We believe the best way to make connections between the self, the family, the immediate community, and the world at large is through the study of peoples. Meaning-based learning takes place when children connect their studies to the world around them. By working on themed units of integrated study, issues become immediate and authentic, and students see themselves as questioners, researchers, problem solvers, and activists. This is why Westland’s curriculum is anchored by social studies. From the Golden Age of Islam to investigating how a city actually functions, students learn by doing. As philosopher and educator John Dewey emphasized, to learn from experience is to make a backward and forward connection. Doing becomes an experiment with the world, a discovery of the connection of things: moments, people, movements. Our teachers facilitate exploration through a variety of integrated experiences—research, art, block building, cooking, science, reading, math, drama, music, woodworking, printmaking, and dance. The goal goes beyond acquiring facts to gaining a deep, visceral knowledge and a strong connection to a study, which comes together as the students present their learning in a public Culmination. A study never ends, and the expectation is that a Westland child’s curiosity never wanes.
Focus on students’ mathematical reasoning and thinking is what drives Westland’s math program. We believe that each student can develop a confident math identity and achieve success in math, becoming a proficient problem solver. Real-world math problems are placed in context. Students then engage in problem solving, often in small, collaborative groups that serve to develop a solid understanding of the math concept being taught. Students frequently encounter multiple strategies, including traditional algorithms, to solve a particular type of problem. Mathematical concepts are solidified through repetition with a focus on efficiency and accuracy. Additional tasks through a child’s school year are developed to provide ongoing practice in crucial computational skills and their applications and this leads to proficiency in basic operations. Our process enables students to approach increasingly complex problem solving with self-confidence and curiosity. Utilizing the math series known as Investigations for kindergarten through 5th grade and Connected Math for 6th grade, teachers enrich and advance the learning of math.
Because we believe that a love of reading is an essential component to an enlightened, learned life, a priority is for Westland students to develop strong literacy skills, and to that end we view reading and writing as inextricably connected in the language arts curriculum. The classroom teachers work closely with our librarians to curate each student’s language arts experience. As such, Westland’s approach to literacy begins with a regard for each child’s language skills, personal experience, intellectual ability, and social and emotional development. As the children grow, they explore and appreciate a variety of literary styles and genres and are given the opportunity to communicate their important ideas in writing. Through our language arts program, our graduates have been equipped to be effective discussion and project leaders, thinkers, persuasive writers, creative artists, researchers, and expressive, confident community members. Phonics acumen, vocabulary development, research skills, reading for specific facts, and sharpening comprehension prepare our older students for language mastery.
Westland’s science program is linked to the school’s broader emphasis on social studies, intentionally connecting students and their group’s curricula, jobs, and traditions with the methodology and observational knowledge building of scientific inquiry. Our goal is to develop confident citizens who openly collaborate, initiate multiple/creative approaches when problem solving, and aren’t afraid to take risks. Hands-on exploration is the cornerstone of the Westland science program. Our multi-sensory approach tangibly challenges each child to utilize their growing skill set to make sense of their own experiences; take action to replicate their observations; personally engage in trial and error; critically examine their models and data sets; and ultimately communicate what they have learned as well as formulate additional questions. Westland students graduate with a rich set of skills and knowledge, enabling them to immediately and successfully enter the complex world waiting for them.
Creative arts—visual arts, drama, dance, movement, and music—are included as an important part of our studies of other cultures, and are a necessary means of communication and self-expression through which children can demonstrate what they have learned. The arts make the children’s learning come alive. By actively integrating the arts into every social studies unit, learning comes alive, and the content becomes imbedded in children’s memory. Problem solving, collaboration, interpretational skills, perseverance, and risk taking flourish through the children’s art experience. Fun flourishes too. Students get to feel what it was like to dance a jig at a Colonial barn raising. They get to experience the thrill of creating a permanent installation for their school community such as a mural or a life-sized wagon that might have been used during the California Gold Rush. They get to metaphorically walk in the shoes of Inuit villagers through dramatic play. These experiences develop a child’s empathy. Students emerge not only as artists from Westland’s program but as critical, creative thinkers and doers as well.
Throughout Westland’s history, the music program has played a central role in creating a sense of community, deepening cross-curricular ties, and developing musicianship. Like all areas of study at Westland, our music curriculum focuses on learning through hands-on music making. A student’s music education is characterized by moving, speaking, singing, and playing on Orff instruments such as xylophones and metallophones. Co-creators of their musical experience, students learn to problem-solve both as individuals and as members of an ensemble. They create music while they learn to sing as a community. Students also learn to read music through playing drums, recorders, and ukuleles. Music is another vibrant pathway to understanding other ways of life. By exploring authentic music and the significant musical features of different cultures and time periods, students gain perspective and appreciation for the many varieties of expression throughout the world and over time.
Westland has two community gardens on campus. One serves as a living lab in which to explore all aspects of gardening; the other supplies organic produce for our Friday parent-prepared Hot Lunches. Every class has a chance to work in the gardens with Westland’s master gardener and with our parent gardening committee. From planting seeds to nurturing the plants to harvesting produce, children are involved at each step. Students have experienced “harvest and cook” days— Potato Pancake Day, Radish Day, and Stir-Fry Day—which complete the circle and prompt a common parent question: “How did you get my kid to love vegetables so much?” As author May Sarton has written, “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that that sets us back into the slow circles of nature is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” At Westland, the garden teaches children important lessons about how food gets to our tables and about themselves as well.
Physical education at Westland encourages children to not only develop physical and athletic skills but to become attuned to cooperative group relationships. Our priority is for children to become self-reflective about their bodies and minds. Gaining an awareness of the value of worthwhile physical and recreational activities they also have the chance to step up as leaders. We teach cooperative games and activities that challenge, stimulate, and boost self-esteem as children explore different aspects of participation sans fear of failure. Whether they’re running, jumping, swinging, throwing, or kicking, children actively reflect on what their personal best means to them. Children have fun at P.E., while they acknowledge individual differences and learn how to lose nobly and win humbly.
The woodworking program at Westland builds on a time-honored progressive-education tradition of students working with their hands and problem solving with materials. Students’ woodworking projects are linked to their social studies themes. Projects become more challenging as the students grow and mature and as their skills and use of tools broaden. A full-time woodworker teaches and guides the children to safely use the tools in our outdoor woodworking studio. As the students saw, sand, and construct, they make their plans a reality through experimentation, through navigating setbacks, and by improvising solutions. Children learn to treat failures as feedback. They also develop a sense of design as well as math and measuring skills. Children feel immense satisfaction through this process-oriented approach. They get to experience the lasting power, sense of accomplishment, and joy of making something from scratch.
Westland is fortunate to have a vintage hand-operated Vandercook letterpress with which our oldest students learn the art of printing. As they study the invention of the printing press and its revolutionary contribution to society, they work with a printing expert to learn to set type, make plates for illustrations, and operate the press to create flyers, books, and stationery that connects to their curriculum and their work in the community. Building in the experience of design and publishing communications Westland students also get the juxtaposed experience of developing their design skills through laser-cutting technology as part of the printmaking program, merging and comparing the new technologies with old.