February 25, 2015

Penguin Study: A Kindergarten Teacher’s Perspective

Kindergartners learning how to be penguins!
I am currently away from Friends' presenting at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools in Boston. Thank you to Mandy, Jen, Dacia, Meg, and everyone back at school for managing a tricky situation earlier this week when we found ourselves with no heat in the elementary building.  

We have a guest blogger in my absence:  Kindergarten co-teacher Katelynn Regan kindly offered to write this piece on her class's study of penguins and how our Kindergarten team integrates different kinds of learning, while focusing on science. Thanks, Katelynn!

On a particularly warm Wednesday morning, our youngest elementary students dove deeply into their new science unit. As we do to introduce all our new units, the magical wooden box we call “John Paull’s Favorite Things” was full to the brim – filled with clues that would reveal the new topic to our curious, yet patient, Kindergarteners.

One by one, each item was carefully selected and placed onto the circle rug by our dearly devoted Teacher Candidate, Shannon. She placed pictures of Antarctica, a person swimming, a cartoon character of a tiny man in a black and white tuxedo, a toboggan, flippers, krill, and an assortment of silky, soft feathers.

These clues quickly led many of our Kindergarteners to believe we would begin to study… PENGUINS!!

Instantly there was a contagious outpouring of excitement and thoughtful connections from everyone in relation to these loveable, flightless, aquatic birds. Each Kindergartener engagingly shared all that he or she knew about penguins and spoke of what they had hoped to learn during our new study.

Shannon followed this unforgettable introduction with a lesson on the different physical characteristics of a penguin, (feathers to keep warm, wings for swimming, and big bellies to slide on the snow). Each Kindergartener then participated in a hands-on integrated art activity using a variety of materials to create and build their own penguin characteristic.

As many of you may know, at Friends’ School science is taught with the intention that every student gets to become a scientist and participate by “doing”. This philosophy rings true in everything we plan as science teachers.

So with our penguin study underway and Kindergarteners innately interested in families, we role-played penguin families.

Beth referenced the infamous documentary, March of the Penguins, to support our teaching of what penguins do to survive in Antarctica. As the short clip depicted the interaction and roles of both the mom penguin and the dad penguin, the Kindergarteners were ready to take these roles on for themselves, even with the introduction of “a penguin egg” or foam ball borrowed from P.E.

Our Kindergarteners took on each role very seriously and we saw everyone giving this a try whether they were successful or not.

Upon reflecting with the Kindergarteners about this lesson, we heard them share, “one of the most challenging parts was the transfer of the egg from the dad to the mom;” “one of the funniest parts to do was the dads huddling together when waiting for the moms to get back from the ocean!”

Katelynn Regan
In another lesson, the Kindergarten class teamed up with the 1st grade class for a presentation on The Arctic and Antarctica from CU Science Discovery.  The kids worked through a series of stations exploring what adaptations animals (including penguins) have in order to live in these two regions. The kids used “blubber mitts” and explored real animal fur and various fabrics that may be used to stay warm in below freezing temperatures.

At Friends’ School,  teachers continually schedule developmentally-appropriate presentations to begin or culminate a unit of study. This is an excellent resource for teachers and parents alike to reach out and participate in the local community through supporting place-based educational experiences.

It has been my pleasure to share with our school community what our Kindergarten students have been exploring and learning in our most recent science study. These five and six year olds truly inspire the awe, excitement, and love for this beautiful world that surrounds us. I am forever grateful to be a part of all the learning and growing on a daily occurrence in our Kindergarten classroom.

February 19, 2015

Is This The Secret Sauce?

Three of our preschool teachers: Christie, Caroline, & Hetta
Parents and visitors often ask me what is it about Friends’ School that makes us such a strong community?  What do we do that gives us such a great reputation for fostering social and emotional growth in children?

There are many ways to answer these crucial questions, but there is no doubt that a huge part of the answer is the quality of the people who come to work here every day.

Before school started in January, our teachers and staff spent the day together addressing several issues.  The most important one was: How can we become a stronger community?

Our staff participated in a workshop, presented by two long-time employees, 2nd grade teacher Diane Bramble and Teacher Preparation Program co-director Shelby Pawlina, on how we, as adults, can improve our communication with each other:

- how we can connect more?
- how we can create the time to get to know each other and have fun and laugh    together?
- how can we take care of ourselves and each other?
- how can we treat each other in ways that are kind, respectful, and positive?

With everyone on staff being so busy and giving 100% of their time and energy to their work, you can imagine that it’s not always easy to find time to do these things well.

In the weeks since we gathered as a whole staff, fascinating things have been happening.

Our Friends' School staff knows how to have a good time!
We have found that by paying attention to our words and our actions, we are more present and more caring with one another.  We are being mindful of our meeting times and using them more efficiently.  We are finding times to connect with other staff members with whom we do not work closely – on walks, during social happy hours, inviting each other to attend events together outside of school, carpooling, and sharing lunch together. I arrived at my car after one snowy school day to discover that one of our teachers had brushed off all the snow.

This week, our teaching staff gathered again to explore further these same issues. What’s working is good – how can we continue to do this even better?  Teachers gathered in teams to explore how we can do an even better job of learning from each other, communicating with each other, being open to our changes and mistakes, taking care of one another.

We generated more ideas! We have a commitment to read The Four Agreements as an entire staff, to create book clubs, to bring in crockpot lunches to share, to find common goals and learning opportunities, to organize movie nights and barbecues, to spend more time in each other’s classrooms, and to continue to commit to communicating in ways that are kind, respectful, and positive.

With a group of educators and administrators like this, who want to treat each other this way, and who entered this profession because of their love of children and desire to support children’s growth, it’s no wonder that they ask the same of their students. 

It’s no wonder that they expect that children treat each other with kindness and respect – and they give their students the tools and skills to be able to do this.  It’s no wonder our classrooms are places where children laugh while they learn.  It’s no wonder parents tell us daily how much their children are excited to come to school.  And it’s no wonder that our playgrounds are filled with children, parents, and caregivers every afternoon because the kids just don’t want to leave.

It is an honor, a privilege and a joy to work alongside our staff and teachers every day.

Is this the secret sauce?  Can we bottle it?

February 12, 2015

Science, Science Everywhere!

2nd & 3rd graders building a trebuchet
Come, take a walk with me.

One of the great joys of my work is that I spend part of each day visiting our classrooms. I wish you could see what I see every day, so here’s a small snapshot.

Dateline: Tuesday afternoon of this week, Friends’ School, Boulder.
Weather: a balmy 68 degree Colorado February day!

First stop: Mary Pearsall’s fifth grade classroom. The fourth and fifth grade classes are working together, watching a demonstration from Teacher Candidate Kristine Helsper as she teaches the students how to dissect a pig's heart.  This lesson is part of the 4th/5th grade human biology unit. 

After learning about different human body systems including the skeletal, muscular, and digestive systems, our older students are studying the organs of the human body.  After receiving a clear and well-planned lesson from Kristine, the classes split into small groups to dissect pig hearts. While some, including a certain Head of School, are a little squeamish, almost all were completely engaged in this fascinating hands-on learning lab.

As Mary said in her newsletter to parents this week: Students will work together to apply their knowledge of the heart and its anatomy to reveal the various layers of this organ and really get to the heart of the matter - just in time for Valentine’s Day!”

dissecting a heart
Second stop: Beth and Katelynn’s Kindergarten class.  Choice time is in full swing.  Choice is a time when children actively engage in the process of defining themselves. They initiate their play and work and take risks.  More than any other period of the day, students are given the opportunity to make decisions and learn how to connect with others. One particular activity on Tuesday centers around magnets. I enjoy participating with our Kindergartners as they experiment, observe, predict and try new things as they explore magnetic fields.

Third stop: Laurie Nakauchi’s 1st grade classroom.  The class has been studying the polar regions and has learned the similarities and differences between the poles. Students learned about the North Pole and bears that live in the north and created life-size renditions of bears. They are also studying the South Pole and penguins. Students are learning facts about penguins and, as I wander through, they are measuring and making life-sized penguins, integrating math, science and art beautifully.

Next stop: the elementary playground.  Here, our third and second grade classes appear to be waging a siege. Not quite true, but after designing and building mini-catapults in class as part of their study
2nd & 3rd graders and the giant catapult
on the Middle Ages, they are applying the same building skills to create life-size replicas of trebuchets using a variety of materials including large pieces of wood, skis, and even toilet seats! The catapults being created with the help of Friends’ parent Garth Sundem are amazing. And they work!

(If you are not quite sure what a trebuchet is, ask a second or third grader – they know!)

Last stop: preschool.  Because it’s the afternoon our Pre-K classes of 4-5 year olds are here.  Jessie and Hetta’s east classroom is a hive of activity – dress-up, painting, running rice through our fingers at the sensory table, gak, but, perhaps because I’ve been noticing so much science all afternoon, I am drawn to the young engineers in the block area. These are busy people!

Our preschool teachers have previously shared with parents this excellent article on block play. In it, author and early childhood specialist Jean Schreiber says:

“Block play provides experiences that foster emotional and social development as children work together in a respectful and cooperative way. They share a sense of joy in their communal accomplishments. While solving structural challenges, they learn to concentrate while gaining mastery in the arts of persistence, patience, and overcoming frustration. Children also have many opportunities to be rewarded with the sense of pride and satisfaction that come as they develop confidence and competency. They come to understand that their friends may have different perspectives on “construction” and they learn cooperation and tolerance along the way.”
4th and 5th graders pondering dissection

Continuing outside into the gorgeous sunshine, Caroline and Christie’s west kids are spread out throughout the playground – they’re on the swings, riding tricycles, climbing, digging in the sand, rolling on the grass in the warm sun. They may not be dissecting sheep hearts, or building historically accurate trebuchets quite yet, but these kids are gaining all the skills now to be able to grow into accomplished scientists later on. 

It may look like they’re just kind of messing around – but these are some serious scientists at play.

Thanks for walking with me. Enjoy the long weekend.

February 5, 2015

“Aht Is Wicked Hahd! Be Audacious! Let ‘Er Rip!”

Diane Bramble, being audacious,
taking risks with her art
Each year, the school makes an award to one or more of our staff from the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund.  This fund was created by generous parents and community donors as a tribute to my predecessor, Polly Donald. Its purpose is to provide a unique opportunity for faculty and staff to revitalize and grow outside the classroom.  Polly believes that an individual's personal growth inevitably enriches those with whom she/he comes into contact. The fund aims to revitalize, inspire, and support personal growth, enriching the Friends' School community at large.

Last year’s award winner was 2nd grade teacher Diane Bramble.  Now in her 26th year at Friends’ School, Diane has enriched and inspired hundreds of Friends’ students. The PTD Fund Committee was pleased to have granted her this award which she used to take an amazing art workshop in Maine. 

This is Diane’s story in her own words:

The Thomaston, Maine, Academy & Library
"I went on an art adventure last summer. In June, I flew to Boston, rented a car, and drove up the east coast to Thomaston, Maine to take part in an intensive art workshop led by painter Steven Aimone. I was inspired by Steven’s book Abstract Painting and Drawing and I wanted to learn from a master painter and teacher.

One of the first things I learned, and here I speak in the patois of a New Englander, “Aht is wicked hahd!” It is, making art really is wicked hard! I’ve always loved dabbling in art—creating it and appreciating it, but I’ve never been face to face with myself as an artist before. Seeing myself on the canvas every day, a 6’ x 6’ canvas, was a force. I had to jump into the beginner-ness of it all, surrender to the process, and do my best to remember that I don’t have to even be good at it—just do

what Steven urged all of his students to do, “Get in there, be audacious, let ‘er rip!” So I did.

Water, water everywhere! 
A classic sunset in Maine.
The workshop took place in a 100-year old former schoolhouse that now serves as the Thomaston town library. The ten other workshop participants and I painted from morning to night while learning about the language of non-objective composition. We worked with the elements of that language: mark, line, shape, texture, and color. We studied abstract expressionist painters, such as Franz Kline, Philip Guston, William deKooning, Amy Stillman, and Richard Pousette-Dart. We learned from the master painters, Steve the teacher, and from each other. Important take-aways that apply to art and life:

     When you’re stuck, change big.
·      When you lose one part of yourself (in a painting)…you gain another part.
·      Listen to your gut without pauses.
·      There are many possibilities.
·      You can try to be like another artist, but you are just who you are.
·      When something works, even though it shouldn’t, that’s when the magic happens.

One of the quotes I used as a reference point during the workshop is by Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, painters from the New York School. “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored by those willing to take the risks.”

Thank you to all of the donors and committee members for the Polly Talbot Donald Fund for giving me this transformative experience where I was able to explore, learn, risk, and grow as a painter and a person. I still believe that creating art is hard, but now I’m willing to face that canvas with greater courage because I now know that art is an adventure.
And I’m in."