Identity and Learning

By Sue Belcher

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Summer is a special time for educators. It is a time when we have the space to reflect on the past school year and develop a vision for the road ahead. Those of you who are familiar with The Downtown School know that each grade has a theme for the year. For example, ninth graders focus on Identity and Learning. The school year then opens with a three week deep dive into a course called “How Do Learn Best?” Texts in English explore issues of identity. Biology classes delve into the genetics of identity. You get the idea. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the institutional identity of The Downtown School. Yes, we are “a Lakeside School” and share a common mission, level of academic rigor, and overlapping governance structure. That said, we have a truly unique value proposition. We use the city of Seattle as a laboratory for learning. No other school in the area does it just the way we do. Curious what it looks like? Check out #CityAsLab on our Twitter feed

Throughout the development of The Downtown School, I’ve always tried to capitalize on our small size as a strength. Time and again I have found myself returning to the refrain, “What can we do differently and better because we are small?”  City as Lab is an idea that emerged from this thinking. In year one, we developed a strong list of community partners. Our students ventured outside of their physical classrooms to engage with organizations including the Pacific Science Center, the Seattle Art Museum, the Bill and Melinda Gates Discovery Center, the Allen Institute, and the Seattle Rep. They learned from businesses like Tesla, Beecher’s Cheese, Plaza Latina, and ExtraHop. 

How are we able to make this work? By design, we’re nimble. Parents and guardians sign one permission slip for the entire school year, allowing us the flexibility to head out on expeditions on a weekly basis. Because we are located in the heart of the city, resources are geographically close. Finally, small class sizes are logistically easier for partners to accommodate. 

Our work in the year ahead will focus in two areas: 

  1. We will work to co-create meaningful projects with our partners. Teenagers have a unique perspective, and endless creativity. For example, next year our ninth graders will be working with the Seattle Opera on a variety of aspects of moving text to stage. They will be learning about the real world business applications of a work written over a century ago. Our students will develop business plans, pitch them to artistic directors, and receive real feedback. In return, artistic directors might gather a few nuggets of wisdom about how to get more GenZers to attend the opera! Stay tuned for more updates on this project from English teacher, Brian Crawford. 

  1. We’ll be launching our internship program with rising juniors. All Downtown School students will graduate with at least fifty internship hours in an area of their interest. These internships will be student centered. We’ll coach students through the process of developing a resume, conducting informational interviews, shadowing professionals, and eventually pitching an internship ask. LinkedIn makes it much easier to leverage connections. This reframes how busy, working parents can volunteer or support the school. We’re confident that we’ll be able to place students in meaningful work. 

I hope that this summer has you exploring Seattle as a lab for learning. It certainly offers countless opportunities.

Bringing Social-Emotional Learning to The Downtown School

By Brian Crawford


At the heart of The Downtown School’s curriculum are five core competencies: Learning How to Learn, Communicating Effectively, Collaborating, Thinking Critically, and Thinking Creatively. When The Downtown School teachers met with Seattle industry leaders last fall as part of their professional development, each professional stressed that these skills are what define professional success. Yes, content mastery and technical skills are important, but one must be able to successfully work with others, communicate, and think creatively to adapt to a quickly evolving business and organizational landscape.

Recently The Downtown School has enhanced this work on the core competencies by introducing a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum into our advisories. On the one hand, our bi-weekly advisories have been a place for SEL activities targeting collaboration, communication, listening, and understanding barriers and portals to social-emotional health and wellbeing. But this past week we took SEL learning a step further, as the ninth grade took part in “open session,” an SEL activity developed by the Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA. During this time, students anonymously wrote social or emotional questions, concerns, issues, or joys on cards, which a teacher then read to the group. Students took turns offering advice, clarifying thoughts, or support; in this way, each anonymous author--and those who might be harboring the same questions--could hear words of encouragement directly from their peers. At no point did the teachers offer their thoughts; they moderated the discussion, thus allowing students to share their wisdom with each other.

At the end of the session, the teachers were moved by the level of wisdom and empathy that the students demonstrated, as well as the powerful sense of community created by the activity. Next year, SEL will take an even more dominant role at The Downtown School. Grade-level and mixed-grade open session will be a regular occurrence, advisories will be mixed-grade, and students will participate in advisory-level SEL activities each week.

But why SEL? As with our core competencies, more and more colleges and business are reporting that they value candidates with strong interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Schools with SEL programs enjoy net community and student engagement benefits; and beyond that, strong emotional intelligence is a good predictor of a person’s ability to weather the ups and downs of social relationships and indeed, life. By supporting our students’ development of core competencies and social-emotional learning--in addition to providing rigorous academics--The Downtown School is doing its part to “to develop in intellectually capable young people the creative minds, healthy bodies, and ethical spirits needed to contribute wisdom, compassion, and leadership to a global society.”

Our Partners in Philomathy


By Ananya Rabeya

“Connections: Adventures in Learning” is the subject line of Head of School Sue Belcher’s weekly email to our founding families. Aptly titled, it captures many of the unique aspects of The Downtown School, including City-as-Lab. Students either leave the classroom to apply learning with local organizations, or an expert in their field visits the school to work with students on campus. In the case of Mathematics and Computational Thinking, what has been most exciting while developing the thematic curriculum is the invaluable contributions of our founding parents and guardians. Through their expertise, they have provided meaningful opportunities that made the curriculum more relevant and relatable. We have had many visitors to Math class this year, and I am constantly in awe of our parents’ and guardians’ knowledge and generosity in offering their time. Here are just a few highlights from the year:

  • While discussing retirement accounts, a parent, a savvy stocks and options trader, offered to host four investing workshops with our students. He took them right into the world of live financial coverage with real-time tickers, IPOs and settlements, diversification, whisper number, candlesticks, analytics, P/E ratio, and for one class, derivatives pricing. With these workshops, students drove home a concept they were thrilled to explore through a virtual stock exchange platform (which a student proposed). There may have even been reports of students texting their parents during lunch asking which stocks to pick, hoping to keep their choices grounded in earnings growth, and their newly learned P/E ratio!

  • During Back-to-School Night, I shared that students were creating home mortgage amortization schedules and learning about home equity. The next morning, a parent had already sent me resources on redlining in Seattle. It wasn’t long before my students dove into a class-wide research and a forum discussion on the housing segregation and disparity in home equity in our communities. Another parent took it upon herself to connect me with the director of a local food bank for our upcoming exploration of the supply and demand of food in our communities.

  • We were about ready to begin the study of logistic functions and carrying capacity, when a student mentioned that a studio in the Pacific Science Center was showcasing herd immunity in action. The very next week, we visited the studio and afterwards, a student asked if I would be interested in talking to his grandma, a virologist. While George had already aligned his history curriculum to study epidemics at the same time as we were leaning BioMath, Kelsey taught the students about the differences between viruses and bacteria. Interdisciplinary learning was taking a new meaning, when I reached out to a world-renowned virologist and researcher of coronavirus. What an opportunity it has been for each of my classes to hear in person her dramatic story of the SARS epidemic!


No amount of gratitude is enough to all of my partners in philomathy (whom I cannot all mention in such a short piece) , but the incredible paths that our students are carving with their help will be the heartfelt thanks that merits them. The level of this support is inspiring to say the least, and these examples showcase but a few of the many parents and guardians who have supported our work. What amazes me is the dedication and commitment that our speakers show to our students. While I am conscious of their time and already full schedules, they offer to hold multiple workshops rather than one, so that our students get the most out of these learning opportunities. It could be an encouraging tweet, or a kind note of appreciation, or a euphoric introduction during an Open House that their children are loving this curriculum and this school; but no gesture of our parents goes unnoticed.