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The AVS approach to learning

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Alta Vista prepares students to thrive as creative thinkers, innovators, and catalysts for positive change in the world.

These education goals guide students to discover the world and themselves, imagine new possibilities, and act as drivers of change. To this end, curiosity, creativity, and communication are the foundation of our academic program. This is achieved through inquiry-based, hands-on, and experiential curricula that inspire love of learning. Within each subject area, students explore and pursue their unique interest, talent, and voice to further their self-awareness and self-knowledge. 

An interdisciplinary and collaborative approach is emphasized starting in the Lower School within the core subjects of science, mathematics, literacy, and social studies such that a particular topic is considered through multiple lenses and across disciplines to reflect real-world experiences and challenges. This robust STEAM-based educational approach promotes thinking critically, taking multiple perspectives, and solving problems creatively. The core program is enriched with classes in Spanish, garden and sustainability, visual arts, tinkering, drama, music, and physical education.

The curriculum draws on grade-level and grade-next standards that balance planned content and flexibility for creative expression based on students’ interests.​ Lessons and units are framed by guiding and essential questions. Specific examples of curricula and learning standards are provided to families weekly through Week Ahead newsletters that are emailed to parents and posted on the school’s website, ongoing teacher communications and conferences, and year-round opportunities to visit the classroom during learning celebrations and exhibitions. Informal and formal assessments are ongoing, research-based, and designed to motivate students’ growth and learning rather than act solely as evaluative tools. 

Learning also extends well beyond the four walls of the school, as the neighborhoods of San Francisco are embraced as an extension of the campus to provide meaningful, relevant, and immersive experiences. To develop students to serve as future thought leaders, innovators, and change-makers, AVS also prioritizes public speaking and presentations, collaboration, community service, and social and emotional learning, which are deeply integrated into rigorous academic practice.

Foundations and pillars

From our division heads

Photo of Katie Gibbons

Dear families,

To inspire lifelong love of learning and innovation, curiosity and creativity are the foundational pillars of education at the Lower School. This is achieved through inquiry-driven, hands-on, learner-centric, and experiential curricula.

Rather than tell students what to do and how to do it, learners are guided through provocative questions, provided materials and parameters, and given agency to discover the solutions for themselves. This approach generates original and transformative learning pathways as well as instills self-efficacy.

A hallmark of this pedagogy is the bi-monthly engineering challenges, which are proposed and presented during school-wide assemblies.

AVS's unique STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) program drives critical and creative thinking as well as necessitates the integration of different subject areas. This interdisciplinary and collaborative approach of considering topics through multiple lenses is an exemplary way to educate 21st-century learners and future thought leaders so they can confidently undertake real-world challenges.

In partnership,​

Katie Gibbons
Head of Lower School

Photo of Liz Davis

Dear families,

What do you remember from middle school?

If you are like me, you remember the emotions you felt, the friendships you had (or wish you had), and the teachers you liked or didn’t like. The middle school years are a crucial time in a child’s life. It is a time when students make decisions about themselves as learners and as people. It is also a time when children step further away from adults in an effort to assert their own personhood, while still needing the support of their parents and teachers to navigate peer social interactions and make good choices.

At Alta Vista School we consider responsibility, independence and choice as a key part of our program to support students during this time of their lives. We focus on an inquiry approach to learning, which fosters curiosity, allows students to take ownership of their learning, and encourages self-reflection. Our academic program is intellectually engaging for kids, with a STEAM focus that encourages asking questions and making connections. Students meet daily in small groups with an advisor to develop their social emotional skills and ensure that they have a point person they can go to should they need support.

Our goal is to prepare your children to face their future with confidence and the ability to navigate novel situations with a balance of confidence and curiosity. We do that in a small caring community of parents, kids and teachers that I am proud to be a part of.

Warm regards,

Liz Davis
Head of Middle School

Engineering Challenges

Engineering challenges are the hallmark of hands-on and experiential learning at AVS.

A challenge comprises of a problem or provocation and a number of constraints, such as specific materials or lack thereof. A metric (e.g., time, weight, distance) is used to determine the winning design. An example of an engineering challenge is to design a wind dispersed seed that flies the farthest on fan-created "wind." The materials/constraints given include one bean that acts as the seed, adhesive (e.g., tape, glue), flight device/wings (e.g., piece of paper, tissue paper, thin plastic film), and scissors to shape the flight device/wings. A student’s model of a wind dispersed seed is then tested by dangling it at the center of a standing fan to simulate a seed hanging from the plan, releasing it to let it be carried by the fan's "wind," and measuring the distance the seed travels once it lands.

Every grade participates in the engineering challenges, which are proposed every month by a teacher throughout the year during monday morning meetings. Students are encouraged to design prototypes, test, and iterate their solutions over a few weeks prior to the engineering challenge presentation and winner announcement, which is held during a monday morning meeting. Through attempting repeated challenges, students learn to not fear mistakes, fail forward, take feedback, celebrate risk-taking, innovate, and become fascinated with how things work and are connected.

An annual engineering tradition at AVS is building a Rube Goldberg machine -- a contraption that uses a chain reaction to teach the concept of cause and effect. The students carefully observe the cause and effect relationship, make necessary adjustments accordingly, and continually test until the desired outcome is achieved.

This challenge also encourages students to tinker with a variety of simple machines, namely inclined planes, levers, pulleys, and wheels and axles. Building such a machine requires persistence, resilience, flexible thinking, and creative problem-solving. Creating these contraptions in pairs instills teamwork skills, such as listening to and incorporating others’ ideas, patience, taking turns, and clearly articulating one’s own needs and ideas while meeting those of someone else.

The machines grow in complexity as students advance through each grade. In junior kindergarten through first grade, the process focuses more on exploration and less on the final product. In second through fourth grade, students undergo one to two-weeks of trial and error during the building process before presenting their final machines to parents either in person or through a video compilation.

Science Fair and Expo

scientific contraption

Science fairs play an integral role in building students’ confidence in finding answers to questions of their interest and developing proficiency in the scientific method.

Science fairs play an integral role in building students’ confidence in finding answers to questions of their interest and developing proficiency in the scientific method. Preparing for the fairs also help students to learn how to communicate clearly, both verbally and in writing about their scientific process and findings. Students' work on their projects also allows them practice with time management and executive functioning skills.

Lower School

In the Lower School, 1st- through 4th-graders conduct science exhibitions every year. For four to six weeks, the students practice the steps of the scientific method, formulate their testable questions, make prediction/hypothesis, test their hypothesis, perform data collection and analysis, and arrive at their conclusion.

scientific contraption

A common question that arises among the audience during the presentations is What is a testable question? A testable question is one that can be answered through hands-on experimentation (e.g., direct observation, measured with scientific tools) by the student. The key difference between a general interest question and a testable question is that testable questions involve changing one thing to observe or measure the effect on another item. This means that a testable question contains two parts: an independent variable (changeable by the student) and a dependent variable (measured by the student in the experiment).

Testable questions follow this format: How does changing the independent variable affect the dependent variable? An example of an untestable question is How do rockets fly? The testable version of this question would be, How does changing the shape of a rocket's payload (pointed nose of the rocket) change its flight? The science fairs are presented to parents, other students, and faculty. Each student makes a display to showcase the steps involved in their experiment and practices explaining these steps to others without reading off of their board.

Middle School

In the Middle School, science, technology, and math departments collaborate during the spring to present the STEM Expo. Students are asked to explore problem solving in the AVS community, in which they consider what community means to them and how to use science, technology, engineering, and math to understand and design solutions for these needs. Students home in on authentic inquiries and design their own experiments, investigations, and engineering solutions that address real-world problems.

Social-emotional learning

Emotions are fundamental and foundational to understanding the human experience and integral to maintaining healthy relationships and community. Emotions drive curiosity, creativity, and decision-making, which all promote optimal learning. At AVS, young learners practice how to recognize, understand, label, and express emotions with care and concern. This practice of developing emotional intelligence (EQ) and literacy supports students to build positive relationships, make helpful choices, and act responsibly.

The three habits that students are continuously asked to practice as caring and contributing community members are be respectful, be kind, and be proud. These “three be’s” of behavior are routinely and playfully highlighted with kindness cape, respectacles, and proud pins during school-wide weekly Friday Morning Meetings, which center on social and emotional learning.

Learners develop their EQ skills through the use of a common language (e.g., three be’s), shared tools (e.g., mindfulness), and modeling (e.g., restorative justice). These practices are demonstrated regularly during weekly morning meetings, classroom conversations, and recess conflict resolution training. For instance, when a conflict arises at recess, students learn to take the peace path course of action to restore their relationship, such as using I- statements to take responsibility and express needs, listening to each other without interrupting, and apologizing for any wrongdoing.

Overall, the students are guided to develop the following social and emotional skills:

  • Emotional literacy by using coping strategies that name feelings, navigate frustrations appropriately, and practice positive communication skills.
  • Empathy and compassion by taking the perspective of others.
  • Personal responsibility by using I-statements and being aware of one’s actions.
  • Collaboration by cooperating during work and play as well as continuously striving together to resolve conflict.

Empowering the learners with this knowledge, attitudes, and skills support the actualization of the school’s vision each day to be a rigorous, safe, and innovative learning environment.

Technology in the classroom

21st century education requires competency in using technological tools to support the learning process. However, technological tools are thoughtfully used to assist the learning process, not to become the process. 

Students and teachers at AVS at every level employ a wide variety of software and hardware tools to deepen their learning. Students use Google Drive for writing and editing their own writing as well as collaborating with their peers in multiple subject areas. They learn to use voice-to-text typing and audio recording software to record radio advertisements or interviews for research projects. Some students use Chrome extensions to produce stop-motion animation clips. Computer programming is integrated into various courses, creating cross-curricular projects.

Internet safety is a prime component of whole-group lessons. Through the Common Sense Media program and other resources, students learn how to control their own digital footprint and why it's important. These conversations are onging, and practicing good digital citizenship is a necessary element for continued access to these learning tools

Lower School

In addition to interactive classroom projectors with document cameras and other group teaching tools that are present in every classroom, AVS students dive into a number of projects that help them hone their technological prowess. 1st-graders learn about direction and measurement by programming robots through mazes. 2nd-graders program their own interactive name poems and begin to practice typing and work processing with tools like Google Docs. 3rd-graders use Scratch – developed and run by MIT – to demonstrate their knowledge of the rock cycle. 4th-graders create an interactive math game that uses random number generators. Matific is used to assign differentiated math homework for 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-graders. In 2nd and 3rd grades, students become proficient in typing and using their Chromebooks so that, beginning in 4th grade, technology is more seamlessly integrated into the students’ learning experiences. 5th-graders have used 3D-modeling software to deepen their understanding of the human eye in their science classes.

Middle School

All middle school students receive a school issued Chromebook, which is theirs to use at school for all of their coursework. Teachers use the Schoology online learning management system where students and parents can log in at any time to view their assignments and grades. While technology is integrated into the overall Middle School curriculum, students also have the option to take specific elective courses in the area of computer science, podcasting, and broadcasting to further develop technology skills

Current Events presentations

Public speaking is highly valued and encouraged at every grade. One of the regular opportunities to practice this important skill is during current events presentations. From junior kindergarten through fourth grade, students give oral presentations about current events of their own choosing to their peers and parents in class. These presentations encourage students to connect with news from around the world, understand nonfiction text, and translate the information into their own words. Since these presentations are done each year, students become increasingly proficient at finding relevant articles, taking notes on their reading, synthesizing information, and preparing an engaging demonstration to educate others on a topic.

Tuesday through Thursday, each grade conducts current events at the beginning of the school day where one student presents in front of their entire grade with their parents and siblings in attendance. Current events typically start after the second week of school and continue until the end of the academic year. This gives each child multiple opportunities to present.

Students give oral presentations about current events that interest them in Junior Kindergarten through fourth grade. This has been an Alta Vista tradition throughout the history of the school. Current Events presentations encourage students to connect with what is going on in the world around them, to understand nonfiction text, and put it in their own words.

The students’ five minute presentation is followed by audience questions and compliments. Students are encouraged to use visual aids (e.g., trifold with pictures, images to project under a document camera, Google Slides) to accompany their talks. Students are also trained to stand with a calm body, speak clearly and loudly, and make eye contact with the audience. Where developmentally appropriate, students may write speaker’s notes for themselves and to refer to them when needed during their presentations but discouraged from reading off their notes during the entire event.

Current Events presentations also give students regular practice in public speaking skills. Since presentations are done multiple times each year, students have the chance to become increasingly independent with the process of finding articles, taking notes on what they read, and putting together an engaging presentation.

Research papers and projects

Research projects enable students to pursue in-depth investigations into a topic of their interest. In so doing, they learn how to identify reliable references, take notes, and synthesize information from different sources. Their investigation culminates in writing a research paper, which teaches students how to form an introduction, answer essential questions, frame an argument, support key ideas, and craft a conclusion. In this process, students practice writing in complete sentences, using transition words effectively, and creating well-organized paragraphs. Once the papers are written, the students present their work to others in a clear and innovative way. For instance, the third grade students presented their research projects on famous pioneers by staging a living museum, whereby the student dressed and acted as the explorers they researched, painted a background to provides context for the exploration, and answered questions and gave information to parents and fellow students who visited their stations.

Second through fourth graders conduct their own research projects once a year. Each grade uses a theme that guides their research, which is often based on the science and/or humanities curriculum. Examples of past themes include the California Gold Rush, changemakers, national parks, and San Francisco landmarks. Typically, students will choose from a range of options given by their teachers that fit the grade level theme. Though more than one student may have the same topic, students conduct their research and write their papers independently.

Although research papers are written individually, the project presentations may be performed in groups. That is, students may work independently or in groups to create interactive games based on their topic, create slideshows, dioramas, or other visuals

Assessments and reporting

Assessments continually inform instruction and curriculum development. Pre, post, formative, and summative assessments are scheduled throughout the academic year. Following each assessment, data is collected and analyzed to measure the learning growth of a student, inform differentiated grouping, and support any necessary interventions. An assessment is used to generate a clear narrative of a student’s progress within each trimester and across the academic year.

An evaluation scale is used by teachers to determine a student's academic and social performance of various skills within each subject area. Teachers use the evaluation scale when observing and reflecting on a student’s output during daily activities, work products, projects, and class discussions. When a trimester ends, teachers gather evidence of a student’s progress between the two trimester periods. Throughout the year, teachers closely capture student progress in reading and math fluency through standardized one-on-one assessments, such as reading inventories and math tasks. These assessments are administered three or more times a year to provide clear data on student progress over time and calibrated with national grade level norms.

assessment table