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.

November 15, 2012

Thank You Letters


Meg Hansen with her sons Jack and Michael,
both Friends' School alumni students
It’s a few days before Thanksgiving and we are getting ready to enjoy Special Friends’ Day here at Friends’. It’s a time for our elementary students to invite grandparents and other special people to our school to share a big part of their lives with their guests. We are looking forward to a wonderful day.

You might wonder, given our year-long focus on The Gratitude Project, if I will take this opportunity to reflect on the importance of Thanksgiving.  Although I try to live life with gratitude, especially at this time of year, I will not be sharing my thoughts on Thanksgiving here. Instead I’m going to share with you two letters written by my Friends’ School colleagues.

Many of you know about, and many of you gave generously to, the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund.  Earlier this year, the school granted awards so that two of our staff members could receive the gift of revitalization.  My predecessor, Polly Donald, believes that an individual’s personal growth inevitably enriches those s/he comes in contact with.

What follows are thank you letters from our Literacy Specialist Tricia Callahan and our Director of Communications Meg Hansen.  I wish you and your family a joyous, restful, and gratitude-filled Thanksgiving.

Dear Friends,

Receiving the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund award this year was such a wonderful gift! I had been toying with the idea of taking tennis lessons for years. This summer I spent many hours on the roof of the Lakeshore Athletic Club joyfully volleying, lobbing, serving, etc. in the 100 degree heat. I’m proud to say that I quickly moved from a level 100 to a 200. I’m also proud to say that I teach at a school where personal growth is generously supported.

Thank You! 
Tricia Callahan


Dear  Friends' School community ,

This summer I was honored to have been one of the first award recipients of the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund. Polly created this wonderful opportunity for staff to “revitalize, inspire and support personal growth”. Through the generous donations of numerous donors, I was able to take the road trip of a lifetime with my two sons, Michael and Jack. For ten days we drove through the Tetons, Yellowstone, and Montana, experiencing the breath taking beauty of these two phenomenal National Parks, and so much more.

We planned and packed, spent numerous hours on VRBO finding just the right places to stay, bought paper maps and guide books (yes, paper), researched all the great places I’d remembered as a kid and wanted to share with my children, hoping they’d be as inspired as I was every time I visited these magical places. As I planned for the trip, however, I was skeptical of the only guideline of our trip: No electronics – no phones, iPads, laptops, Kindles, iPods, not even an Etch-a-sketch. My own cell phone would remain in the glovebox, only to be used for emergencies (of which we had none) and navigation backup to the paper maps (which worked quite well still).

Three days into the trip, I asked Michael (nearly 16 at the time), “Do you miss your computer?” His reply caught me off guard: “No. Lately, my laptop and phone have only meant stress to me. It’s so nice to not be reminded of it.” I realized then that because most of our kids are always “plugged in”, they don’t have a lot of down time and they need it. Desperately. Sometimes we need to create that for them. Sometimes we need to do that for ourselves, as well. I am guilty of living a life so hectic that I don’t stop often enough to smell the roses right in front of me.

Without our devices, my boys and I looked out the windows, saw the scenery and discovered new towns and places. We had real conversations and lots of laughter and connected on all those things we used to talk about before Apple infiltrated our home. They built fires, roasted marshmallows, and told ghost stories; fished, played in the Yellowstone River right outside cabin, slurped Huckleberry milkshakes from the Victor Emporium, hiked, and canoed. We celebrated the first day of summer on our trip, eating at the old lunch counter at Jackson Lake Lodge where my dad had taken me as a child. Nothing had changed…the Tetons were still as ominous and glorious as ever. The lodges, signs, rangers, even the animals all seemed to have stood still in time. The new trees, now almost 24 years old, were gradually catching up to the charcoal remains of the 1988 fire.

We saw every possible sight on our trip and Michael and Jack were as filled with the awe that I’d hoped for. They never uttered “I’m bored” or complained, even as I made them retrace the same path four times to find the exact view of lower falls from Artist’s Point I remembered as a kid. We all looked in wonder and true appreciation at sights that caught our breath: star-filled skies, deep orange sunsets, moose, marmots, bears, buffalo, powerful geysers, colorful Grand Prismatic Pool, bubbling mud pots, spectacular Morning Glory Pool. We were smelling life’s roses…enormous bouquets of them.

I applied for the PTD Enrichment Fund with the intention to spend quality time with my children and to create lasting, happy memories for our family. I got this and so much more. The award allowed me to unplug from our hectic lives and focus on the two most important people in my life. I will forever be grateful to have had this opportunity. Thank you for your contribution to the fund and for making this trip possible for my children and me.

In gratitude and Happy Thanksgiving,

Meg Hansen


November 8, 2012

A Most Important Act


Fourth grader Grace casting her vote

Earlier this week, I cast my first ever vote for President of the United States.  In January 2011, after twenty years as a permanent resident of the U.S., I became a citizen of this great country.  This was not a decision I took lightly. It was not an easy thing to turn my back on the United Kingdom, where I had grown up, received a college degree, and where my family still lives.

However, influencing my decision more than perhaps any other factor was the importance of my right to vote. As a nineteen year old at the University of York in the U.K., I voted in a general election for the first time.  For a few years after I moved to Colorado, I voted in British elections from afar, but there seemed something disingenuous about having a say in a place where I neither lived nor paid taxes.

Finally, after far too long, and after acing the citizenship test that twenty years of teaching fifth grade American history had so graciously prepared me for, I found myself in the suburban offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Centennial, Colorado.  In a meaningful and surprisingly emotional ceremony, I stood up with seventy five brand new Americans of every stripe, from thirty six different countries, and swore allegiance to this country.  One of the vows I promised to myself was never to miss out on the right and the privilege to vote.

It is perhaps the most important act that we can perform as a citizen.

Citizenship Day - January 26, 2011
The role of good citizenship is something we are proud to teach to our students’ at Friends’.  In the words of our President in the early hours of Wednesday morning, “What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism.” To that I would add showing up fully, pursuing a quality education, learning to manage conflict, and showing respect to all.
When our Friends’ elementary students took to their own polls in our library on Election Day, our teachers, led by librarian deana harragarra waters, urged them to show respect for each other and for divergent viewpoints.
In a note I received from one of our parents, “it is imperative that we show our children how many things connect us rather than the things that separate us. To show the children that respect for each other is more important than the issues that we think divide us. In a nutshell, we as a school must seek to be the change we want to see in the world.”
I couldn’t agree more. Those are among our values here at Friends’.  It is part of our mission: “Our students acquire a strong academic foundation while developing creative expression, social responsibility, and respect for diversity and the individual”.  
It’s what I signed up for when I arrived at Friends’ School and when I raised my right hand and took the oath of citizenship. 
It’s good to be here.  It’s good to have a voice.

November 1, 2012

Art Integrating With Life


Illuminated Medieval Letter Artwork
Question:  what do ground up bugs, eggs, turmeric, chlorophyll, sandstone, soymilk, and crushed rocks have in common? Answer below…..

Enter our buildings and you can’t help notice the incredible artwork that adorns the walls.  In the elementary school, 2nd and 3rd graders are currently displaying their illuminated medieval letters and manuscripts.

Art teacher Rachel Relin thoughtfully plans art projects for our students that challenge them and are artfully interwoven into other areas of the curriculum.  This particular medieval project ties in beautifully to the classes’ study of the Middle Ages.  Rachel began by sharing with the classes the book Marguerite Makes A Book by Bruce Robertson, which is the tale of a young female apprentice who learns about the art of crafting a book in medieval times.

Most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate.  Artists used highly decorated manuscripts to literally and figuratively paint a picture to tell a story.  Just like the scribes, our students used images and symbols that represented themselves.

2nd Grade Stained Glass
Rachel’s students have also made these gorgeous stained ‘glass’ creations – actually painted on pieces of plexi-glass – currently on display in Jenn’s and Diane’s classrooms. Designing these has been an interesting exercise in executive function for 7-9 year old brains.  Not only did the kids have to think dimensionally to create these pieces, they also had to design them from back to front in a process known as reverse glass painting. Contrary to traditional paintings, our students added the final details first on the back of the plexi-glass, then layered paint, in order to view the image through the glass.

Rachel has also been hugely instrumental in bringing to Friends’ elementary school the traditional Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos, as she does every year. Celebrated annually on November 1, the day of the dead focuses on gatherings of family and friends to remember friends and family members who have passed away.  Calacas (or skeletons) are decorated in vibrant colors and shown participating fully in life, because that is how we choose to remember our loved ones.

Combining conversations and work on this art project with our Spanish teacher Samantha Squires, herself a native of Mexico, our students have enjoyed a wonderful integrated area of study in this field.  Samantha has discussed her own experiences with the holiday and brought in traditional rosca bread from her favorite Mexican bakery for us all to share. The children also made traditional calaveras (skulls). Between Rachel’s and Sami’s classes, our kids have enjoyed a great experience in learning.


Part of Rachel’s intent in having the children make pictures of skeletons was also to have them learn true anatomy.  A recently certified yoga instructor, with courses under her belt in anatomy as it relates to yoga, Rachel was eager that her students have a real scientific understanding of the skeletal system, combined with accomplished art skills.  The kids wrote wonderful reflections following this project.  After making a box in which her skeletons were posed dancing and playing guitar, Charlotte wrote: “Usually what you put on an altar is what the person was grateful for and it make you think of what you’re grateful for. This tells the story of a happy time in life when people were celebrating, singing, dancing, and having a fun time.”

We are lucky to have an art teacher at Friends’ who is so passionate about her work and bringing out the best in her students, who pays such attention to the craft of teaching as well as to the art of creating. Rachel does a masterful job of integrating science, history, reading, writing, geography, Spanish language and Mexican culture, and our Gratitude Project into her work with our students.  A shining example of what we mean when we use the term integrated curriculum.

Answer: the paint used to create the illuminated medieval masterpieces was all made by Friends’ students from the above ingredients, following the historical methods they learned about in social studies.  They even crushed the rocks and ground up the bugs themselves, specifically the shells of cochineal insects from Mexico. This picture below demonstrates the colors that each natural substance creates.