As the head of lower school at our Washington, D.C. campus, Susanna Stossel believes strongly in the power of personalized and and project-based learning.
Before Susanna joined Whittle, she was the director of childhood teaching and learning at Beauvoir, a National Cathedral Elementary School in Washington, D.C., where she also taught math and science. She studied at Tufts University, earning a bachelor’s degree in child study and a master’s degree in teaching. In addition to teaching at Belmont Day School and Arthur D. Healey School in Massachusetts, Susanna also co-wrote a kindergarten geometry book called Baby’s Wild Adventure that was published in 2015. From math to social-emotional learning, read on to learn about Susanna and her passions to innovate education.
Q: Why did you choose to join the Whittle team?
A: When I got the Whittle book, it seemed as though someone had read my mind and designed my dream school. All the things I believe are critically important—interdisciplinary project-based learning, personalization, educating for global competence, focusing on social-emotional competencies—are supported in the curricular design, schedule, and staffing.
Susanna (left) speaks at a Whittle parent information event.
As a mom and an educator, I have been increasingly worried about rising rates of anxiety in our kids and teens. While there are a host of reasons for this, a major factor appears to be the lack of student agency. Children don’t feel in control of most aspects of their day. They lack choice in how they structure their time and what topics they would like to pursue and therefore do not get to practice making decisions about their time. Then we wonder why college students and young adults seem aimless! Whittle empowers students to be active agents of own their learning, to collaborate with teachers and families on how to structure their time and pursue their passions. Given the global problems that our children are inheriting—catastrophic climate disruption, economic inequalities, and increased demands on limited resources—it feels like a moral imperative to equip them with the skills and dispositions to collaboratively solve these global, transdisciplinary problems and the chance to see themselves as agents of change.
Q: What inspired you to teach?
A: I initially attended Tufts intending to study international relations because of my love for languages and history. Despite coming from a family of educators, teaching was not something I expected to do! I happened to take a child development class taught by Dr. Maryanne Wolf and suddenly the process of how children make sense of the world became so much more interesting than anything else I was studying. I spent a semester in Ecuador, where the immersive environment put me back in the place of being an early learner myself, and upon returning to school, I decided to change my major to child development and pursue a teaching degree.
Susanna (middle, in purple jacket) on top of a bus from Guayaquil to San Lopez in Ecuador
I was so fortunate that my earliest student teaching experiences were at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, a laboratory/demonstration preK–2 school on the Tufts Campus. Eliot-Pearson is an inclusive program that uses emergent curriculum and interdisciplinary project-based learning. As a laboratory school, Eliot-Pearson fostered innovative teaching practices and a collaborative professional environment, both of which will be central to our work at Whittle. Perhaps most importantly, the inclusive mission of the school taught us to seek the tremendous power and potential in each child and to create learning experiences, as well as partnerships with parents, to fully realize that potential.
Q: As a published author in math curriculum, what do you think are the greatest challenges students face in math classes today?
A: Fundamentally, mathematics is a way of making sense of the world. Unfortunately, the way that it is often taught is a series of discrete facts and algorithms to be memorized, many of which make little sense to students. These facts and algorithms are taught as verbal constructs, without the visual-spatial or number sense to anchor them. This memorization of words (“four plus three equals seven” or “write down the four and carry the one”) can carry a student through much of a typical early math curriculum, but then there are several drop-off points when the lack of deeper understanding becomes an impediment. For some it is long division. For others, it’s computation with fractions. Others struggle with algebra. One particularly difficult aspect of this drop-off is that a student will often go from being “very good at math” (quick to recite facts and able to use the algorithm) to nearly failing, and the accompanying fall in confidence and self-esteem can negatively impact the rest of the student’s journey in mathematics.
One of Susanna’s very first classes in her teaching career
I have wondered whether this trend hits girls particularly hard and is one of the (many) reasons for a continued gender gap in higher level mathematics, though that gap fortunately seems to be narrowing. Many of the top jobs today require significant strength in math and computational thinking. At Whittle, we will teach math in a way that encourages students to develop a deep and abiding number sense and a strong visual-spatial component to their understanding. Math should be creative and collaborative! The process of making sense of an interesting problem and developing strategies and conjectures and putting them out for peer review not only builds competent and confident mathematicians, but also develops important social-emotional competencies. Students who engage with mathematical concepts in this way will truly own them, be able to apply them to a variety of familiar and unfamiliar contexts, and never ask, “Why do I need to be learning this?” Finally, math is so much more than computation, and very young children can start playing with some of the key concepts in algebra, geometry, and even calculus in a way that boosts engagement and confidence. Many parents had negative math experiences as students and some suffer from math anxiety. We feel it is never too late to change your relationship with math, and we look forward to sharing strategies and ideas to make math fun for the whole family!
Susanna Stossel is just one of our team members passionate about igniting global education in the lives of our students. Keep an eye out for more opportunities to get to know our staff, or attend one of our upcoming events to meet our team and learn more about our mission.