September 25, 2014

Growing our Brains - All Around the World

Preschooler Kieran growing his brain
Friends’ School received a surprising request from out of the blue this week.  More specifically, two of our experienced educators received an email from an early childhood educator in Indonesia, asking their permission.

Back in 2011, preschool teacher Christie Stanford and Shelby Pawlina, the co-director of our Teacher Preparation Program, wrote an article together about supporting children to shift their mindsets in order to create greater resiliency and improve problem-solving skills.  The article was entitled Preschoolers Grow Their Brains and was published by the National Association for the Education for Young Children in their journal Young Children. You can read the full article here.

It is a wonderful article that highlights research in this area as well as a process that Christie and Shelby went through with their students. Their goals were to put a positive spin on the concept of problems and to engage children in seeking and working on their own challenges. They created a treasure hunt of sorts, focusing on outdoor physical activities. Using language like “Remember when you couldn’t . . . but now you can”, Shelby and Christie worked to help children boost their confidence through practice and effort. They provided a framework for building children’s vocabulary, fostering positive attitudes, and promoting problem-solving attention and skills.

At the time of publication, Shelby and Christie received suitable kudos from colleagues and parents alike here at Friends’, fused with a healthy collection of congratulations from educators and friends a little further afield. They gave a well-attended presentation as part of our parent education series. After a few weeks, with the article neatly tucked away in the annals of Young Children, they continued to practice what they preached, but thought little more of the article.

Authors Christie Stanford and Shelby Pawlina
Until this week.  The teacher in Indonesia, Maria Hewitt, wrote in her email:

“I am contacting you about the usage of your article in a professional setting. I currently teach at an International School in Indonesia and our 3 year old classes have woven your article into all of our lessons we use over the school year. We are a PYP school and each of our units of inquiry that we teach reflect the growth mindset attitude.

I wanted to thank you for writing this article as it spurred a tremendous movement in our classrooms, and now potentially will reach other international schools with your permission.

We would like to cite your article and share some excerpts from it with our colleagues at EARCOS, an Asiatic-wide conference for the international school community, held in the spring of every year. Along with giving credit to our idea from your article, our presentation will be widely on how we have incorporated this into our philosophy in our Prep 1 program, taken it further, and how it has changed our children’s language and outlook.

Thank you again for an inspirational article.”

Of course, Shelby and Christie were thrilled and immediately gave their permission. They also sought more information about the school and how the teachers there are incorporating their ideas into their classrooms.

The Indonesian school is looking to implement these ideas school-wide and already sent their presentation to their district superintendent. We are looking forward to hearing how it goes at EARCOS (The East Asia Regional Council of Schools).

Part of Friends’ Strategic Plan is to increase our presence as an educational leader in our field.  In February, I will be presenting in Boston to the National Association of Independent Schools conference on the Gratitude Project that we did for our 25th Anniversary.  In October, Christie and preschool teacher Jessie Vanden Hogen are presenting to the Colorado Association for the Education of Young Children on Storytelling & Mindfulness in the Preschool Classroom.

In support of this goal of educational leadership, Friends’ Board of Trustees has, for the first time this year, designated a small fund from our endowment to reward and encourage teachers and staff for publishing and presenting.  Congratulations to Christie and Jessie who are the first awardees for their upcoming presentation to CAEYC.

Sometimes you never know how what you do will effect others down the road, sometimes in the most surprising places. We are proud to be able to share what we do here at Friends’ with colleagues locally and across the world.

We’re proud of our teachers for growing their brains too! 

September 18, 2014

Meeting our Makers

Who remembers Tinker Toys?  Me! Me!  Who spent part of their childhood inventing new machines with Erector Sets?  This guy!  Who used to make tunnels and cities and imaginary worlds (complete with imaginary knights and dragons) out of moving boxes and junk? Right here, me and my siblings!

What did these kinds of toys have in common – what do they still have in common? They were all designed to inspire the young me to be a maker instead of a consumer. They encouraged me to create.

When Friends’ School’s founders dreamed up a new school, open-ended play and imaginative creations were always part of the plan. In recent weeks, our 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms have gone back to our founding roots to become ‘makers’.

Inspired by the viral video, Caine’s Arcade, Diane Bramble and Tyler Voorhees’ students have invented, designed, created, built, tested, re-built, and made the most wonderful arcade game inventions.  And they have done it all with old boxes and found materials (and perhaps a little tape to help things stick together!)

It is hard to describe the passion and engagement that has been found in these classrooms over the last couple of weeks.  Not only with the children.  At Back To School night, the teachers challenged parents to make their own arcade games and it was hard for some parents to leave the building after everyone else had gone home!

This guy - enjoying playing a game of
Whack-A-Mole with 2nd & 3rd graders
Students have created all manner of arcade games from cardboard and found objects, including Whack-A-Mole type games, games where you have to get the ball down chutes, and many more.  And upon completing the games, players receive tickets to claim prizes. If you are interested in seeing these creations in action, and playing our students’ arcade games, you may come to our Gathering today (Friday Sept. 19th) at 12:40 p.m. in the Great Room. They will be up after school for a brief spell, as well.

The teachers know how good these kinds of activities are for developing brains. The process is vitally important to a holistic education, allowing kids to practice the “21st century skills” of problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and so on.

Following the success of the Caine’s arcade video and other initiatives, a whole maker movement has been born.  Across the country, including right here in Boulder County, maker fairs are gaining in popularity. Our school librarian deana harragarra waters has been following the maker movement for quite a while now. 

deana shared with me that she is a quilter and descended from a long line of makers, the Kiowa and Otoe people: “My tribal people used creativity to shape our traditions and culture, so I'm always interested in creativity, collaborative learning environments, sharing materials and learning new skills. In our Friends' School library there is digital production of content, robotics, coding activities, use of Google sketch up, all maker activities embracing science, technology, engineering, and arts.”

3rd grader Stella building a loft in her classroom
The maker movement certainly embraces technology as well as good old-fashioned cardboard and tape. It has the potential to turn more and more people into makers instead of just consumers. As has been reported in Time Magazine, we “know from history that when you give makers the right tools and inspiration, they have the potential to change the world. The maker movement….is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers.

“Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced….merchandise.” (Bajarin, T. Why The Maker Movement Is Important To America's Future, Time Magazine, 19 May, 2014)

Our students, teachers and parents all understand how much open-ended projects like those in our Friends’ School classrooms foster creativity, play, and imagination in kids everywhere. And that is to be celebrated. Then, now and forever.

September 11, 2014

Committed to Safety

A 2nd grader enjoying our restored
elementary play structure
This week marks the first anniversary of the terrible flooding we had in Boulder and the surrounding areas. So many of our Friends’ School families were affected, and I’m sure many of us in Boulder County are finding our own personal ways to reflect on the events of a year ago.

We were very lucky that our school campus had less damage than a lot of structures near us. Nevertheless, I thought this might be an opportune time to reflect and to inform all of you about the steps we take at school to prepare for the worst.

At Friends’ School, we are committed to the safety of all of our students, parents and staff.  

We find that there is always a balance between having a warm, open and friendly environment, of which we are proud, and a secure campus.  We fully anticipate being able to aim towards both.

The safety of our students begins with the connections that students have with their teachers at Friends’, a connection that promotes open communication and an ability for teachers to notice when something may be amiss.
Our school’s facilities staff constantly review and reflect on the state of our campus as it pertains to safety.

The school was one of the first in Colorado to install keypad entry systems, in 2006. We change the entry code three times a year.

The school has a very well thought out emergency response plan, which we review and update annually. The plan was created in consultation with emergency plan expertsThe plan includes specific actions for our staff to take in the face of a number of emergencies, including fire, flood, tornado, gas or chemical leak, intruder, and other emergencies.  The school practices one emergency drill every month.  The staff is trained in all aspects of the emergency plan. A well-trained, alert and caring staff is one of the best assets we can have in the face of a potential threat.

Over the summer, we undertook a number of upgrades to our campus, all with safety in
"The safety of our students begins with the connections
that students have with their teachers..."

We pulled down our old fence and installed a new one that is a foot higher and more secure.  The new fence stands at six feet. (We are aware of the stickiness of the gate from the elementary playground and we are working on a solution.)

We also made several significant repairs to the playhouse, to the swing set, and to the big play structure on the elementary school playground, including replacing some of the large upright supporting posts. Thank you to our Spanish teacher Kelly Usubillaga and her husband Juan for re-designing and re-tying all of the ropes on the play structures.

I am very grateful to Jen Cope, our Director of Finance and Operations, and to Dacia Horn, our Facilities & Operations Manager, for all the additional work they took on this summer managing the improvements.  (We also put a brand new roof on the elementary building.)

Safety also means keeping our kids as healthy as possible –a timely topic given the local appearance of the Enterovirus (parents, please see my letter that was sent to you on this topic on September 11th.) Friends' School's teaching staff is fully trained in Universal Precautions and takes measures to ensure that our students stay healthy in our clean facility by encouraging handwashing and other helpful practices.

To promote safety wherever we can, we have a strong staff presence in the parking lot and at the doors during all elementary and preschool drop-off and pick-up times. Please help us by not using your cellphone while driving on school property.

We do not open the gate to the elementary school playground at pick-up time and it is only open in the mornings with teacher supervision. All entry is through the front door of each building.

We are constantly thinking about potential upgrades that are appropriate and necessary to improve the safety of our school, while not unduly compromising the welcoming culture that is essential to our identity.

Thank you all for your attention to these matters.  We are a strong community. We always welcome your engagement, feedback and involvement, and we appreciate all you do to make our community thrive.

Thank you for entrusting us with your children. 

September 4, 2014

What's On Our Minds

If you have entered the front door of our elementary school in the last couple of days, and many of you came to our elementary back-to-school night last night, it would have been hard to miss this banner hanging above the door. This is an important message for all of us to reflect upon. It is our school-wide theme for the school year.

Following our highly successful Gratitude Project for our 25th Anniversary two years ago, and last year’s focus on different character traits throughout the year, our teachers chose to devote this year to practicing and reflecting on mindfulness for themselves and with their students.

Mindfulness, as defined by the Mindful Life group with whom Friends’ School has teamed up, is “paying attention to the present moment with kindness”. (We couldn’t quite fit every word into our banner!)

Despite our best efforts, our children are growing up in a world in which there are ever-increasing levels of stress.  Kids today can be over-scheduled, get too much electronic media and not enough sleep, and are unduly pressured to perform.

At Friends’ School, and I’m sure in a lot of our homes, we strive to be an oasis from those societal pressures.  To help us with that goal, our teachers have been eager to learn more about mindfulness and how to integrate this practice, and researched findings, into their teaching.

Research has conclusively shown that practicing mindfulness increases stimulation in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  People who practice mindfulness exhibit better focus and concentration, greater compassion for others, and an increased sense of calm.  In a school setting, this naturally leads to increased school performance, more skillful responses to difficult emotions, more empathy, natural conflict resolution skills, and happier and healthier kids who can work together and on their own successfully.

Many of our parents tell me that it is for reasons like these that they chose a school called Friends’ for their children in the first place.

Mindfulness can be practiced in many ways, at school, at home, and in private. Our teachers have learned about more formal practices that include becoming aware of our breath, noticing our thoughts, paying attention to sounds, visualizations, and focusing on sensations in our bodies to name a few. They are incorporating these practices into our everyday here at Friends’.

Informal practices can include eating mindfully, walking mindfully, or dedicating time to be fully engaged and present with our friends or family.

The Mindful Life group has taught us that it is possible to train the brain to be more resilient, but it takes practice, the kind of practice outlined above.

As well as focusing on mindfulness in our classrooms, Friends’ is inviting you to get involved.  We have invited Kristen Race, the founder of the Mindful Life group and the author of the popular book Mindful Parenting to Boulder to speak to our parents and the wider community and to answer your questions.  Please mark your calendars for the evening of Monday October 27th. We will be sending you more information in due course.

Our teachers will also be sending home from time to time interesting and relevant articles about their work to keep you informed, and to help guide your conversations at home.

Our first Parent Council meeting of the year is on Wednesday September 17 at 8:45 a.m. in the Great Room.  I welcome your presence and look forward to a discussion about our mindfulness work and whatever else may be on your mind.