Carrie Symons, PhD

Education, Literacy, and Language in Multilingual Contexts

Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.

It’s the final week of the school year, which is always bittersweet. While there’s so much to celebrate, endings and farewells signal change, and we, as humans, tend to find comfort in our daily rituals and routines. But change is inevitable.

When I was in college, one of my dear mentors and dance professors, Dr. Nancy Spanier, had a quote on her door: Change is inevitable. Growth is optional. When I was an elementary classroom teacher, I turned this quote into a large wall graphic using colorful paper, spray adhesive, and cardboard. It was a fixture in my classroom. It even survived a move from Colorado to California between my 6th and 7th year of teaching. Clearly, this quote stuck with me, and as I reflect upon why, I believe it is because it epitomizes a key aspect of teaching and learning. As teachers and learners, we’re all about growth and development.

Change and growth are not synonymous. While change is something that occurs naturally in all living things, growth requires intention and social interaction. As educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, says:

“[…] human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them (Mind in Society, 1978, p. 88).”

In the midst of growth, there’s often a sense of struggle. Growth, for most of us, is not a comfortable process. Growth requires we move through our zone of proximal development, which is “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86).” In other words, we grow into our potential via some form of social mediation (e.g., modeling, conversation, feedback).

So with the end of the school year upon us, as we all move through the change of seasons and from the end of one school year to the beginning of summer and the eve of the next school year, may we recognize this change as an opportunity for growth. Through reflecting upon where we were a year ago and where we are now – and how we got here – we can identify they ways in which we’ve grown, the skills we’ve developed, the knowledge we’ve built, the new perspectives and ways of being we’ve cultivated. Such reflection yields insights into what we’re capable of, if we’re willing to move through productive struggle, and the importance of the people around us – peers, teachers, parents, family members – who mediate our growth and help make learning possible.

I’m filled with gratitude for another school year, which has brought about both change and growth, and I look forward to the journey ahead for there is always more growth on the horizon.

Grounds for Playing and “Waying”

In the second to last week of the school year, there’s a lot happening in County Farm Park, on the playgrounds, and in the garden beds around Summers-Knoll School. The Preschoolers have observed ladybugs and caterpillars through their changing life stages until releasing them into the wild on their playground. The Young 5/Kindergarteners also observed the butterfly life cycle and released them this week. The 1st/2nd graders just planted three different types of native Oak Trees (two Swamp Oaks, a Bur Oak, and a Pin Oak), which will increase the biodiversity of our big playground. The 3rd/4th graders have created and planted a Monarch [Butterfly] Waystation just outside their classroom door. And the 5th – 8th graders have been preparing for their performance of A Mid-Summers Knoll Night’s Dream, a modified version of Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, which is being staged on the big playground. In addition, Tim Cernak (2nd grade Christa’s dad) and his team made a huge dent in the removal of invasive species – and planting of native plants – on our big playground this Friday morning.

Oak trees play a vital role in our ecosystem, and Michigan is in need of more oak trees. As Michigan Audubon Society experts explain: “Oaks are essential not only to birds and butterflies but also to many other wildlife species. The acorns produced by oaks — considered ‘hard mast’ — are an important food source for Wild Turkey, Blue Jay, Wood Duck, white-tailed deer, squirrels, mice, and other critters.”

Plants for Monarch Butterflies are also crucial to our ecosystem’s health. “Monarch Waystations are places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Without milkweeds throughout their spring and summer breeding areas in North America, monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall. Similarly, without nectar from flowers these fall migratory monarch butterflies would be unable to make their long journey to overwintering grounds in Mexico. The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all monarch and butterfly populations around the world.” Now with close to 100 native plants in SK’s newly planted Monarch Waystation, including milkweeds and nectar sources, the garden bed just outside the 3rd/4th grade classroom will serve as an important stopping point for Monarch Butterflies in their long migration from the northern U.S. and Canada to Mexico in the fall and their return from Mexico to the northern U.S. and Canada in spring.

In place-based education, students identify a local problem and then find a way to address it. With the addition of important plants and removal of invasive ones, SK’s grounds are contributing to the increase and sustainability of biodiversity in our local ecosystem. As humans, we are part of these ecosystems we are trying to protect; it’s a mutually beneficial endeavor – the plants that grow here support other living things, including the people who care for this land. Thank you, everyone, who has contributed to the restoration and preservation of this land.

The End of Another School Year is Near

As we head into the homestretch of the school year, we reach markers and milestones that let us know we’re approaching the final days. In addition to the baby robins finding their wings and leaving their nest, this week, students in Kindergarten through 8th grade took the final NWEA MAP growth assessment of the year. At SK, teachers are formally and informally assessing students all the time, and they use their ongoing assessment of students to inform their instruction. So why administer the NWEA MAP Growth Assessment?

The data provided by your child’s MAP assessment provides just one more window into their knowledge and skills in the areas of reading and math (and in science for students in 2nd. – 8th). The format of the MAP Growth assessment is a digital, computer-based, multiple choice test. It’s an international, norm-referenced assessment, meaning that students are compared to an international peer group versus a criterion-referenced test (e.g., the M-STEP), which measure students’ performance against predefined standards.

The score generated on the NWEA MAP Growth assessment is presented in a few different ways: a RIT score, and a percentile rank. According to NWEA:

“These RIT scales are stable, equal interval scales that use individual item difficulty values to measure student achievement independent of grade level (that is, across grades). ‘Equal interval’ means that the difference between scores is the same regardless of whether a student is at the top, bottom, or middle of the RIT scale. ‘Stable’ means that the scores on the same scale from different students, or from the same students at different times, can be directly compared, even though different sets of test items are administered. A RIT score also has the same meaning regardless of the grade or age of the student.”

“A percentile rank indicates how well a student performed in comparison to the students in the specific norm group, for example, in the same grade and subject. A student’s percentile rank indicates that the student scored as well as, or better than, the percent of students in the norm group. For example, a student scoring at the 35th percentile scored as well as, or better than, 35 percent of students in the norm group. It also means that 65 percent of the students in the norm group exceeded this score.”

So as the school year concludes, and we look at students’ MAP scores across several points in time, it’s important to remember:

All tests have limitations. Test scores need to be viewed as one data point generated in a particular moment in time and a particular context.

Knowledge is fluid and dynamic. To assess how well I know something or a proficiency level in a skill, I need opportunities to apply that knowledge or those skills in many different ways and across different contexts over time.

Students are always learning and growing. Growth and development are dynamic, not fixed; as we learn, our performance and displays of knowledge ebb and flow. Typically, over time, an upward trajectory becomes apparent. If there’s a dip or plateau, may it be a source of curiosity rather than criticism.

Integration takes time. Often when we’re learning new things, other skills are put in a holding pattern until we are ready to integrate the new with the old. For example, when students are learning to monitor their reading comprehension and pause when they come to a word they don’t know, their fluency may take a back seat. It doesn’t mean they’ve lost the ability to be fluent. It just means that their working memory is focused on honing a new skill: vocabulary acquisition. Until that skill becomes a strategy or a habit, it will require more energy and attention.

Zoom in. Zoom out. After zooming in to view the NWEA MAP data for what they are – one data point in time – we can zoom out and ask ourselves: How do these data help us identify areas in which students may need more instruction? We have to look at other data points to see if there’s a pattern. A holistic view is assembled through many individual points.

Through connecting the dots, we can better understand a learners’ strengths and areas for growth. From that place, we can design instruction and provide learning opportunities, along with meaningful feedback, to help each student as they progress along their personal learning journey.

Plants: From Learning “About” to Learning “From”

As I mentioned in last week’s post, right now at SK, in the spring quarter of the school year, many classes’ projects involve explorations of the natural world: habitats, ecosystems, species, plants, soil, and trees. With a project-based approach, these explorations are inquiry-driven, cross-disciplinary, and multidimensional. Rather than teaching concepts in isolation, teachers and students co-construct meaningful contexts through in-class and outdoor experiences, excursions, and master classes; students deepen their learning by making connections, recognizing and analyzing relationships, and applying their knowledge to new situations.

Relatedly, in her book, Lessons from Plants (2021), Dr. Beronda L. Montgomery provides an accessible, scientific explanation of how plants “know” what and who they are, which drives their biology (or, one could argue, their biology drives their ways of knowing). But this text is not just a book about plants.

Montgomery dispels myths about plants’ intelligence – they are not merely organisms that adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves. “[…] plants don’t just function within their environment: they actively participate in and transform it (p. 91).” She draws parallels between how plants function as integral parts of (and participants in) larger systems and how we can, as human beings, not only function more optimally within the systems where we find ourselves but also transform those systems into healthier environments.

We have the capacity to both adapt to and change our environments.

In particular, the roots of a plant have a specific and important purpose in sustaining a plant and transforming its environment.

“Roots play an important role in succession because of their influence on plant establishment and their transformative properties. Underground, just below our feet, roots are exerting control on soil properties and thus, on entire ecosystems. A plant’s health is determined in large part by the activity and function of its roots. We can gauge a plant’s health by its ability to form blossoms and fruit, but it is the roots that provide the necessary nutrients for reproduction (p. 84).”

The soil and the roots – some of the most essential parts of a plant’s health and environment – are underground, often hidden from sight. Although we don’t often see (or even think about) what’s below the surface, it matters.

SK students are learning about the importance of the entire system in which we, as humans, live and in which all living beings live. Our care for one another, for all living things, must extend well beyond what we can see easily with the naked eye. As stewards of our environments – physical, social, and emotional – we must always consider what lies beneath the surface as essential to who we are as well as who we must become to take part in the world we are creating.

Just One Small Part of a Much Bigger Picture

With the emergence of spring, now in full swing, I am witnessing teachers’ and students’ exploration of the natural world in and outside of the classroom. From deconstructing flowers and observing caterpillars in the early stages of forming their chrysalids in preschool to habitat exploration in young 5/kindergarten, gardening and soil testing in 1st/2nd grade, and finding salamanders under logs at Black Pond in 3rd/4th grade, the richness of life in all its forms – microorganisms, plants, insects, and animals – surrounds us.

At the main entrance of Summers-Knoll, atop the light fixture on the beam to the left of the door (as you enter), a mother Robin made her nest, laid her eggs, and her baby chicks have hatched. Just this morning, she was feeding her babies, their little hungry open beaks popping up, visible just over the edge of the nest. Nature is so close, all the time. Entire cycles of life are beginning and ending around us in the nooks and crannies of our everyday comings and goings, literally just outside our front door…

Appreciation for SK Teachers Abounds – Thank You, Parents

It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week, and Summers-Knoll parents and families did not hold back. SK’s Parent School Network (PSN) recruited volunteers and solicited donations, which yielded an abundant outpouring of appreciation.

The week began with the PSN’s personal delivery of cases of Waterloo sparkling water and three plates of home-baked chocolate chip cookies, accompanied by milk and a sweet note card thanking our teachers for all they do. On Tuesday, the parents provided a Teacher Appreciation breakfast. The tables in the atrium were draped in black tablecloths and adorned with fresh, bright floral bouquets. The buffet of culinary delights included four different kinds of quiche, two kinds of egg bites, fruit salads, vegetables, bagels, breads, spreads, pastries, yogurt, granola, cheeses, crackers, cold cut meats, chickpea salad, olives, grape leaves, coffee and two different kinds of juice. Parents stepped in to cover teachers’ classrooms so that all of the teachers could gather together, eat, and bask in the appreciation. And the appreciation kept on coming…

On Wednesday, Morgan (kindergarten) brought in chocolate covered strawberries that she had made for the teachers; in fact, the gift was entirely her idea and execution (with a little help from Mom and Dad when heating the chocolate).

When I arrived on Friday morning, I noticed a banner had been mounted in front of the school. I walked closer to investigate the mystery (see pic above). The banner read:

“Young or small, you make their world big. SK Educators, thank you for making our kids feel as important as the world around them. Love, Your Summers-Knoll Parents”

Then after our whole school Friday morning meeting (Dragon Time), the counter in the atrium was covered in a decadent array of Socotra pastries.

Throughout my years in education, I have never witnessed an outpouring of appreciation from parents like this one. SK teachers are truly deserving of this appreciation; they love children. They love nurturing children’s growth, and they are unwaveringly devoted to the art and craft of teaching.

SK Parents, we are so grateful for all you did to make this week so special for our teachers. Your appreciation means the world to us, and it is mutual. From our hearts to yours: thank you, thank you, thank you!

Intergenerational Relationships

On the afternoon of Friday, April 26th, Summers-Knoll School hosted their annual Grand Friends Day. The classrooms were a-buzz with that special Grand Friend energy. It was beautiful to see students and Grand Friends working together side-by-side: planting flowers, enjoying books, making scribble bots, doing a scientific investigation, and sharing highlights from the school year thus far. Thank you to the parents in the Parent School Network for all of your support with this event.

Intergenerational relationships are essential for our well-being: older and younger generations benefit mutually from being in relationship with one another. In his article “What Happens When Old and Young Connect” published in The Greater Good Science Magazine (by The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley), Marc Freedman writes:

“In a single century, we have gone from one of the most age-integrated nations on earth to its mirror opposite. So how can we turn things around? How can we find new ways to do old things, to rediscover the joys of intergenerational connection?”

In the article linked above, Freedman offers some suggestions for how to rediscover the joys of intergenerational connection. To complement Freedman’s research-based suggestions, I interviewed some SK students and asked why their relationships with their grandparents/friends were special and important.

Nora (5th): You learn from them. You learn how different their lives were from ours.

Naomi (6th): They are your loved ones.

Hasan (6th): When I was pretty young, I used to be pretty untrusting with my [paternal] grandma, but as I got older, I could start telling that she definitely cared about me. She made my breakfast, folded my clothes. If I ever did something I shouldn’t have, she told me nicely. I think that relationship is really important, for me at least. I can see how somebody like her could end up raising somebody like my father. He does the same thing – if I ever do anything bad, he tells me politely to not do it again. He is trustworthy and honest. And my grandma has played a part in it.

Maya (6th): They can give you guidance because they’ve been through more in their life, so they can help you along the way.

Blu (3rd): Because they give the best presents, and they are really, really nice.

Isobel (3rd): I know they can always be there to help me and do stuff with me and play with me.

Gem (3rd): They can help out with my parents if they need to go do something; they can watch me. They take me places, and we can do fun stuff.

Niam (3rd): They always let me do stuff and they fix stuff for me and they come over for every holiday and they support me.

Jason (4th): They teach you stuff, and I like when they read you books. Also I like watching movies with my grandpa because it’s fun and relaxing. And they listen to you; if you have a problem, they listen to you.

Clearly, the young folks I interviewed were primarily focused on what they gain from these relationships. But I’m sure they also give a lot. I would love to ask the grandparents/friends of SK students this same question: What makes your relationships with your grandchildren special to you? I have a feeling the grandparents/friends would also talk about what they gain from these relationships, how much their lives are enriched by their grandchildren, watching them grow, seeing the world through a young person’s eyes. But do grandparents/friends realize how important they are to the young people in their lives?

Grandparents/friends, you are teachers, supporters, creators of fun, and relaxing companions who bring so much light to everyone’s lives by simply being, lending a listening ear and a wise heart.

In his podcast 70 over 70, “Max Linsky talks to 70 remarkable people, all over the age of 70, not just about their past but their lives right now. These are conversations about the big questions we all ask ourselves, no matter how old we are. What does it mean to live well? What are we still searching for? And how do we learn to let go?” I highly recommend this podcast. I started listening to it in the summer of 2021, shortly after the first episode aired.

I also recommend Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox to read with kids of any age, and Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir by Eloise Greenfield and Lessie Jones Little for readers in middle school and up.

The Value of Winning & Losing

In my role as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at Summers-Knoll, I work on curriculum and instruction at the whole-school level, the classroom level, and the individual teacher/student level. This year and last, I collaborated with the 3rd/4th grade and Upper School teachers on planning and enacting short story writing projects. Recognizing the pedagogical value of writing for a purpose and audience outside of school, 3rd – 8th graders entered a state-wide youth writing contest sponsored by the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) to which students could submit short stories. The “Write On” contest submission deadline for third, fourth, and fifth grade writers was February 5th, 2024. The submission deadline for the “It’s All Write” contest for 6th – 12th graders was March 3rd, 2024. 

While all SK 3rd – 8th grade students wrote short stories, submitting a piece to the contest was optional. Winners of the “Write On” contest were announced at the AADL Awards Celebration held on Saturday, April 20. SK’s fourth grader, Tej Parikh won 2nd place! Congrats, Tej! The winners of the “Let’s Write” contest for 6th – 12th graders will be announced on May 24, 2024. Thus far, we know that 6th grader, Maya Romero is a finalist. Go, Maya!

Regardless of the contest’s outcomes, the students who choose to enter the contest become better writers by going through this process, a process that, in some ways, mimics the reality of the work of professional writers: they work on pieces for days, weeks, months, sometimes years; they submit their work to various publishers, experience a lot of rejection, and persist until someone agrees to publish their work.

The SK students who submit their work to the AADL writing contest get to feel the satisfaction of producing and submitting an original piece of writing for an audience external to SK. It takes persistence to stick with the writing process from start to finish, and it takes courage to share one’s own writing, receive feedback from fellow writers, and enter a piece into a contest for public consumption.

If students don’t “win” this year, they will have to weather disappointment, but that, too, is a reward—learning how to “lose” is just as important as learning how to “win.”

In the domain of science, this past weekend on Saturday, April 20th, several of SK’s 2nd and 3rd graders competed in the Washtenaw County Elementary Science Olympiad (WESO). SK was one of 33 schools and our 9 students who competed were among over 1,700 students in grades 2 through 5 who participated across 15 events. SK brought six teams for six different events: iRobot, Map Reading, Mystery Architecture, OnTarget, Pentathlon, and Read It/Build it. During the tournament, spectators and coaches are not permitted in the competition events – students get checked-in to their event at their assigned time, and then they go off by themselves to compete against all of the other schools’ teams.

After months of weekly practices and preparation, coached by a team of parent volunteers, all of the SK students rose to the occasion. They worked with their teammates, completed their events, and did so with a unanimous sense of success. Two of the SK teams won medals: our Pentathlon team won Honorable Mention and our Read It/ Build It team won 4th place!

Similar to the writing contest, competing in science olympiad is not just about winning. At our Dragon Time WESO celebration this morning, many of the students spoke about the value of participating even if you don’t win a medal. As Jack said, “It doesn’t matter if you win as long as you have fun.” It’s precisely that spirit that engenders success in the long run.

Competitors want to win, and they should – it’s a competition after all, and ambition is important when competing. But it’s the “having fun” part that will draw them back to competitions in the future, and the more they compete, the stronger they will become in their perseverance, cooperation, sense of accomplishment, familiarity with failure, and moving through feelings of disappointment – this is what truly matters. This is success.


Lessons Learned From Geese

Support Each Other – Geese fly in a “V” formation, providing lift for those in the rear.

Understand Your Role – When the lead goose gets tired, it falls to the back and another takes over.

Protect Each Other – If a goose gets sick or wounded, 2 others follow it to the ground and stay with it until it can fly again.

You Can’t Succeed Alone – If a goose falls out of formation, it works hard to get back into position.

Provide Encouragement – The geese at the back honk to encourage those up front to keep going.

When I was an elementary classroom teacher, I had the “Lessons of the Geese” typed, laminated, and posted on my wall. I can’t recall where I first came across this text, and I don’t know if it’s scientifically accurate, but it was a central part of my classroom community building process.

On Monday, April 15th, SK students in grades 1 through 8 spent the day at Ann Arbor’s Leslie Science and Nature Center for a day of service. Students pulled weeds, filled seed packets for Earth Day, and created materials the center uses for its educational programming. Toward the end of the day, students enjoyed the slippery tunnel slide. Barbara, SK’s 1st/2nd grade teacher, and I were watching the kids as they came whizzing out of the slide, laughing as they hopped onto their feet at the bottom.

When it was time to go, Jackie, one of Barbara’s second graders, gleefully explained the system she and her classmates had developed at the top of the slide: Of their own volition, they had come up with specific roles that each student played in the act of sending one person down the slide. A seemingly solitary activity, this class of 1st and 2nd graders had made the act of sliding down the slide a collaborative endeavor. Everyone had a purpose and played an important role. Whereas some groups of kids may have competed for the next turn on the slide, this group of children cooperated in such a way that sliding down the slide was not the only fun thing to do. They invented many different ways to be a part of a team so that everyone could play together

What a wonderful reminder: play is important. Kids nurture each other’s imaginations. They teach one another how to cooperate and solve problems. They learn how to create systems and organize themselves in meaningful ways. They laugh, run, climb, breathe, shout, slide, and cheer each other on. They have fun and genuinely enjoy one another.

The way in which Barbara’s class played together reminded me of the Lessons of the Geese. Adults, sometimes we just need to get out of the way so that kids can find (and celebrate) their own ways of being together. Adults, maybe we need to play together more often too.

Solar Eclipse: Be Here Now

A whale spouting on the water’s surface.

A double rainbow after a storm.

A flower bearing fruit.

Dramatic natural events – like the Solar Eclipse on Monday, April 8th, which was visible for folks across a swath of Central and North America – remind us of Mother Earth’s awe-inspiring power.

Thanks to SK’s 1st/2nd grade teacher, Barbara, who tracked down several pair of ISO-certified eclipse viewing glasses, some students, teachers, admin, and parents at Summers-Knoll School were able to experience and witness the eclipse together.

During the eclipse, we imagined how people thousands of years ago perceived solar eclipses. It turns out there’s an entire field of study, archeoastronomy, devoted to such questions:

“We must be very careful about treating all cultures that came before us as capital-O ‘Other,’” says Anthony Aveni, a pioneer of archeoastronomy and professor emeritus at Colgate University. “They traveled a totally different road from Western eclipse science. Sometimes our questions can be misguided. Did they know the Earth was round? Did they know about the galaxy?” Those aren’t the right questions to ask, he says. “They didn’t live in our world.”

And we don’t live in theirs. With our ultraprecise clocks and compasses, we can often choose to forget the sky altogether—something unthinkable for many peoples of the past. “When it comes down to it, other cultures didn’t do things the way we do them,” Aveni says. “And that’s what makes studying them so fascinating” (Deluca, April 5, 2024,

But we need not wait for extraordinary natural events to appreciate the beauty all around us every day. The solar eclipse reminds us that, sometimes, we need to simply pause to remember that our life on planet Earth is small but precious, fleeting but significant, if for no other reason, simply because humanity is part of this natural world that engenders such awe. We can be reminded of this when we look into the eyes of a loved one or a stranger, when we feel the sun on our skin, or when we take a breath – we are here now. Simply being is worthy of celebration.

« Older posts

© 2024 Carrie Symons, PhD

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑