April 24, 2014

Focus and the Technology Effect

Preschoolers and their parents at our Parent Day Celebration
Over the last two days, our four preschool classes have enjoyed Friends’ annual Parent Day Celebrations.  We have seen gorgeous sunny Colorado spring days, our beautiful leafy preschool backyard setting, and the shining faces of young children, intermingled with the equally shining proud faces of our parents. Families and teachers joined together in community and song, with the children presenting their parents with delightful potted plants.

I think back to my own daughters’ preschool days and similar kinds of events.  Outdoors, connected, joyous.

My kids are now teenagers.  As a parent of teens, it’s an ever-present challenge to keep them participating in activities that are outdoors, connected, and joyous.

Because, in their dad’s opinion, they’re spending far too much time plugged in online. My older daughter Emma passed her driving test last summer and we got her an old Ford Escape this past fall.  I expected her to be stretching her newly found wings and going out each evening, over to friends’ houses, or the ice cream store. 

However, that’s not the case.  She’s talking to her friends at night as much as we ever did as kids – but not on the phone, not over ice cream, and not at their houses.  Her friends’ faces are life-size on Emma’s computer screen, on FaceTime.  Sometimes she and her friends are talking about homework, and almost certainly sometimes probably not, but they’re staying connected after hours in a way that still seems alien to me.

I’ve even seen my kids sit around a table at the ice cream store. Instead of talking and just having fun together they were each absorbed in their smartphone.

Technology – smartphones, tablets, texts, Facebook, tweets, and numerous social networking sites that most of us adults aren’t even aware of – is changing childhood. And that has huge implications for how our kids’ brains develop the ability to pay attention – and to learn.

In Daniel Goleman’s recent book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, he writes:
“Kids learn best when they can maintain sustained attention, to what a teacher is saying, to their schoolwork, or to their homework. One essential part of learning is focus; distractions can reduce comprehension. But the new normal for young people continually interrupts their focus with distractions. This is particularly alarming in light of strong research results showing that a child’s ability to resist the temptation of distraction and stay focused predicts how she will fare financially and health wise in adulthood.”
At Friends’ all year, we’ve been calling this “grit” or perseverance. It boils down to the tenacity to keep your eyes on your goal (or schoolwork) and resist impulse and distraction.
Goleman continues: “Neuroscientists tell us this crucial mental ability hinges on the growth of a neural strip in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, which connects to circuitry that helps manage both attention and unruly emotions. This circuitry grows with the rest of the brain from birth throughout childhood and the teen years.
The more a child can practice keeping her focus and resist distraction, the stronger and more richly connected this neural real estate becomes. By the same token, the more distracted, the less so.
This mental ability is like a muscle: it needs proper exercise to grow strong. One way to help kids learn to focus is to give them regular sessions of focusing time, the mental equivalent of workouts in the gym.”
Our teachers occasionally incorporate mindfulness, yoga, and other forms of ‘brain gym’ activities into their classrooms
At Friends’, in an initiative lead by Associate Head of School Mandy Stepanovsky, we are looking at ways of bringing more mindfulness into our school community next year – in both the classrooms and at parent education events.
We believe that helping kids to grow in self-awareness and to learn to stay focused will in turn help them be successful students and succeed in their future endeavors.
Staying unplugged, getting outdoors, planting flowers, singing songs, and celebrating with family are all part of the plan.  Enjoy the beautiful spring weather!

April 17, 2014

Educator of the Year

Preschool teacher Christie Stanford,
receiving news of her BCAEYC
Educator of the Year award.  She formally
accepts the award on April 24th.
Congratulations to Friends' Preschool teacher, Christie Stanford, who has been awarded the Early Childhood Educator of the Year for Boulder County.

The annual Educator of the Year Award celebrates innovative and dynamic classroom educators in the field of early childhood education and is presented by the Boulder County District of the Colorado Association for the Education of Young Children (BCAEYC). Christie has been one of Friends' amazing preschool teachers since 1999 and has taught hundreds of Friends' students. Her first Friends' morning preschool class is graduating from high school this year.

Friends’ Teacher Preparation Program co-director Shelby Pawlina nominated Christie for this award.  For many years, Shelby and Christie were teaching colleagues in the preschool. In her nominating essay, Shelby wrote:

“Christie is outstanding in her voracious appetite for learning how to serve young children better every year. She reads like crazy, shares her insights with colleagues, families, and our Teacher Preparation Program. She attends workshops on a regular basis and integrates what she learns daily. She attends to how her different approaches impact her students, as a good action researcher should. She is committed to her own growth and development, but is also invested in the growth of good teachers. She has presented several times at the CAEYC conference on Praise, Motivation, and Resiliency, as well as Executive Function, two of her passions. Additionally she has co-authored two published articles on Resiliency and Growth Mindset. Christie is dedicated to children’s resiliency and executive functions skills through play and challenges. She focuses on developing children’s growth mindsets and helping them develop their ability to problem solve.”

In an accompanying letter, another of Christie’s co-teachers, Meg Harlow, wrote:

“What a gift, what a true professional to the early childhood community she is. Christie stands out heads above so many. She is an amazingly passionate teacher in the classroom; always seeking new perspectives or ideas on how best to meet each little child’s needs…..she is responsive, empathetic and a true partner in advocacy, alongside the parents, as what may be best for each child.”

Christie believes that the 3, 4, and 5 year old child is a true pleasure with an enchanting view of the world. Her teaching days are full of new beginnings as she witnesses curiosity in action. She is passionate about learning and is continually looking for ways to pass this passion onto my preschoolers!

Preschool teacher Katelynn Regan told me a quick story of how, just this week, Christie got herself a new harmonica because she wanted to stretch herself and "grow her brain" (a favorite preschool phrase). She got the harmonica on Thursday, took a lesson on Saturday, and by Monday was playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" for her class as well as a new song she composed about growing her brain!

Christie, her husband Paul and their two children, have been in Colorado since 1998. Her kids are now in college. She and her family regularly take advantage of the surrounding beauty in our state by indulging in a myriad of outdoor activities. She especially enjoys running, hiking and biking.

Christie has not one, but two Masters degrees – one from Iowa State University in Exercise Physiology and the other from the University of Colorado, Denver in Educational Psychology.

You are welcome to join me and several Friends’ School staff as we celebrate the work of this fabulous early childhood educator on the evening of April 24th.  The awards ceremony will be combined with a lecture on providing a neurodevelopmental framework for working with children. You can sign up to attend here

Congratulations, Christie! 

April 10, 2014

Nobody Said It Was Easy

Thank you to Friends' Kindergarten teacher, and parent of a teenager, Laurie Nakauchi who offers this dynamic piece about parenting....

Laurie Nakauchi with her daughter Maya
When I volunteered to be a “guest blogger”, my plan was to write about brain and learning differences between boys and girls and how Friends’ teachers support all kids by using methods to accommodate those different learning styles. But the words for that article were not flowing because I was distracted by my parenting role.

Some of you may know me only by sight from in the halls or parking lot but to give a little background, I have a teenage daughter who went through Friends’ School (1st-  5th grades) and is now at Boulder High. While I could speak easily about how to teach reading, how to do long division, how to write an acrostic poem…I would hesitate to give parenting advice. There’s no manual, no right or wrong way to do it. It’s a day-to-day process that can be sunshine and smiles one day and tumultuous thunderclouds the next.

Every day I teach, I think about things I have failed at miserably as a parent and those shining moments when I’ve gotten it right. And I take what I’ve learned and apply it to my teaching. I thought I’d share some of my reflections with you.

First, as I’m sure you’ve discovered, parenting is hard. There are constant ups and downs, the rewards can be frequent but given at unknown intervals, and the pay is terrible. But that isn’t why we sign up for this job.

Most of you realize that this is THE most important job you have. Looking back, I realize focusing on boundaries, expectations, routines, personal character traits and values makes a big difference later. The battles over things like homework, bed times, manners, snack choices… seem difficult when you are in the moment but much easier than the ones that come up in middle and high school when the stakes are higher. (Issues like curfew, driving, parties, dating…)

It’s so tempting to be your child’s friend but realize that friends and their influence come and go. But parents are one-of-a-kind. You may not always be popular or your child’s buddy but you’ll always hold that key card of being the parent. And while it may not always seem a powerful position, right now it really is. Your child is highly influenced by YOU.

You are your child’s first and most influential teacher. There is immense power in that. You have the opportunity to set your child up to be strong and independent.

My daughter used to get frustrated with me when she wanted a sandwich or snack and rather than just prepare it for her, I’d walk her through the steps of making it herself. Her frequent complaint was, “Why can’t you just make it for me? It would be faster and easier.” While she had a good point, here is the story I told her.

Maya, 8 at the time, during her
Friends' School days
Imagine you are driving your car on the highway and you get a flat tire. If you don’t know how to fix the tire you are stranded, waiting for someone to come along to either fix the tire for you or to take you somewhere to get help. But if you know how to fix the tire you can do so and then drive along your way.  Which would you prefer?

While time doesn’t always allow us to teach every skill, when you take time you are giving your
child a powerful tool of independence and in turn, confidence to learn new things. This is a gift my parents gave me and I am forever grateful for it.

A final thought on parenting is one I hope you have heard before. No matter what blunders you make, be kind to yourself. Just like we tell our children, “Everybody makes mistakes. Practice makes better. ” Please remember this for yourselves.

When you make a mistake, recognize it and point it out to your child, and explain that next time you will try to do better, you are doing some powerful modeling. You are letting your child see that we all make mistakes and we learn from them and do our best not to repeat them.

Finally, if any of you have teenage children, please pass your words of wisdom on to parents like me. We are lucky to belong to this club called “parenthood” and a little encouragement can go a very long way. 

Laurie has taught a Kindergarten-1st grade loop at Friends' since 2005.

April 3, 2014

Our Mission, Should We Choose To Accept It

Greetings! You won’t see me around for the first three days of next week because I’ll be on a little jaunt up to Steamboat Springs.  Instead of packing my skis and poles, I’ll be traveling with briefcase, laptop and a pile of documents.

As a school head within the Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS), it is my honor and privilege to spend a few days helping a fellow school along on their journey of self-improvement.

Each of ACIS’ 32 schools, Friends’ School included, commits to a seven year cycle of evaluation for accreditation. ACIS is a non-profit organization dedicated to the continuous improvement of member schools by providing accreditation, professional development, and advocacy services. It is affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).

A seven year evaluation cycle holds schools accountable for complying with ACIS’ high accreditation standards. The evaluation cycle begins with two years of preparatory work, including reviewing the school’s mission followed by a rigorous self-study process in which the school community conducts an honest and comprehensive analysis of its strengths and challenges in every area of the school.
In year three of the cycle, ACIS appoints an evaluation team that spends four days on campus to conduct interviews and classroom observations, review documents, and develop their own assessment of the school’s strengths and challenges in response to the school community’s self-evaluation. During the school visit, the team evaluates the school’s compliance with government regulations and the NAIS Principles of Good Practice. I will be chairing that evaluation team next week at Emerald Mountain School in Steamboat.

At Friends, we are in the first year of our seven year cycle – the year in which we examine and review our school’s mission. This is our third cycle since the school was first accredited in 1999.

Friends’ mission currently states:

“Friends’ School is a supportive, dynamic community committed to educating the whole child — head, hand, and heart. Our students acquire a strong academic foundation while developing creative expression,
social responsibility, and respect for diversity and the individual. We challenge students and teachers to reach their full potential as engaged, lifelong learners.”

A dedicated team of teachers, staff, parents, and Board members is actively engaged in a process to review our mission.  The process includes a careful assessment of each word in the mission and how it reflects our current practice and beliefs.  Our Board of Trustees holds their annual retreat tomorrow (Saturday) and review of our mission will be part of the day.

Friends’ School’s mission is our “north star”.  It is the lens through which we view our programs and make decisions on what is best for the children in our care.  We are not anticipating that our mission will change dramatically. It is still what we believe about our school community and how our students and Teacher Candidates learn. However, mission review is an essential process for an organization to engage in from time to time.

We welcome feedback from parents and all our constituents on our mission review process.  If you would like to share any of your own thoughts with me to pass along to the review team and the Board, please send me a note.