October 31, 2013

Colaboración en El Día de Los Muertos

Friends' School's ofrenda

While our Elementary Halloween parade on Thursday morning was a fun-filled celebration (check out the amazing photos on our Facebook page), there was another more respectful celebration happening at Friends’ this week - Día de los Muertos.

In typical American Halloween event festivities, death can be presented as scary or as something to be feared. But for the Day of the Dead, death - or at least the memories of those who have died - is something to be celebrated. Our Spanish and art teachers, Kelly Cramer Usubillaga and Rachel Relin have collaborated masterfully to create a rich, thoughtful curriculum unit around Día de los Muertos.

Rachel came to Friends’ nine years ago from Santa Fe where she worked in museum education, specializing in folk art as well as New Mexican culture.  She immediately began connecting with our Spanish program on ways to integrate art with Spanish language and culture.  In all her years here, Rachel has enjoyed teaming with Kelly more than in any other year. Rachel believes that Kelly’s overall zeal for teaching, combined with her excellent cultural understanding, has made all the difference.

Kelly’s passion for Latin American culture began with a year-long stay in southern Argentina. From there she traveled throughout Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela.  She
Kelly Cramer Usubillaga
studied in Venezuela and met her husband, Juan Esteban.  She has a Masters’ degree in Hispanic Linguistics from CU. Kelly loves to speak Spanish at home with her 6-year-old son, Rohan.

Kelly and Rachel integrate their areas of expertise in a powerful way at this time of year. Both teach about the significance of the Day of the Dead to their students, and the synchronicity between the Aztec and Spanish cultures.

Each elementary class has created meaningful art projects for the school’s ofrenda (altar),which is near the front desk. Students have been invited to bring in pictures or any other items to honor their family’s loved ones who have passed away. Art projects have included masks, jewelry, sugar skulls, skeleton boxes, votive candles, cempasúchil (marigolds in the Aztec tradition) and more.

Now that we have changed our schedule at Friends’ so that all of our students are in art class every week, it has been easy for all our students to be involved in this work.

Kelly incorporates many cultural themes into her Spanish language teaching.  In the two months she has been at Friends’, she has become hugely impressed with the positive attitude among her students and colleagues, and our school’s openness to new ideas and cultures.  She says that the response from the children to the new Spanish curriculum in which we have recently invested (Risas Y Sonrisas) is far better than she could have imagined.

Her students are fully engaged in Spanish – using everything from sign language, to music, and visual cues to learn.  Kelly knows that the more senses she taps into with her teaching, the more the kids can integrate their learning and the quicker they learn the language.

By working in conjunction with Rachel to create an integrated unit of study that has so much meaning to our students, Kelly continues to grow our Spanish program where it is fast becoming a great strength of our elementary program.

While Kelly made a point to tell me how our kids’ buy-in and attitude towards her program has been “overwhelmingly positive”, I have great confidence in saying the feeling is mutual.

We are lucky to have two such dedicated and skilled teachers at Friends’ whose whole is even greater than the sum of their parts.  Please stop by and visit the amazing ofrenda today. It is a masterpiece.

Post Script: completely coincidentally, after I finished writing this piece, just as I was getting ready to post to this Among Friends’ website, I was cc-ed on an email to Kelly from one of our first grade parents who wrote:

“I want to tell you how deeply you've made an impact on (my daughter) and her Spanish language skills. I am amazed with the vocabulary, songs and activities she shares with us at home. I think you have captured her attention and her heart! Thank you for all you do!”

October 24, 2013

Where Everybody Knows Your Name


Teacher Katelynn Regan celebrating Harvest with her PK students

Many of us remember the TV sitcom Cheers which ran during the eighties and early nineties – and has been re-running in syndication ever since.  It was such a popular show that it even made it over the Atlantic to my childhood home.

At my English boarding school, there was a great kid we all liked who didn’t look unlike the actor George Wendt (who played the character Norm Peterson). On occasion, when he entered a room, we used to shout out “Norm!” in imitation of the cast of Cheers.

Cheers had a popular theme song.  You probably know the lyrics:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

Three quick stories from Friends’ this week which explain why Cheers and Norm were on my mind:

5th grade TC Trevor McGill
(appearing soon in our Peter
Pan production)
Every Monday morning I am out on the elementary school playground at recess.  This Monday, I noticed several girls from our Kindergarten class sitting on a low wall participating in a craft activity together.  I think they were weaving.  Trevor McGill also noticed them.  Trevor is the Teacher Candidate in our 5th grade class and does not generally spend any time in the Kindergarten class. He was curious as to what the girls were up to and wandered over to where they were sitting.  He called each of them by name and engaged in conversation.

On Tuesday, our Director of Admissions, Mari Engle Friedman, received a phone call from a Physician's Assistant in Wheat Ridge.  The lady is a friend of one of our preschool families. She called Mari to let us know how impressed and appreciative she was to hear Friends' preschool teachers are knowledgeable about the particular sensory issues that her friend’s daughter deals with and that our teachers’ attention to these issues is truly outstanding. How she wished she had found a similar preschool for her child, one that knew her child as the individual she is.

On Tuesday and Thursday, our preschool and elementary classrooms all participated in our annual Harvest Celebration.  This is a long-standing Friends’ School tradition, dating back to our founding families in 1987. Our Harvest celebrates all the bounty the earth offers us, and the traditional year-end harvest of the crops. Families are invited to come together to sing songs, hear a story, and share some food that the class has made together. In the preschool, it was delicious pumpkin muffins. In the elementary school, it was a cup of ‘Stone Soup’ made from vegetables that our families have contributed to the community. If you were at any of these events, like me, you will have noticed the amazing warmth surrounding the children, and all the adults – teachers and other parents – who knew the children by name.
"Norm!"
It seemed that everywhere I turned this week, I saw evidence of how well each and every individual child at our school is known – by the teachers whose job it is to know them – and by everyone else in this amazing community as well.
Thank you all for the part you play in knowing all of the children. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.” We’re always glad you came.

October 17, 2013

“I have grit. I can do it!” – Character Education at its Finest



2nd and 3rd graders showed grit
this week building boats -
more photos on our Facebook page 
Two boys in Beth Huennekens’ first grade class were building a house last week out of blocks, using a "blueprint" that one of them had sketched. They were having a tricky time putting the building together based on the drawing.  They worked at it for more than 20 minutes and were building and problem solving the whole time.  At one point one of the boys turned to the other and said, "Don't give up.  Don't you want grit?  I wanted to stop one time, but I kept going and it felt so good to finish it.  We can do it!"

Beth has been reading to her students books that feature characters who overcome the odds, or who keep persevering until they find success.  Titles include well-known favorites like The Little Engine That Could, Are You My Mother? and The Hare and The Tortoise as well as newer books such as The Dandelion Seed and Crickwing. In her classroom, she has created a ‘Grit Wall’ where the tenacious fictional characters are highlighted.

She has invited parents into her class to share stories of when they had to persevere.  One father came in and talked about a mountain climbing trip in Nepal.  We all have stories from when we had to summon the strength of our character to overcome something difficult and we succeeded.

Six of our Friends’ School Trustees joined me in Vail last week for the 25th Annual Heads/Trustees Workshop of the Association of Colorado Independent Schools. It is a rewarding time for school leaders to gather and to learn from experts, and from each other, about the latest trends in independent school education.

Character education is clearly one of those trends. I am very proud to say that Friends’ School is ahead of the curve when it comes to teaching our students the skills that our children will need in a global economy. You may have heard the term “21st century skills” – these are the ‘intangible’ skills that are creativity, innovation, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and character.
1st grade teacher Beth Huennekens
already required in a complex, interconnected world:

Following our hugely successful Gratitude Project last year, Friends’ teachers are focusing on different elements of character education this year.  We began the year concentrating on grit or perseverance. As 3rd grade teacher Diane Bramble highlighted in a recent article for the Happenings, on behalf of our newly formed Culture Committee, future character traits that we will focus on include: self-reliance, optimism, gratitude, conscientiousness, kindness, courage and curiosity.

All of our classrooms, from preschool to 5th grade, are incorporating formal lessons on grit as well as finding teachable moments.  Yesterday, I enjoyed my time in Mary Pearsall’s 4th grade class reading a story and incorporating character education into a drama activity.

Our Kindergartners, following a discussion on grit from teacher Laurie Nakauchi, created their own chant “I have grit.  I can do it!”  This proved eminently helpful later on, in P.E. class, when Kathy Sherwood gave the class a ropes challenge.  Kathy reported that these five year olds completed the tasks quicker and more easily than other classes in the past because they used exceptional teamwork – and because they brought out their chant and supported each other in reaching their goal.

Earlier this week, our elementary teachers were discussing all the different learning opportunities and character lessons that are happening in their classrooms. Several teachers commented that they were seeing a better attitude towards academics because of this stick-to-it-ness on which they have focused.

Math specialist Erika Norman observed that even when we are willing to put in the time and effort to persevere, we don’t always get what we aim for, but we almost always learn something new. Helping our students persist is helping them to succeed.

October 9, 2013

"Can I play?" – Tales from our Classrooms

3rd grade and pre-K buddies with their haul of
tomatoes from the school gardens

Every now and then, a guest writer appears in this column.  Today, Associate Head of School, Mandy Stepanovsky, waxes eloquent about Friends’ social emotional learning and the great things she sees and hears each day in classrooms.  Here’s Mandy….

As we enter October, there is a warm feeling that embraces our campus.  Teachers and staff, students, and families have settled into the new school year with established routines and classroom rituals solidly in place.  

In Preschool through fifth grade, I am struck by the cohesiveness of each classroom community and the rich relationships that have already been established.  At each age, intentional social/emotional curriculum is helping our students to grow and learn.

Preschool classrooms continue to provide environments rich with opportunities for developing language to identify, express, and manage feelings and emotions.  Children in the morning classes are embracing the routine of the school day while learning to make and be good friends.  Through dynamic, age-appropriate choices in the classroom and on the playground, students in both the morning and afternoon classes are getting to know themselves, their teachers, and peers. This week our preschool teachers shared with their afternoon pre-Kindergarten students that some of the three year olds in their morning class were having a hard time saying goodbye to their moms and dads.  They asked them for advice to pass along.  Here is what the pre-Kindergarten students had to share:

"I was scared to come to school and I was sad and missed my Mommy.  I would write her letters with teachers and then I felt better."

"I was sad sometimes.  Then I said, "Can I play?" and I made a friend."

"I was sad but now I'm not.  Now I have fun when I come to school and I'm so happy and I get to play with all my friends and everyone here is my friend."

"I didn't have a friend and then I learned how to make friends."

"Well...I was sad but then I just got used to it.  Tell them they'll just get used to it."

Kindergarten students have quickly become a dynamic force in our elementary school building.  
Mandy Stepanovsky
Students explore friendship and school rituals through their “Circle of Friends” curriculum.  They have most recently explored similarities and differences, focusing on appreciating their friends for both.  Additionally, Kindergarten students were a part of the goal setting process for October conferences, identifying some of their own academic goals for the school year.

Psychologist, Carolyn Aibel, has been busy working with all students in grades first through fourth, with a planned visit to fifth grade later this month.  Teachers and students have enjoyed drawing from her expertise as they explore friendship dynamics and communication skills necessary for negotiating needs and wants with friends.

Carolyn’s presence has fostered a common language that students, teachers, and families can use regardless of age or grade.  In her initial sessions Carolyn spoke with classes about upstanders/bystanders, victims, and aggressors.  Each of the classes explored scenarios and brainstormed ways in which a bystander could move into an upstander role. One example would be a group of three students at lunchtime.  

Aggressor:  What is that in your lunch box?  That looks disgusting!
Victim: shrinks away slowly
Bystander: just watches

Another way to approach the situation:

Aggressor:  What is that in your lunch box?  That looks disgusting!
Victim: starts to shrink away
Bystander turned upstander:  That doesn’t look disgusting, it just looks different.  I used to eat those kinds of sandwiches every day.
Victim: Yeah, I like eating this for lunch.
Aggressor:  You do?  How did you make it?  Maybe I would like that too.

Through playing roles such as these, students explored age appropriate scenarios and brainstormed ways to solve problems efficiently and respectfully.

Carolyn Aibel, Ph.D.
Additionally the whole school, preschool through fifth grade, continues to explore the character trait of grit.  Preschool classes have enjoyed stories such as The Tortoise and the Hare and The Little Engine that Could, carrying their learning over into play as they can be heard chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” when trying a difficult task, or changing their game of car racing to “slow and steady wins the race” car play, slowing down the usual whirlwind of their race.

First grade explored grit through “A Penny in an Ice Cube” challenge.  Small groups of students were given an ice cube with a penny in the middle.  They were given the task of getting to their penny without picking up and holding their cube.  After working through this challenge, here is what a few students had to say:

“We need the help of others to reach our goals.”

“There are no winners or losers, but the winners are the ones that keep working on it.”

As the Associate Head of School, it has been my privilege to be in all of the classrooms experiencing first hand all of the learning that is taking place each day.  With the help of others, there is no doubt that students and teachers will reach their goals this year and I look forward to sharing more stories from the classrooms in the future.

Note: Psychologist Carolyn Aibel will be attending our next Parent Council Forum on Thursday October 17 at 8:45 a.m. to inform parents and answer questions about the work she has been doing with our elementary students.