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...)