Monday, December 16, 2013

Joy in learning

Many classes are preparing for final projects this week: an 8th grade mock trial about cyber-bullying; Native American legend playlets written and performed by 4-5's; a Hudson River museum in 2-3; and a homes and habitats display of New York state animals in K-1.  There is the Peace Assembly on Friday, too!  Reflecting on the final preparations, teacher Lynn Schuster says in her blog Here in the 2-3's:

As we wind down our semester, the children's working days are full. Everyone has been stretching academic muscles as essays are organized and composed on Hudson River topics.
Confidence is tested as the children move from their research articles into organizing and synthesizing those ideas in their own words. Patience and focus have been tested as this work stretched over many days. As essays are finished, each child is struck with relief, then pride and, finally, joy.

My tradition is to do a little dance with each child as he or she writes that last word in the conclusion. Some kids love the jig. Some kids take off and run away giggling. Jennifer and I always make sure that their hard work is marked with a good mix of joy, humor and celebration.

Aaaah, to be with a group of smart, talented, funny and rambunctious kids each day:  that's one of my life's greatest joys.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What makes you happy?

K-1 teacher Liliana works with the children to create a classroom grounded in peace and friendship.  To see if the children have absorbed the lessons, she asked the kids these questions: "What do you like about school?"  and "What makes you happy?"  Here are some of their responses (categorized after the conversation by Liliana)

Peace and Beauty
  • Peace is a wonderful thing at school.  We love people.
  • In this classroom there is lots of peace and we make peace a lot.
  • We help each other in a kind way.  We get a lot of free choice.
  • We meditate.  We go into our silence.
  • You can make beautiful pictures.
Play and Friendships
  • You can make new friends and play.  We can all play together.
  • We play dress-up.
  • It's a wonderful class with all these friends.
  • Playing games at recess and I help my friends.
  • You have really good friends and you help other people.
  • We have two recesses.  We can build at recess.  We can build in the classroom and you can mix toys and then when we clean up we put them back where they belong.  If you didn't mix the toys you could not make these structures.
She noted that everyone mentioned the block center as a fun place and recess was also very popular.  They also mentioned all the projects and themes they have worked on: homes and habitats, fall, butterflies, moths, frogs and cooking.

I'm so happy that the culture of our classrooms and school community is infused with these ideas.  Our graduates carry it forth in their personal lives and to work in the peace corps, as doctors, educators, and as entrepreneurs for social causes.  The message of peace and friendship clearly resonates  - and who knows, another Nelson Mandela could be in the making.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Taking moments throughout the day for breathing and reflecting adds to kids' ability to focus.  It may even be essential for them to do well in school.

Katherine Broderick, in Why Teaching Mindfulness Benefits Students' Learning in Mind Shift, says, Learning to channel attention to productive tasks, to sustain motivation when work becomes demanding, and to handle the frustrations of sharing, learning, and communicating with peers are skills that depend on the ability to understand and manage emotions. 

In preschool our students breath slowly to the diminishing sound of a chime, and in K-1, go into "their silence".  2-3's and 4-5's practice slow breaths for making transitions, and middle school students walk for 15 minutes during their daily 2000 Steps. 

In Friday Assemblies we are trying something new - five calming breaths to begin and end Assembly.  It gives everyone a moment to focus, it oxygenates the brain and prepares us to experience the present.  A wonderful skill for life success! 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A dynamic reflection

It's always great to see ourselves through someone else's eyes.  Josie Holford, Head of Poughkeepsie Day School posted a reflection of her day at Parker on her terrific blog, The Compass Point.  What don't you know about design thinking?  Her short video tells it all!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Design Thinking

On Monday, Parker teachers played with a way of problem solving called design thinking.  Guided by Josie Holford, the Head of Poughkeepsie Day School, we learned to frame problems in new ways in order to uncover empathy and insights that lead to innovative and creative solutions. 

Design thinking is a concept best described through work from the at Stanford and IDEO.  It
is participatory and collaborative and turns traditional brainstorming on its head.

In one activity we broke into pairs to interview each other about our experience of using the Parker library and what problems we encounter in this highly used room.  We broke our partner's response into defining words, beliefs, actions, and feelings to get at the root of the problem - to uncover their real needs and perhaps gain some surprising insights.  After several rounds of clarification we each designed a solution to our partner's problem using cardboard, scrap paper, tape, scissors and pipe cleaners. 

Voila!  Creative solutions for a better library experience that we would not have otherwise uncovered.  And of course the fun of playing with "stuff". 

Educators are beginning to embrace design thinking as a way to teach students to look at problems differently - and to solve the problems of schools themselves.  Already this morning Parker teachers used design thinking to help middle school kids create rules for phone use in school.  Timely!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A poem has the ability to surprise

Writing poetry is a process that takes time, revision and courage to put yourself in front of your peers. To help, we teach children a process called critique so they can see their writing through others' eyes.  They learn how to give feedback that is kind and useful to the writer.  It's hard at first and children often give feedback like "I like it!"

In 2-3 children learn to give a "compliment sandwich" - feedback that includes first a compliment, then a suggestion, then a compliment.  The writer can take the advice  - or not - and continue revising.  The kids also read great poems, noticing what makes them great.

Here is an article by Mark Yakich in the Atlantic, What's a Poem?  You read it.  It reads you.  An object lesson.  He says, Because of its special status—set apart in a magazine or a book, all that white space pressing upon it—a poem still has the ability to surprise, if only for a moment which is outside all the real and virtual, the aural and digital chatter that envelopes it, and us.

Here is the poem of a third grader, Madeline, after revising her first draft with the help of critique.

I am...

I am birds singing
I am math
I am water cascading over rocks
I am books with a good story
I am music fresh from the violin
I am water cascading over rocks
I am fall
I am winter
I am water cascading over rocks
I am wild animals
I am a creek
I am the ocean hustling and bustling with life
I am water cascading over rocks
I am cute seals sunning on boulders
I am water cascading over rocks
I am the earth recovering from humans

Friday, November 15, 2013

Creative Entrepreneurialism

Examining a bee under a microscope is part of the Bee Project,
understanding their complexity and importance in ecosystems
I just returned from two very thought provoking conferences for Heads of School.  One of the speakers was Dr. Yong Zhao of U. Oregon talking about the ideas in his latest book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.  His remarks resonated because at Parker we are educating children in all the ways he espouses, through project-based experiences (he calls it product-based) that have a purpose beyond the classroom.  This kind of learning is inherently interesting to children and promotes a passion for learning more.  It involves flexing that creativity muscle in a myriad of ways that are left out of learning as it is expressed by teaching to the Common Core.

Great examples are the honey bee curriculum in 4-5, the goat wool weaving project in K-1, and STEM week and the archeological dig in middle school.  Each of these projects requires students to think independently, make connections across several disciplines and express their learning in multiple forms of media - so far beyond filling in a bubble for multiple choice responses that it's mind boggling!
Students work with our bee-keeping mentor, Tony as they learn to calm the bees with smoke and gather some honey.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Dramatic Play - a vehicle for learning

Pre K 3 teacher, JoAnn Bennett has been using her blog to explain the purpose behind the activities in Pre K.  Here is an excerpt from her latest entry:

Looking Deeper:  Exploration and Learning through Play

We will look deeper at Dramatic Play often over the course of this year, as it is one of the most fundamental vehicles of learning for young children. 

Within Dramatic Play, children literally "try on" roles as they seek to expand and learn about their world.  Dramatic Play utilizes and expands the children's language skills.  It is also a catalyst for cooperation, creative thinking, problem solving and sharing.  Additionally, it is often a vehicle for teaching social studies, as the children often take on the role of various community helpers within their play. 

This week as we talked about fire safety, our discussions were often reflected in the children's play.  They consistently took the information gleaned at story time and incorporated it into the scripts of their play scenarios.  On any given day in the dress up area, one was apt to hear the following exclamations, "Don't touch the stove!" or "Call 911".   The children processed and applied new information within their play, and that is indeed indicative of learning!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Balancing act

Here is a great article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic: All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines.  Carr talks about the tightrope we walk between letting technology do things for us and retaining the ability to become expert at doing things ourselves.

When you engage actively in a task, you set off intricate mental processes that allow you to retain more knowledge. You learn more and remember more. When you repeat the same task over a long period, your brain constructs specialized neural circuits dedicated to the activity. It assembles a rich store of information and organizes that knowledge in a way that allows you to tap into it instantaneously. Whether it’s Serena Williams on a tennis court or Magnus Carlsen at a chessboard, an expert can spot patterns, evaluate signals, and react to changing circumstances with speed and precision that can seem uncanny. What looks like instinct is hard-won skill, skill that requires exactly the kind of struggle that modern software seeks to alleviate.

As we struggle to find a balance for our kids and ourselves between the incredible positive effects of technology v.s. the myriad ways it isolates us from hands-on experience, this article provides an interesting viewpoint.  We can continue to explore together!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

They're back!

Last night our 2013 alums came to school to share their stories of transition - to help current 8th grade students decide where they would like to go next year.  This is a cherished annual tradition - the recent alumni sit in the window seat in the library as we all gather around.

The conversation is always enlightening and makes us proud.  Parker kids just seem to blossom with confidence as they find that their skills transfer so well to new settings.  This year we had representatives from Emma Willard, Doane Stuart, Albany High, Guilderland High and Darrow.  Here are a few of their comments.

What did you find most surprising about your new school?
  • All the stairs!
  • There's not as much homework as I expected.
  • There is so much homework!
  • There are 2 tests a day!
  • 2 hours of sports a day
What did you learn at Parker that has helped you?
  • The knowledge that you are someone - don't let anyone take that away.
  • The method of thinking - I know about how to apply and connect knowledge.  The kids in my classes were taught what to think, not how to think. 
  • I understand about good research and how to cite sources.
  • Making friends.  Parker was like a close family and it was the perfect balance of support and independence.
  • I learned how to ask teachers for help.
  • I am always raising my hand because James taught us literally everything!  I am interested in learning and the kids in my classes just sit there.
  • I am definitely not fazed by being assigned an 8 page paper!
What advice can you give to the 8th graders?
  • Smile every day at someone - it makes you feel better.
  • Enjoy this year - it's the best! 
  • Try hard in all your classes.
  • Kiss Shelli's feet!  You are going to be SO well prepared for math next year.
  • Never lose sight of yourself.
  • Learn to do something that quickly relaxes you so you can relieve stress.
  • When you get to 9th grade, show that you are willing to try hard and that you are interested - then teachers will respect you.
There were other gems about making friends like "Don't be Bob Smith from Normal High  - cultivate one identifying, unique characteristic"  and "Make friends with seniors - if they like you, everyone will like you"  and "Join a Club." 

The energy and openness of our recent grads was great to see!  In big schools and small schools, public and independent - they are all doing us proud.

Alumni Update!  From 1998 to 2010 - These people are amazing!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Learn to code, code to learn

Teresa Ferrer-Mico, our former science and math teacher is teaching Parker kids programming with Scratch in Computer Club on Fridays.  It's part of the research for her doctoral dissertation - and kids are loving it.  As MIT's Mitch Resnick says in his latest TED talk, "When you learn to code, it opens up for you to learn many other things."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Citizen science at work

This was our fifth year collecting data on the Hudson River for Snapshot Day.  All the information goes to Lamont Dougherty Earth Observatory at Columbia for analysis in this DEC project involving over 70 schools from the Troy Dam to Manhattan.  The 2-3's and 6-7's take their responsibilities seriously as they measure turbidity, pH, salinity, water and tide flow, and collect sediment samples, micro-invertebrates, and other measurements of river health. 

They get the thrill of being in the field and tracking this majestic river's health over time, monitoring the effects of human and weather activity.  Citizen scientist experiences like this lend purpose and passion to the learning for Parker kids - highly motivating!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Muddy Boots Club

I had as much fun as the kids finding fall leaves and leaping frogs in Muddy Boots Club this afternoon! 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Can children grow up without play?

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play  ~ Peter Gray

Here is an interesting article about playing and how it is an essential way for children to learn about the world, themselves and others: The Play Deficit by evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray.  Through play kids learn negotiation, empathy, inginuity and other skills that have been identified as markers for success in life.

Having grown up in a time in the 50's and 60's that the author talks about as being the golden years for children's play - when childhood was completely filled with unstructured time for wandering, getting into and out of trouble, and running with a gang of mixed age neighborhood kids, maybe it is just my nostalgia that makes Gray's ideas ring true.  But watching children at Parker every day and seeing their real need  - and joy - to run, tumble, tussle, build, dig and interact with imagination, I think he and other educators and psycholigsts are on the right track.

Maybe that's why I love Planet Parker summer camp and Muddy Boots Club and why I feel so strongly that we need to carve out a place for play at school.

What are your thoughts?  What challenges do we face? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Failure invites learning

Here is a great visual from an article called Learning and Failure by David Truss.  He says that failure can be an amazing tool for learning.

This is why risk-taking is on the list of skills in our progress reports.  By taking risks intellectually, physically and in their social lives children have the opportunity to tackle something hard where failure is a possibility.  Spending the night at Camp Chingachgook, even when they are nervous.  Going back to the drawing board 15 times to get a robot to travel in a square.  Offering an opposing opinion in a class discussion.

Because we push students to test their limits and offer "spotters" to catch them if they fall, we reinforce the "try, try again" mentality and build confidence and resilience.  I love the little poem that a math teacher taught me years ago, "Mistakes are good, they help us grow, they teach us what we need to know."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The 77 acre classroom

There is probably nothing at school that is cooler than going outside to find new things on a beautiful day.  How lucky we are that such beauty is in our backyard!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Breathing for mindfulness

Mindfulness, the self-managed ability to focus on the present, is a useful skill in a complex world.  As Patricia Broderick, PhD writes in her book Learning to Breathe,

Learning to channel attention to productive tasks, to sustain motivation when work becomes demanding, and to handle the frustrations of sharing, learning, and communicating with peers are skills that depend on the ability to understand and manage emotions.

As one part of our effort to help children build emotional resiliency and self control, we use mindfulness techniques with them every day.  Our faculty has worked with CS Rao, a grandparent in our school, to learn a form of breathing that allows us to quickly relax and tune out distractions.  He calls it Counting Breaths and it has the effect of feeding oxygen to the brain, calming emotions, clearing a busy mind, and giving a sense of peace and focus. 

Teachers have adapted CS's ideas for classroom practice.  In Pre K 3, a chime is rung and children  breathe smoothly and quietly as the chime sound deminishes.  In Pre K 4, students use the image of falling leaves while they breathe.  In K-1, Liliana has adopted the language "going into your silence" as children sit quietly in both mind and body and breathe slowly.  2-3's practice taking five slow clearing breaths as do the 4-5's.

This year middle school teachers are going to teach the students CS's method of using the fingers to count breaths.  As CS says, the technique can be used anytime - when you can't sleep at night, or if you are feeling anxious.  And it works!  I use it in the middle of the night when my mind is racing.

The effect with children is very positive.  They have a strategy to calm themselves that they can use anywhere.  It is a great tool for successfully negotiating frustrations, stress and anxiety and gaining attentiveness and focus.  Having the ability to be mindful gives children confidence that they can handle difficult things.  That is a gift for any individual.

You can read more in this complex and fascinating article Why Teaching Mindfulness Benefits Students' Learning, in Mind/Shift.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What does it mean to be a STEM school?

4-5's testing the results of the solar ovens they designed and built in teams

In a recent article in MindShift, educator Anne Jolly sums up the criteria for a lesson that authentically fulfills STEM goals:

– Does it engage students in the engineering design process?
– Do students address a real-world problem?
– Do they work in teams to solve this problem?
– Are there multiple possible solutions?
– Do students get to explore and come up with ideas on their own, without being spoon-fed?

It strikes me that these criteria describe the whole learning philosophy at Parker.  If you substitute "learning" for engineering in the first point, it is a pretty exact fit for almost any project.

STEM is a hot term right now, and rightly so.  It encapsulates the idea that if we want students to become effective thinkers for the future, we need to innovate in the ways we teach them.

This list will be a great touchstone for teachers to use in assessing their plans for the year.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Students should experiment first

At Robotics Camp, everyone is experimenting!
“We are showing that exploration, inquiry and problem solving are not just ‘nice to have’ things in classrooms. They are powerful learning mechanisms that increase performance by every measure we have.”

Research at Stanford shows that students who experiment first, before they read about a topic or watch a video, improve their learning substantially.  It's great to have proof of the importance of this sequence of presenting lessons.  Hands-on familiarity with materials gives students a context in which to organize thoughts and it deepens what they learn.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Breaking the mold

On Friday I was witness to a wild game of Spartans vs Romans as kids ran through the woods between two gigantic fallen trees with spear-like sticks in hand.  "We are the Spartans and we are on the attack!"  A fleet of running children streamed into the Roman's tree when suddenly the cry rang out "Retreat!"

The utter joy and the crazy and spontaneous changes in the direction of runners, abandoned stand-offs, and altering fortunes of both sides made for thrilling viewing.  It reminded me of days in the (distant) past when I was a kid racing through backyards with abandon in the ever evolving games of a neighborhood throng.

In reading this article in MindShift, Breaking the Mold: School Fosters Design and Discovery I remembered what I love at Parker: the freedom to make school be about discovery, excitement and fun.  These past weeks at camp, kids have built shelters, gone tearing through the woods in "Capture the Chicken", labored through many iterations of design and programming to make a LEGO robotic dog's tail wag, and designed troll huts and fairy houses by the creek.  Everyone's imagination is sparked and everyone is participating and pushing themselves in some way.

The school year has more structure for sure, but the elements of choice within a theme and freedom within the structure remain.  Learning is richly full of questioning and imagination, with skill-building layered within to give students the tools to explore further.  Learning has a distinct purpose.

Education speaker Will Richardson says "We don't need schools to be better, we need schools to be really, really different."  Camp is a great model for how different  - and how exciting - learning can be.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Engagement in school leads to success in life

Building and launching rockets; creating LEGO robots and programming them to flip; constructing a shelter in the woods - this is engaging learning.  It's fun!  

New research shows that children who feel interested and engaged in school show greater success professionally over and above academic attainment or socioeconomic background. I'd wager that the same holds true for engagement at camp!

Children's interest and engagement in school influences their prospects of educational and occupational success 20 years later, over and above their academic attainment and socioeconomic background, researchers have found.

Read more at:
Children's interest and engagement in school influences their prospects of educational and occupational success 20 years later, over and above their academic attainment and socioeconomic background, researchers have found.

Read more at:
Children's interest and engagement in school influences their prospects of educational and occupational success 20 years later, over and above their academic attainment and socioeconomic background, researchers have found.

Read more at:

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Catching butterflies

Once Upon a Mattress, Jr! (...that's "FRED")
The wonderful variety of camp! 

Monday, June 17, 2013

The un-classroom

The Best Science Classrooms Aren't Classrooms says John Spencer in education rethink.  This week at camp, kids will be out collecting pollinators, exploring the fields and woods and following Parker's honey bees.  The spark of curiosity comes easily when kids are guided in inquiry in the great outdoors - right here in our 77 acre classroom.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What makes kids smarter?

6-7's turn a study of sound waves into a jam band of wacky self-made instruments.
If you do nothing else today, read Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence by Annie Murphy Paul in MindShift.  The article talks about having a different mindset about what can make us smarter: relationships, expertise, even our bodies. 

Great news for us at Parker - I love it when science catches up with what we are doing here.  Daily we watch as children's intellects grow within an environment that values and cultivates friendships, deep learning, lots of movement, and self-regulation. 

This year we watched a reluctant third grade writer, because he believed he could do it, achieve his goal to pen five essays for one Show of Work, and then go on to teach his class how to create a PowerPoint.  We listened to an eighth grader, who as a fifth grader wouldn't walk through the math room door, tell with pride how because of the belief of her math teacher she came to believe in herself.

...a feeling of belonging is critical to the full expression of students’ ability and intelligence.  These eight ways to look at intelligence are a powerful lens for our school's mission to inspire curiosity and a passion to achieve.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Graduation and the start of summer

Our happy 8th grade graduates posed as a class for a final time before delivering moving speeches at Graduation.

Campers celebrate a break in the getting wet!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013