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The View From Here

The View from Here: Creating Curriculum

Kelly Castañeda thinks about a lot of things. Sit down to have a conversation with her and you might find yourself deeply immersed in an exploration of ethical decision-making, the role of cross-cultural experiences in student learning, or a cool project happening in the Studios right now. Three years ago, she returned to Sonoma Academy as our first-ever Dean of Curriculum. “Returned” because Kelly had worked here once before as a STEM teacher (from 2004 to 2010, she taught chemistry and math, and served as our STEM Department Chair). She returned after a long stint at the Crossroads School where she also taught math and was a grade level advisor assisting with academic advising and social-emotional support.

As Dean of Curriculum, Kelly sees her primary work as ensuring that our mission is made manifest throughout our curriculum. She also seeks ways to build connections between various elements of our programming — amplifying work that is already being done, utilizing different programs to enhance meaningful learning opportunities, and looking for ways to evolve current programs to make them even better at meeting their stated learning objectives.

Says Kelly, “We have the benefit of working in an environment where our programs are always evolving. So we are continually looking for ways to build bridges and make connections, as well as explicitly amplifying programs that focus on a student’s sense of meaning and intrinsic motivation.”
This year, Kelly is spending a lot of time in the classroom. She has made a commitment to spend time in every single teacher’s classes, focusing especially on our core academic subjects. Doing this allows her to get a deeper understanding of both what it is like to be a student here and to have a more thorough understanding of what is currently happening, so that she can build programming that leverages the learning that is already occurring.

Although there are endless examples of this (see future Couriers for articles that focus on these!), Kelly highlights a couple that are top-of-mind for her right now. In the arena of teaching our students to communicate across cultures, Kelly is interested in finding ways to more deeply anchor our international travel programs into the curriculum. Because our Humanities I curriculum--built around the central question “How does geography shape culture”—already develops a certain level of cross-cultural skill, any additional program developed can start at a much higher level.

Our teachers also naturally make use of learning opportunities when they present themselves. For example, Colin MacNamara already teaches a section of his Humanities II courses on Japan. This year, because a number of our students will be traveling to Japan for Intersession, Colin created an exercise for his students to make a travel guide for for those students traveling to Japan. They also worked on creating a series of scenarios that are helpful for newcomers to Japanese culture (things like, “At SA, you are required to wear your shoes on campus. In Japan, you will likely be required to remove your shoes when entering a home or indoor space.”). Kelly is excited to think about opportunities that can build on Colin’s curriculum or other segments of the Humanities courses.

Lastly, Kelly is focused on the overt articulation of meaningful and purposeful learning within the curriculum—opportunities that build on a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn. She believes that our ungraded programs—Exploratory, Connections, and Intersession—provide wonderful opportunities to help students connect with the joy of learning, or learning for the sake of learning, and she is currently assessing each of these programs for ways to ensure that students have as much opportunity as possible within these to try new things and pursue interests in the relatively pressure-free environment created when grades and transcripts for college don’t factor into the equation.
A great example of this comes out of our Student Sustainability Leadership program that arose last year. Two of our students, Amelia McDonald ‘19 and Izzy Ryan ‘19, took the learning and activism from this program so seriously that they didn’t bat an eye at being picked up from Grad Night to go to Washington DC with Nancy Metzger-Carter for more lobbying and political action. They had already graduated, enrolled in college, and chose to miss part of an important rite of passage to continue the learning that started here last year. In fact, Amelia and Izzy have both continued on in their climate activism work and continue to make use of Sonoma Academy to further their learning and work in this arena.

Kelly believes that a core vision for Sonoma Academy is to help all students find the passion, purpose, and meaningful impact of their learning. Ultimately, that is the essence of the work she does. We will share updates from Kelly’s curriculum work throughout the year.
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Sonoma Academy is the only private, independent, college preparatory high school in Sonoma County. On our beautiful campus nestled at the base of Taylor Mountain in Southeastern Santa Rosa, our students are able to explore their interests and passions in a rigorous and inspiring environment that develops a lifelong love of learning and prepares them for college and beyond.