Thursday, April 21, 2016

The gift of learning in nature

Boy, are we fortunate!  I just read an article from the US Department of Education talking about the benefits of a nature-based curriculum.  Here is the photo with their article:
At least these kids are outside and have a tree to study.  I recently visited a very fine school in Rye, NY. Their facilities were impressive.  But I felt so confined in large buildings without the sun streaming into the windows and a view of the woods from every perspective.

How amazing for our kids at Parker to be able to head into the woods and meadows, the streams and pond in a moment.  The living world around us amazes every day.  The wonder and solitude and the possibilities for learning that come from time with nature are part of our everyday school lives.

We have all the benefits of a rich curriculum, smart and caring teachers, and a culture of caring.  And on top of that we have the gift of the best facility of all:  a 77 acre outdoor classroom.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Forming a deep connection with teachers and the school is crucial for students' success.

On Saturday, I drove with 4 of our teachers to a workshop by Ned Hallowell.  Dr. Hallowell is a psychiatrist, author and expert on ADHD.  He is a wonderful speaker, and with great compassion, talks about how to best help kids who have, as he says, "a Ferrari brain and bicycle breaks".  

Dr. Hallowell believes that every child should feel a deep connection with school and says that that factor alone is the best predictor of future success.  We all felt affirmed in our beliefs as educators, that it is the connection between child and teacher, and child and school that are keys for good learning to take place.  In fact, it is very hard for kids to learn if they don't feel a personal connection.  At Parker, people say that they can feel it when they walk in the front door - that happy, welcoming, and excited feeling!

It was a great day - a beautiful drive together to Rye, NY.  It's nice to learn new things and to spend time connecting with colleagues.

Check out Ned Hallowell's book, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

Monday, April 18, 2016

This is a test

How do we know our water wheel works?  Test it.
I've been thinking a lot about testing.  The standardized test controversy is a big thing in the news so I have been thinking about the tests that come in life and what form they take.

For standard-type tests, there are the drivers license test and the SAT's when we are in high school, and depending on the profession people go into, there could be licensing tests, like medical or architects' boards.  Most of life's tests are not the fill-in-the-bubble kind though.  As an adult, the tests most of us encounter are way different.

There is the test when your 2-year-old is melting down in the supermarket, or your 15-year-old is sneaking beers in the basement with friends. There is the one when you are giving a party and you need to figure out how to feed 20 people and make sure they have fun, and it's raining and the grill just ran out of gas.  There is the test at work, when your team needs to give a presentation to persuade the client that your company will do the best job.  Or your company isn't doing as well as the competition, and you need to analyze why...that's a pretty big test.  Your lab is trying to figure out a cure for Parkinson's...Or it's April 12 and your taxes are due...or you want to write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about the presidential race.

Educators (and regular people) can pretty much agree that there are certain things we want our kids to know cold: multiplication facts, when to use apostrophes, when to say "him and me" or "he and I" (tricky, right?) (and I'm kidding, because there is actually no consensus about these things).  But, it is probably good to test some things in some way, because sometimes studying for a test can actually be helpful in learning.

For the cooperative, judgement-based, creative-solution kind of problems, are standard-type tests the best way to measure achievement?  Is the time taken for standard-type tests worth it?  What are the learners (the kids) getting out of it?

So, these are the things I've been thinking about.  Here are some of the type of "tests" that seem useful to me and once kids take them, they actually have learned from them - they have learned some of the things that will help them when they encounter those other type of tests that I wrote about in the third paragraph.  Remember those?  I hope so, because there will be a test!
This team of 4-5's used the size of blades for the variable in their wind turbine tests, and analyzed the results.  They needed to understand good testing procedure, cooperate on every aspect, analyze results, and demonstrate their findings through a clear poster and an oral presentation.
Middle school kids are building a prototype boat and need to see if it will float with a bunch of pennies in it.  When they get a design that works, they will scale it and try it on the pond.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Math is a creative endeavor

Fifth graders design and sew quilt squares to demonstrate tessellation.

Can all kids love math?  I think so.

For students in the past, math was considered something you were naturally good or bad at. But, thank goodness, it's different now.  Along with a base of mathematical concepts and facts built through games, objects, and some good old memorization, math learning  can move into a realm that is highly interesting to children.  Kids can "make math"  - and they love it.

In Teaching Math to People Who Think They Hate It the author talks about a Cornell professor who wants to teach math so that students "get the pleasure of thinking, the pleasure of wrestling with a problem that fascinates."

That's what I see on students' faces when I walk into math classes at Parker - math that is both an intellectual discipline and a creative endeavor.

Building  and programming a robotic trebuchet or catapult to throw a ball the farthest builds skills in measurement, geometry, calculating distance, speed and acceleration, predicting proportional relationships and measuring angles,  Boolean logic...need I go on?!
Calculating proportional relationships and ratios with liquids: "Which juice is the juiciest?"

Thursday, April 7, 2016


I admit it - I'm obsessed.  With Hamilton.  The book, the musical and the soundtrack.  And interviews by Charlie Rose with Lin-Manuel Miranda.  And synopses in the New York Times.  And views on YouTube. I saw the play last September; read the book this winter; have been listening to the soundtrack in the car and on my morning walks.  I've been singing the songs in my sleep. (I actually had to stop listening because my head was swirling with the music night and day.)  And now I am reading the book all over again.

How fantastic to learn about a founding father whose story was obscured by the tellers of history. And that is one of the themes of the musical: who tells your story?

There are many wonderful universal themes and the multicultural cast and hip-hop music that give voice to the complex history and emotions of the time and the man reveal layer upon layer with each listening (or reading, or watching...).

Schools are finding ways to ignite middle and high school students' passion for history using Hamilton.  Our social studies teacher James Lizardo was introduced to the soundtrack by an exuberant 7th grader. "It's a story that talks about the ideals of American democracy and an initially impoverished immigrant and what he can achieve through grit and determination..." says Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation who has given $1.5 million to subsidize tickets for students.

Then, there's the Albany connection: Schuyler Mansion where Alexander Hamilton married Eliza Schuyler in 1780 and where they lived for two years and visited many times.  How cool is that?!

I invite you to join my obsession and call now for tickets to the Broadway show (although it's about $300 a ticket 8 months out) or read the book by Ron Chernow that inspired the play.  Listen to the soundtrack with your kids (warning: a bit of racy language).  They might not become history majors or musical theater writers, but as Lin-Manuel Miranda says, "If we can excite curiosity in students, there's no telling what might happen next!"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Letting happiness flourish

Should students' happiness be a primary goal for schools?  Of course!  We can't guarantee happiness every minute for every child, but a general feeling of happiness is what makes it possible for children to be the most effective learners.

Jessica Lahey in her NY Times Education article, says that by modelling behaviors that make us happier, healthier and more productive, we can cultivate those qualities in children.  We should:

Live in the moment
Model resilience
Manage our energy
Do nothing (take the time to relax)
Be kind to ourselves
Be kind to others

Happiness is the native habitat of children - just watch their exuberance when given the chance!  Joy should not be a surprise in school.  It's our job as the adults who manage children's environments to be the models and to make sure we lay the groundwork for interest, excitement, engagement, discovery and compassion to blossom.