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. 

October 16, 2014

Creating Peaceful Homes and School

Parent Jenny Herrington leading Laurie's
1st grade class in yoga
This week we had one of our best turnouts ever for a Parent Council meeting.  The theme was mindfulness and parents came to hear from teachers about the mindful practice that is happening in our classrooms.

The conversation also focused on the book Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race and we heard several ideas and suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into our homes and family’s lives.

Elementary teachers Laurie Nakauchi (1st grade), Kelly Usubillaga (Spanish) and Tyler Voorhees (3rd grade) lead an illuminating discussion and even lead our parents through a couple of mindful practices that they do with their students. Associate Head of School Mandy Stepanovsky shared in detail the mindful work that happens in our preschool classrooms.

Kristin Race, whom Friends’ School is bringing to Boulder to speak on October 27th, defines mindfulness as appreciating the present moment with kindness.

Tyler talked about mindful listening. He started our Parent Council meeting by ringing a chime. Kelly discussed how we are training our neural pathways to be positive, the importance of body breaks and she lead our parents through a “7 shakes” activity, counting in Spanish

Laurie shared that the strength of our children’s social emotional lives is critical to the way that they learn - anything. She had us consider how mindful breathing is really important, as well as yoga. In 1st grade, Laurie has her kids place a toy on their stomach so they can see their breathing and asks
them, if they breathe in different ways, how it makes them feel.

In preschool, teachers have started this mindful work in small ways with golden moments (mindful listening), listening to a friend before joining in conversation, yoga, and storytelling - incorporating mindfulness in the actions of characters in stories.

With three teachers in each preschool classroom, occasionally one will take a minute of mindfulness to step back and observe, and they have found that they are seeing so much more in their students and noticing students solve problems that the teacher might otherwise have intervened.

I was touched when Tyler shared about the changes that he has noticed outside the classroom for himself and his family, after focusing on mindfulness at work. He told how he now appreciates more the view on his bike ride to school, or the way a certain tree looks, rather than focusing solely on what he has to do that day.

Parents told several stories about how this work is coming home and into their families’ lives. One mom shared that her child said to her “You’re not focusing on helping me with my shoes right now!” It was a reminder to stay present.

Race’s book is packed full of many great ideas for us to embrace at home and at school (and on the car ride in between).  The Parent Council, perhaps pairing up with our Student Council, is looking forward to connecting with everyone in our school community about ways we can all do better in appreciating the present moment with kindness.

Kristen Race, Ph.D. delivering a Ted Talk
I know that when Kristen Race comes to talk to our parent community, she will have many more ideas for us. Her talk is entitled “Creating Peaceful Homes.”

Please note that we are using the bigger auditorium at Platt Middle School for this talk – on October 27th at 6:00 p.m. We believe that this topic is of interest to many parents in Boulder and we wanted to make sure we had enough seating for a broader audience than just our own community.  Please let your friends and neighbors know that they are more than welcome to join us, and they can register here.

I have been extremely impressed at the many authentic ways that our teachers, students, and parents have embraced mindfulness.  It is not simply the latest educational buzzword, or even simply our school theme for the year. As Kelly Usubillaga stated this week, it is giving all of us tools to weather the inevitable storms of life.  It is giving our kids a means to be successful in a world that many say will only become more stressful.  And, we hope, it is creating peace in our homes.

Please join us for the great event on October 27th.

October 9, 2014

“So How Was School Today?”

I recently came across this poem entitled What Did You Do Today?

It got me thinking about how often I’ve asked a similar question of my own children, with little response.  Or I remember asking the even more generic “How was school today?” which usually elicits non-informative answers like “Fine!” or “Good!”.

When children come home at the end of the day,
The question they're asked as they scurry to play,
Is, "Tell me, what did you do in school today?"

"NOTHING! I did NOTHING in school today!"

Maybe nothing means that I played with blocks,
Tied my own shoes, or found precious rocks.
Maybe our monarchs hatched today,

Or maybe I learned a new game to play.

Maybe today was the very first time
My scissors followed a really straight line!
Maybe I sang our song from beginning to end,
Or maybe I made a brand new friend!

When you're only five, and your heart has wings,
NOTHING can mean so many things!

            - Author unknown

At Friends’ School our teachers, in both the preschool and the elementary school, do a wonderful job of updating parents with newsletters packed full of the many ways that the children at Friends’ are learning. Parents who volunteer in our classrooms often tell me how amazed they are at all the engaging and experiential ways the children are involved in school.

Over the years, I have found that when I ask specific questions, my children are more likely to participate in a more robust discussion about their school day. Why not try some of these:

  • What happened in the book your teacher read out loud today?
  • Will you sing me a song that you learned at school today?
  • What was the best thing that happened at school today?
  • Tell me something that made you laugh today.
  • Where is the coolest place at the school?
  • Tell me a weird word that you heard today. 
  • If I called your teacher tonight, what would s/he tell me about you?
  • How did you help somebody today?
  • How did somebody help you today?

Some of these questions come from a great blog post 25 Ways To Ask Your Kids “So how was school today?” Without Asking them “So how was school today?” written by two stay-at-home moms, both called Elizabeth, both the mother of three kids. They report great results in enriching conversations with their children about school.

Other thoughts about things we can all do as parents to have more fruitful and fertile conversations with our kids about school.

 Become knowledgeable. Read the stuff the school sends home. (Read, don’t just skim!) We send home the Happenings every Friday, this blog, teacher newsletters, and many more less formal communications. This way, you’re really in tune with your child’s day.

 Be specific in your questioning. As parents, we tend to ask our kids at the end of the day, when they are no longer in school mode. Children need specific references to the time of day. “What did you do in reading today? What activities did you do with math? Who brought in the snack today?” By asking for specific details, you narrow the day down for them. Young children in particular need this.

 Ask the teacher or another parent what you should ask. At Friends’ we have many school-specific programs and activities, such as our buddy program, team lunches, this week’s elementary Movin’ and Boppin’, the upcoming Harvest celebrations.  If you’re not sure what
any of these are, our teachers and other parents (or Ann, or Jana, or Mandy, or me…) will be happy to help!

 Alone time. I have found that the best way that I get information out of my daughters is to have a little quiet time with each, alone, each night before bed. I usually get details out of my kids when we’re alone in the car, snuggled up after reading a book, or walking somewhere by ourselves. There is something about these times when we are not face-to-face (for example at the dinner table) that makes opening up easier for our children.

One thing you can be sure about at a dynamic and engaging school like Friends’: the answer is truly never “Nothing!”

October 2, 2014

Every Day is a Bonus

Meet Matt Jahn.

Matt is the father of a Friends’ School third grader. Twenty three years ago, on a day that changed his life forever, Matt’s name appeared in the Baltimore Sun:

Dateline: February 8th, 1991.  An Ellicott City couple on their way back to Maryland were killed yesterday morning when their twin-engine plane crashed into a farmer’s field shortly after takeoff.  Their 7-year old son Matthew was in serious condition at University Hospital. After Mr Jahn, the pilot, took off, he circled the plane over Skaneateles Lake in an attempt to return to the airport because of poor visibility and rain. The twin-engine Beechcraft Seneca 2 apparently struck a tree and then crashed.  The family had been visiting Auburn, NY, to attend the funeral of Mrs Jahn’s uncle. Police said that Matthew was thrown from the wreckage.

Matt woke up at the hospital two days later.  His sister Margaret had not accompanied the rest of the family on the trip, staying instead with her grandparents. In second grade, Matt had become an orphan.  He and his sister were taken in by an uncle and aunt, whom he had only met once before. They moved half way across the country to Chicago, away from the world he knew.

Fast forward to today.  Matt’s son Kenny is in Tyler’s 3rd grade class. Kenny is now older than Matt was when he lost his parents. The way Matt sees it, every day that he has with Kenny from this point forward is a bonus.

After graduating high school, Matt moved to the Boulder area and ran a pizza business for eleven years.  He never went to college.  Until recently.  This spring, Matt will have an associate’s degree in education from Front Range Community College.  His plan is to transfer to a four year school to gain
Matt with his parents and sister a few months
before they passed away
a B.A. in education. He wants to be a middle school science teacher. He did part of his teaching practicum at Friends’ last year, volunteering in P.E.

Matt’s story is an amazing one.  He shared a snippet of it with me on the playground one day after school.  I was so intrigued that I asked him if I could learn more and share his story with our school community.

I was touched by his story of the plane crash and losing his parents. But more than that, I was particularly impressed by what he told me about how fortunate he feels to be a parent and to watch Kenny grow - as well as his goal to go back to school to become a teacher.  It helped remind me, as a parent, to remember how important this time is - the little stuff and the big stuff.

Matt tells me he is proud of who he is. “My story is part of who I am and why I am the person I am today. You are more than welcome to share it, I am an open book.”

Matt sees school as incredibly important. When he first visited Friends’ he saw people, adults and children alike, who were happy and excited to be in school. He witnessed compassion and a community that cared for each other deeply.  And he wanted that for his son.  Kenny is thriving in third grade, a happy and excited learner.  Matt hopes to instill that same love of learning in his middle school science students one day. He was amazed last month when Kenny woke up on Labor Day Monday, bummed because he was going to miss a day of school.

As a child Matt faced unimaginable tragedy.  Unimaginable, but not unbearable.  He figured out that he had a choice.  He could view his circumstance as an excuse to hide from the world or to turn bitter.  Or he could choose to see it as an opportunity to live the full life that he knew his parents would want him to live.
Losing his parents at such a young age has helped him to understand the importance of his role as a parent, and the importance of a great school community for his small family. He knows he can’t let challenges intimidate him – challenges simply motivate him to reach for the next accomplishment.

Matt says that, somewhere up there, his parents are clinking their glasses, looking down in approval. He firmly believes in the saying:

Yesterday’s history
Tomorrow’s a mystery
Today’s a gift

A family like this is a gift to all of us. Thanks, Matt, for being willing to share your story. I know I will appreciate every moment of parenting a little bit more because of you.