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.