November 21, 2013

Taking a Moment at Thanksgiving

It’s about to be Thanksgiving – again. It’s not a holiday I grew up with. Yet hands-down it’s my favorite holiday of the year. It makes me very happy that, in this country, we have a whole built-in day devoted to saying thank you.

At Thanksgiving we don’t focus on material goods or extend the holiday unnaturally by months.  It’s about family and being together and expressing thanks. Simple. Lovely. Connected.

At Friends’, in our elementary school this morning, we’re celebrating Grandparents' and Special Friends’ Day, a time for our students to invite into school their grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, anyone who’s a special person in their lives.  We’ve got singing performances and classroom activities, fresh-brewed coffee and Dacia’s famous snacks.  We’re in for a grand time.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I am reminded that leading researchers in social sciences have shown us that practicing gratitude makes a huge difference in children’s development. At Friends’, we know a thing or two about this. 

Following last year’s 25th Anniversary Gratitude Project and as we continue to partner with academics on both coasts who are studying this field, we have learned that the practice of gratitude increases students’ positive emotions and optimism. It decreases their negative emotions and physical symptoms, and it makes them feel more connected and satisfied with school and with life in general.

Our school is very pleased to be featured and honored a recent article by the Education Director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. This is the organization run by Dr. Christine Carter who came to speak to our community just over a year ago. Dr. Vicki Zakrzewski interviewed our lead teachers, in both the elementary and the preschool, to learn from them many of the activities they had designed to support our Friends’ students in their practice of gratitude.

We hope the ideas in this article will be read widely and used by teachers across the country who are beginning to embrace what we’ve known at Friends’ since our founding: the importance of social emotional learning, the value of being grateful, and the deep significance of character education. It’s something we work hard at every day and have done for over 25 years.

Congratulations to our teachers for continuing to be at the forefront of research-based education and for being open to sharing their fantastic ideas with the world.

As we spend this Thanksgiving holiday with family and loved ones, I hope we all take a moment to appreciate and be grateful.  There is no doubt in my mind that the world, and our children, will be better for it. 

A very happy Thanksgiving to you all. 

November 14, 2013

Robotics Program Coming to Friends’

The Rocky Mountain ∏rates demonstrate their work
to our elementary school students.
We had a scheduling snafu at Friends’ last week. No one’s fault, but it caused me to create a track in the elementary hallway as I paced back and forth, catching the technological marvels happening in both the Great Room and Mary Pearsall’s 4th grade classroom.

On one side of our building, Mary’s 4th graders were presenting wonderful films that they had made, telling stories of their experiences of the recent flooding in Boulder and explaining their scientific understanding of the erosion that had happened in our area.

In the Great Room, a group calling themselves The Rocky Mountain ∏rates (PIrates) were demonstrating to our other students an invention that was inspired by the same flooding. They were also running a robot of their own design through its paces.

Do you remember those days, not so long ago, when we were in school, when we demonstrated our learning by giving a speech, or perhaps creating a poster with our information? No longer.

Our Friends’ students today are using the latest technological tools to learn and connect and problem solve.

Director of Technology
Stephen Butler
Our school is investing in brand new robotics kits and piloting new robotics and programming classes in our 2nd and 4th grades with Director of Technology, Stephen Butler. Our students will learn how to build robots and program them to accomplish set tasks.

A quick wander through the elementary school this week and it’s not hard to find the social studies books that were created by the 5th grade class in the school’s up-to-date computer lab. I came across 2nd graders using our mobile iPad cart to conduct research.  I had a conversation with Tricia Callahan who is thrilled to be taking a multi-week professional development course on iPads with a number of her colleagues and is incorporating what she has learned into her literacy and spelling lessons.

In 4th and 5thgrades, teachers Mary Pearsall and Liz Richards have started a new unit on Antarctica and are working with a researcher who is currently conducting research in Antarctica.  In class, students watched a video on the computers and iPads that Mary had created using the Educreations App.  She made a read-aloud story
4th grade teacher Mary Pearsall
about the book The Lost Seal using this program.  That allowed the lesson to be child-centered and differentiated for those students who might have had some trouble reading some of the words.  Students collaborated and worked in small groups to take notes based on this book-video.  

The Rocky Mountain ∏rates, composed of Friends’ 3rd grader Quinn Kiefer, as well as Friends’ alumni Lucas and Jack Kiefer, Cameron Hoeffler and their friend Zach Olkin, are participating in both the First Lego League (FLL) and Vex IQ robotics competition programs this year. They won significant awards at Vex IQ in the spring.  The First Lego League challenges teams of elementary and middle-schoolers to complete a series of missions on a 4’x8’ field using a robot of their design. In addition, they were challenged to develop an innovative solution to help people cope with natural disasters.  In last Friday's gathering the ∏rates presented what they have been up to with FLL.  

The Rocky Mountain ∏rates with their trophies!
They started off with a 5 minute presentation where they outlined their innovative solution to the problem of basement flooding caused by broken window wells.  The "Window Watcher" is a retractable water shield that covers the window with impenetrable Rhino Canvas if a flash flood alert is issued over a cellular network. The team researched the problem, developed the solution, prototyped the product and ultimately filed a patent to protect their invention.

Friends’ School students were most interested in the intricately designed robots that the team designed to run missions and earn points on this year's "FLL Nature's Fury" robot game. The kids got a close up look into how each robot was designed to complete each mission.  For example the team created a 4 wheel drive "crawler" bot to bring a load of Lego people and supplies 8 feet over a series of ever more challenging Lego barriers.  

On Saturday the ∏rates competed in an FLL qualifying tournament at Monarch High School in which they came in 1st place over all and 2nd place in Robot Performance.  The judges said that they had the best project (the “Window Watcher”) and robot design of any of the teams.  They were especially impressed with how each of the team members showed "gracious professionalism" and seemed to be having so much fun!

4th & 5th graders Skyping with a researcher in Antartica
I got to do a little coaching for the team on their presentation and public-speaking skills before the competition.  I was amazed at their adaptability and their willingness to learn and take suggestions.

Our students watching on Friday were inspired by this dynamic team and can’t wait to get their own hands on designing robots of their own. 

We’re excited to bring this new element to our program and to witness all of our students innovate and apply critical and cooperative thinking skills in new ways.

November 7, 2013

Stars Abound (Second Star to the Right and Straight on Till Morning)

"Second Star to the Right and Straight on Till Morning"
Lucca (Wendy) and Liam (Peter Pan) in the 5th grade production 
One of the many reasons that I have chosen a career in independent schools, and why my own children attend independent schools, is because of the unique culture that can exist within an organization that has the ability to decide upon its own mission.  At Friends’, we take our mission very seriously.  It is our raison d’ĂȘtre, the lens through which we make all decisions. It’s what we aim for every day, our North Star

Stars abounded at our school this week.  All of them connected to unique cultural events, all of them making me proud to be part of this great independent school.

On Monday, many members of our graduating class of 2013 (now 6th graders) returned to share their early middle school experiences with our current 4th and 5th grade families. All but one of these graduates went on from Friends’ to attend public schools (one travels daily from Boulder to Kent Denver).  Kids and parents from that class discussed the open enrollment process, what they looked for in a middle school, and how their transition had been. I was struck by their confidence and eloquence – and, no matter which middle school they attend, how well prepared they were leaving Friends’.  They are stars shining in their new journeys.

The very next day, our 5th graders were back in the Great Room starring in their production of Peter Pan.  Each year, it is one of my great joys to direct our 5th graders in a full-scale theatrical production.  We had a packed house for the afternoon show and a healthy crowd in the evening. (The title of this week’s column includes the address where Peter says he lives.) Our 5th graders, including their teachers, rose to the occasion spectacularly. For more photos, please visit our Facebook page.  In a time when so many schools have reduced drama programs, at Friends’ we strive daily to keep arts in the forefront. 

While the final production of Peter Pan was a smash hit, I was most touched by a comment one of the fifth graders made after the show: “I’ll miss our rehearsals.”  For this young thespian, who had caught the acting bug in a big way, the process of working together as a team to create something that was bigger than the sum of its parts was just as important as the final product. As her director, I should add that this fledgling actor, just like all of her classmates, was a total star.  I’m going to miss the rehearsals too.

On Wednesday, members of our Community Board came to Friends’ for two important events that we hold every couple of years.
The cast of Peter Pan, including Teacher Candidate Trevor McGill and 5th grade teacher Liz Richards

At our biennial Trustee Classroom Visit Day, I shared with our Trustees the kinds of things I look for when I stop into classrooms (suggesting they use this interesting chart as a guide). We invite our Trustees to see our mission at work because it helps them to guide our school to new heights.  After their time in classrooms, Trustees shared with each other how impressed they were at the diverse ways the students were learning, how engaged our kids are with their work and with each other, how many levels of learning were happening in classrooms – with our Teacher Candidates learning and practicing their craft alongside the kids, how welcoming and warm our classrooms are, and how much kindness and respect they observed between adults and children.

Later in the day, our entire staff and Board met together for two hours to discuss our school mission.  Every seven years, as part of our school’s re-accreditation process with the Association of Colorado Independent Schools, we are required to review our mission statement.  More importantly, it is a wonderfully helpful exercise for all of us to re-familiarize ourselves with our mission, and to reflect on our practice as educators and school leaders.

Throughout the discussion, which was too long and detailed to capture in this space, almost fifty dedicated souls, who are committed to the vision and future of this school, reflected and shared on what makes our school unique, what questions we had, and what might be missing from our mission.  It was an empowering and extremely thoughtful event.  That evening, I received an email from one of our long time staff members. It said: “One of the things I appreciated was how there was very little question of what we are good at and what we value; such clarity of purpose and dedication to that purpose. It made me wonder if all mission review conversations at independent schools look the same.”

I’m not sure about that. But I know that it’s been a week where our stars have shone.  Our Community Board will continue to reflect on our school’s mission over the year and will be in further communication with our greater school community.  Here at Friends’ we’re thanking our lucky stars!