Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Addicted to questioning



In a study of owls in K-1 the curiosity is palpable.  Is this owl alive?  How did it die? Why are the feathers so soft?  Why is it called a barred owl, or a horned owl?  How do the wings work?  Can I touch it?   The questions rule the day.  Observational drawings come next.  Students are developing the skill of noticing details. And asking even more questions.  And then the teacher brings out...the owl pellets...!

In this article in MindShift, How to Bring More Beautiful Questions Back to School, Katerina Schwartz  contends that after about age 5 or 6, questioning falls off.  Yet a questioning mind is a highly desired skill in any modern work place - it's the value added in the technology age.

For questioning minds to thrive, children need lots of time - not a curriculum that "covers" material. They need a culture that rewards intellectual risk-taking - not one that penalizes wrong answers.  

Schwatrz says, "Kids are lighting up their pleasure zones and getting dopamine hits every time they learn something that solves something they were curious about."  Sounds addictive!

Effective teachers set up a topic and trigger questioning - then find ways to follow where kids' curiosity takes them.  They allow for a deep dive into a juicy problem or topic.  What's the result? A classroom filled with knowledge addicts - confident kids who crave to question and to learn more.

Vera's drawing of the barred owl's wing


Dissecting owl pellets

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Teaching for creativity

Wharton professor Adam Grant talks and writes about creativity and how to nurture it.  In the short video at the end of this post he talks specifically about how to nurture creativity in students.

His three main points are that values should take president over rules; that character is more important than behavior; and that giving kids examples from the books they read  - of kids doing creative things that haven't been done before, are ways to develop creativity.

This is interesting to me.  It speaks to the way we construct the school experience for our students and what we intend for them to gain from it.  It is a question the Parker faculty is always trying to get to the root of - How do we develop creativity, empathy, and purpose in our students - skills that will serve them well for their entire lives?

We strive to inspire curiosity by posing interesting questions and by giving students the ways and means to explore the world around them and topics they become interested in.  We set high expectations and let the children help develop rules, giving them the real responsibility (with adult support) to construct a kind and supportive community.  We set up many experiences where learning has a purpose beyond the immediate classroom, by doing projects that have an impact on others: citizen science, teaching others, coming up with solutions to real world problems, community service.  And everyone is immersed in the arts -  music, dance, instruments, painting, dramatics, public speaking, design and many, many other creative practices.

We also give them time to play and to contemplate.

I like Grant's ideas and hope to expand even further on the question of developing creativity and innovators.  On the evening of April 5 we are having a panel discussion, open to the public, about just this topic.  We have some amazing thinkers lined up - Stay tuned - more information is coming!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Developing STEMpathy


Disruptive technology surrounds us: self-driving cars, software that writes poetry, drones delivering packages...When machines are competing with people for thinking, what's a human to do?!

Thomas Freidman has been thinking about this, and in his recent article From hands to heads to the hearts he answers that humans have what computers don't - a heart.  He writes that everyone needs STEMpathy to succeed in this new age.

The attributes that can't be programmed are the ones we must develop in school, like passion, character and a collaborative spirit.  It is crucial to combine knowledge with heart to if we want students to thrive in the technical age we live in.

It's a reminder of the importance of Parker's core values and mission, the right ones for our age, or any age.

This morning five alumni from 2008 and 2013 visited for a panel discussion.  Represented were an art teacher and a novelist, a future biochemist, a future biomedical engineer, and a budding labor relations specialist.   Their empathy was evident and the values and advice they espoused were about the importance of being friends with people who want to make you better, building relationships with teachers, and finding activities, clubs and subjects that you feel passionate about.  They are all serious about ideas and value learning over grades.

They loved the fun they had at Parker - playing in the stream and being outdoors.  They valued the friends and teachers.  The thesis project was defining and prepared them for writing everywhere, even in college.   They learned to learn for learning's sake, and felt proud of it.  These young adults were definitely skilled in STEMpathy.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A reading/running connection


There is lots of evidence that an active learning environment with time for physical activity, running and play helps children learn better.  The mind-body-learning connection is powerful stuff!  A new study from Finland shows that first grade children, especially boys, need time running around in order to learn to read.  Sitting for longer periods doesn't help - it actually hinders reading and math development!  Here is the article in Time.com : Boys Who Sit Still Have  Harder Time Learning to Read.

Boys whose days were more sedentary when they were in first grade (a crucial year for learning to read) made fewer gains in reading in second and third grade.

I'm happy to note that Parker kids in the lower grades get a minimum of 60 to 75 minutes a day for actual recess, and there is also phys ed, Muddy Boots Club, time spent outdoors just for fun, movement in music and Spanish and not a lot of "seat time".  It is a great argument for the adventure we are about to embark on -Winter Fridays - when everyone gets a change of pace for swimming, skiing, XC skiing, snow boarding, and movement.  Active body - active mind!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Peace Assembly performance

As promised, the finished product - a lovely performance!

6-7's perform from Meg Taylor on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A little music brightens the day!


The 6-7's Practice for the Peace Assembly from Meg Taylor on Vimeo.

The music room is on the other side of my office wall.  The intriguing sounds often compel me to walk over to see what they are up to.  Here is a recent 6-7 class practice session for the Peace Assembly (believe it or not!)  Music teacher Sara says it's Riding on the Wind, Gamelan music from Southeast Asia.  I can't wait to hear the complete version at the performance on December 21.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The joy of play


As an administrator, my time with kids seems to be most concentrated during recess.  I do get out and about around the school and I read to the 2-3's during lunch on Thursdays.  But recess is where I really get to see the social dynamic.

I love it.  Watching what kids choose to do with their time and how they interact is fascinating.  For the K through 5th graders, we are now playing exclusively in the woods and on the soccer field because of the Discovery Center construction.  I take to the woods with them - my favorite place.

Some kids have become expert at finding salamanders - they turn over every rock and know just where to look.  Some have become expert shelter builders - and dam builders as the recent rain has filled the creek.  There are chase games, climbing games, and some children who wander  - sometimes speaking to themselves - quite engaged inside their own imaginations.  Five first grade girls practiced on Monday to put on a show - choreographed by the pavilion hill.  They ran down to stand on a picnic table bench and dance and sing Bad Blood.

The other day it snowed, and that brought a whole different way to play.  It mainly seemed to be all about eating the snow.

Children desperately need the time to create imaginative play scenarios, to run and to build things, and to negotiate conflict and rules - learning the fine points of the give and take of their social lives. Sometimes there are tears. Mostly it's pure joy!


Monday, October 31, 2016

Peaceful forts is the rule

We've had a beautiful fall.  The colors, the warm days, the light filtering through the red and orange leaves...

This morning I wished a sunny day to one of our parents and he said that since his job is in a basement, he can't see the sun.  I feel so sad for him!  It is so wonderful to work in a light-filled space with the sun streaming in my windows.

Being outside in the light is a freedom and privilege that we try to maximize at school - especially since we are the beneficiaries of a 77 acre outdoor classroom.  We recognize that kids' day is ruled by adults so much of the time, so committing to get them outdoors for an hour or two a day is a priority.

We are doing a construction project right now that has put the play structure for grades K - 8 off limits and we have moved recess to the field and woods.  It is definitely fun - but as in many ventures with children, needs regular adjustments.

Here is part of an email that one teacher sent around over the weekend asking others to join in a meeting with the K - 5 children. (When you read this, you will see why I truly love my job!)

With forts, there are lots of concerns about exclusion (kids telling others they aren't allowed in their fort, cloaked in "there's no room"), kids "stealing" things or "destroying" the forts of others when unoccupied, which has led to guards, and plots to attack. My guys also complained that there were secret passwords and security guards who kept people out. I wouldn't say my kids are up in arms, but there's a lot of uncertainty and hard feelings in the works. As for sticks, I heard they are still being used as weapons and a bunch of my kids said that sword fighting is happening when the adults aren't looking. I did feel the other day that the consent given to use sticks for digging has become a definite loop hole. 

So, there was a meeting this morning at 9:00 and the kids and teachers came up with some new guidelines:
Peaceful forts is the rule...sticks can only be used to build forts, not to dig or for weapons...forts can only be destroyed with the consent of all builders...

It was definitely more peaceful today.  At recess, I was reminded that kids' natural proclivity is to be very industrious.  They were working very hard on forts, a new bridge, a see-saw - and I heard a lot of negotiation and talk to remind each other and themselves about the rules.  Sitting down together this morning to work it all out was a crucial process for the peaceful day we had.

I am tempted to take this lesson and apply it to our country's political process, and my optimistic view is that elections, debating among ourselves and voting are the ways we set and reset our rules in pursuit of industriousness and fairness.  I think "peaceful forts" is a pretty good rule.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Where the outdoors is both classroom and teacher

Kids are wired from birth to be scientists - to explore and discover things and use their senses.

Fourth and fifth graders today were begging to stay in the woods to continue their New York forest study.  They have each adopted a tree for a year-long project.  Tasks include describing the tree, drawing the tree from different perspectives like lying down or from above, writing a poem about the tree, and scientific investigation.

K-1's are studying salamanders and 2-3's are starting the year with their annual water study and participation in the DEC's Day in the Life of the Hudson River.  Middle schoolers have started something new - The Nature Patchwork Project, observing an area of the school's property for a year, and creating detailed nature observation journals that they will publish to Pinterest as a way to share their findings publicly.

Thomas Friedman in a September Op-ed We Are All Noah Now urges our generation  - and our children's  - to be the "Noah generation" - charged with saving the earth and its species from extinction.  To care about nature, children need to be immersed in nature and be environmentally literate.  In today's tech-focused world, that's not so easy.

How lucky are we that Parker is at the cutting edge of pedagogy in a unique learning environment, where the outdoors is a classroom and a teacher both?!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Community, passion, involvement: Preparing kids for Yale



  • What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left.
  • Reflect on a time in the last few years when you felt genuine excitement learning about something.
  • Write about something that you love to do.


These are essay questions on Yale University's freshman admission application.  According to author Amy Wang in Quartz, more than anything else, colleges are looking for passion and civic engagement.  

When developing these traits, it pays to start early - and Pre K isn't too early!  The habits of engagement and community that lead to passion can't really be authentic if they don't start until a student's junior year in high school. 

Exploring the world in ways that lead to purposeful action is something that teachers intentionally build into the curriculum at Parker.  When our kids are filling out their Yale applications, they won't have to stretch to answer these questions or come up with a canned response.  They will have plenty of material to draw upon because they will have been living it and feeling it for years.