May 23, 2013

Silver and Gold

Today our four Preschool classes celebrate with separate Silver and Gold ceremonies. Some pre-Kindergarten students are continuing onto Kindergarten at Friends’, others to public schools.  Next Thursday evening, our Elementary families gather to help us graduate our fifth grade class as they move on to eight different middle schools. It’s a time for us all to remember the past with fondness, to understand who we are in the present, and to look forward to the future with anticipation.

At Friends’, we do this for our graduates and we do the same for ourselves as an organization. This is the time of year I like to take a look back at some of our accomplishments and look forward with great excitement.

Please join me as I share just a few of the accomplishments achieved at our school this year.  Some of them you likely know about.  Others may surprise you.  In one way or another we were all involved, as we like to say at Friends’ School, in “growing our brains”.

  • We celebrated our school’s 25th Anniversary with the Gratitude Project.  Highlights included integrating curriculum on gratitude into our classrooms, hosting a citywide community event with Dr. Christine Carter speaking on Raising Happiness, celebrating what we are grateful for on Special Friends’ Day, creating a 25th Anniversary film on the history of Friends’ School, and bringing our Founding Parents together at Winter Celebration.  Friends’ teachers are working in collaboration with Dr. Carter’s Greater Good Science Center to create a formalized gratitude curriculum to be shared with other schools nationwide. The language and culture of gratitude have been permeating our school. I often hear from parents how children are bringing gratitude home in meaningful ways.

  • This year our Teacher Preparation Program was re-authorized as a designated agency of the State of Colorado for alternative teacher preparation. Following the Department of Education’s visit, we received a letter from them stating, “Across contexts, Friends’ has strong evidence that their preparation work is of high-quality with long-term impact. It is clear from the site-visit that Friends’ is rooted in relationships of trust and transparency…the foundation on which a high quality teacher preparation program has been built.” Our TPP has added High Peaks Elementary (Boulder) and Sanchez Elementary (Lafayette) as partner schools, and increased the Teacher Candidate presence at Alexander Dawson School. We now have over thirty TCs in ten schools in Boulder County.

  • The Community Board has been very invested this year in exploring the question of sustainability, ensuring that the school will continue to be strong for the next 25 years and beyond.  Our Trustees as well as members of our Strategic Planning Committee, Finance Committee, and staff have been hard at work exploring several options, which will guide the school to an excellent and sustainable future.

  • We introduced a scheduled math block four days a week for grades 2-5.  By using the resources of all of our teachers, we were able to deliver more individualized instruction for our math learners that challenged them at the perfect level. Improved math scores on the ERB for our upper grades reflected this greater emphasis on our math program.

  • We instituted a new theater program for our fifth grade.  In October the class staged Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to rave reviews.  Our fifth grade class also enjoyed a fabulous and educational week at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez, including a day at Mesa Verde National Park.  Both of these events represented new annual traditions for our fifth grade class at Friends’.

  • We launched a formal Alumni Association, spearheaded by Jana Bledsoe, which has made huge strides in connecting with all of our Alumni students over the past 25 years.  If you are interested in learning about some of the remarkable, and I mean remarkable, achievements of our former students, please visit the Alumni Association’s Facebook page

  • The Rocky Mountains πrates team, comprised of Friends’ School students, competed in the VEX Robotics World Championships.   After three days of competition, where 71 elementary and middle school teams from all around the country controlled their hand crafted robots through a series of challenges, the team won three awards, including 1st place in the overall Excellence Award – the highest award of the competition.  

  • Over the year, we turned our full attention to our Emergency Management plan and systems. The school adopted the Standard Response Protocol that was devised by the I Love U Guys Foundation.  We conducted full staff trainings on our new protocols and conducted a complete overview of our campus, making significant improvements to campus security.

  • 2012-13, our 25th Anniversary Year, has been our most successful to date with our annual fundraising campaigns. Our school Auction raised a record amount (gross revenue was $137,000, compared to $113,000 a year ago) and the Annual Fund is also at record levels this year ($170,000 and counting over a goal of $145,000).  We are very grateful to all of our generous supporters and to former parents and teacher Bill Spencer and Patti Bruck for creating the 25th Anniversary film we showed at the Auction.

  • We created a new position for next year, Associate Head of School, and asked current fifth grade teacher Mandy Stepanovsky to fill that role. Mandy will bring direct support to children, parents and teachers in both the Preschool and Elementary Schools.

  • The school initiated a Friday morning enrichment program for pre-K students, lead by Preschool teacher Caroline Long, which proved to be a great success.

  • We brought in air-conditioning to all of our elementary school classrooms, the music room, and kitchen.  Everyone in the Elementary building is happier as a result during warm weather!

  • Even though several faculty members experienced difficult and unexpected personal situations with the loss of family members or serious illness, I have been fortunate to be part of a community that has rallied around and supported each other.  I feel blessed to be a part of this wonderful school.

Above and beyond all the different things we have been working on this year at Friends’, our number one focus is always the children. Silver and Gold celebrations are a chance for the children look back, look at themselves now, and look ahead.

Our graduates are an amazing and talented group of kids who have grown closer to each other over the years. They have had an exceptional year in 5th grade and I feel very confident that we are going to hear great things from them in the future.  We will miss them – and their parents who have given so much to our school community in so many ways. We wish our graduates all the very best in middle school and for all their years ahead. They are forever part of this Friends’ School family, each of them an integral part of our history.

As we say goodbye to our graduates, we also bid a fond farewell to several beloved teachers and Trustees.

Priscilla Adams, our Elementary music teacher, is heading off into what we hope will be a blissful
retirement – for the second time!  Priscilla retired from teaching in the Aurora Public Schools in 2006, but thankfully decided to return to her teaching career here at Friends’.  She has been with us for five years and she has inspired all of our students to stretch themselves musically. The Elementary Silver and Gold celebration will be Priscilla’s final student performance at Friends’.

Jennifer Shouse, our current 3rd grade teacher, is leaving Friends’ after two years with her fortunate students.  Jenn has done a masterful job of teaching 2nd and 3rd grade, introducing a strong literacy program based on her two decades of passion and training in teaching reading.  Jenn has inspired her kids to ‘grow their brains’ in countless ways across all areas of the curriculum. Her classroom runs like a well-oiled machine and she has served as an exemplary mentor to two Teacher Candidates.

Meg Harlow is leaving us after two wonderful years in the Preschool.  Meg has taught in both the afternoon and the morning West classroom and has always been a huge favorite with our preschoolers and her colleagues alike. Meg is a fabulous educator for young children, and we fully anticipate her continued relationship with the school in a substitute role, where she excelled before we hired her to teach in the Preschool. 

Samantha Squires, our Elementary Spanish teacher, is leaving Friends’ after one year to pursue new opportunities in the business world, which is her background. Sami joined Friends’ initially as a parent (her son Darian just completed Kindergarten) and then as our Spanish teacher.  Sami has brought energy and passion to the position and a love for the Spanish language and culture.

And of course each year, we honor and say goodbye to our amazing Teacher Candidates. We congratulate them on their graduation from Friends’ Teacher Preparation Program as recipients of a Colorado Alternative Teacher License.  Thank you to Katy Hollenbach (PS), Lu Walters (K), Natalie Sattler (1st), Andrew Banks (2nd), Britt Alstad (3rd), Mary Pearsall (4th - who will be joining our faculty next year) and Natalie Burgard (5th).

Last and certainly not least, a huge and profound thank you to our three Trustees who will be leaving the Board next week when their three-year terms expire: Ryan Martens, Christine Springer, and Stephanie Cenedella.  They have all led by example as amazing supporters and stewards of the school. Through their efforts in strategic and generative thinking, through their expertise in business and marketing, and through their extremely generous donation of their time, treasure, and talent, our school is in a stronger place.

In this 25th Anniversary year of The Gratitude Project, we are extremely grateful for all of our departing students, parents, families, Teacher Candidates, teachers, and Trustees.  Thank you for all that you have given us.  Wherever your journeys take you, I hope you stay in touch with this Friends’ School family of yours.

To all our families, and to everyone who is connected to our school and our students, I wish for you a fabulous, delightful, carefree, fun, and safe summer.  We will see you in August.

Enjoy Silver and Gold.

May 16, 2013

Tech Tips from the Un-Conference

Artwork from first grader Rowan's AOE project on
trains, captured digitally on the Bookmaker app

Of the hundreds of emails I receive each week, my regular favorite is sent by our school librarian, deana harragarra waters. It carries the subject line: “Tuesday Tech Tip”.

deana is a tech junkie. She thrives on informing her colleagues about the latest and greatest apps and websites available.  Most are educational in nature and help us with our work, such as recent referrals to websites on educating from the heart and supporting emergent readers.  Some are just for fun, like the link to a website where I managed to create an image of a clay animation version of myself (scary!)

A couple of weeks ago deana and Kindergarten parent Ally Delaney attended EdCampCO in Denver, a free "un-conference" where teachers gather to share innovative instructional strategies and pioneering technologies that transform education for students. Ally and deana learned hundreds more tech tips.

They returned to teach our Kindergarten and first grade teachers about the app Bookmaker.  It’s a means of creating books digitally from student work.  Teachers Beth Huennekens and Laurie Nakauchi saw a fabulous use for this app that they immediately put into use with their students.

Like all of our elementary classes, Laurie’s and Beth’s kids have been wrapping up their AOE projects.  AOE projects are self-guided, multi-dimensional research projects where our students choose a topic that they are passionate about and that they want to become experts in: Area Of Expertise.  Research findings, paintings, creative writing, bibliographies, and more are all presented on large three-panel display boards.

I love visiting all our classes when students are presenting their Area Of Expertise projects.  I learn so much. I am always seriously impressed by the passion and knowledge that our students demonstrate on an immensely wide range of topics.

Artwork from first grader Shanti's
AOE project on India - heading to India!
However the boards that the AOE projects are presented on are unwieldy and easily damaged.  Once they are taken home, many families struggle to keep these boards in good shape.  And we’ve discovered that they’re darned hard to squeeze into a three-ring portfolio binder!

Using the new tech tip from deana and Ally, Beth and Laurie developed digital books which capture all of their students’ work in an electronic file – all created on the school’s iPads. Not only did the teachers photograph all of each student’s work to include in the book, the kids recorded themselves reading their own writing on each page.  Now, not only will our parents have a saved copy of their child’s physical work to keep in perpetuity, we have captured in time sweet first grade and Kindergarten voices reading their discoveries.

These projects are now easily shared with grandparents and loved ones across the country.  One first grader, who studied India for her AOE project, is planning on sending the e-book of her project to her grandparents who live in India.

That’s what we want for the global citizens we are educating.

May 9, 2013

Many Strings Attached

This week our students in both the preschool and the elementary school were treated to wonderful classical music performances from professional musicians within our school community. 

On Monday, Carolyn Kuban and George Banks, the parents of 2nd grade Teacher Candidate Andrew Banks, brought their harp and cello to the Great Room.  The very next day, Friends’ parents Beth and Thomas Heinrich wowed the preschoolers with their cello and violin.

George and Carolyn both played with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra – George still does.  Carolyn is now a music therapist and still plays the harp professionally, having played with the Colorado Music Festival and Central City Opera.

They played a delightful mix of classical music for our kids, and even improvised on the spot.  Our students were a wonderful audience and impressed by the amazing quality of the performance as well as the mechanics of how the instruments worked. They asked many questions and our performers were very impressed by the audience’s active listening and overall enthusiasm. 

For TC Andrew, the concert brought back memories of childhood when he would play with his trucks backstage at the orchestra, waiting for rehearsal to finish. Andrew is proud of his parents’ vocation and loves connecting his students with part of his heritage and what he calls “the basis and backdrop for
modern music.”

Thomas and Beth are also current and former members of the Colorado Symphony.  In fact, George and Thomas sometimes carpool from Boulder to play in the same string section!  Thomas is also the assistant principal cellist of The Santa Fe Opera orchestra. Beth, who made her solo debut at the age of seventeen at Carnegie Hall, is still an active orchestral and chamber musician.

Parents of Friends’ students Eli and Emi, Thomas and Beth brought in pint-sized instruments for the children to play on, after impressing our three and four year olds with superb performances.  It’s not too often that an entire preschool class will sit still mesmerized for 20 minutes!

Beth and Thomas talked about the parts of the instruments, how bowstrings are made of horsehair, and rosin comes from pine trees. They made the connection for the kids between music and feelings.  After a particularly upbeat Mozart piece, several children exclaimed how they felt “Happy!” One child said, “My heart was beating fast.” Thomas responded,  “So was ours!”

After the performance, our preschoolers were eager to try playing the cello and violin at the ‘instrument petting zoo’.  Some took to the experience immediately.  In Thomas’ words, “I could see joy, exuberance and smiles spreading from cheek to cheek.”  Some kids were a little more timid to try something new.  The teachers were delighted at how Beth and Thomas expressed how new things can be hard, and how they gently played while allowing the more nervous children to touch the instrument.

I later asked Thomas, who like Beth began playing his instrument at age three and started formal lessons at age six, why he believed it is important for young children to learn to play music. He said, “Young children are so receptive to music at this age, like language.  They are able to communicate thoughts, feelings and emotions through music that they cannot express in words.  Teaching kids music gives them an important seed that can grow and blossom.”

Friends’ preschool teacher Jessie Vanden Hogen, herself a passionate and talented violinist, shared with me an article about the importance of music in early childhood education that comes from the Colorado State Standards.  She pointed out the essential role that music plays in the cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional, physical, and creative development of children.  She particularly liked the quotes: “Music is one of humanity’s deepest rivers of continuity. It connects each new generation to those who have gone before. Students need music to make these connections and to express the otherwise inexpressible.” and “Research shows that music provides a firm foundation for connecting concepts, facts, and higher order thinking skills throughout the curriculum. Music should be an integral part of the program of general education for all Colorado students.”

When George Banks asked our elementary students how many of them played a musical instrument, I was amazed to see how many hands shot up. Following the concert, Andrew received an email from one of our parents: “My son was so moved by your mother's harp playing yesterday.  I have rarely seen him this way before, but he now knows that he is meant to be a harp player!  He would be thrilled to take lessons from your mother.” Lessons have already been arranged! 

Our preschoolers, who end each day with The Goodbye Song, were played out of circle by professional symphony musicians  - musicians who also got their first exposure with the muse at a similar age.

May 2, 2013

What Makes A Great Teacher?

This week a compelling letter was published in the New York Times.  Given the headline “Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching”, the letter poses an outstanding question. It asks: “What makes a great teacher?”

This is a particularly relevant question for me at this time of year, as our faculty conducts initial interviews for our soon-to-be-vacant music and Spanish positions.  As a Head of School, what qualities do I look for in a teacher?  The author of the letter suggests that good teachers are creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending. Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students.”

We all remember that one special teacher we had as a child who was less than orthodox and who bent the rules.  While I have less than fond memories of a science teacher I once had in boarding school who thrived on throwing his wooden blackboard eraser at students (I think that was criminal activity more than rule bending), I do know I was inspired to teach partly by my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Arnold. He regularly ditched his drab classroom and brought classes to his apartment on campus and challenged us to debate the spiritual elements contained in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.  I learned more about myself and how to think in those classes than any other.

At Friends’ I love encouraging our teachers to be creative, independent, and spontaneous.  The results are the dynamic, integrated learning experiences that I highlight regularly in this column:  castle stormings, poetry readings, school-wide elections, dramatic performances, library trips, and finding those teachable moments that no one saw coming.  Great and experienced teachers know those when they see them and seize the moment.

Last Friday I was leading a seminar for our 30 Teacher Candidates on the subject of Surviving Your First Year of Teaching. The seminar covered a lot of ground.  There’s a lot that new teachers need to know to be successful.   Although in seminar we did not focus on the pedagogical tools that the TCs have been learning all year – the techniques and systems of effective teaching.  Instead, we focused on what our TCs already have within themselves: passion, flexibility, creativity, caring, balance, determination, questioning, humor, and energy.

Those are among the qualities that we saw in our new lead teacher hires, Tyler Voorhees and Mary Pearsall.

The letter to the editor also mentions how important it is that teachers should intern for a year under the supervision of a talented mentor teacher”.  That’s exactly how it works in Friends’ Teacher Preparation Program
Co-director Shelby Pawlina was inspired yesterday to respond to the Invitation to Dialogue.  In her response to the New York Times, she wrote: A system that provides scaffolding for the gradual release of responsibility in combination with daily coaching, feedback and support is one that understands the intricacies and challenges of becoming a great teacher. 
Knowing how to create a classroom where students are safe to take academic and social risks, share who they are, and practice respectful interpersonal problem solving is indeed an art and is a sign of one of those great teachers.
Add solid critical reflection on those difficult moments in class and you have a great teacher with a consistently upward learning curve.”

That’s exactly what Shelby, and her co-director Ed Walent, encourage in our Teacher Candidates every day.  The TCs graduate in a few weeks.  We know there are great teachers among them.

In your opinion, what makes a great teacher?