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. 

  2. 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!