the aforementioned human complexities brewing. This is an overwhelming prospect for even the most experienced teacher, and even more so for a child.

This is all particularly true with younger students who have greater natural egocentricity and proper dependency on the teacher to assist them in so many ways. And, the younger the children, the greater overall diversity there will be. For example, a first-grade group may have students who do not know all of their numbers and letters and students who have been reading for a long time. What is the common ground for the teacher? In many traditional schools, it is the mid-point of the group’s abilities, or whatever state-mandated tests require be taught, no matter what the children’s statuses are. There will be children who have very little experience outside of their home and children who have traveled the world. This is where the importance of creating the ideal group in size and student-student combination comes into play.

Consider, for instance, the ability that Sparhawk has to create small, mixed-age groupings of students. This begins with the admissions process, when we select individual students not only for personal attributes that indicate age-appropriate levels of ability, motivation, and self-discipline, but also for their contribution to our community as a whole. These qualities are assessed based on day visits and, after sixth grade, also by the review of questionnaires and letters of reference from previous school personnel. Not every applicant is accepted. Public schools, on the other hand, are mandated to accept all students in its district. Students are then divided by age into groups of a certain number without regard to ability, motivation and self-discipline.  

Furthermore, at Sparhawk, we consider the whole child, not simply their academic ability, but their social and emotional ability as well when assigning groups. Where is this student going to be most successful, and what is the best grouping of peers that will help them along the way? We assign students to peer groups of others who can support one another, creating a positive student-student experience and an overall enriching habitat for all.

During the elementary school years, the foundation for future education is set. These are the formative years. Students not only develop academic skill sets, but also character traits such as self-motivation and the panoply of celebrations-of-learning that the emotional safety of small-group learning offers. 


How Important is Class Size?

For more information on group sizing and dynamics, please click here.

For more on class size reduction research, click here.

The Seven Myths of Class Size Reducation--And the Truth

*Student–teacher ratio or student–faculty ratio is the number of students who attend a school or university divided by the number of teachers in the institution. For example, a student–teacher ratio of 10:1 indicates that there are 10 students for every one teacher.

**Group size, as defined by Wikipedia: Size (the number of people involved) is an important characteristic of the groups, organizations, and communities in which social behavior occurs.  When only a few persons are interacting, adding just one more individual may make a big difference in how they relate. As an organization or community grows in size it is apt to experience tipping points where the way in which it operates needs to change. The complexity of large groupings is partly because they are made up of interrelated subgroups.

Herbert Thelen proposed a principle that for members of groups to have maximum motivation to perform, the number of members in each should be the smallest "in which it is possible to have represented at a functional level all the social and achievement skills required for the particular required activity."

***Student-student ratio; The ratio of students to one another, or what we like to call the human scale.  The larger the group the more interaction there is between students, and the younger the student the greater the challenge to negotiate the world of other children, whether for academic or social help. Lessons safely learned over time, in intimate groups, are often a challenge for teachers to provide at all, let alone individualize, and for the children to request.


  • academic
  • intellectual
  • small class size
  • student teacher ratio