December 20, 2012

“Here”– a year-end reflection

Art by first grader Anika
Dear Friends’ School Community,

Here we are at the very end of 2012, in the midst of the festive holiday season.  Yet this is also a time when a devastating tragedy thousands of miles from Boulder has wounded our hearts and seized our national consciousness.  As educators and as parents, we cannot help but worry and mourn.

At Friends’ School, the first half of the 2012-13 school year has been a challenging one for many in our community with personal losses and significant illness.  And yet, throughout it all, here we are, still standing.  And, assuming that someone has been misreading the Mayan calendar and this column arrived in your inbox shortly after dawn on 12/21/12, still we are here.

For we are a strong community. And we are here for each other.

Yesterday the preschool and elementary school welcomed the official start of winter and eagerly anticipated the upcoming break from school with our traditional Winter Celebrations. 

At the elementary school’s Winter Celebration at Naropa’s Nalanda campus, we were honored and thrilled to welcome back the Founders of our school – to hear from them and to say thank you to them.  For without their great wisdom, foresight, and guidance, none of us would be a part of this wonderful school today.  Because of the extraordinary vision and hard work of Bev Cole, Hope Morrissett and her husband Larry Gold, and Joan Lieberman, Friends’ School is here.  As part of our Gratitude Project, last night the current community of parents, students, teachers and staff were able to step back in time momentarily and hear about the original founding vision for our school.
Three of Friends' founding parents at last night's Winter
Celebration: Joan Lieberman, Larry Gold & Bev Cole

In spite of the hardships that dull our hearts, we all have so much to be thankful for.  The founding of this school is one. Friends’ Gratitude Project, in this our 25th year, has helped all of us at school focus on the many joys that are here for us every day. 

For me, as I walk through the halls and classrooms of this school, I’m thankful for so very much: helping to build a fire station out of blocks with preschoolers and listening to their earnest directions; puzzling over algebraic problems with my Monday group of fifth graders and seeing their eyes sparkle when they suddenly get it; sneaking a sample of Dacia’s fabulous school lunches; admiring the gorgeous artwork that adorns our walls; showing up early to practice the staff song for Winter Celebration; guessing a date in the sweepstakes for when Mandy and Catherine’s baby will arrive (any day now!); watching a fabulous medieval play put on by 2nd and 3rd graders; trying to get Kindergartners not to laugh when I know they want to. 

So much to be grateful for.

In this holiday season, my hope for you is that you too will find many many things to be thankful for.  They are all around us.  They are here. 

I wish you and your family a restful, peaceful, and joy-filled winter break and holiday season.  I look forward to seeing you in the New Year. 


December 13, 2012

Scooter Board City

2nd graders proudly show off their Scooter Board City drivers licenses
Every year Friends’ welcomes a visitor from the Department of Human Services who comes and checks that we’re doing all the things we’re supposed to be doing in regards to safety, health issues, and record keeping.  The good news is we pass each year with flying colors. The even better news this week came from the inspector who visits dozens of preschools around the county.  When he visited one of our Pre-Kindergarten groups taking a P.E. class in the Great Room with Kathy Sherwood, he exclaimed, “This is impressive.  I have never seen a program that is so exceptional for preschoolers.”

Kathy has been our P.E. teacher at Friends’ for fifteen years. She started teaching here in 1998 and loved the program so much, she moved her own children to Friends’.  They both graduated from our school.  Her daughter Jenny has now graduated from college and her son David is about to enter college.  Kathy has been a Special Olympics Director and Coach, an Infant Stimulation and Preschool Gymnastics teacher, a high school P.E. teacher and Gymnastics coach, an Adapted Physical Education District Consultant, a Fitness Trainer for Special Populations, and she taught Adapted P.E. undergraduate classes at CU.  Quite a resumé.

When I stopped by the Great Room last week, amazing things were happening.  The room was laid out in the form of streets and, in each class, all the students were deeply involved in what was clearly a complex exercise. I could tell how much each student was moving his or her body and how much each student was invested in the activity.  The whole thing was extremely admirable and clearly so elaborate, I wasn’t able to comprehend it all.  That might be because I learned to drive on streets on the wrong other side of the road, but I needed Kathy to explain.

P.E. teacher Kathy Sherwood
The activity was called Scooter Board City.  These are Kathy’s words:

The excitement of your first drivers license, the frustration of your first speeding ticket, and the anticipation of buying that first car…. No, this is not junior year in high school, this is part of P.E. at Friends’. Scooter Board City is one element of our core strength unit, but over the years it has turned into so much more. It is one of the most anticipated P.E. activities of the year. It involves physical fitness, math, economics, cooperation, rules of the road, and lots of serious fun.

For those of you who have kids who don’t talk about school at the dinner table, here’s the real story. First, potential drivers get a drivers permit, which allows them to drive with a fellow student and learn the rules of the road. If successful, they can eventually get a license to drive by themselves. Citizens of Scooter Board City earn money by doing calisthenics at various work stations, which they then use to buy gas, get their car washed, purchase toll way passes, pay taxes, and sometimes even buy a car for a friend.  Unfortunately, sometimes things don't go smoothly and they will also need to pay parking tickets, traffic fines, or replace a lost license.

Scooter Board City also employs shop keepers, bankers, and police officers. These jobs require good math skills and strong understanding of the traffic rules. With a line of customers, shopkeepers need to be good at adding and subtracting quickly, making change, and crowd control. Officers need to know all the traffic laws and the appropriate fines. Police have the right to issue tickets and impound cars. Drivers have the right to appeal the officer’s decisions but they also know that if they lose the argument, they will need to pay court fees as well.

Participating in the different stations
of Scooter Board City
Over the years, the kids’ creative suggestions have been incorporated making this appear very complicated. The number of strategies and rules and how strictly they are enforced increase as the kids get older. Watching a young child who is not able to figure out right from left suddenly get it when there is the possibility of a ticket involved is amazing. Or listening in as a clever investor tries to buy up limited supplies in the hopes that when the store runs out they can resell them at a profit. The younger classes often spend most of their cash on car washes, and filling up the cars with gas, and the older classes amass savings.

No matter, what type of learner they are or how they choose to participate, all the kids exercise for about 40 minutes non-stop. If you have ever tried to sit on a scooter board and push your self around, you will have some idea of how much work it is! The best part is they don’t even realize how hard they are working or how much they are learning.

And that’s one of the wonderful things about our school. Imaginative, practical, fun learning activities that just kind of sneak up on you.  Thanks, Kathy, for an amazing experience for our kids!

On a separate note, I am looking forward to seeing many of you at our preschool and elementary winter celebrations next week.  Please see The Happenings for details.

December 5, 2012

Math From the Ground Up

Veteran teacher Diane Bramble teaching 2nd graders a new math game

Allow me to take you back a few years, to the time when you were in elementary school.  Perhaps third grade.  Math class.  My math teacher’s name was Mr. Taylor.  I remember the long hairs around his nostrils, but not much else.  I’m sure learning multiplication tables was a part of the experience.  Plenty of worksheets too.  And a lot of rules: carry the one, bring down the number, borrow from the next column.

Like many of my early school experiences, I look back with gratitude that that is over. These are not the experiences that we are giving the elementary math learners at Friends’.

Our elementary math specialist teacher, Erika Norman, received an email from the parent of a Kindergartner the other day:

I never thought I would say these words.....math is going great!  We are really enjoying playing math games at night - although (my son) has beaten me in War 6 times in a row!  He asks to play math games and has fun teaching his old mom Ten Frame.”

(Author’s note: I know this mom.  She’s not that old!)

She continues: “The reason I wanted to send this was because you popped into my head the other day.  My son was asking (let's be honest - he was nagging) about when our friend was coming (we carpool) and as usual I got impatient because he was challenging my answer.  BUT, then I stopped and remembered what you said about showing them how we, as parents, do math.  So, I took a breath and explained about telling time and that the big hand would be on the 9, etc.  It stopped him from nagging. I felt good about not being a horrible parent, and it gave him some tools to solve the problem in the future.  So, thank you!”

This is one of many stories we hear from parents all the time.  When we set aside the rules and choose to focus on the concepts and thinking behind math, we are more successful.

At Friends’, we teach children to be confident math thinkers. We begin by providing a variety of concrete, hands-on experiences to build real number sense that students can later apply to more abstract mathematics. Students work individually, as well as in cooperative groups, to discuss and reason mathematically while becoming flexible and creative in their approach to problem solving.
We present meaningful mathematical tasks, which engage and challenge children’s thinking, bringing about better math understanding. We give attention and respect to the range of ways that students learn. We use mathematical language to help students understand math at a deeper level, starting from concrete and working toward abstract thinking. And we connect to what our students already know and build upon that prior knowledge. All of these ways of teaching math support effective, longer-term learning. 

Kids need time to play at math. Research clearly tells us that students who play math games regularly perform better than their peers. During math play, wonderful dialogue can occur when children, teachers, and parents engage in conversations about numbers and math concepts.
As parents, it is important that we connect with our kids on math, including helping occasionally with homework.  My daughter is a high school sophomore and I can’t begin to tell you the joys of sitting down late at night to help with the sheer delights of trigonometry!  However, while we’re there to support, it’s important for us to remember to focus on the concepts and the thinking behind the math our kids are working on, and not just the rules.  And if you’re not sure of the bigger picture, I encourage you to connect with your child’s teacher.

Friends’ will host a math night for all of our parents and the Boulder community early in the New Year with Erika and preschool parent Amy Scheff whose day job is training teachers of mathematics.  If you had a teacher like Mr. Taylor, or you just learned math “the old way”, this will be an informative and extremely useful time for you.  Please watch the Happenings for specific details.  For more information on our math program, you can visit our math curriculum update.

At Friends’ we understand the skills that our children will need to succeed in the 21st century. It is essential that our students not only excel at knowing math facts, but are also capable of problem solving, reasoning and proving, communicating, connecting, and representing math. We work diligently to ensure that students develop the ability to think mathematically, mentally manipulate numbers, learn math facts, and understand the abstract procedures of mathematics.

 We want our students to remember more than just nose hairs!

November 29, 2012

Castles and Catapults

2nd graders defend the large castle they've built in their classroom
We’re a little short of castles here in Boulder County.  You know, the real ones, built of stone by craftsmen and indentured servants back in the Middle Ages.  Inhabited once upon a time by knights in shining armor and beautiful maidens. Marauded and pillaged and left in ruins for centuries in the nearby countryside.

It’s too bad because castles are cool – and they are amazing places to visit: living history, imposing and impressive and, dare I say, romantic.  Growing up in southern England and attending school a stone’s throw from the site of the Battle of Hastings (which launched the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066), I got to be a school-age expert on castles.

Yet the absence of castles here in our neck of the woods has not deterred the children at Friends’ School from learning a thing or two about the building of castles and life inside castles.

Preschoolers building their castle out of blocks
Step inside one of our preschool classrooms and you’ll see wonderful castles being built out of blocks.  Block play is an essential part of our preschool program. Blocks are important for children's growth in many ways. Children develop physical hand strength while building. They work in cooperation with their peers and develop strong language skills. Kids are developing math skills in the block area. They are deciding how many blocks of which size to fill a space and if a shorter block would be better than a longer block.

Preschoolers are learning patterns as well as cause and effect. For example, a child will be able to see that if they stack too many blocks too high, they will fall.  They learn to deal with that disappointment and learn that strong teamwork will get the castle built again.

In our 2nd and 3rd grades, Friends’ students study medieval times. In Jenn’s and Diane’s classrooms, students are building amazing castles out of cardboard boxes. Just like the preschoolers, these children are practicing cooperation and developing spatial skills.  They are also learning about history.  When constructing the castle, they are learning the role of the gatehouse and the keep, the difference between a buttress and a rampart, and the importance of a portcullis and a moat. 

Bodiam Castle, not far from my English boarding school
In addition to castle building, these students are also designing, building and testing catapults and learning the physics of simple machines in the process.  They are hypothesizing, measuring, and testing theories. And when a catapult is difficult to build well and some frustration sets in, they are learning resilience - which is one of the best tools in their toolbox for future success. They are writing their own Arthurian legends and reading all about the middle ages. 

This is a wonderful example of weaving curricular areas together in what we call integrated learning. Turns out we have castles in Boulder after all.