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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What a K - 8 school does for a sixth grader

Here is a terrific article from NPR Ed, Sixth Grade is Tough; It Helps to be Top Dog, about the unique benefits of K - 8 schools. The article tells of a study of 90,000 students over time.  It examined how sixth graders did in  Grade 6 - 8 schools, vs  6 - 12 or K - 8 schools.  It turns out K - 8 schools were the difference makers and here is why.

Sixth graders are particularly vulnerable as social beings and being at the "bottom" of the pack as a 6th grader is really tough for them.  Bullying, social media meanness, and lagging academic performance is the rule when they are the "bottom dog".  But in a K - 8 environment, even if they are new in sixth grade, these students are right in the middle.  They feel connected and safer.  They can be leaders and role models for younger children and will take on intellectual challenges.

Our middle school kids (and alumni) tell it best: "I can be myself."  "I have confidence."  "I have a lot of say about what happens."  These are such important factors in the lives of our 12, 13 and 14 year-olds.  Coming out of middle school as a confident, passionate learner and a nice person seems like an impossible goal to reach if you look at the way many schools are organized today.  In a Pre K - 8 like Parker, it is not only possible, it's the norm.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Learning is a risky business

We all have a particular level of willingness to be pushed beyond our comfort zone.  I know that for me, after a lifetime of being pushed by others, I have developed a tolerance  - even relish - for diving into (some) unfamiliar things, despite knowing that I will feel uncomfortable.  The job of Head of School encompasses many of those every day!

We have just concluded two days together as a faculty, hiking in the woods and talking about the curriculum for the coming year and all the connections we will be making.  It is clear that students will be challenged every day to think in new ways and take intellectual, social and physical risks.  The idea is that when students try something they are perhaps uncertain about, they find they can do it, and they build increased confidence to try the next new thing.

One of our faculty activities was to answer two questions and share answers with several partners in quick succession: Why do you care enough to work at Parker?  and What moves you about Parker and its work?  The answers touched on common themes and we all felt inspired.

  • We believe passionately in the school's mission.  
  • We love the commitment to a fun, meaningful education that creates empathy and a close community.  
  • The school values the child and the process of learning  - and that is marvelous and uncommon. 
  • We embrace the natural world every day.  
What moves us?
  • We have seen how the school changes kids' lives
  • The school builds students' confidence and inspires them.
  • Students like themselves and know that they are valued for who they are.
  • Students and adults together have autonomy and are happy.
  • By being intentional about it, the school builds children's belief and understanding that they can make a difference for others and the world.
Everyone at Parker tries the low ropes elements at some point.  This year, teachers tried negotiating the tires.  For me, it looked like fun, and I jumped right up.  For a few others, it looked scary, and they jumped in anyway.  A few decided to sit it out - maybe next time.  

I was reminded that each year, students have the same varied levels of tolerance that we did for trying out the tires.  The confidence that we witness as it develops in students, and that we see in every graduate, comes from the daily practice of trying new things in an atmosphere of support.  It is one of the ways that Parker moves all of us.

(I'm in the skirt...)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Asking the right questions

Three great dinner table questions for kids of any age come from writer Meg Conley in Huff Post -

How were you brave today?
How were you kind today?
How did you fail today?

The fall back parent question, "What did you do in school today?" often elicits the fallback kid response, "Nothing." or "Stuff."  I can only imagine what kind of discussions and conversation could come from these far more revealing questions, and also the opportunity to talk about failure as a positive consequence of trying something new or taking a risk.

I'm going to give it a try when school starts, and see what responses I get from Parker kids.  I think I'll also try answering these for myself!

Friday, August 26, 2016

The glow of learning

Have we forgotten how children learn?  Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post thinks so.  Her article, What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning  has much terrific food for thought and discussion.

She says, Watch your child's eyes, what makes them go dull and dead, what makes them brighten, quicken, glow with light.  That is where learning lies.  That can be our guide for every day at school - the glow in children's eyes tells us how we are doing as educators.  

Talk to gifted scientists, writers, artists, entrepreneurs. You will find they learned through keen observation, experimentation, immersion, freedom, participation, through real play and real work, through the kind of free activity where the distinction between work and play disappears.

When I watch children at Parker, I see the brightness of excitement and I hear and feel the energy and passion.  It is the secret of an effective school - one where people say "your graduates are the best, brightest and most interesting people!"


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Social pain/social gain

What's harder?  A math problem or a social problem?  This blog post in The Genius in Children answers that social learning is actually the reason for school.  Learning to solve social dilemmas is so important for kids, because in every child's life, friends can be enemies and enemies can be friends, right?

The social waters that children navigate are tricky and the modelling and practice that happen in the immersed social world of school (and camp!) is crucial.  Social pain makes us stronger and fuller people when social skills are part of the curriculum.

I love what author Rick Ackerly suggests: instead of parents asking "How was school today?" they can ask "Solve any social problems today?"  Try this with any age group and you are sure to get into some interesting discussions!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Finding voices of compassion

These fine young people graduated from Robert C. Parker School in June.  We sent them into the world beyond middle school carrying with them, among other wonderful traits, compassion, perspective, a quest for social justice, caring and respect for others and themselves.

As a school leader, I feel anguished by local and global acts of terror, violence and murder, and ugly public expressions characterizing "the other", in a way that goes beyond my personal outrage and sadness.  I wonder if the voices of sanity, of inclusion and compassion, of justice and understanding can become louder?  I wonder if what seems like an escalation of violence can fuel an equally strong rejection of violence?

Our school is a privileged place where every student is loved and has the opportunity to grow.  So many children do not have these advantages - and because the world is such a complex place, we feel helpless to make it different.  How can we help to create a world where there is kindness, justice and peace?  What else can we do but  give our best in our quiet corner?

As we engage in conversations around the dinner table, in the car, at our places of work, on social media, we can express the complexities of our emotions, our fears and our hopes.  We can together try to unravel the motives, the problems and the injustices and imagine solace and solutions.  We can help each other find a voice and help our children find theirs.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Building character starts with heart

In a recent NY Times Op-Ed, The Building Blocks of Learning, David Brooks says, "Education is one of those spheres where the heart is inseparable from the head."

Good educators know this and it is an unspoken rule in a successful classroom - the teacher pours time, love and attention into the child and the child deeply desires to be worthy of that caring and attention.  This bond is what develops character in a child.

As independent school educators, we secretly scoff at the public discussion about character in schools.  You've seen the programs - the "Character Trait of the Week".  Does that actually build character?

What does build character are qualities that are inherent in the culture of the school - the very essence of the daily experience.  It should be intentional - as much as we can make it so.  At our school it comes in the form of a commitment to intrinsic goals and to a balanced set of values.  It is stated in our motto, our mission, our values and our statement of diversity.  It is practiced through many interactions between teachers and students, discussions among faculty and administrators, and much self-evaluation.

One of our administrative goals this year is to examine our culture of compassion. What does it mean?  Are we modelling it?

Checking in with students is one way to assess whether they are absorbing the character traits we strive to build in them.  In a recent conversation about how kids prepare to succeed in high school, a seventh grader told me, "Here, learning is fun.  When we get to high school we don't have to learn how to be motivated and work hard, because we already know that.  We have some freedom here and so we know how to handle ourselves."

I think she nailed it pretty well.  Intrinsic motivation, taking responsibility, confidence, loving to learn - these are  many of the most important things we can teach.  They don't come from the character trait of the week - they are addressed through the heart, and are woven throughout the life of the school.