How Bellevue International School Began

Bellevue International School was the sole creation of six visionary teachers, and has consistently ranked in the top tier of schools nationwide...Read more

How Kirkland International Community School (ICS) Began

Kirkland International Community School had no computers the first year, and our students were housed in portables with little shelter from the rain...Yet, by the second year we achieved the highest writing scores on statewide exams...Read more

How Marysville Arts & Technology H.S. Began

"We don't have tennis courts. We don't have a gym. We don't have a lot of things," Principal Bruce Saari said. "We do have a small school culture."Read more

How Social Promotion Gives a "Pass" to Schools that Fail

Ask any teacher whether social promotion "works", and you will receive a clear answer: It doesn't...Read more

First Test Scores from Bellevue International School and Kirkland International School

These scores were achieved by schools that were untried, built on promises, and which had yet to acquire a reputation for rigor and success...Read more

Seamless Curriculum at Bellevue International School and Kirkland International School

Quarterly grading periods, winter breaks and summer recesses were mere interruptions in one continuous curriculum...Read more

Creating A Powerful Teaching Culture

If the teaching culture is not transformed, then "school renewal" will be an empty promise...Read more

Making it Better vs. Making it New

"Better" and "different" may sometimes be confused as charter schools describe their mission...Read more


At Bellevue International School I accepted the self-imposed challenge of creating a continuous seven year long course (again, not "courses") where every activity was essential, and where new learning was based upon what had been learned before.

Quarterly grading periods, winter breaks and summer recesses were merely interruptions in a continous learning journey.

By the time my 6th grade Bellevue International School students were 10th graders, we had built--and then climbed--a ladder of skills and knowledge that stretched back to the ground floor of our earliest years. Works and ideas that had been introduced in sixth, seventh and eighth grade were essential to the high flying class discussions of each subsequent year--and my students and I relied upon and invoked this previous learning often.

I began my teaching career at as a member of a large English department at Sammamish High School in Bellevue. Our curriculum at that time was a series of quarter-long electives.

Because we had more than ten full and part time teachers in the department, it was possible for a student to journey from grade 10-12 without ever having had the same English teacher for more than a nine week period. This is an extreme case that probably no longer exists in schools today. But it is useful to refer to it, because it brings into focus issues of continuity and consistency that seem to have escaped many school reform theorists.

Though my departmental colleagues were mostly capable practitioners, we had few conversations about consistency of expectations, or about the ways that electives might be arranged in a sequence that developed skills and knowledge in a systematic way. We did have an agreement on which texts could be taught at which level...but the most important question-- "What skills, understandings and habits of mind are we developing and carrying forward as we teach each of these?"-- had never been formally agreed to.

As a result, students did not have the benefit of reading, writing and thinking activities that were consistently taught and reinforced from teacher to teacher and from year to year. Just as problematic, the literary works students read at each level were mostly determined by individual teacher preference; not because they were logical extensions of essential questions or skill targets that had been covered in preceding classes.

As a way of dealing with this discontinuity, I developed a two year Humanities course (not "courses") wherein successful completion of the first year was a prerequisite for enrolling in the second.

Immediately after launching this two-year program, I discovered how varsity football coaches must feel when their first-string juniors return to the squad for another year.

My returning students understood the rules and procedures at the outset; the expectations for practice, participation and performance were givens; and previously learned bread and butter plays (writing skills, essential questions, attitudes of scholarship, themes) presented themselves anew for more mature analysis and for ever more perfect execution.

They had returned to the same class in order to experience the second half of a continuous curriculum.

This two-year relationship was powerful--not only for students who relished taking essential ideas to depth, but also for the student who, though he was 256th in a class of 300, could nevertheless find secure footing on the scaffold that an intentional curriculum can provide.

I carried this idea of continuity to Bellevue International School (1991-97), but was able to extend it much further.

At this new school I embraced the self-imposed challenge of creating a continuous seven year long course (again, not "courses") where every activity was essential, and where new learning was based upon what had been learned before.

Quarterly grading periods, winter breaks and summer recesses were merely interruptions in a continous learning journey.

By the time my 6th grade Bellevue International School students were 10th graders, we had built--and then climbed--a ladder of skills and knowledge that stretched back to the ground floor of our earliest years. Works and ideas that had been introduced in sixth, seventh and eighth grade were essential to the high flying class discussions of each subsequent year--and my students and I relied upon and invoked this previous learning often.

Just as a high school senior needs to remember essential mathematical principles learned in the earliest years of his or her schooling, so a student in Bellevue International School's Humanities class came to acquire new knowledge by connecting with, and building upon, previous learning.

Creating this expectation for continuity, logical extension, daily achievement, and the pride that comes with competency were absolutely critical for my students' success.

This kind of essential, articulated learning can be imaged as a ladder or scaffold: an ever unfolding, linked accumulation of knowledge, attitudes and skills that prepare the way for all new learning that is to come. Without these linkages, the curricular experience at Bellevue International School and Lake Washington International Community School would not have been "essential" or meaningful.

This is what was so powerful about combining long-term relationships (grades 6-12) with a curriculum that was designed to focus on essential questions, and upon the extension, application, elaboration and refinement of these up through all the grades.

During the years that my students were with me, I could coach them, charge them up with fundamental skills and basic conceptual knowledge, teach them the intricacies of sentence structure and paragraph formation (so that their writing was not only correct, but also so that it could carry the weight of their increasingly complex and sophisticated thoughts), introduce them to the Socratic method, and give them a powerful jump start on their abstract and analytical thinking.

And most important: I could begin to imbue our Bellevue International School and later, our Lake Washington International Community School students with a belief in the validity of their own critical powers; and instill in them the conviction that the world they encountered was amenable to reasonable explanation--not mysterious--and that the history of human civilization and cultural experimentation was theirs to understand and to explore.

The goal of the Humanities strand was to produce students who were realistic, analytical, and sensitive to the artistic and cultural products that have been created by their fellow human beings, both ancient and modern.

In addition to a substantial encounter with literature in all its forms, my students also studied the fine and architectural arts, the distinguishing characteristics of political systems, and the history of speculative thought--both philosophical and religious.

The curriculum's fundamental organizing principle: a belief that all areas of study in its domain can be referenced to one another--either as a derivative, a departure, a contradiction, a by-product, a corollary, or a transformation and extension of first premises.

When a student read Death of a Salesman, he or she was also expected to reference passages in Miller's play to Ovid's "Four Ages" (introduced in 7th grade), to mythological themes (introduced in 7th grade), to religious sacrifice, to the origins of tragedy (both introduced in 9th grade), to Platonic idealism (introduced in 10th grade), to Pyrrhonic skepticism (introduced in 10th), to Freudian theories on ego defense mechanisms, and to a neo-Romantic celebration of the attractiveness of nature, as opposed to the impress of civilization.

This juxtaposition and comparison of ideas that are separated in space and time--by both thousands of years and thousands of miles--helps us to understand the ways in which they participate in the on-going artistic and reflective narrative of human culture--a system of artifacts, representations and pronouncements that springs not only from our nature, but also from a fundamental set of concerns that we all share.

These essential experiences and themes were applied and extended year after year, with the result that they became the tools and instruments of analysis--the knowledge of the history of a practice or idea; the knowledge of its make-up and origins; the knowledge of its various manifestations through time. We call this knowledge the ability to view cultural products "sub specie aeternitatis"--under the aspect of eternity, and under the aspect of its participation in pan-cultural, thoroughly human contexts and forms.

Imagine a class wherein students and teacher might be engaged for five days in an animated discussion of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn", linking it back to the legend of Canute, to the plenum of Parmenides, to the wisdom of Aeschylus.

Or where the study of Oedipus Rex interfaces with the Book of Job, as well as with the theory of tragedy and its Dionysian origins.

Or where a study of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman ranges back to the Epic of Gilgamesh; forward to Osirian resurrection mythology; forward again to Beowulf, and forward again to Rousseau, Thoreau and Ray Bradbury's Sound of Thunder.

Or where students can produce a graph that maps the inductive/deductive spiral of an essay by Mo-Tzu.

Or where students animatedly discuss the naturalism of Crane's Red Badge of Courage; or trace Heracleitan influences in Shakespeare's Sonnet 60; or make connections between the Bhagavad Gita, the neo-Platonism of Plotinus and the Immortality Ode of William Wordsworth.

Or where students select, edit and perform their own ensemble Reader's Theater performances, fusing selections from the work of Jack London, Publius Ovidius Naso, The Old Testament, Tennessee Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, and Shirley Jackson.

Or where students, on demand and as early as 7th grade, can write effective appositives, introductory adverb clauses, non-essential participial phrases in several formulations, and a variety of sentence patterns--and know full well what these and other grammatical and structural terms mean.

The achievement reflected in my students' test scores at Bellevue International School and Lake Washington International Community School was not an accident of demographics--which is why I have arrayed these scores against those earned by students within the same district.

Instead, their achievements reflect what articulated learning experiences can produce: a familiar neighborhood of practices, skill development and concepts that are carried forward, and that build trust and willing participation in the learning environment.

I share this story because it is a microcosm of what schools can become.

Though few teachers will ever have the luxury (and the burden) of being solely responsible for a student's secondary preparation grades 6-12, they can create the same continuity and consistency within their departments and schools.

The following are some of the prompts that my students have been asked to respond to in their Humanities classes--often as in-class, timed writes.

For the unitiated: in-class timed writes are the true indicators of proficiency. Take-home papers and long term research assignments are of neglible value compared to these. Teachers who narrow the focus, who specifically tie writing assignments to actual in-class activities, and who create pointed writing prompts based on class discussion easily side-step plagiarism issues at the same time that they improve their formative assessment practices. In my view, the vast majority of papers written in an English class should be of this variety--and they should be less than one page in length. This length is easier to grade, and provides quicker turnaround for correction of student writing.

On Lucretius' De Rerum Natura Lines 241-300: What law is Lucretius attempting to establish? Which piece of evidence, from among the many that he offers, seems to be the most interesting or persuasive? Quote those lines and then compose a paragraph that demonstrates how those lines provide support for this "law."

On Mo Tzu: Find the "radical" or "extraordinary" thesis at the heart of this passage. Compose a paragraph, weaving three quotes, that describes and highlights the uniqueness of this idea of his. Do not indicate whether you agree; just describe his view.

On Yang Chu and The Book of Job: Weaving three quotes from Job 21:7, describe whether this author is in fundamental agreement with the selection from Yang Chu.

On the Hymn of Akhenaten: Compose a paragraph that identifies and then discusses the chief similarity between this document and Francis of Assisi's Canticle to the Sun. Weave three quotes into your answer.

On The Lottery: Compose a paragraph that describes the etiology of (and metaphorical efficacy of) this ritual, especially as it is allied with the seasonal and vegetative pattern of the monomyth.

On Deer in the Works: Describe this story as a metaphor for the journey that humans undertook during the neolithic revolution. Utilize metaphors and structures from Ovid's Four Ages, as well as from The Book of Genesis.

On Brave New World: Identify and describe the fundamental similarity that exists between the social structure depicted in this work and the constitution of Lycurgus as described by Plutarch. As you do so, refer intelligently to Plato's Republic.

On Metaphysics: Describe the relationship between the philosophy of the Gita, Plotinus' theory of knowledge, and Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Weave three quotes from Shelley's Adonais in your answer.

On the Eden myth in Genesis: Compose two paragraphs, one of which interprets this story as an ontogenetic metaphor, and the other which interprets it as a metaphor for the neolithic revolution-in the particularly Ovidian sense that we have used in this class.

On Lin Yutang: Early in this century, Lin Yutang wrote this introduction to a collection of Chinese literature that he knew would be widely read in the West. Identify his main concern and compose a two page typewritten paper that explains and evaluates his idea. Weave a minimum of five quotes.

On Confucius: What role do participles play in the first half of this passage; what role in the second? Please note that a dramatic participial shift occurs. And tell us what that shift means.

On Pericles' Funeral Oration: Identify and quote four Periclean assertions about the qualities of Athenian citizens. Using the same number of assertions, selected from Ayn Rand's Anthem, compose several brief paragraphs that clarify the contradictions that exist between the values of the "collective" and the values of the Athenian citizen, as described by both Rand and Pericles.

On Confucius: Which portion of this passage is inductive? How so? Which portion is deductive? How so?

On Death of a Salesman: If Bill Oliver is Zeus atop Mt Olympus, and if Biff is Prometheus stealing fire (Oliver's pen), what great gift does Biff bring to humanity after he returns to earth, i.e. runs down "eleven flights of stairs"? Weave three quotes for this in-class answer.

On Confucius: Citing at least five examples, describe the way that the use of linking verbs in the last half of the passage contributes directly to the thesis that we have been exploring in preceding discussions.

On Siddhartha: In one sentence, desribe the epiphanic vision that Siddhartha experiences during the last third of the novel. Then compose a paragraph, the topic of which precisely identifies what it is that he learns--especially as it may involve a re-definition of the "hero".

On The Bacchae: Weaving four quotes from the choral speech on pg. 72, compose a paragraph that identifies and describes the fundamental human benefit derived by maenadic participation in Dionysian rites.

On Confucius: Find four proverbs which emphasize the importance of the local or that which is within reach (achievable), versus that which is fantastic, distant or beyond reach (remote). Create a topic sentence and paragraph that enables you to discuss, balance and counterpose all four.

On Sonnet 60: Weaving four quotes, describe this poem as a confirmation of the philosophy of Heracleitus.

On Confucius: Find two proverbs that seem to disagree with the values that Ben Franklin espouses in Poor Richard's Almanack. Identify and quote each of these, and create a strong comparative and judgmental argument in no more than two paragraphs.

On Gilgamesh: Contrast the two positions re. death and acceptance thereof that occur on pg. 45-6. Which character, Enkidu or Gilgamesh, seems to evince the greater acceptance of death? Which seems most bent upon defying the natural order of things? Weave four quotes.

On Gilgamesh: Discuss the fatal--and flawed-- interpretation of the dream on page 53. Comment on the author's intention, especially if Humbaba is now read as a metaphor for nature itself...Weave three quotes.

Durant's Essay on Plato: According to Durant, what accounts for the fact that skepticism flourished in Athens? Develop this in a short paragraph, weaving three quotes from the text.

On Freud's The Future of an Illusion: Pg. 53: "This would be an important advance along the road which leads to becoming reconciled to the burden of civilization." Explain this passage, drawing elements of your answer from the immediately preceding pages. Weave four quotes.

On Wayfarer: Describe the "contest" between the old man and the officer in metaphorical terms. Clearly indicate the roots of this primitive/civilized antagonism in the topic. Weave three quotes.

On Sound of Thunder: Compose a paragraph that describes Bradbury's use of either: motion, color/light, sound, feel, taste or anatomy/physicality. Make sure the topic identifies the contribution that this imagery makes to the story. Weave four quotes.

On Red Badge of Courage: Describe the role that ego defense mechanisms such as displacement, sublimation, reaction formation and identification with the aggressor play in chaps. 5-13. Maximum three paragraphs. Weave a minimum of six quotes.

Bellevue International School's founding teachers were: Rick Hart, Patricia McLean, Rita Lowy, Terry LaRussa Banton, Karen Kurle and Bruce Saari. Of these six planners, only four assumed teaching positions when the school opened: McLean, Lowy, LaRussa Banton and Saari. Hart assumed administrative duties at the District level, and Kurle was not available to teach because of an upcoming leave.