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.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Promoting adventure

We have worked in the past with an amazing educator, Ron Berger, and his ideas permeate our school.  He was a teacher for many years in Massachusetts and is now chief education director at Expeditionary Learning (EL Education).  He taught us about the process of critique, of beautiful display of children's work, and of linking classroom learning to real problems and solutions outside of school - the purposeful action we talk about in our mission statement.

The roots of EL Education come from Outward Bound and one of the tenets is "Promoting Adventure" -  the kind that encompasses physical activities in the outdoors, and also the intellectual kind that can involve risk, challenge, and discovery.

EL promotes the kind of adventures that create opportunities for leadership and collaboration as groups of students and teachers face challenges together.  Together, students and adults discover they can do more that they thought was possible, and find aspects of themselves that they didn't know were there.       ~ EL Education Core Practice 30

I love the idea that Adventure is a school goal.  Here is a  Parker example: our STEM Week, where students must work as teams of engineers in a Space Tourism company, to research, design, and build rockets, while making promotional videos for their companies.  Students function like scientists and engineers do, and also entrepreneurs.  They have group goals and individual goals.  They tackle something that is relevant to their lives and is actually happening in the world outside of school.  They reflect on their work afterwards.

Their learning is an adventure.  It elicits students' enthusiasm, excitement, and motivation.  All the goals we have for learning: cooperation, research, critical thinking, creative thinking, and so many others are embodied in activities like this.

Adventure is what keeps kids craving more and is probably why Parker children love to come to school.  Here is a photo of some kind of summer adventure - a kind that can be categorized simply as "fun"!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Time to catch a frog

It's a whirlwind at the end of the school year.  Now as the perfect blue of the June sky beckons, it's time to go out and catch a frog.

There is something about the rhythm and pattern of our school lives that leads to a winding up at the end of the year - and then an inevitable winding down.  Could it be that Shows of Work, field trips, launching a student-made boat on the pond, graduation speeches, our 25th Anniversary Celebration, a ground-breaking ceremony, the Board of Trustees annual al...leave us craving the relative simplicity of summer?  Would we feel such a sense of accomplishment and the sweet pleasure of an iced tea on the patio if the ending of the year were not so frenetic?!

On the radio the other day, I heard a song I fondly remember from childhood and our family's seemingly endless seven-hour drive to the beach every summer.  Now I'm dating myself -  it was Nat King Cole's Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.  That song just sounds like summer to me.

I think that "lazy" is the key word.  It is great to be lazy in the summer - and it can be the impetus for flights of crazy imagination.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Broadway's Hamilton expresses it beautifully in this interview in GQ about how the key to parenting might be less parenting.   He recalls a car ride as a kid where a friend entertained himself with a stick - just a stick - for three hours.

At Planet Parker camp, kids are often down at the pond catching frogs - and they develop a whole fantasy about even that.  "This frog can't afford us," I heard one girl say.  What funny story about frogs lead to that idea?!

So, it's officially summer - grab a soda, some pretzels and a beer - or a frog - and enjoy some lazy days.  You've earned it!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Our school property is full of wonder.  This spring, the K-1 class was studying birds and an alumni parent, Curt Morgan, took the children out birding.  Curt's son, also Curt, a Parker grad of the class of 1996, is an Emmy Award winning action nature and sports film-maker in Jackson, Wyoming.  I guess a love of nature runs in the family!

Here is what they saw on the bird walk and some of Curt's commentary.

There are more Starlings on your property than any other species mainly due to the presence of the adjoining farm house where they are feeding domestic chickens and geese. 

More of a proof shot, but this is a male Scarlet Tanager seen together with his mate this morning.

 These warblers sure do grace your property.

When I saw this American Kestrel yesterday on your property, the Blue Jays were not too happy.

Beside the possible Black-billed Cuckoo and Veery, this Chestnut-sided Warbler was the most unusual bird for us to see today.

Glad to see Mr. Mallard taking advantage of your beautiful pond.
This is the Parker School Red-tailed Hawk (RTH).  I think that this one and its mate are nesting along the power lines.  If you see an RTH on or near your property then it is this pair, who own the air space for one square mile around your property.

 The two pairs of Canada Geese enjoy the wet area on the southeast corner of your property; the domestic geese (I think that the neighbors have Chinese Geese) make them feel more comfortable in being there.

Thank you, Curt!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Head for the Day!

My name is Christopher and I was Head for the Day, today!  I got to pull the fire alarm!  I was surprised that I had to go make sure that no one was in the bathrooms during the fire drill.  I got to go out for lunch with my friend Max and we got milkshakes and ice cream sundaes!  Because I called an extra recess for the whole school, we went to get popscicles and I gave them out to every body.  I hope I get to do this again!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Teaching for Character

How do we teach character traits?  This is an interesting question. I see it play out so well in our independent schools and not necessarily so well in public schools - and why is that?

This article in Atlantic, How Kids Learn Resilience,  really tries to get at why it's so hard to teach character in public schools.  Part of the problem, the author says, lies in the things that children have learned from a young age at home - that set them up for success or failure early on, and part lies in the way our public schools typically reward and punish children and how ineffective that method is.

It is true that we are a self-selecting group in many ways in independent schools, with children who are already skewed to success - with the right kind of support at home to give them the tools for their future success.  But I believe that at Parker, it is how we teach - and how we create a school culture - that is the difference maker when our results are compared with public schools - and even with other, less effective independent schools.

Last night was Project Night at Parker.  In Pre K, children's sculpture, painting, narrated books and treasured art, were on display along with a slide show of their year of exploration and discovery.  Jump down the hall to the gym, where our 8th grade students were giving their thesis presentations.  This is a clear illustration of the "bookends" of a Parker education.

The autonomy, the fun and the exploratory nature of the Pre K leads directly to the ability of 13-year-olds to stand in front of an audience and succinctly and with passion, defend their reasoning about complex social justice issues that they chose to delve into - Gun Control, Racial Profiling, the Death Penalty, to name a few.  The poise and confidence, the underlying resilience and perseverance to research and write a 15 - 20 page paper, and the intellectual and public-speaking chops that it took to accomplish the presentations is a testament to effective school culture.  It is not an accident that Parker students can do this.

It is the result of giving students autonomy, support, and space to explore (and "fail").  It is the product of critique, self-evaluation and real responsibility.  Students will be more likely to display positive academic habits when they are in an environment where they feel a sense of belonging, independence and growth is how Paul Tough puts it in the Atlantic article.  It is the antithesis of traditional reward and punishment systems.  It is beautiful to see.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What are kids learning?

What are kids learning in school?  Do we really know?  In his recent article, Most Parents Have No Idea What Their Kids Are Learning In School, Will Richardson, technology and education writer and thinker contemplates what a grade tells him (or not) about what his own children are learning in high school.  He wonders what is sticking with them from their school day that they will use in their lives to become more successful or fulfilled?

I asked this question today in our faculty meeting: How is the culture of the middle school right now? The math teacher piped up immediately, "We had a middle school meeting yesterday - and they are all good!  There are no social issues!"  We all laughed (because middle school life centers around social issues.)  The Health teacher chimed in, "I am talking with the kids about stress in their lives and they said the same thing.  Their friends are not stressors - their parents are! You know - bugging them to see their phones and getting too involved in their lives." Another chuckle from the faculty.

We tend to measure the subject-content of kids' learning - can they add detail to an essay or can they describe the water cycle?  At Parker, we actually do try to measure some of the traits of a successful learner - like the ability to take intellectual risks or work independently, or cooperatively.

But I'm not sure we let parents know the most crucial things, like does their child have a passion to achieve or are they purposeful?  Are they becoming better at negotiating social conflict?  Do they stand up for their beliefs?  Do we let parents know if their kids are measuring up to the school's motto?

Or  - are all of these the wrong things to report to parents because, really, as the kids say, parents are getting just too involved in their lives anyway!