Student Blog Posts

For our final STEM quest of the year, students took up the challenge of becoming agents of change for the environment. Having studied food webs and ecosystems, as well as climate change and other environmental challenges, each student chose one action-oriented project to make a difference for the environment, and then documented it in a reflective blog post. Here are a few samples:

Would You Throw a Beach Cleanup? I Did. 
By Summer Williams

It may seem like a daunting task at first, but in the end, your beach cleanup will not only affect you, it will also affect your community and all the animals living in the ocean next to the beach you cleaned up. In this blog post I will show you 6 easy steps on how to throw a beach cleanup! 
Read the full blog post here.

I upcycled clothing and it was way harder than I thought   
By Lily Maloney

What if instead of throwing out old pieces of clothing that still fit you upcycle them? You don't really need to buy new clothes when the average american throws out 65 pounds of clothing per year. Let me tell you how to upcycle instead!
Read the full blog post here. And watch the video version here!

Bake the World a Better Place!
By Ben Hobson

A bake sale is a great way to raise money, awareness and weight! I feel that we can join together and make an impact on the world by saving starving kids in Africa, stopping ocean pollution, funding research for breast cancer, and much, much more with bake sales. I hope you will take your opportunities and privileges and use them for good. Read on for 10 steps to make your own successful bake sale!
Read the full blog post here.

Congratulations to all the students for their hard work, their clear actions to help the environment, and their reflections as documented in these and many other blogs! 

Authentic Assessment

The students filed into a sleek conference room at a high-tech San Francisco company, dressed in business casual. With no small amount of excitement and trepidation they gazed at the six "Sharks" waiting for them - real venture or philanthropic investors ready to hear their pitches. It was "Shark Tank" day, the culmination of a month-long project in which each student, solo or in a team, designed a business concept and a "pitch" complete with Profit & Loss Statements, organizational structure, and no small amount of ambition. They had readied pitches to address the crisis of homelessness or to make hilarious t-shirts, and everything in between. 

Now was the big moment: 3-5 minutes, recorded, in front of six investors who would then fire away with questions. They were anxious but focused, some using their new mindfulness skills to calm and center themselves, everyone taking one last chance to read through their notecards and scroll through their slides. Soon their names would be called and they would walk up to face the Sharks. 

2 hours later, as Sharks, students, teachers and parents were chatting and laughing after the event, all acknowledged that something remarkable had happened. The students had seemingly lifted themselves to a higher level of performance. Uniformly we heard from the Sharks that they expected to hear "cute" presentations from 6th graders and instead were stunned at the depth and skill they saw. Parents were amazed at what their children could do. Faculty breathed immense sighs of relief as they realized that students had not only met their high hopes but often given their best performance ever during "game time." How did this happen? 

We believe one of the most important approaches at Millennium School is the concept of authentic assessment. This means that most of our Quests - the core interdisciplinary classes students take in six-week terms - culminate in a presentation of learning in the real world. In the story above, students had done a Quest on Entrepreneurship, developing skills ranging from math for their financial calculations to persuasive arguments for their pitches, and the authentic assessment was to meet these investors in the same way an aspiring entrepreneur would. The six investors were the "authentic audience," whose expertise was unquestioned, and who had more objectivity than the students' peers, teachers, or parents. 

The term before, students had completed a deep investigation into the legacy of slavery and racism in America, and their authentic assessment was to present to a panel of African-American community leaders, among them an historian, a civil rights lawyer, and an elder who had lived through segregation in the South. Once again, the students' "game" was raised beyond any adult's reasonable expectation - their focus, nuance, and maturity amazed all of us. 

When students know they're facing an expert, objective audience, they tap into a greater motivation to demonstrate learning. They may be aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the many biases that teachers and parents have; in some cases they may be aware of an unconsciously lower bar because the teacher or parents knows how they've struggled with something. The objective audience knows none of that, and so with the right preparation, students apply themselves more conscientiously. The same works on us as faculty, recognizing that an objective group of experts is about to evaluate our students, pushing us to work harder and to not let students 'slide' for any reason. 

There are many reasons why a great middle school connects with the real world, making it a bridge to adulthood and not an island. This is one of them - with authentic assessment, students surprise themselves with their performance and then witness, through the eyes of strangers, how capable they are. They take the resulting evaluations seriously, more so than subjective teacher ratings. And they gradually weave their interests, their academics, and the realities of the world together, making learning memorable, formative, and confidence-building. How would you feel if, after 8th grade, you could look back on more than 20 major presentations to investors, historians, scientists, and political leaders?

How Trump's Election Shaped Our Curriculum

Our faculty member Michael Fisher just published an article on the website of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley. He describes how Trump's election tested our abilities for compassion and ultimately led us to some of the most powerful emergent curriculum of our first year:

How One School is Teaching Empathy After the Election
By Michael Fisher

I teach at the Millennium School, a new independent middle school located in the heart of San Francisco. Mindfulness and compassion are essential parts of our curriculum.

Yet on November 9th—the day after the presidential election—the sixth-grade classroom I walked into was anything but calm or kind. 
Read the full article here

Welcome, New Families!

We had a beautiful evening this past week, with current parents and students welcoming 26 incoming families to the Millennium School community. What a trip for all of us to see how much has changed in the year since we held this event for the first time, full of nerves and excitement for the launch of the school. A year later and we feel the momentum, the budding traditions, and the energy of a thriving and growing community. Thank you to the brave founding families for making this possible!

Developing Social Consciousness

By Michael Fisher, Guide (Faculty)

This week our Quest started with a genuine social science experiment.  With little introduction, students were presented with a series of images from the micro-lending website Kiva.  Each image included a photo of a single individual and a background that may or may not have revealed something about their workplace.  As students looked at each image on the projector, they were asked to rate "how much I want to help this person?" on a scale of 1-10.

The methodology was simple.  We asked students to stay quiet so as not to influence others' judgments, and allowed 10-20 seconds to review each image.  The idea was for them to circle their immediate reactions, since these were most telling of deep assumptions and moral reasoning.  

After scoring eleven images, students discussed their responses and the factors that influenced their degree of sympathy and altruism.  Many talked about facial expressions: the presence of smiles and frowns, and what they thought these meant.  There were some diverse interpretations, as some thought a smile meant a person was happy, so needed no further help, while others thought a smile indicated "niceness" and hence sympathy.

The final two images displayed the same man with an apparent frown on his face.  Like the previous nine images, #10 contained no information or context.  Yet #11 included the Kiva description, which listed where he was from, the amount of money he wanted to raise, and what he planned to use the money for.

This distinction allowed students to assess the role of information in decision making.  Did knowing more about the man incline us to want to support him more, or less?  What kind of information mattered the most, and how did individual students interpret the same facts?

What we found is that our moral reasoning is highly subjective.  Students and teachers alike are affected by their cultural assumptions, which reveal themselves in distinct reactions to differences in clothing, facial expression, skin color, and housing.

Our purpose in starting with this experiment is to prime students to approach their Kiva giving project with more awareness and ownership of their own meaning-making faculties.  This is the beginning of a much longer-term project in developing social consciousness and sensitivity to diverse experiences.  But already it's clear that our students are responsible global citizens in the making.

Millennium School Featured in Education Reimagined

We're honored to to have Millennium School profiled this week by Pioneering, the publication of Education Reimagined. Special thanks to Dr. Melina Uncapher, Education Director of the UCSF Neuroscape Lab, for her kind opening remarks which began the article: “Millennium Schoolʼs work is the most groundbreaking weʼve seen, and represents the future of education if what we hope to do is prepare young people to be agents of learning and to thrive as adults.” We hope to live up to these extremely generous words!

Here's the profile.

We also had the opportunity to publish our own short piece on the Education Reimagined website, describing how Millennium aims to bridge the gap between research and real-world learning. Click here for the full length piece.

Absorbed in the Real World

A group of students clustered around an ultrasound monitor, totally absorbed in watching the grainy images of the fetus moving inside the womb. A doctor hovered nearby, explaining what they were seeing, and then answering a torrent of questions about what happens inside the maternity and obstetrics ward. 

Earlier that day, the same group of students was wandering the Google campus, in awe at the utopian vibe of the place, employees chatting in park-like areas and playing basketball. More than few eyes opened wide when our host explained that when Google searches for new employees (as every student in that moment wished to one day become!), it's not enough to be smart - they look for collaboration skills, or "teaming" as they put it. Hmm! So it turns out that students' challenges in collaborating with their peers during our Quests may be more worthwhile than they had realized.

This was just two snippets from one day, out of five days in which our students fanned out around the Bay Area to visit a wide variety of workplaces. Earlier that week they were engrossed by jeweler Emi Grannis, explaining how she creates unique pieces of metalwork, and what her path has been like as a solo entrepreneur. They visited two "B Corps", Mafia Bags and Fireclay Tile, learning about this new type of hybrid company that strives to make a profit and do good. Others heard from technology executives and software engineers, were rapt with attention in a professional kitchen, and witnessed a documentary film being made. The list goes on...

This was our weeklong intersession on Workplace Exploration, following our developmental model of exposing middle school students to the "real world" beyond the walls of their school. What do adults actually do all day? How do they discover passions and apply them in the world? What's worth doing? How does this connect to my academic work?

After a week of constant movement, we were all a bit tired, but aware that important seeds had been planted. I think back to seeing one student utterly absorbed in a presentation from architect Olle Lundberg, showing a level of focus and engagement that many would believe is not possible at this age. Another student, sitting in a delivery room at a hospital, literally leaning in and beginning to ask what seemed like a never-ending line of questions, curiosity bubbling over. This odd age of middle school is when kids for millennia began to do meaningful work for their communities, and in so doing began to feel valuable and to understand how they could be members of a community. In our more privileged society, our students do not have to work yet, but they still need to understand the world of work to satisfy their deep curiosity about how value is created and how their studies relate to the world around them. After this week, some new connections are forming in their minds, and we'll see where it takes us...  

Venturing into the World

Next week at Millennium School we have our spring intersession, the week between terms when we dive into an intensive, short-term project to refresh ourselves and explore some new territory before the next term begins. We're particularly excited about this intersession, as we have an action-packed week of visiting workplaces all over the Bay Area. Each day we'll divide into student teams, research a given profession to generate questions, and then jump into vans or onto public transit and head to real-life workplaces where hosts are waiting to introduce us to the field and to their own path through it. 

This is part of our developmental theme of connecting school to the real world, exploring how people find ways to act purposefully and authentically in their professional lives. It's also a lead-up to our apprenticeship program, launching in the 7th grade, during which each student will have the chance to become an apprentice in a workplace and further explore these connections. 

Thanks to many Millennium community members who have volunteered their time and their workplaces, we have an exciting lineup of visits. Students will visit professions ranging from metalsmiths to tech company founders, architects to software engineers, accountants to museum curators, nonprofit leaders to chefs. The aim is to gain exposure, to explore what makes these people tick and how they find and apply their passions, and to peek into the world that adults inhabit while kids are in school. We don't want any students to feel like they have to 'choose' a professional path; the aim is rather to lift the veil on what adults do all day, a topic of great interest to many if not all students at this age!

We'll share more after the week, but here's to making school less of an 'island' and more of an integrated part of this amazing city we inhabit. 

Our Questions

At Millennium, each six-week academic term revolves around two Quests - deep, interdisciplinary projects that our faculty craft based on student interests, trends in the world, or special opportunities for learning. With each Quest we weave these "emergent" interests, which capture students' attention, together with our underlying academic curriculum. Recently a reporter asked us to share which Quests we've undertaken so far this year, and it was a fun exercise to draw these together in one list. Each Quest is formed around a driving Question, which students answer through their work and then present in some form to an external expert audience as a culmnination. Here's they are, eight Quests so far this year:

  1. Are we alone? An investigation into the math and physics of the search for extraterrestrial life - what are the chances other life exists in the universe, and how would we know? Students gave a final presentation to a panel of scientists and community leaders about calculations of probability and whether it would be worth spending public money on the search.
  2. Do our voices matter? An exploration of the local ballot propositions, the quest for the right to vote during the Civil Rights movement, and the democratic political process. Teams of students drafted legally correct ballot propositions they would like to see on a future ballot and presented them, in City Hall, to the San Francisco Youth Commission.
  3. How do I get to empathy? Responding the US Presidential election, we explored how worldviews develop and how to accommodate more than one worldview at a time, developing our capacity for empathy, reading related literature, and exploring the phenomenon of bullying. The quest culminated in each student audio-recording a "This I Believe" style essay on what they've come to believe about empathy.
  4. How do our bodies transform? We explored systems thinking and the transforming systems of our own bodies, opening the space for discussions of puberty on a personal level, while studying puberty and evolution scientifically. Culminated in students renting and setting up an art gallery space for a 'gallery opening party' in which they presented original artwork representing their experience of puberty and their scientific insights. 
  5. How do we transcend our limits? We learned about the envelope-pushing stories of rocket engineers, and dove into the design and engineering process by building our own air- and water-pressure powered rockets, continually iterating on and improving our designs while learning and applying Newtonian physics. 
  6. Has America dealt with slavery? Emerging from our discussions of civil rights and voting, we followed student interest to explore the roots of slavery and to what extent our society has dealt with the scars from this period. Through deep reading, seminars, role-playing and other tools, we explored these experiences and wounds, culminating in student team presentations attempting to answer this question, presented to a panel of African-American community leaders. 
  7. How do I learn? Working with neuroscientists at the University of California - San Francisco's educational neuroscience lab, we explored how our brains work and change, and how we learn. We tested different learning methods, wore mobile EEG bands to measure our brain activity in real-time, and developed an appreciation for how much our efforts and choices can change our brain. 
  8. How do I bring an idea to life? We researched the entrepreneurial process, exploring how entrepreneurs come up with an idea that relates to their passions or interests and then attempt to bring that concept into reality. We dove deeply into the mathematics of money, creating balance sheets and investing real money in the stock market to calculate basic market economics. As a culmination students will present business "pitches" for a for-profit or non-profit concept of their design to a panel of investors and philanthropists.