The Student Experience
In their own words
This is an excerpt from the most recent edition of our school magazine, The Westonian, which we print and distribute twice a year. Click here to read the full article and learn more about Westtown from the perspective of Middle and Upper School students.
AT WESTTOWN, WE ARE CLEAR-EYED ABOUT OUR GOALS AND ASPIRATIONS. The adults in our community are guided by our mission statement and Strategic Vision, and not only by our desires to be steadfast to our Quaker foundation and heritage, but also to innovate and grow, to deliver to our students the transformational education we promise. And adults in our community talk a lot about them—our mission, vision, and our educational promises. Alums have their memories of the school, often nestled in the sweetness of nostalgia that are attached to a certain era, a certain time, and certain people. Teachers, who are the day-to-day deliverers of our education and have the closest experience with students, have their beliefs about how students experience Westtown, too.
All of these are valid, important, and honest in their own ways. But to know Westtown as it is now, to understand how it is actually experienced, we must look at the consumers of a Westtown education— the students themselves. How do they find the academics, the school culture, residential life, and the community? Most importantly, is Westtown, for them, all that we say it is? We asked a variety of students across divisions these questions.
THE YOUNGEST WESTONIANS: LOWER SCHOOL
As they disembark the bus or their cars. Each Lower Schooler is greeted by a teacher who says, “Good morning, friend!” They scurry or amble, as the case may be, into the building, packs bouncing on their backs. They put their belongings in their cubbies, gather their papers, enter their classrooms where they are greeted once again by their teachers, and take their seats where an activity awaits them. In some classrooms, it’s a fun word jumble that elicits giggles and mumbled chatter. In others, there are some math problems to solve, some working together to find a solution. In still others, students don headphones to listen to music or a special lesson. In the younger grades, students engage in quiet play with blocks. What is common for all the students is that the day begins with activities that help them center, and ease them into the day of learning that is ahead. There is a sense of prevailing calm, remarkable for a building full of 201 elementary students. Evident, too, on their countenances and in their behavior, is their joy to be at school, and their readiness to engage.
On Mondays, after this settling in period, all students and teachers assemble for Gathering. Lower School Gathering is a longtime tradition, a beloved expression of community. It is a kickoff assembly for the week which is led by fifth graders —the “elders” of Lower School. A small group of students, different each week so every child has an opportunity to lead, call for announcements. They announce the students who have birthdays that week, each receiving a round of applause. Sometimes there is a special presentation, or cultural celebration. And Gathering often ends with shared music and song.
These morning moments of the day and the week represent some of the overarching themes in Lower School: student-centered, mission-based curricula, community building, and nurturing leadership skills.
Fifth graders, Marcy and Keira, and fourth grader, Gabriel, were eager to share their impressions of and experiences in Lower School. They were especially enthusiastic about teachers, and all pointed to how evident it is that their teachers care about them and their interests and pay attention to their wellbeing. “Lower School teachers are very supportive,” says Keira, who came to Westtown in Kindergarten. “If you are passionate about something, they want to help you learn more about it.” Gabriel, who enrolled in third grade, adds, “They are also very kind and, like Keira said, are supportive of us.” Marcy, who also entered Westtown in Kindergarten, appreciates that every teacher she has had makes learning exciting. “Teachers here find fun and very creative ways to help us learn.” Keira enthusiastically adds that “they take ‘normal’ things they have to teach and make them interesting. “Yes, they do! Our math teacher does Skittles math sometimes!” laughs Gabriel. “It’s about teaching us fractions, you know, but it’s fun.” Keira nods and notes, “Teacher Marc [Dear, Math Specialist] has a lot of math jokes—he starts each lesson with them.”
“TEACHERS HERE FIND FUN AND VERY CREATIVE WAYS TO HELP US LEARN.”
They each have favorite subjects, of course, and among this group, science is a favorite. The science curriculum in general uses the Next Generation Science Standards. Students from second to fifth grade will explore chemistry, physics, and biology over the course of their Lower School years as well as coding and robotics. The curriculum is inquiry based and provides students with hands-on projects so they can make real connections with what they’re learning. In fourth and fifth grades, the curriculum becomes more challenging and students encounter a wider range of topics, doing more group work and projects. “I love the science special, and the days we have science” says Gabriel, “because I’m going to be an astronomer.” Marcy says she loves science because they have the opportunity for hands-on learning. “We get to do so many cool experiments,” she says, “like making elephant toothpaste, which is so interesting and fun.”
For Marcy and Keira, the time they spend in Writing Workshop is especially important to them. In Writing Workshop, a feature of the fifth grade curriculum, students hone their writing skills through a variety of exercises and prompts, focusing on persuasive writing skills and personal storytelling. Keira says that the reading and writing time is exciting for her and at the end of the day when they “get to keyboard,” she writes stories on the computer. “I love writing stories, and I’m working on one now.”
Building reading skills and nurturing lifelong readers is a focus throughout Lower School. By fourth grade, the goal is for students to develop into competent, independent readers and they are encouraged to explore a variety of genres. In fifth grade, the Reading Workshop helps students become stronger readers and exercise independence to find books that are at their “just right” reading level. Through the Library and Media Program, literacy, research, and digital citizenship skills are built; students have access to a wide variety of literature that helps them explore different perspectives; and they are encouraged to feel a sense of belonging in the library. Keira, Marcy, and Gabriel look forward to their weekly “library day,” and to the opportunity to explore and check out books. And, it turns out, even fourth and fifth graders haven’t outgrown being read aloud to. “Teacher Heather [Tannenbaum, the librarian] is so good at reading to us,” enthuses Gabriel. “She uses voices and everything.” Marcy and Keira agree and say that they also appreciate that she chooses interesting books to share with them.
Marcy points out that the academics change as you get older. She says that, “The school work gets harder as you move up, obviously, but I still love coming to school. I love Westtown.” For her, art is one of her favorite subjects. “Last year in art class, Teacher Kelly [Nicholson] decided what we would work on, but this year, she said the students should get to decide what projects we want to do. She gives us some general rules or materials we need to use and then we get to choose what to do with them. I like that we get to decide.” Gabriel jumps in: “I like that we get to make choices, too, and now I’m working on a model of the planets because, as I said earlier, I’m going to be an astronomer.” Indeed, the arts curriculum is one that encourages students to see themselves as artists by giving them the power of decision-making in how they express themselves creatively.
“LOWER SCHOOL TEACHERS ARE VERY SUPPORTIVE. IF YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT SOMETHING, THEY WANT TO HELP YOU LEARN MORE ABOUT IT.”
These students say that field trips are a significant part of the Lower School experience. “It was sad that we missed so many trips during COVID!” says Marcy. They all share that they are happy to have off-campus adventures once again. Fifth graders went to Echo Hill this year, a three-day camping trip on the eastern shore of Maryland. Students learn about the ecosystems of the area, participate in an adventure challenge course, and have Meeting for Worship on the beach under the stars. Marcy and Keira say it was a “very cool adventure,” even if some students didn’t like the bugs. The fourth graders, as part of learning about the Lenni Lenape and the history of this land, had an overnight at the lake, and a Meeting for Worship at sunset on the dock. Gabriel says, “I didn’t get much sleep in my tent, but it was so much fun!” He also helped make the stew that the students shared.
While all students in Lower School have age-appropriate opportunities for leadership, in the fifth grade, students take on larger leadership roles. They lead the weekly Gathering, lead and sit on the facing benches during Meeting for Worship, are reading buddies with younger students, and help organize the equity, justice, and belonging displays. “We are fifth graders now and we have to be examples for the younger kids,” says Keira. “Teachers started talking about this with us in fourth grade, how we would be leaders.” This is especially true for Gathering and for Meeting for Worship. All three speak about Meeting for Worship both as the children they are, and as young people who are learning to appreciate its purpose and importance. “Sometimes, honestly, it’s hard for me to sit still.” says Keira, “but it’s always interesting to hear what people have to share.” Marcy echoes this sentiment, “I really do like hearing what people say.” Gabriel says, “Meeting for Worship is hard to get used to at first, but I think of it as time to think about things and to reflect on what we’ve been doing over the past week. It is kind of cool to see what other people are thinking. Sometimes you just sit down the whole time, but sometimes you [stand and] speak and you have a really good message. I love when people speak. Also, you need to be very brave. Speaking exercises your bravery and courage.” Marcy speaks like an elder: “Sometimes when the tiny kids stand up to say, ‘I love Westtown!’, then all the kids pop up and say the same thing. But we’re not going to do that anymore. They need to say why they like something in their messages. But they’re learning.”
The students then turn the conversation to the “I to I” method that teachers use when students have conflicts. An I to I is using “I” phrases to express feelings, such as “I felt mad when you grabbed the ball away from me” instead of “You stole the ball!” Marcy says the I to I method is good because, “everyone has conflicts sometimes. If a kid does something that makes someone feel sad or angry, the teachers have kids do an I to I about it so it doesn’t keep happening.” Gabriel adds, “They want us to learn how to solve conflicts peacefully.” When asked if children are good at resolving conflicts on their own, the trio laughs. “Not at all!” and “Not naturally!” they giggle. “But Westtown helps them learn to,” says Marcy with a grin.
When the question is posed, “What has Westtown taught you or is teaching you, in general?” they become, momentarily, quiet and pensive. Their answers belie their youth. “Westtown teaches us to give and receive respect. And to be completely aware of different people and cultures,” shares Keira. “I would say Westtown has taught us to be kind people,” says Marcy. “Yes! To be friendly and kind,” adds Gabriel. “Everyone here is very friendly. You can make friends very easily and that’s something I would want someone who doesn’t know Westtown to know about this place.”
Learn more about Westtown
Westtown’s mission is to inspire and prepare its graduates to be stewards and leaders of a better world. That inspiration and preparation starts in the Lower School where our students begin to see themselves and their place in their communities and in the world.
EXPLORE LOWER SCHOOL AT WESTTOWN →
There’s nothing like seeing Westtown in action! You can schedule a private, in-person tour of our Lower (Pre-K to Grade 5) or Middle School (Grade 6 to 8) online at a time that’s convenient for you.