January 26, 2012

"Let That Boy Boogie-Woogie, It's In Him, And It Got To Come Out"

I am grateful for the small (yet mighty) group of Friends’ parents and staff who accompanied me down to Graland in Denver on Tuesday night to witness the treat that is Wendy Mogel.  Best known for her two best-selling books on parenting young children and teenagers, Blessings of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B Minus, Mogel proved her worth as a presenter.  She was hilarious, poignant, thought-provoking, and wise.

While my primary intention for this space is to use it to share with you stories about the incredible people who make up our Friends’ School community, once in a while I come across a message that is just too good not to pass along.  All of us as parents could use a little guidance every now and then. I cannot hope to convey all of Mogel’s ideas and perspectives in these few words (you’ll have to go buy the books for that!), but I am able to share a few nuggets that might get you thinking….

I’m a good parent, I think, and I believe you are too.  We love our kids and would do anything for them. And we’re all a little guilty of over-parenting, over-scheduling, and over-protecting them.  Faced with the barrage of the 24-hour news cycle, we have every reason to be fearful for our children in this crazy world, yet we need to be careful and we should examine how much our creative imagination may lead us to an eensy-weensy bit of paranoia.

Our kids need to learn to swim in the river of life – not just when the weather’s great and the water’s perfect, but when there are rocks or fast currents or ice cold water making life hard.  Our kids need the time to play, to foster their natural curiosity, to go on adventures, and sometimes they just need time to goof off. 

Mogel told one story of a father she saw in a park who prevented his young daughter from touching the snow on the ground until she had her mittens on.  She suggested that the child needed to figure out for herself about the cold, and the dad would have done better asking the child about what would happen if she held snow between her fingers, or looking at the flakes on her sleeve, or throwing it up in the air and seeing what would happen.  We can lead by example by being naturally curious ourselves and giving ourselves permission to play and to goof off.

When our kids come home from school, we ask them about their day, the good and the bad. Mogel advises that we shouldn’t always take everything our children say at face value. “Their job is to cover their butts!”  There is certainly another side to the story and it would be in our best interest not to get too caught up in the drama. Our kids will have great days at school and not so good ones.  We must be careful not to mistake the snapshot of a child’s single day with the movie that is their whole childhood.

It’s okay that our children experience disappointment.  In fact, it’s essential.  They’re hard-wired for competence and they’ll be just fine, in most circumstances.  We can guide them by asking questions like, “Have you ever experienced something like this before?  How did you handle it?  What do you think might be a good idea to try this time?”  Trust them to handle it.  The benefits are endless.

Our kids are wonderful, but they’re also ordinary.  We should let them do ordinary as well as extraordinary things.  They are like seeds that we’ve been given.  We don’t know when they’re going to bloom, or what kind of flower we’ve got, but if we feed them, water them, and love them – and pull away the really big weeds once in a while – we’ll soon enough see what kind of seed and flower we’ve been given.

In the immortal words of blues singer-songwriter John Lee Hooker:

One night I was layin' down,
I heard papa tell mama,
let that boy boogie-woogie,
 it's in him,
and it got to come out.
And I felt so good,
went on boogie'n just the same.

Thanks Wendy Mogel for an inspiring evening.  My kids are very grateful.

January 19, 2012

Psst, hey you, over here, have I got an investment for you….

4th & 5th graders at Friends' conduct a science experiment
Here in Boulder Valley, we are blessed with a profusion of good schools.  This is a community loaded with a first-class public school system, excellent charter schools, and a handful of outstanding independent schools.  There are schools with a wide variety of well-defined philosophies of teaching.  Choices for everyone.

Even though my own children are both too old to attend Friends’ – my daughters began middle school and high school in the fall – I choose to send them to independent schools.  It’s a huge financial sacrifice, no question. There are things we forego in order to make our choice work. And I couldn’t be happier.

Independent schools are nimble enough to move with the times.  We are mission-driven, not compliance-driven, and therefore continually reflecting on and refining our practices.  We keep up with the very latest research in brain development and teaching practice. Our right of self-determination is a motivating force for us to keep improving.  Free from regulation, we face market-based accountability.  In other words, choice.

The bad news (for the school) is that if you don’t like it here, you have other choices.  The good news (for parents and kids) is that if something isn’t working for you, we are here to listen and respond.  Quickly and effectively.

Here’s one example. I have recently been having a number of important conversations with teachers and parents about how well we challenge our students in math.  Our autonomy as an independent school is allowing us to think through significant changes in how we structure our day in the elementary school.  It gives us the freedom to develop a plan to meet the needs of our math learners in a better way.  I will have more details for you, and will ask for your feedback, at next month’s Parent Council meeting.

As a small independent school, we aim to be a caring, connected community.  I believe we’re doing pretty well and our families have a lot to do with that. Children who feel safe and secure and loved learn better.  Parents looking for a great school for their kids are smart to pick one that:

            -  fosters respect, honesty, and personal responsibility
            -  understands the individual learning styles of each child
-  hires teachers who are knowledgeable and caring
            -  gives kids frequent practice in oral and written communication
            -  focuses on the arts and on science
            -  believes in giving meaningful homework at the appropriate age
            -  encourages children and teachers to know themselves
            -  demands the best of kids academically
            -  teaches cooperation yet requires individual accountability
            -  expects creativity and problem-solving and thinking outside of the box
We believe wholeheartedly that giving your child the very best start to his or her education at Friends’ Preschool and Elementary School will set them on a path to love learning and to be curious for a lifetime. 

Cost of dinner and a movie for a family of four:  $105

Cost of a day at Friends’ elementary school for a family in the mid-tier range: $73

Cost of investing in your child and giving him/her the tools to become resourceful, reflective, independent, imaginative, collaborative, academically prepared, and skillfully expressive, while surrounded by good friends and amazing, caring, wonderful adults:  Priceless

January 11, 2012

Language Matters - or How To Save Your Marriage

The view from Sue's window in the Business Office
Sue Eyler, our wonderful accountant who works upstairs with me in the Business Office, was in the preschool kitchen earlier this week making herself a cup of tea.  As her beverage was brewing she heard one of our preschool teachers saying to her class of three year olds:

“Before we go outside, let’s see if anyone needs to go to the bathroom.”

One little boy followed the directions to the letter.  He pulled open the front of his sweatpants to literally ‘see’ if he needed to go.

“Nope”, he assured his teacher.  He was fine.  Ready to run outside and play.

I love this story because it highlights so beautifully the importance of language.  As a linguistics major at the University of York in England, I learned that language matters. As I’ve navigated the sometimes sensational, occasionally tricky, waters of adulthood how well I learn this lesson continues to impact my life in meaningful ways.

Learning to use language well is more than just learning to speak in front of others or telling someone what you want or winning an argument. Effective communication is the backbone that elevates our lives. It determines the quality of our relationships, how well we do at work, the balance we experience and the ease and confidence with which we move in our world.

In our preschool, our experienced and highly trained teachers continually encourage their young students to use language well.  They model how to express one's needs.  They encourage children to say thank you.  They emphasize the positive by telling children what they can do rather than telling them what they cannot do.  Instead of saying, “Don’t do that!”, they say, “Here’s what you can do instead.”

Our teachers have learned that too much praise is not effective.  Instead of the relatively vague “Good job!”, they focus on telling children what they notice that they admire.  “I notice you’ve been working for a long time.”  “I notice all the bright blue in your painting.” Generic praise of kids actually fosters a dependence on praise and leads to them feeling less secure.  (For an excellent article that goes into this concept in more depth, please read Alfie Kohn’s Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”)

I met with one of our elementary parents recently whose children had both gone through Friends’ preschool. As she was extolling the virtues of the preschool teachers, she said to me something along the lines of “If everyone spoke using the language learned at Friends’ preschool, a lot of marriages could be saved.” 

Or, as Lewis Carroll wrote in one of my all-time favorite books, Alice in Wonderland: Then you should say what you mean", the March Hare went on. "I do," Alice hastily replied; "At least, — at least I mean what I say — that's the same thing, you know.”

If you're interested in learning more about using language well with your child and understanding how too much of the wrong kind of praise can be harmful, please join our preschool director Christie Stanford for our next parent education event next Thursday January 19th at 6:00 p.m. in the Great Room. This will be an informative experience for parents of children of all ages.

January 5, 2012

Time to Fly

Welcome back to school and happy New Year.  I hope you had a restful break with your children.

New Year.  Capitalized. I find this an interesting concept here in the depths of winter.

While I am a great believer in goal setting, I am not particularly one for making New Year’s resolutions. January first is an odd choice, I believe, for us to celebrate our New Year, but here it is. The calendar tells me so. The ball in Times Square definitely dropped last Sunday night. We’re in the middle of short days and dark, cold evenings. Snow remains firmly on the Colorado ground. Nothing is growing.  January first seems to me like a political division of time that has no reference to any event, astronomical, astrological, seasonal, or geological.

Wouldn’t New Year be better off at a different time?

Say, springtime? The earth is re-born. I shake off the winter blues and turn my head to the sun. My markers are the first daffodils blooming, new buds on the maple outside my window, the first bike rides of the season. It’s the most exciting time of the year.

New beginnings, new hope, endless possibility.

Or how about the first day back to school in the fall? I’ve celebrated more than twenty of them as an educator. A freshly painted classroom, empty walls, blank writing notebooks, fresh faces, new clothes, green grass on the playground. A year of discovery ahead. I turn to my eager young charges and feel the privilege of embarking on this journey alongside them.

New beginnings, new hope, endless possibility.

Yet, there is still something intriguing when the calendar flips over to a new number.  Here we are. 2012. An Olympic year in the country of my birth.  A presidential election year in the country that I call home.  A leap year around the world.

And, in the life of our little school, big things are about to happen.  This I know from experience.  Every January, children and teachers return to school refreshed and ready.  Amazing learning happens in these next few weeks.  Kids hit the ground running and grow in leaps and bounds.  Some of them might even learn to fly.

New beginnings, new hope, endless possibility. Just you watch. 

Happy New Year!