Portfolio School: A Conversation with Dr. Shira Leibowitz

Q&A  07 July 2017
By Dr. Shira Leibowitz

 

One of our five-year-olds was learning to read and write, she asked me, “When you were my age, did you want to be a teacher?” I told her, “No, I love teaching, but what I really wanted to do at your age was be an author.” Her immediate reply: “Oh don’t worry, we’ll teach you how.”

Dr. Shira Leibowitz
Founding Lower School Director, Portfolio School

Q: What path led you to your current role at Portfolio School?

A: I have led independent schools for 20 years, and during that time, I was expected to know the most current educational research and innovative best practices. Over time, I became somewhat disillusioned. What we could do for our learners, and what our learners deserved, was impossible to implement in traditional schools given their current structures, cultures, and expectations. I wanted to create something new. It was then that I found Portfolio School. It was an ideal match for me given our visions are so aligned; that is, being radically responsive to children and their families and applying actionable research in a school setting.

Q: What do you see as the possibility for the Portfolio model to translate to learning environments that reach all kids?

A: We are reimagining education, creating an environment that is highly interdisciplinary and where students of different ages work together. We engage learners in many creative experiences, incorporating making within our FabLab [Fabrication Laboratory]—which is open and accessible all the time—creative writing, and a wide range of design challenges and projects. We seek deep learning and organize our schedules to allow for long periods of time in which children can immerse themselves in our learning units and creative projects.

We’ve broken down walls between classrooms, disciplines, and ages, creating a unique learning environment in which students can achieve enormous intellectual and creative depth—with social-emotional learning embedded—in a way that’s impossible given the structures, cultures, and traditions of many schools. And, we feel the Portfolio approach has much to offer other types of learning environments that reach all kids. We believe that implementing pieces of our approach will help schools to achieve the type of higher levels of learning, understanding, and creativity we all seek, and we are committed to creating opportunities to share our curriculum with schools, after-school and informal education programs, and families. We are also committed to offering professional development to share ways of adapting our approaches to a variety of settings.

 

 

We’ve been amazed by what young children can accomplish when they are given a challenging task that’s interesting to them and are supported with the right scaffolding to accomplish their goals.

Dr. Shira Leibowitz
Founding Lower School Director, Portfolio School

Q: How variable are the learning opportunities for your learners? What’s an example of a project that has been taken on?

A: We aim for deep learning through a variety of learning experiences, so our program includes personal projects, as well as in-depth collaborative projects. The collaborative projects are connected to an immersive unit of study around a single overarching theme. Last year, we ran three units—each with a substantial collaborative project that culminated in a public exhibition where our students presented their work to families, friends, and members of our community.

The three units last year focused on:

  1. Temperature and Cold: “Learning is Delicious” was a unit in which students created their own ice cream machines and learned (among other things) how the commercialization of ice changed the world.
  2. Color: This unit stemmed from student interest, as we observed our kids often making rainbows and, on a class trip to the Met, being most interested in Joseph Albers’ colorful Homage to the Square paintings. In this unit, students learned about the creation of pigments in ancient caves, how leaves change color, and the mythology and science of rainbows, among other explorations about color. Learners read rainbow myths from around the world and then wrote their own. They transformed an area of our school into a cave. They designed their own lightbox projector and laser-cut three scenes from their myths to project on the cave wall. They programmed an LED bonfire, designed masks of the main characters of their myths, and at our public exhibition, brought our guests through an immersive storytelling experience about rainbows.
  3. The Domestication of Animals: This unit was driven by the students’ interest in adopting a class pet. This offered us an opportunity to engage them in learning about what is considered to be the most significant event in the past 15,000 years of human history: the Neolithic Revolution, or the period in which people domesticated plants and animals. Students learned not only about the domestication of guinea pigs (the animals our kids  chose to adopt) but also about how humans domesticated plants and a wide range of animals, changing the course of human history. Considering what it means to live with animals today, students designed and built a multi-story home for guinea pigs, with ramps that allowed our two guinea pigs to move between levels and a rooftop farm that grows the plants to feed the guinea pigs. Learning that when the humidity gets too high the home needs to be cleaned, the kids designed and built sensors to measure the home’s internal humidity. This included a user interface that lights up when it was time to clean the guinea pig home. They also began experimenting with Artificial Intelligence to train a neural network to identify each of the two guinea pigs, so we could check in on them even when we weren’t at school. All of this work was presented at a public exhibition at which the students presented their guinea pig house and brought guests on a journey through history via the lens of the domestication of animals.

We’ve been amazed by what young children can accomplish when they are given a challenging task that’s interesting to them and are supported with the right scaffolding to accomplish their goals.

 

 

When the students reflected at the end of the year on what was important to them about what they learned, they spoke as much about the things they loved as they did about the things they initially found difficult.

Dr. Shira Leibowitz
Founding Lower School Director, Portfolio School

Q: What allows projects to turn so many different directions along the way, while still working toward the overall objective (like having a class pet)?

A: Learning and creating at Portfolio is an organic process, in which the adults are immersing ourselves in the learning alongside our students. There are so many different projects coming up that we certainly can’t be experts in all of them, so the students know we’re researching and learning about the topic and thinking through ideas that we believe are important and relevant. (When the work requires a professional with a certain area of expertise, we also bring in those professionals.) A core goal is we want the students to take ownership in their own learning. Over time, we support them to acquire the skills they need to become co-designers, and eventually the primary creators, of their learning experiences and projects. For the youngest students, introduction to research takes place through read-alouds, documentaries that are made for their level of learning, and exploration and experimentation. Older students take on increasingly more sophisticated research and learning.

For everyone, questions begin arising, and these questions lead to design challenges. The role of the teacher is radically redefined here. We’re learners and creators with the students, and we’re guiding and scaffolding for them. We want all of the students to build on areas of great interest. The coding and computational thinking example from The Domestication of Animals  project was born from the students’ interest in going deeper in those areas. The Artificial Intelligence work came about because we think it’s important for this generation to understand this technology, and the older students (ages 9 and 10) were expressing interest in it, as well. When the students reflected at the end of the year on what was important to them about what they’d learned, they spoke as much about the things they loved as they did about the things they initially found difficult.

 

 

By building on skills he was already confident in and engaging him in writing in a more fun way, the student was able to create a story he was really proud of.

Dr. Shira Leibowitz
Founding Lower School Director, Portfolio School

For example, one of the students who joined us with a particular passion for math and coding initially found writing to be very challenging. Through the projects, we began discussing how Stanford engineering students document their work so others can repeat it, and we expressed the importance of our students doing the same. When this student was able to produce this style of writing, we gave encouragement and celebrated his progress.

Then, during our Color unit, he had the opportunity to grow as a writer. The students learned about the symbolic use of color in literature and investigated different versions of the Snow White story. Discovering these different variations from around the world, they were then asked to write their own Snow White story set in 2016 New York City. This all happened right after the election, so they transformed that project based on current events. With main characters like Trump, Clinton, and Obama, it was awesome political satire. The stories were all smart, funny, and engaging—including the one by the student who had initially struggled with writing.

His following unit, a rainbow myth, flowed much more easily, and he demonstrated that he viewed himself as a writer. By building on skills he was already confident in and engaging him in writing in a more fun way, the student was able to create a story he was really proud of—giving him a new sense of himself as someone good at math, coding, and now, writing.

That’s important to us—setting the bar high in many different areas we believe are important for success in the future. This allows the students to see themselves as capable, growing humans able to stretch both in areas they love and in areas that don’t come as easily to them.

 

 

The students view themselves as doing significant work now, rather than thinking they have to wait until they grow up.

Dr. Shira Leibowitz
Founding Lower School Director, Portfolio School

Q: What do you think is the biggest difference for learners in an environment like Portfolio School compared to other environments you’ve previously been a part of?

A: The biggest difference, which was a really wonderful surprise for us, is the way students crave feedback to make their work better. They’re driven to produce quality work. I believe that comes from a couple of components.

We don’t give grades, so it can never be “this is what I need to do to get an A” or “I’m happy with getting a B.” What we do is get our work ready for public exhibition or publication. The questions are always, “Is it ready to publish?” and “Who can help me get it ready to publish?” This iterative type of feedback has a whole different tone than evaluation or grading. The students themselves are working really hard on learning how to both give and receive feedback. That’s been the most significant difference.

Another important aspect is how much they view themselves as doing significant work now, rather than thinking they have to wait until they grow up. During our Learning is Delicious unit, there was one day when one of our learners was able to turn her ice cream maker on for the first time and actually saw the motor running; she looked at me with a big smile and said, “This is the most important day of my career.” She could see it was something that worked and this feeling of accomplishment was something she wanted.

Another example was when one of our five-year-olds was learning to read and write, she asked me, “When you were my age, did you want to be a teacher?” I told her, “No. I love teaching, but what I really wanted to do at your age was be an author.” Her immediate reply: “Oh don’t worry, we’ll teach you how.” They view themselves as professionals, artists, creators—doing stuff that matters in the world right now.

The last area of difference is in how kind they are to each other. Ours is an environment of dramatic collaboration and cooperation, supported by the mixed-age setting. The older students view it as their responsibility to support the learning of the younger students. That changes the social dynamic in so many ways. They aspire to be someone knowledgeable enough to be the mentor or coach and who does so in a kind and encouraging way. Similarly, the younger students bring a playful spirit for the older students, always reminding us the importance of having fun and playing as we work.

Sign up for Pioneering

×

Pioneering is the publication for all things learner-centered. This free digital magazine is a great way to stay up-to-date on this growing field, discover pioneering work, engage practitioners on the ground making it happen, and join the conversation.