December 17, 2015

Amazing Peace

Photo from last year's winter celebration
Last night at the elementary school winter celebration, we heard beautiful music: the instruments and voices of our children. 

Friends’ winter celebrations, in the preschool classes and last night at Manhattan Middle School, are special occasions in our school calendar.  We observe the season of winter and light. The celebrations are always moving.

In my welcome to the audience last night, I read a portion of the enchanting poem Amazing Peace by the late Dr. Maya Angelou. (Full disclosure: I adapted the poem slightly.)  It was a poem that she wrote for the White House tree-lighting ceremony a decade ago. In this current climate of alarming news stories and intolerant political messages, I believe this message resonates.

All of us, parents and teachers, are so deeply ingrained in the lives of children. I am inspired by the students at our school every day.  They care.  They are determined to make a difference.  They give me hope.

Whichever holidays you celebrate, wherever your travels may take you over the next two weeks, I wish you peace.

Have a magical time over winter break with your children. This is a magical time. We will see you back in school on Tuesday January 5th.

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, the holiday season enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing songs of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the glad season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Maya Angelou
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.

- Dr. Maya Angelou

December 10, 2015

The Blog I Shouldn't Have to Write

Three years ago this week, we were collectively horrified as we learned of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.  We continue to be bombarded, almost weekly, sometimes even more frequently, by devastating reports of mass murders. As parents, we try to shield our children from the news. It is unfathomable for me to process and understand this information for myself. It’s impossible to try to make sense of it all for young children.

Parents at our school received a disturbing email from me on Wednesday of this week, after we learned that there had been an armed robbery in the neighborhood close to Friends’. It was a tough crime, and I am grateful that no one got hurt, or worse. Having something like this happen so close to home re-awakens us to the reality that tragedy can strike anywhere at any time.

After talking with the detective from the Boulder Police Department, I was glad to be reassured that the police did not regard the incident as a threat to our school. Yet the fact remained that armed and dangerous men were at large near our school.  I did not hear about the crime until a parent learned about it and wrote to her child’s teacher who immediately passed the information on to me. Initially, all I knew was what the Denver television stations were reporting.

I share this, because it was unpropitious that the BPD did not inform the school immediately – or Eisenhower Elementary, our neighbors to the west. We would have gone into a lockout drill immediately. I am uncertain of the Police Department’s protocol in regards to informing local schools and we are working with them to understand this better.

What I can tell you is that our Friends’ School staff would have known exactly what to do. Our staff underwent a full day of emergency training at the start of the school year and have refresher training monthly and throughout the year.  We continue to update the safety features of our campus. We have recently reviewed and overhauled our entire emergency training manual to reflect the latest research in steps to take in the event of an emergency.  Our training and review were spearheaded by Director of Communications, Meg Hansen, and Associate Head of School, Mandy Stepanovsky.  Both Mandy and Meg underwent intense training last spring to become trainers in the ALICE model of emergency training. 

The purpose of ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training is to prepare our staff to handle the threat of an active shooter. ALICE teaches individuals to participate in their own survival, while leading others to safety. Though no one can guarantee success in this type of situation, this new set of skills has proven to increase greatly the odds of survival should anyone face this form of disaster.

It incenses me that I feel the need to write about this tough topic in my weekly blog. But it is clear: it’s a necessity.

I did not get into teaching because I wanted to consider how to protect the children in my care from a maniac with a gun. None of our teaching staff did.  Yet, it has tragically become our reality.

As a school, as individual educators, we must think about safety every day.

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.

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. Friends’ was one of the first in Colorado to install keypad entry systems, in 2006. We change the entry code three times a year. Expect a new code after winter break.

We are constantly thinking about 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. We are planning our second campus with safety, as well as 21st century learning, in mind.

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.  Hug them extra closely tonight.

And next week, I promise, I will write a lighter piece to launch us into a very happy holiday season.

December 3, 2015

Reflections On Writing From One Of Our Own

Friends' grad and guest blogger Rebecca Shepard
I am so excited to feature this guest blogger.

Friends’ School community, please allow me to introduce you to Rebecca Shepard.  Becca is a Friends’ School graduate from 2003.  She is a critically acclaimed author who wrote this piece just for us, readers of Among Friends’.

Becca is a writer, reader, and editor who now lives in New York City. She has published fiction, poetry, and non-fiction online and in various literary magazines, as well as translations of Greek and Latin. You can learn more about her at her website. Becca has been featured in, Westword, the Daily Camera and the New York Times. According to the Times, “her book, Naked Came the Post-Postmodernist, already has the New York Times talking.”

Becca will be coming to our school on January 22nd to present a gathering and to conduct a writers’ workshop with our 3rd, 4th & 5th graders.

These are Becca’s reflections on writing and Friends’ School:

In second grade, my parents were worried about me. There was no denying that I had a passion for writing; I filled notebook after notebook with stories. The problem was that the words were written all in capitals, with no spaces between them, and no punctuation. If that wasn’t hard enough to decipher—think tombstones from classical Greece, where paleographers have to distinguish where words are broken without the help of spaces or punctuation, and with the added challenge of erosion—very few of the words I used were spelled correctly. In third grade, I wrote my first novel, a fantasy story that dragged its audience (my adoring, if not slightly concerned family members) through a world as fantastical in its engineering as in its phonetically-spelled structure.

Fifteen years later, I graduated Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in Classics, Philosophy, and Writing, have published fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and translations, and spend a large chunk of every day studying the grammatical structures of Ancient Greek and Latin, Romance languages, and German. But my interest in writing, and indeed, my interest in grammar, stems from my second-grade notebooks; from the encouragement of creativity and imagination at Friends' School, and from the use of the freewriting technique.
The freewriting technique gained traction in the 20th century, beginning with Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming a Writer in 1934, and carried through the philosophy of the beat writers to select modern education philosophies. The technique is simple: set a timer for somewhere between five to fifteen minutes, put your pen on the paper, start writing, and don’t stop until the timer goes off. It doesn’t matter what you write—it could be the same word over and over again, it could be a journal entry, it could be the beginnings of a poem. Most importantly, what you write doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, logical, or ‘good’ by any external criteria. The philosophy behind freewriting is equally straightforward: warm up your mind, let go of your ego, and start breaking down the walls of anxiety, insecurity, and apathy that lead to writer’s block and procrastination. Though freewriting, as an exercise of creativity, openness, and acceptance is hard to imagine as a negative thing, it is rarely implemented in education. Its use in Friends' School’s educational philosophy therefore underscores just how special a place the school is in its approach to learning and the dialogue between learning and selfhood.

Becca, during her Friends' School years
Critics of freewriting claim that the lack of attention to grammar and sentence structure can be harmful to a child’s learning development; that it is critical to know how to write before one begins to write. To this argument, I have a very simple counter-argument: how many things in life do we know how to do before we do them? Even in the most pragmatic of activities theory eventually succumbs to experience; there is a world of difference between reading about gardening and getting dirt under your nails caring for a flower bed, going to every talk on parenting by every specialist under the sun and reacting to your child’s first word, first disappointment, first love. And these are examples in the material world! When it comes to the world of art and articulation, the gray-toned world of bringing a part of me somehow closer to you, how could we dream of drawing the boundaries before the attempt has even begun?

Don’t get me wrong—I love grammar. I find grammar intrinsically poetic. But the way I was taught to write at Friends’ gave me the opportunity to approach grammar on my own time, on my own terms. Friends’ taught me to enjoy writing, to love writing, so that it was only a logical and consequential step for me to pursue my passion for language as far as I could go—to its ancient roots in Latin and Greek. It took me until my junior year in college before I fully dove into the world of conditional sentence structure, noun declensions, and dactylic hexameter, but I arrived at the study of the Classics not despite my lack of grounding in traditional grammatical training, but because I had been writing ferociously for years, not held back by fear of inadequacy or failure.

In an age ruled by technology, efficiency, and speed, the parents and teachers who step back and truly think through how they can best prepare their children and students must see that real education (from the Latin ex+ducare, meaning ‘to lead out’) does not come from any method that places how and what before why. Friends’ School does not simply teach its students—it instills in them a lifelong love, pleasure, and motivation to learn, express themselves, and most importantly, to take the first step before even considering the possibility of fearing it. 

November 19, 2015

Thanksgiving Works!

Thank you to these 2nd & 4th grade students who helped
each other to plant bulbs this fall in our gardens.
It’s about to be Thanksgiving. It’s not a holiday I grew up with. Yet hands-down it’s my favorite holiday of the year. It makes me very happy that, in this country, we have a whole built-in day devoted to saying thank you. In these recent troubling times, Thanksgiving could not come soon enough.

At Thanksgiving we don’t focus on material goods nor do we extend the holiday unnaturally by months.  It’s about family and being together and expressing thanks. Simple. Lovely. Connected.

At Friends’, in our elementary school this morning, we’re celebrating Grandparents' and Special Friends’ Day, a time for our students to invite into school their grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, anyone who’s a special person in their lives.  We’ve got singing performances and classroom activities, fresh-brewed coffee and Dacia’s famous snacks.  We’re in for a grand time.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I am reminded that leading researchers in social sciences have shown us that practicing gratitude makes a huge difference in children’s development. At Friends’, we know a thing or two about this. 
Thank you to everyone who donated to
Movin' & Boppin' to support our library.
These are some of the books deana purchased.

As a school with such a strong emphasis on social and emotional learning, we intentionally teach important characteristics such as kindness and gratitude. We have devoted this entire school year to studying the Impact of Giving Back.

Our teachers have learned that the practice of gratitude increases students’ positive emotions and optimism. It decreases their negative emotions and physical symptoms, and it makes them feel more connected and satisfied with school and with life in general.

A while back, our school was featured in an article by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The author interviewed our lead teachers, in both the elementary and the preschool, to learn from them many of the activities they had designed to support our Friends’ students in their practice of gratitude.

We hope the ideas in this article will be read widely and used by teachers across the country who are beginning to embrace what we’ve known at Friends’ since our founding: the importance of social emotional learning, the value of being grateful, and the deep
Thank you to Jessie and Christie representing
Friends' School at the NAEYC conference
in Orlando today!
significance of character education. It’s something we work hard at every day and have done for over 28 years.

Congratulations to our teachers for continuing to be at the forefront of research-based education and for being open to sharing their fantastic ideas with the world.

As we spend this Thanksgiving holiday with family and loved ones, I hope we all take a moment to appreciate and be grateful.  There is no doubt in my mind that the world, and our children, will be better for it. 

Whether you are staying close to home or traveling afar, I wish a very happy Thanksgiving to you all.