December 18, 2014

Winter Lights

Art from Winter Lights by Anna Grossnickle Hines
Tomorrow night is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The sun sets just a wee bit earlier and rises just a tad bit later than at any other time of the year, plunging our northern world in darkness.

During the darker weeks, we tend to turn to light for comfort and to lift our spirits: a dancing candle flame, a cozy fire, a beaming flashlight.

Friends’ School’s Winter Celebrations are centered around light, as well as peace and community.  We come together and each class shares songs they have learned and we sing together as a community.  We light candles and celebrate the light in the winter darkness. In our classrooms, each child is acknowledged for his or her particular gifts and given a necklace with a bead to symbolize his or her uniqueness.

Our school celebrations are a means for bringing whole families together, as well as acknowledging the cyclical nature of life and preserving a rich and meaningful sense of community through shared and repeated ceremony.  It is important to us that each celebration we have builds and strengthens a sense of community in our children.  We want the celebrations to reflect different beliefs and family cultures.  We also feel it is important that they build a sense of ecological respect for the earth as well as a historical and cultural perspective. 

Focusing on light is a big part of our elementary winter celebration.  I love these words from a fabulous children’s book by Anna Grossnickle Hines, Winter Lights:

“Even natural lights have a special quality in winter: the morning sun glinting on icicles, early sunsets, stars glittering in the cold, moonlight on fresh snowfall. But perhaps most heartwarming of all are the lights we use in winter celebrations. Thousands of years ago, people didn't understand how the rotation of the earth and its orbit around the sun caused the winter months to grow darker and colder. They feared the sun would disappear altogether.

In many cultures, people celebrated midwinter solstice rituals to encourage the return of the sun and its life-giving light. Such rituals were celebrated on every continent and usually involved feasting, merrymaking, gift giving, and decorating with evergreens as symbols of sustained life. They centered around fire and light of some sort, including Yule logs, bonfires, lighted trees, candles, and fireworks.

Many of our winter celebrations today incorporate these same symbols. In Scandinavian traditions, winter holidays begin with Santa Lucia's Feast Day, when eldest daughters appear in candlelit crowns. Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, is celebrated with eight days of candle lighting. The evergreen Christmas tree is well-lit to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and faralitos, paper bag lanterns, symbolically light the path for Mary and Joseph in much of the southwestern United States. Chinese New Year celebrations include fireworks to frighten off bad spirits, including Nian, the monster who threatens at the end of the old year. Kwanzaa celebrates the rich heritage, abilities, and hopes of African Americans with seven days of candle lighting.”

In our Kindergarten class this week, I enjoyed hearing one of our parents share about her family’s tradition of celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. The festival spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness.

Wherever your lights take you at this winter break, I hope you enjoy it with family and close friends. May you find comfort and may your spirits be lifted.

December 10, 2014

A Sing Along for Everyone

Friends' School has many wonderful traditions.  Some of them date back to the first year of the school’s existence 27 years ago, when our founding families created warm and nurturing rituals to mark important passages in their children’s growth.  One of the joys of my work is to be a part of these traditions.  Some of them I’ve added my own twist to, such as the dramatization of the telling of Stone Soup at Harvest Celebration.  Some of them, I know to leave well enough alone…

Last week our Great Room was home to a beautiful evening as preschool families came out to join each other in song as part of the Preschool Winter Sing-Along.  With sparkling lights adorning the walls, preschool music teacher Kristin McLean led dozens of families in a program of familiar and child-friendly songs.  Kristin, who has a B.A. in music and early childhood education, is a natural performer and has a gorgeous voice.  Turns out many of our parents and kids do too!

Families sat together, with three and four year olds, and a few parents, leaping spontaneously to their feet in dance.  Grandparents, babies, and older siblings joined their voices in this wonderful Friends’ School tradition.  I felt an enormous sense of community.

Preschool music teacher (and parent)
Kristin McLean
Every day our preschool teachers sing with the kids.  Every time I stop by the preschool classrooms, I am always so impressed with the way the teachers talk so respectfully to the children and teach them how to talk respectfully to each other and how to express their needs and wants.  Our students are learning real life skills.

From time to time, I receive letters from some of our preschool families who want to share their thoughts about their children’s experience.  I quote a few of them below.  As we begin to fill all our preschool places for next year during this busy admissions season, you are more than welcome to pass these comments to your friends and neighbors who have two and three year olds, or even babies.

“Caroline and Christie are thoughtful, kind, listen to the students (and parents), and give amazing instruction.  (My son) and I enjoy their company. The classroom is organized, creative, and structured.”

“We feel like a part of a community.  I love that we can go to the "big kids playground" after school and play.”

“(My husband) was announcing to his friends how Friends' has "the best preschool program around." He was not shy about our feelings and experiences with the preschool. The most wonderful part was hearing other fathers chime in with similar experiences in the preschool at Friends’.”

“(My son) uses at home what he learns at school.  He and his sister use the skills while playing and in problem solving. (My son) is thriving!  What more can we ask for?”

“We continue to be 'wowed' by Jessie. She is consistently an amazing teacher and our children have been the recipients of her gift. With both of our children, we saw incredible strides in their emotional, social and academic lives. Jessie communicates with the children and parents on such a candid level that one cannot help but listen and appreciate her words.”

“I'm thankful, each and every day, for everything that you are GIVING to (my daughter) and her new friends.  She adores each of you uniquely and is very, very engaged in her days at school.  The ways in which details of her day spill into our time together outside of school is so blissful!  It is clear to me that she is thriving.”

And really, what more could a parent ask for?

Well, perhaps an opportunity to sing and dance….

December 4, 2014

What Every School Can Learn From Preschools

Clifford the Big Red Dog (or is it Associate Head of
School Mandy Stepanovsky?) reading to preschoolers
Listening. Sharing. Following directions. Making friends. Managing big emotions. Planning for the future.

Mastery of all these skills, as well as more traditional academics, will play a big role in determining success later in our children’s lives.

Two different people sent me an NPR article this week entitled: What Every School Can Learn From Preschools which discuss the importance of social emotional learning in all of our nation’s elementary schools, not just our preschools.

One of our new Friends’ School parents sent along this note with the article:

“I thought you might find this article from NPR interesting - it discusses the importance of teaching social skills in elementary schools, not just preschools.  We are thrilled that this is exactly what Friends' School is already doing, and it's a big part of why we chose Friends'.  So wonderful to be at a school that has long-recognized the importance of social/emotional learning as well!”

It is always rewarding to receive emails like these, that confirm that our mission and practice here at Friends’ is a great fit for our families. It is even more rewarding to hear, on a national scale, that the wider world is coming to an understanding that what we are doing at Friends’ is essential.

In an era when the public schools have recently announced an increase in the number of hours that elementary school students will spend on standardized tests, our teachers realize the importance of so much more.

Our teachers understand the need for developing strong skills in reading, writing, science, and math.  However, they also understand that a great percentage of the jobs that our current preschool and elementary children will hold as adults do not yet exist.  We need to prepare our children for a complex global economy where interpersonal skills, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking are just as important.

A great body of research tells us so.  The researchers in this NPR article suggests that parents should  “hold entire schools accountable for creating atmospheres that instill or support these qualities.”

I am proud that Friends’ does exactly that.

November 19, 2014

Making Caring Common and Giving Thanks

Good morning.  It’s the Friday before Thanksgiving.  A time for our elementary students to share their school and celebrate with their guests at our annual Grandparents’ and Special Friends’ Day. It’s also a time for us to take a week away from school and to spend time together with family, to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with friends and relatives, and to give thanks. 

Thanksgiving, as we all know, tends to be the kick off to the big holiday season. The holidays, and the accompanying big family occasions, have the potential to be precarious for younger children.

The holidays are a time of traveling, cooking, cleaning, planning, cooking more, making lists and counting chairs and napkins. But it is also the time of year when parents are considering how their 2-year-old will hold up during a Thanksgiving meal that starts at 7 p.m. Or how their 10-year-old daughter will react when she opens a present from Great Aunt Edna to find a puppy sweater that she would have liked when she was 3. Or whether their 7-year-old son will understand the importance of togetherness, love and thankfulness when the family gathers around a table. It’s a stressful time for many people. And even though we love our kids and they are lots of fun, they often magnify that stress.”

This quote is from a great new article in the Washington Post by Amy Joyce, titled Tips to get your kids through the holidays graciously and gratefully. I’m sure we could all use a few pointers on this topic – I know I could!

One of the experts interviewed for this article is psychologist and noted author Dr. Richard Weissbourd who is the co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

In the past year I have been fortunate enough to play a part in developing some of the work of the Making Caring Common Project.  It is an initiative in moral and social development for children. The Making Caring Common Project seeks to help educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, respectful, responsible to others, and committed to justice.

In the article, Dr. Weissbourd gives us several suggestions, as parents, for helping kids to find gratitude over Thanksgiving, helping them to understand that there’s a reason it’s called Thanksgiving.  He suggests:

• asking our children to think about someone outside of the family who has helped them

• finding an organization we can get behind, and make a promise to do something monthly for that group or that cause.

And later, in December, he suggests that we

do not inundate kids with gifts. When we give too many gifts, the appreciation goes out the window.

This is good advice and it follows many earlier tips in the article about how to get our kids through the holidays. I won’t repeat them all here, but the article is a solid and quick read. Click here to read the whole article.

One excellent link from the Post is to the website for The Family Dinner Project, a “grass-roots movement of food, fun, and conversation about things that matter”.  The Family Dinner Project helps
Former Friends' Head Polly Donald helping out
with our annual bulb planting tradition this week
families to have conversations about how we are going to give at the holidays “– not just money, but time and simple acts of kindness.”

There are excellent pointers for conversation starters, games and other resources (developed with the help of the Making Caring Common Project team) to help us explore how we want to give back this holiday season and throughout the year.

As a school, Friends’ students and teachers are working with the good people at Bridge House, an organization that serves Boulder’s homeless and working poor, to provide much-needed toiletries and food items. Service learning projects, such as these, help us meet our school’s mission of developing social responsibility and respect for diversity and the individual.

We hope to teach our children that the holidays are about much more than ourselves. We hope to remind ourselves, as parents and educators, that we at Friends’, just like the folks at Harvard, also want to raise children who are caring, respectful, responsible to others, and committed to justice.

Happy Thanksgiving from our Friends’ School family to yours. 

November 13, 2014

The ukuleles are coming, the ukuleles are coming!

Friends' music teacher Monica Benko with a few of
her Kindergarten students

A wonderful package was delivered to Friends’ School this week. 

We are excited to announce that we have bought an entire class set of ukuleles for our elementary school music program.  Our elementary music teacher Monica Benko is thrilled to begin a strings instrument program with some of her classes.

This purchase was made possible by a very generous donation from a former Friends’ teacher whose gift is supporting not only the music program, but also the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund, which supports the rejuvenation of our teachers and staff. The gift will also support the purchase of additional grades of the "Gameplan Series" music curriculum for our lower grades. It is a combination series of Orff, Kodaly, and Delcroze music methodologies.

Monica believes that music is the expression of the human experience through sound. She is excited

Friends' 3rd graders unpacking the ukuleles
on Thursday this week
to add a strings element to an already rich music program at Friends’.

Music is ever present in our culture – in movies, in our cars, at sporting events, and for many of our families, in our homes where our children play instruments. Monica’s goals are for her students to love and appreciate music, and to enrich their lives through music. She loves to make music fun, to help her students learn music through playing games, and she enjoys teaching kids to compose their own musical creations.

The children of Friends’ School are jazzed to begin playing the ukuleles.  Here are two extracts from a couple of letters from our fifth grade students to the donor:

“Thank you so much for all that you have done to help bring music to life at our school! Music means the world to me and I love to meet people who love it as much as I do.  Thank you for donating the rest of the music curriculum so the younger grades get to experience music the same way we do. Ukuleles are wonderful! I have always wanted to play a string instrument for I play piano and I am so excited to learn ukulele. I want to learn ukulele because then I will have even more music and more challenges. In music at school, we have written our own songs and we are going to compose them! We are also doing songs for our play and are learning the songs for it! I love singing and acting!”
- Anna

“I am so excited to learn how to play ukulele with the rest of my class.  I have been wanting to learn how to play a string instrument for a while. Everyone in my class was so excited when we heard that we were going to learn how to play ukulele.”
 – Julia

Friends' music teacher Monica Benko
Monica is a gifted music teacher who brings so much of herself to Friends’. The daughter of an elementary band teacher and a high school teacher, she has played piano since 1st grade, and oboe since 4th grade. In elementary school, her school had no instruments so instead she just sang to old music textbooks. However, through listening to music on CDs, Monica fell in love with singing and was inspired to become a music teacher herself.  Consequently, she loves the richness of instruments and materials she has to work with at Friends’. In high school, Monica was in band, played oboe and was the drum major of the marching band, and sang in choir, and show choir. She sang in an a cappella group in college, and still sings at weddings and church services locally.

Two summers ago, Monica worked for the National Park Service as a Ranger in Grand Teton National Park.  In this position she wrote curriculum for the National Park Service, and created an interdisciplinary unit that incorporated National Park concepts and music concepts.  She loves science as well as music, and looks forward to developing more curricula that integrates outdoor education with music education.

This past summer, she married her fiancĂ© Craig Benko. We are lucky to have Monica here and we are looking forward to hearing her students add their brand new ukuleles to their music experience at Friends’. 

November 6, 2014

Snapshots from Wonka's Chocolate Factory

Fifth grader Helen as Willy Wonka
Last week, I had the very great honor of directing our talented fifth grade class in their production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In recent years, we have established a new tradition at Friends' of our graduating class treading the boards in a full-scale theatrical production. This year's class did a marvelous job of bringing their own joy and creative spirit into the process.

Given that a picture is worth a thousand words, I will end here and allow you to enjoy these wonderful photos, taken by parents Christine Case and Ginna Halverson.

Well done, fifth graders, you were "terrific"!

For more photos, please visit this public link to our Facebook page.

October 30, 2014

Mindfulness – as simple as 5–4–3–2-1

Dr. Kristen Race
Close to 200 people gathered at Platt Middle School on Monday evening of this week for a special parent education event.

Friends’ School was proud to share an evening with Dr. Kristen Race with many of our own parents, teachers, and staff, and an equal number of guests whose children do not attend our school.

Dr. Race is the founder of the Mindful Life group and author of the book Mindful Parenting.

There were many key points in her talk, which covered brain research, as well as factors that lead to additional stress in our kids and in our homes. For me, some of the biggest take-aways were the solutions that Race offered.  Solutions that all of us can incorporate into our households and our families’ lives. Solutions that can be packaged as neatly as 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1.

5 -  five minutes of purposeful meditative breathing helps to center us.  For adults and kids, research has proven that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation will alleviate psychological stress. By paying attention to one’s breathing and the condition of one’s surroundings, it has been found to be moderately effective to battle pain and anxiety and return us to focusing on the present moment with kindness.

4 – the four roses practice is adapted for families from Rick Hanson’s work in Hardwiring Happiness. ROSE is a simple process for engraving the good things that we experience over the course of the day into the neural structure of our brain. ROSE is an acronym for Recognize, Observe, Soak it in, Engrave it.  Recognize 4 Roses each day. A rose does not have to be a grand experience. Good things happen all around us, but much of the time we don’t notice them. Take the time to recognize that the sun is shining, the smell of your coffee in the morning, or the feeling of your child’s small hand in yours. We can’t change the past or the future, but we can take in the good during this moment. Observe how this recognition makes your body feel. Does your heart seem to flutter? Does it cause you warmth, or give you chills and goose bumps? Take that extra second, from when you recognize the moment, to observe the impact on your body. Soak it in and savor this experience. We have to hold our attention on these good experiences for several seconds to make them stick. Engrave it into your being. That step is to share these roses with your family over dinner, or write them down before you go to bed.

3 – find three things to be grateful for each day. Dr. Race shared the science of what regular gratitude practice does for us and suggested that taking a moment each evening with our children to focus on three things to be grateful for will help them to focus more on the positive in their lives.

2 – two acts of engagement.  It is important to be present and engaged with our kids - with no particular agenda. Race recommended that we find the time at least twice a day to spend time with our kids when we’re not trying to problem solve or think about work, but just being present with them.  She suggested we help ourselves to think less about the amount of time you spend with our kids, but to focus instead on the quality of the time we have with them.

1 – one act of kindness.  We heard that doing one simple act of kindness, even one every ten days, can increase our happiness.  The even simpler act of witnessing an act of kindness can bring this feeling to life. Race shared this beautiful film with the audience to illustrate her point.

Thank you, Dr. Race, for sharing your research and your practical, solution-based wisdom with us. 

October 23, 2014

Come to the Chocolate Factory! It’s Amazing What You’ll Learn

Friends' 5th graders getting ready for their production
of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
If you can, please stop by the Great Room this coming Tuesday at either 2:00 or 5:00 p.m.  You’re bound to find a small boy who wins the tour of a lifetime, tiny Oompa Loompas singing and dancing across the stage, and a crazy candy maker with limitless imagination. Come to the theatre!

The theatre, in one form or another, is ever-present at Friends’ School.

Dramatic play is an essential element in our preschool curriculum.  By pretending to be firefighters, princesses, superheroes, or restaurateurs, three and four year olds are developing many cognitive, social, emotional, and physical skills: everything from spoken language, planning, conflict resolution, expressing emotion, seeing the world from different vantage points.
As our students progress through our elementary school, they have countless opportunities to act out skits, play make-believe, present their work in theatrical form, and participate in class plays. 

This fall, we continue the theatre experience for our fifth graders at a whole new level. 

Costume shop - right outside the 5th grade classroom
I am currently directing our extremely talented fifth grade class in a production of Roald Dahl’s lovable story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  With a full raised stage, and a homemade Chocolate Factory that is second to none, it promises to be an outstanding show. It’s suitable for all ages.

With several rehearsals a week over many weeks, it’s a fabulous time for me to connect with our graduating class.  I am enjoying their creativity and sense of humour.  We are laughing a lot, and learning that sometimes the best moments in theatre come from gaffes.

Over the many years that I’ve been directing children’s theatre, covering more than forty full-scale productions, I have learned many things.  I have learned that involving kids in theatre improves their communication skills, gives them an opportunity to express themselves, helps develop the ability to think critically, prompts them to cooperate with others in achieving a huge joint goal, and fosters peer acceptance and self-worth.

The theatre provides a wonderful opportunity to teach the importance of hard work, perseverance through difficulty, a sense of accomplishment, and of course provides plenty of opportunities to laugh.

Through theatre, all children are equal and free to explore. There are no wrong answers to fear and no competition to fall short of - only the chance to try on being someone else and, by doing so, to discover a little more of themselves.

The great Oscar Wilde once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

And that’s what we’re doing here at Friends’ – the important job of raising human beings. It’s a privilege and a joy to be working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with our fifth grade class.  But miss it, and it’s gone.

We hope to see you at the show.