Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Educating Beyond the Classroom

“Learning means the most when it feeds a student’s sense of purpose.”

Part of what it means to be a 21st century student is to extend education beyond the classroom. Greens Farms Academy not only encourages its students to examine their entire world — by asking questions, identifying problems, discovering and sharing solutions — but it identifies this level of inquiry as a critical component in developing the thinkers and doers of tomorrow. Putting this into practice is a priority across all three divisions, as faculty increasingly create space and time for students to dig deeply into their environment while continuing to implement the academic concepts they develop in a traditional classroom setting.

“We strive to unlock intrinsic motivation, cultivate a sense of purpose, and prepare students to thrive as learners and citizens,” according to Victor Llanque, Associate Head of School. “Our curriculum meets students in their areas of interest to help them develop the essential skills, knowledge, and most importantly, the learning posture they will need to meet the opportunities and challenges the world offers.”

While this idea is not new to GFA — for example, the annual World Perspectives Symposium and traditional eighth-grade Capstone projectshave been a part of the GFA experience for more than a decade — these past efforts have provided ample evidence that this type of learning translates to students of all ages. Going forward the faculty across all divisions will be looking to increase the opportunities for student-driven initiatives.

“Our teachers activate GFA’s core values around students’ curiosity — which routinely is a driver for what they’re going to be most interested in pursuing — and help develop a framework for students to pursue topics that they are particularly excited about and motivated by,” said Head of School Bob Whelan. “It really positions the student to take the lead.”

Taking the Lead

In the Upper School, students can explore Inquiries and Advanced Inquiries as part of the official curriculum. An Inquiry is designed to “deepen a student’s understanding of a given subject or facilitate the development of a skill beyond what is possible in the rest of the curriculum.”

While undertaking an Inquiry, students explore topics in greater depth than they would in traditional courses, work alongside faculty mentors to write substantial research papers, and ideally gain a new skill or new knowledge about a topic that is not covered in the curriculum.

Advanced Inquiries offer additional depth to seniors who want to take their curiosity and interests to the next level. These undertakings are considered the highest level of academic rigor at GFA, and are meant to “generate the highest level of understanding, demand the greatest skill, and offer the most latitude for students to exercise their agency and follow their curiosity about their chosen subject of study,” according to the US Curriculum Guide. 

Typically, in an Advanced Inquiry, students ask questions and identify a problem, create a plan for pursuing their inquiry, and ultimately create an original piece of work that is presented to an audience of their peers.

For his Advanced Inquiry in mathematics, senior Isaac Moskowitz spent about 10 weeks this year doing a deep-dive into topics about which he’d always had a base-level of knowledge, but had always wanted to learn more: astrophysics and astronomy. He took on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to discover more about how gravity interacts with other parts of the universe, aiming to answer the central question: “How do general relativistic equations and the mathematical principles underpinning these equations affect the way gravity is understood by physicists; how do solutions to these equations push the boundaries of what is known about quantum black holes and their dynamic relationship with the cosmos?”

“I embarked this year on a journey to figure out what kind of math Einstein used and what kind of math his contemporaries used to derive these equations that would describe mathematically the principles I [already] understood in words, pictures and in other forms,” Moskowitz explained.

Working with faculty advisors Christa Fratto (Upper School Math), Joachim Kuhn (Upper School Physics), and Kurt Mederer (Upper School Math), Moskowitz was able to connect the different mathematics, physics, and presentational pieces needed to successfully share his findings at this year’s World Perspectives Symposium and other presentation opportunities.

“I’ve learned more about the type of math that’s been used and about physical concepts and general relativity than I could have ever learned without this kind of project. It’s been a really great experience,” he said.

Making Connections

Modeled after an Upper School Design Thinking class, this year’s culminating project for fifth graders asked them to devise a concept that “will support community members in academic settings during a global pandemic.” 

Divided into teams, each group spent the final week of school:

·   taking a slow walk around campus to identify a 

    problem,

·   implementing empathy to discover how this problem 

    might be affecting different members of the 

    community,

·   collaborating on a solution,

·   branding their concept, and

·   presenting the idea to their peers.

Fifth grade history teacher Jonathan Jackson explained, “Our goals were for them to be able to make observations of their own environment, and to look at things on a broader scale — not just what our school has faced this year and possible improvements that our school could make, but schools in general.”

Drawing from an English unit on news writing, the groups had to “pitch” their idea to teachers and peers. The research skills practiced in Jackson’s history classes were now used to discover what products already existed, and where there were gaps. The students used concepts from Meghan Chew’s math classes to determine the costs associated with their products.

“We’re hoping that they make the connection between what we’re doing in the classroom and how they can use it in the real world,” said fifth grade English Teacher Fran Denote. “We talk a lot about how this next generation is going to need this collaborative design-thinking skill for 21st century workplaces.”

One industrious fifth-grade group envisioned a company they called Cordexio. The online messaging site was designed to address some of the difficulties students and teachers faced with online platforms during the last year.

The Cordexio inventors reported, “Teachers and students can message personally in chats that are specific to them. Teachers will get notifications when a student messages them. Video calls are also available directly on the website. Teachers will also get notifications when students start a call. … Finally, there will be a chatbot, which you can ask questions to and will immediately get the answer.”

Hardware associated with the platform would include a “96pb server to ensure that the website should never crash. … With dual CPUs the server will be steady for whenever you need to use it,” the presenters predicted.

While in-depth, curiosity-based projects will continue in the Middle School, the faculty felt that this pilot project had particular significance this year.  

“I feel like it’d be a huge miss for us not to capture what this year has been like,” Jackson reflected. “Because of all the sacrifices that we’ve made to make this year work … I think it’s absolutely worth us assessing how we did this. We should be asking ourselves going forward, ‘What can we do to make situations like this better?’ I just think after everything that we’ve been through this year, there is really a call for this kind of reflection.”

StoryWalk®

Last summer, as GFA faculty and staff prepared for on-campus learning amid the pandemic, teachers were asked to reimagine their classrooms and reshape the lessons they teach. In the Lower School, the library and science classrooms would be closed for student visitors. Christine Fecteau, Director of Library Services, and Sofi Kurtz, Lower School Science teacher, realized their specialties would need to take a different form during the 2020–21 school year.

“As lovers of all things books and reading — as well as of outdoor spaces — we had the perfect plan: an innovative and creative way for our students to enjoy both: a StoryWalk®,” explained Fecteau.

Drawing from the project first imagined by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT (in conjunction with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library), the StoryWalk® consists of laminated pages from a children’s book that are placed successively down an outdoor path, enticing readers to enjoy some of their favorite stories in a natural setting.

“Believers in project-based learning, Christine and I knew that this would be a perfect partnership with the fourth graders,” said Kurtz.

The fourth graders took the lead in planning, designing, and building the 18 stands that would become the GFA StoryWalk®, drawing from their math, science, language arts, and design-thinking classes, among others. For example:

·  Using math skills, the fourth graders determined how 

    many stands could be created from one sheet of wood, 

    as well as how many posts, nuts, bolts, and screws they 

    would need.

·  Students evaluated picture books to determine which 

    story would work best, and created a database of which 

    books could be used in the future.

·  Art students painted and helped install the StoryWalk® 

    stands.

“This fourth-grade class rose to the occasion, even volunteering to lend a hand during their recess time,” said Kurtz.

The project, which is meant to be updated and enjoyed for years to come, also enlisted the help of the maintenance team, including Jairo Mejia and Tom Barry. Lower School faculty leaders also included Jane Verlin, Head of Lower School; Nicholas Iacobelli, Information Technology Teacher; and Manny Lalonde, Fourth Grade Teacher.