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Delighting in the Doing

Aileen, 5th grader at LePort

Aileen, 5th grader at LePort

History class as dry recitals of names and dates for a test, and English class as pointless worksheets and writings to satisfy a teacher or parent. Sound familiar? Sad that this is the “history” and “English” so many of us adults remember, and so many of our children experience today.

At LePort, however, history is the exciting story of humanity’s monumental struggles and successes, and English is the impassioned communication of ideas worth knowing. The result of this educational approach is children who delight in the learning process and take pride in their creative product. For example, below is a speech written and later delivered by ten-year-old Aileen, who offers her audience (me and her fifth-grade peers) a memorable view of an ancient Athenian general speaking to his soldiers during a protracted war:

Aileen and Pericles

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When education is done right — e.g., clearly presented content and thoughtfully motivated assignments — Aileen’s is the understanding and passionate achievement that is possible. And her success is not an anomaly.

Regularly at LePort, for instance, rather than teachers hearing unmotivated questions like, “How many paragraphs do we need for this assignment?” and “Will this be on the test?”, we instead (literally) hear sincere questions like: “Can I do the paper from the perspective of a *Spartan* general?” “How many soldiers had died at this point, Mr. McCarthy? I want to address the exact number!” “While I give my speech in class, can I play sad music in the background? It seems only fitting.”

In life, we write to communicate, not to get good grades. Thus in class, we present students with effective tools so they can write clearly and exciting content so they have something to write about. In brief, we offer children that which they (and adults) deserve: the opportunity to delight in the doing.

“The Red Coats Are Coming”: Visualizing and Feeling in Teaching

At LePort, we are always looking to improve ourselves as educators. And that means documenting and learning from each other’s ideas about great teaching practices. Over the years we’ve come to see that a major facet of great teachers is their ability to cultivate strong imaginations in their students and elicit even stronger emotions. Below is an internal paper written for our teachers on a related pedagogical tactic we employ daily. It is called visualization, and it is just one element of our experiential approach to education.

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Internal Paper: Experiential Teaching

Everybody has heard the line "The Red Coats are coming", usually at some point in elementary school. But how many of us can see and feel it? How many have a rich visual scene in their heads, with a real emotional connection to go with it?

Too often in school all we hear is words. Disconnected, uninteresting, non-visualized words. At LePort we know that words matter, and we revere them, because they are the means by which we grasp and communicate knowledge. But we also know that for words to actually represent knowledge students must understand them.

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An important method by which we ensure that words are understood, that our students connect what we’re talking about with their own personal context, is visualization – the eliciting of images in a individual’s mind. This tactic allows students to see what we’re teaching and to feel the emotional connection that comes only from experiential learning, ultimately making knowledge a student’s own.

To illustrate this idea, let’s travel back in time to our own elementary school, to our 5th-grade History (or Social Studies) class, when most of us first heard the "Red Coats" phrase. But on this occasion, let’s give the presentation the visuals and feeling it deserves, let’s make it a LePort style lesson:

Transport yourself to a cabin in early Colonial times (you know, homespun clothes, dirty hands, farm life). You’re ten, and you’re sitting in the living room around a fireplace reading. Above the fireplace, as in most homes of the time, sits a musket. Your dad is there, maybe a brother or sister if you have one. Mom’s out somewhere, don’t know where. Each of you are enjoying a book, you an exciting novel, though you’re a little tense because you’ve heard that British troops – Red Coats – have landed in your town and are abusing locals, some of whom are your friends’ parents. But the presence of the troops is still not fully real. It is still merely a news story to you.

You’re just reaching the climax of your novel, and your mind is now completely absorbed in your book. All of a sudden you hear shouting from outside the door. The voices are garbled at first, but then you make out the words. "The Red Coats are coming! The Red Coats are coming!!" Your eyes immediately shoot to the fireplace, and then to just a few feet up, where your dad’s musket sits. You see the musket as if it’s for the first time. Everything is quiet, motionless; life itself seems to have stopped. Then you remember that your dad is with you, in the living room. You look over to him. He is completely still, so still that his stillness belies what’s occurring within. In his eyes you see the deepest, most serious agitation you have ever seen in a man. One question then immediately comes to your mind: What is dad going to do?

At this point in the lesson, there is not one boy or girl who is really "in" the classroom. Each is in his own mind, living out his own visual story. And each wants to talk about it, to share his feelings. Hell, I want to share my feelings! This is when the teacher would transition to a class discussion – and boy what a discussion it would become.

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As teachers, all of us have experienced those special moments when every child, seemingly without exception, is engaged. In this case, the engagement is accomplished through storytelling. But why is this particular story so compelling? I think it’s because it offers the children a visual and emotional experience. When dramatizing this story in class, there are a few actual visuals a teacher would use – a picture of a British troop (a Red Coat) and a video of a musket being shot – but the real visuals come from within the child’s mind, from his capacity and willingness to use his imagination, to turn the teacher’s words into images … to paint his own unique picture of the story.

Our students have such a capacity in them, if we can provide the spark. Through visual and emotional teaching, we gain huge in our efforts to impart knowledge. And that is why I believe whenever we are speaking in class, our intent should be to help kids see and feel what we’re saying. We’ll succeed if we go in with this underlying objective to make words visual, to transform sounds coming from our mouths into the equivalent of experiential knowledge. This applies throughout subject areas, whether we’re teaching a novel, some math formulas, a grammatical concept, or a species of tree. (No doubt this tactic is most challenging in math, but maybe all the more reason to make it a stretch goal!)

So the takeaway here is simple. Whenever we are prepping what we will teach our kids, or whenever we are up in front of the class ready to say a few words, let’s ask ourselves: Will my students be able to see this, will they be able to feel this? The more we can answer "Yes", the better our classrooms, the better our teaching will be.

A Sense of History at LePort

Amid the safety and comfort of Orange County, it is hard for us to imagine that living in America once meant risking your life for an uncertain future. Yet this was exactly the challenge early British settlers faced in the untamed New World. Thousands of miles from family, friends, and king, settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, and in the colony at Massachusetts Bay, literally struggled for basic necessities while working to build a future for themselves and their descendants.

This school year, the students in LePort’s 7th-grade history class are studying early America, and last month they completed an assignment allowing them to vicariously experience the life of an early colonist. Writing as a fictional settler in one of the first American colonies, the 7th graders’ mission was to compose a letter to a friend or relative back in England and attempt to convince him or her to travel across the ocean to join the new colony. Within the bounds of what they learned from lectures, assignments and discussions, along with independent historical research, students were left free to determine the details of their letter – of their settler’s life, values, and voice. They completed their research, planning, and initial writing in history class, and received additional feedback on further drafts from their language arts teacher, Mrs. Longley. The results were impressive.

Below is one example student letter. Sidney Bowen – or Sir Terrance Francis Williams XVI – chose to write from the perspective of a settler who came to seek gold in Virginia, and found himself quite unprepared for the rugged life he now leads. In inviting his friend across the Atlantic to join him in America, “Sir Terrance” tries to put a good spin on the challenges he has faced, but does not quite succeed. I hope you enjoy reading Sidney’s letter as much as I did!


January 12th, 1622

Dear Sir Arnold Louis Bennet,

How are you, my old friend? How is your insuperable daughter, Mary? (I am only joking…) I am now living in the “New World” in Jamestown, Virginia. It is quite a lovely place, indeed! The reason I am suddenly speaking to you on such matters is because I wish for you to join the settlers and come to the new land. I know you were a wealthy man, just as I was, and I have heard that you are beginning to lose your fortune, as I had sixteen years ago in 1606. I was running low on gold, but I did not want to work, and why should I? Should a handsome, dashing gentleman be forced to plant crops and pick up foul cow manure? I think not! But before I went to weep in a corner, I heard that the London Company was going to send three ships out to Chesapeake Bay to search for gold. GOLD! In an instant I decided to invest in the London Company and board one of the ships to become a gold hunter, in order to gain back my fortune and possibly receive more. In late August of 1607, we all arrived in Jamestown, named after King James. We faced a few conflicts with illness, as any colony did, because of the lack of food and the swampy atmosphere. But a man named John Smith, whom I happened to abhor, saved some of the other gentleman settlers who were having a miniscule bit of trouble with local natives. The colonists and I were at the time living near the Algonquin Indians, whom John Smith befriended. This friendship allowed us to trade food and crops with the Indians.

After we settled briefly, all of the gentleman settlers, including me, went out to search for gold. After a few days of unenthusiastic rummaging, we all spotted yellow dirt deep in the ground! We brutally and viciously dug, and dug, and dug until we found immense pounds of gold! It was a precious sight…until we sent it back to England. We realized that our riches were not truly riches, but pyrite (fool’s gold). John Smith believed that we spent too much time searching for worthless gold. (But anyone could’ve mistaken it for gold, Smith!) Then—the nerve of the man!—he created a ludicrous law that we needed to plant our own crops or we would not receive food. “He that will not work shall not eat”, he snorted insolently.

In 1609, John Smith fortunately left our colony and went back to England, but then we had a little glitch in our lifestyle. People now call it the “Starving Time”, but that saying is quite exaggerated. We merely had a lower amount of food in our supply, which made us lightly gnaw on wild animals, and dead bodies…but it wasn’t as horrid as you might think. It could’ve happened to any colony without the proper tools for building homes. Luckily, England heard of our inconsequential troubles, and they instantaneously sent over supplies. We were saved…I mean, helped. In 1611, the London Company sent Sir Thomas Dale over to Jamestown to become governor of our little colony. He gave each person a three-acre amount of land, but we were forced to work in order to keep it. Soon after, we discovered that the Indians had found a plant, which they would smoke out of a clay pipe. The plant was named tobacco. After this incredible plant was discovered, everyone was planting tobacco in their land to sell to English merchants at exorbitant prices. And believe me, this plant that is formed into smoke is the most addicting material I have ever tasted.

1619 was one of the most exciting times in Jamestown because a ship of women arrived to enlarge the colony’s population. According to the colony’s laws, I am obligated to work most of the time in order to keep my land, which is a contemptible rule. The arrival of these women was principally exciting for me because I wouldn’t have to work nearly as much with a wife. My dear and charming wife, Jane, is not only beautiful, but labors day and night like a mule for her loving husband. Also, I do not have to pay my mule…I mean wife. Jane helps me through the horrendous pain by making our own clothes, planting crops for food, making soap, candles, and more! My favorite chore to watch is the process of candle making. There is a large iron kettle held on a crane over the fire, and when the fat and grease melt, she dips the cotton in the fat and allows it to dry.

From what I have explained about the colonies, you may not be entirely convinced to join me, considering all I have spoken about is work. If and when you arrive in Virginia, you will recognize that life is not only work, but there are families living in the colony, whose young children are receiving a glorious amount of education. I, for one, despise children, so I do not have any because they whine and cry, run around in dirt, and more things that I don’t wish to share with you. Since you always wanted to raise a family, you might consider having a child here. Although, I’m sure introspection will bring you to a firm decision to NOT have children, since they damage your life greatly.

Well, my dear friend, I have had a longing desire to see you again, for it has been sixteen years, and that is too long, Arnold. I anticipate that you find my letter influential enough that you will perhaps consider joining the colony. It is unlike anything I have experienced my entire life, and I believe you will concur with me. I hope to see you in the new land, Arnie!

Sincerely,
Sir Terrance Francis Williams XVI


One of our goals in the LePort history program is that students do not just study history, but are immersed in it — that the past is understood not as a series of names, dates, and events to be memorized, but as flesh and blood. Taking on the role of a historical character is one of the most rewarding ways to immerse oneself in history, but also one of the most demanding, because making such writing realistic and compelling requires a student to integrate a wealth of information. For assignments like the settler letter, students need to know more than the 5 Ws of history (the who, what, where, when, and why); they must have a full-blown sense of the past — of the goals, manners, and values of historical cultures and people. Sidney clearly achieved that in her letter, as did her peers in theirs, and the result is a meaningful understanding of early America that will not be forgotten.

Matt Ballin, History Teacher

Just not good enough: why your child deserves a better curriculum

If you attended Elementary Curriculum Night, you had a sneak-peek into LePort’s unique approach to education. [See the videos at the bottom if you weren’t able to attend.]

In this newsletter, I’d like to offer you further insight into what makes LePort’s curriculum different. How does LePort’s approach, which we call “Knowledge for Life”, compare with the California Standards?

Almost everyone agrees that there’s something wrong with “teaching to the test”, the practice of focusing in school on memorizing and drilling for standardized tests. But this practice is based on the California Standards—the textbooks, lessons and outcome measures approved by State education committees.

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