February 26, 2014

The Heart of the Auction

Good morning and happy Friday from Orlando, where I am joined by thousands of colleagues from around the country at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools. This week, I invited a guest blogger, Friends’ parent Diane Hullet, to share with you her reflections on working with children on their Auction projects…..


The past few weeks have seen busy heads and hands at school, as each class creates a piece of art as a group to be sold at the Auction.  This tradition has been around for many years. Previous projects have included framed paintings, intricate collages, banners, quilts, and totem poles – all sorts of media and methods, created as a group to be sold for the greater good.  

Art teacher Rachel Relin is a force behind many of these delightful creations. Parent volunteers also play a huge role, each of them key to the conception, creation and marketing of their class project.  Sometimes there are wonderful tie-ins to integrated curriculum. As the volunteer “Art Auction Liaison”, I have a front-row seat for viewing these innovative projects.

4th grade teacher Mary Pearsall receiving
sewing instructions from her students
Mary Pearsall’s 4th grade class has recently been studying Colonial times and the Revolutionary War.  Dena Nishek, the parent volunteer coordinating the auction piece for that class, has been actively sewing every year with this group of kids since her daughter came to Friends' School in Kindergarten.  From hand-sewn felt pencil holders and embellished fleece hats in first grade, to a folk art "Bird Quilt" in second grade, sewing has been a vehicle for many creations with this group.  

Last year the kids worked on sewing machines – many of them for the first time – creating the 25th Anniversary banner that hangs above the front door of the school.  It was remarkable to see what a piece of machinery could do to ignite interest, so it was an easy choice to extend the kids' sewing skills once again this year. The magic of sewing – invisible stitches making shape and meaning out of scraps, things coming apart and coming together – is an empowering process.  

This year an "Early American-Style Quilt" offers an extension of both curriculum and sewing
skills. The kids are making a strip quilt, which entails sewing different widths of fabric into 16-inch squares.  We asked the kids to figure out how many ways they could create 16 by combining, through addition or multiplication, 1s, 2s, and 4s.  They generated numerous combinations in preparation for selecting strips of cloths and creating random or symmetrical designs that would be assembled into a quilt block.

For the first session in the classroom, we laid out six completely different quilts on the floor for the kids to gather around, touch and visually compare colors, patterns, and methods of assembly.  We read a passage from "Growing Up in Colonial America" by Tracy Barrett about the complexity of growing and spinning fibers to weave into cloth from which fabrics were made for clothing and other essentials.  "Cloth made with so much effort, or later bought with so much expense, could obviously not be wasted," Barrett writes. "Worn-out clothes were carefully preserved, and when enough scraps had been saved, the girls and women cut them up and made them into patchwork quilts."   

Students chose pre-cut fabric strips and start sewing. Each student pinned two strips together then came to a sewing machine and made one-quarter-inch seam.  After success with one seam, they moved on to more pinning and another student took a seat at the machine.  One boy, working on his second seam, showed true grit: "Now don't say anything this time!  Let me see if I can just do it right...."  Adults taught kids, students taught each other, and the classroom hummed with happy activity – the clunking of presser feet being lifted up and down, the buzz of machines, the soft hiss of irons.

Sewing with kids works well with many hands, so a crew of helpers was recruited, including moms, grandmas, and two friends from the wider community.  An interior designer who brought in her industrial-style machine, shared tidbits of her career and told the two girls she
was working closely with:  "My daughter began sewing at your age, and later created her own wedding gown out of 20 yards of white satin!"   An artist and former teacher carried an awesome leather purse she had recently sewn and showed it to the kids.  "You MADE that?" asked an admiring boy.

Each classroom art project for the Auction is as unique as the people creating it. I love how these projects go beyond art and connect directly to curriculum, in this case math and history. All of the art auction projects, created as individual expressions and woven into a group whole, then shared with our community and finally landing in a home are, for me, the heart of the auction.

February 20, 2014

Volcano, Lemon Toes, Shavasana: Mindfulness through Yoga

True story: I recently met a monk at a workshop for business leaders. 

A former monk to be precise, who was launching a venture to bring mindfulness seminars to corporate America. He was a fascinating man, someone who exuded peace and calmness. There is a growing movement here in Boulder and across the country to bring mindfulness and meditation to traditionally competitive places.

A few Friends’ School parents have sent me information about a new book Mindful Parenting: Simple and Powerful Solutions for Raising Creative, Engaged, Happy Kids in Today’s Hectic World by Colorado author Kristen Race.  Associate Head of School Mandy Stepanovsky is currently in conversation with Dr. Race’s organization ‘Mindful Life’ about ways we can bring some of her work here to Friends’ School.

In a New York Times review of Mindful Parenting, Race defines mindful as “integrating that traditional concept of mindfulness with one that puts the emphasis on mind or rather, brain. In her version of “Mindful Parenting,” neuroscience and cognitive development share chapter space with meditative practices.”

At Friends’, in our pre-Kindergarten classes, we have already introduced the practice of mindfulness through yoga.

Each Monday afternoon, child development expert LJ Werner teaches yoga to our 4 year olds using a menu of different emotions to connect with each pose, breath, and present moment.

Werner specializes in helping students become aware of their feelings and emotions and find healthy tools to work through their emotions productively. The Preschool teachers first met LJ when they were trained in the Pyramid Plus Approach, a tool used to build successful classrooms and learning communities from the ground up. They enjoyed LJ’s philosophy and style of teaching so much that they asked if she would be willing to teach a weekly 30-minute yoga and mindfulness class at Friends’.

Yoga is a wonderful tool to help people become aware of their body, breathing, and emotions. Studies have found that using yoga helps children to enhance concentration, gives them tools for stress management, enhances body awareness, and maintains flexibility and strength in
growing bodies.  Yoga helps strengthen executive function skills as well. Two main areas of executive function that are supported through yoga are self-awareness and self-regulation. Children are learning to recognize and gain control over their attention and emotional responses.

Every week, LJ focuses on a different emotion and yoga poses or other strategies children can use to help them manage these emotions. Emotions covered have included: excited, happy, calm, mad, scared, shy, and sad.

Each class starts with a group discussion about a specific feeling. For example, “What makes us feel excited?” “Where do we feel it in our body?” “What happens to our body when we feel this way?” “What can we do?” Group conversations have been full of rich and relevant connections where children draw on their past experiences. For example, “When is a time that you have felt shy?” “When I see someone that I haven’t seen in along time.” “When I am making a new friend.” “When my older brother has a playdate.” “When I am trying a new game for the first time.”

LJ has taught the children that when they start to feel a certain emotion, they immediately have a choice. They can stop and choose how they will respond to their feelings rather than react through the teachings of yoga. This is an incredible concept for children to learn at a young age so they can start to build their toolbox for successful life long emotional learning.

A few of the poses that our preschoolers have learned are:
Mountain - standing tall and proud
Volcano - feeling of explosion
Polar bear - calming, going within, resting spot
Pretzel – heart opening, drains tension
Rag doll – loosing up and releasing tension
Owl - known for sight and hearing, promotes flexibility and awareness
Lemon Toes – squeeze and release, releasing tension
Shavasana – practicing complete stillness and allowing for integration

In response to the yoga classes, one preschool mom wrote to the teachers: LOVE THIS!  (My
son) has just thrived in class this year.  He talks about his yoga and is very proud!  THANK YOU!” Another parent reported that her family is being taught a new pose every Monday night at dinner!

According to the Yoga Journal, there are countless ways that yoga benefits young children. The most obvious benefit is that it releases stress and tension that we all inevitably encounter from our busy world that surrounds us. Yoga counters all these pressures for children by providing them with teachable techniques that support self-health, relaxation, and the ability to navigate life’s challenges with a little more ease.

Yoga has provided our classes (including the teachers!) with a positive experience of connecting with our feelings and the world around us. These experiences allow children to continue to practice identifying and managing their emotions. Children learn that they can use the practice of yoga to provide themselves with appropriate and safe choices to handle their emotions.

Yoga and mindfulness are yet another way that our program at Friends’ supports the whole child and gives them tools for success in life.

Thank you to Preschool teachers Katelynn Regan and Caroline Long for their contributions to this article.

February 13, 2014

Your Place at the Table

Friends' parent volunteers hard at work!
Each year at Friends’ School, we welcome new families into our community.  It doesn’t take our newcomers long to recognize what a fabulous, talented, and hard-working group of teachers and staff we have here.

By the same token, it doesn’t take our teachers and staff very long to realize what an amazingly accomplished and community-minded group of parents have just joined our school.  It is the same every year.

We could not do all that we do at Friends’ without our wonderful and enthusiastic parent (and sometimes grandparent, aunt, uncle, and caregiver) volunteers.

Just this past week, if you had swung through the doors of our school on any given day, you will have found our volunteers hard at work on art projects for the auction, shelving books and helping guide computer instruction in the library, driving on a field trip, helping in the classrooms with reading groups and math lessons and spelling tests, working towards the future of the school on our Strategic Planning Committee, overseeing the school’s Endowment Fund at our Investment Sub-Committee….and more….

And that was just the last four days.

In another week, it might have been parents rolling up their sleeves on a Saturday morning Parent Work Day, connecting with other parents and learning more about our programs at Parent Council, collecting money for Teacher Thanksgiving, leading by example as a class captain for the Annual Fund, supervising a station at Movin’ and Boppin’, supporting students on their Area of Expertise projects, setting up chairs at a parent education event, talking to our students about their work or passions (or both!), even bringing in a new lamb to school….

The list appears endless. 

Sometimes our volunteers are nowhere to be found at school.  Working parents, and others whose schedules don’t mesh with ours, can be busy at home preparing materials for classrooms, making phone calls for the Annual Fund, or working on tasks on behalf of the school Auction.

Our parents, and all our volunteers, are a fantastic group of individuals who are willing and able to support their child’s education through hands-on volunteerism.  Our community is stronger because of the willingness of everyone to make it so.

Some tasks, like helping in classrooms, are very visible.  Others happen a little more behind the scenes.

Friends’, like all independent schools, has a Board of Trustees that works in collaboration with me to guide the direction our school is taking.

Our Community Board meets monthly during the school year and is responsible for setting strategy and policy, and ensuring that the school achieves its objectives.

The Board oversees and maintains the financial stability of Friends’ School, develops major school policies, creates processes for long-range planning, periodically reviews the school’s organization, and oversees the implementation and maintenance of the school’s values and mission.

It provides support to me in my role as I work with the faculty and staff to develop the school and guide it to a successful and sustainable future.

Friends' Community Board members
Our Community Board is comprised of current parents, alumni parents, community members, and a few staff.  In general, potential Trustees of the school are invited to join the Board following a period of service on one of the Board’s committees, or occasionally after stellar work volunteering for one of the school’s major initiatives.

Standing committees of the Board to which non-Trustees are invited and join are its Finance Committee (and Investment Sub-Committee), Strategic Planning Committee, Facilities Committee, Development Committee, and the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund Committee.    In addition, task forces are created to support school initiatives, and those often include staff, Trustees, and parents.

At our How Friends’ Works orientation program, held every September, the Chair of our Community Board, Ewa Borowska, and I invite new parents to learn more about our governance structure and to get involved.

I heartily renew that invitation here. Whether it’s volunteering time in and around the classrooms, supporting the school’s Auction or Annual Fund, learning more about the opportunity to join one of the Community Board committees, or simply helping out with a project from home, please let me know how I can help you get involved.

At Friends’ School, our parent participation and the strength of our community are second to none. Every aspect and element of our school exists because of the hard work and dedication of those who are here now or those who were here before us.

You are also invited to a place at the table.

Thank you to all of you for the myriad ways you support our children, support our school, and participate in this outstanding community. 

We are very, very grateful.

February 6, 2014

26 Lessons You Only Learned In Progressive School

1st graders learning at Cure Organic Farm
Boulder is not like everywhere else.  Most readers of this column know that. You know because you live here. 

Friends’ School is not like many other schools.  You know that too, because you chose to send your child here. We do things a little differently than traditional mainstream education establishments.

Some of our parents choose a progressive school like Friends’ because you went to one as a kid, and you’re looking for a similar experience for your child.  Some parents, like me, had the complete opposite.  I was marched off in uniform to a traditional English boarding school at the ripe old age of seven, grew up and couldn’t wait to send my kids to schools that were just the antithesis of what I knew.

I wanted my girls to go to a school where they could paint glorious pictures, where they could pour water and dig in the sand, read and write stories of their own choosing, sew, build and glue, play dress-up and make-believe, learn math with blocks and color and songs, learn how to give and take and share, celebrate each other’s successes, hug and be hugged. 

I wanted to find a school where children felt safe, knowing there are clearly defined limits and high expectations, where they would be free to be themselves, to explore while learning, and to find success, where they are encouraged to take risks and they are guided as they learn from their mistakes, where teachers and children worked together to find out more each day about what kind of learners they are.

I wanted a school where my kids learned to articulate their strengths and worked to strengthen their weaknesses, where they learned to make a positive difference in numerous ways, where they are supported, trusted and loved, and on the pathway to discover who they are. 

It is not uncommon for me to hear from parents how much they value their kids’ experiences at Friends’ and how they had wished they had gone to a school like Friends’. Friends’ is just the kind of school I was seeking for my kids.

I recently came across this fun little photo montage on BuzzFeed: 26 Lessons You Only Learned In Progressive School.  This does not depict my own school experiences.  Far from it. But it might ring true for you. Click through and let me know what you think.

Some of my favorite lines:

Blocks. You were all about blocks. All learning starts with a block.

You didn’t just make art. You lived it.

You took a field trip to a farm so you would be less alienated from the growing and harvesting of your food.

After you got back from the farm, you wrote a play about it.

It was just that your teachers encouraged you to learn at your own pace and follow your passions, and sometimes that meant you were more of a painter than a reader.

“Can people learn anything without first making a diorama?” you would wonder to yourself as you took a diorama nap.

Some people see toilet paper rolls as trash, but you see monsters.