October 29, 2015

Too Many To Pick Just One

Harvest celebration in the preshool
There is a well-known phrase that goes something like this: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who penned it. The thinking, I presume, is that people with full lives have a good sense of exactly how long things take, how much can fit in any given day, and how much they've currently got on their plates.

I was thinking about this phrase this week as I contemplated what to write for this week’s blog.  Every day, I have the privilege of witnessing incredible learning and experiences at this school.  Furthermore, I have the luxury of choosing one story, of the many that are happening around the school, to share with you each Friday. It’s a tough decision.  It’s hard to pick just one. With 172 students, close to 40 teachers and staff, and numerous parents and family members, there is a lot going on. 

A lot that keeps us busy.

In the last week or so, we heard the wonderful news that our offer had been accepted for our new second campus in North Boulder – we are off and running with growing our school and opening a 6th grade a few months from now. 

Stone soup in 2nd grade
We had parent work day last weekend and an incredible turn-out of happy volunteers who removed an estimated one ton of yard waste from our grounds.  Thank you to all!

We welcomed back Diane Bramble who has been on a leave of absence fighting illness. We celebrated harvest in both elementary and preschool, with delicious food and fun stories for all. 

Our parents came and learned with us, attending evening events on mindfulness, math, and social and emotional learning.

We felt the Impact of Giving Back by washing a fire truck, planting bulbs, and making dog treats and toys. 

5th grade production of 'Alex in Wonderland'
We went on field trips near (Bobolink Trail) and far (pumpkin patches, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and Thorne Science center) and discovered that learning can happen in all kinds of places, not just in classrooms.

In the preschool, children built a stage for their dramatic play after watching the 5th grade play.  They have created restaurants and have read stories with their 4th grade buddies. They’ve been practicing fine motor skills, and block building, and learning how to put on coats in the cooler weather, and how to make friends.

1st and 5th grade buddies wash the fire truck
from Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District
In the elementary school, young scientists have been experimenting with earth science (erosion), life science (studying bats and birds, welcoming a new gecko), and physical science and chemistry (dry ice, creating glow-in-the-dark  slime). 2nd and 3rd graders have turned their classrooms into maker spaces and created all kinds of fabulous inventions.

Students have been reading fiction and history, biographies and fantasy.  They’ve been writing – the same genres. Just yesterday, I was invited into 1st grade to hear students read the wonderful books that they have written. Math has happened with pumpkin seeds, bats, and algebraic equations.

We have enjoyed not one, but two, gatherings from former teachers who have shared their art with us: former 2nd/3rd grade teacher Tyler Voorhees shared tales from the road and encouraged students to practice, practice, practice. Former AfterCare teacher Blake Stepan brought his eight piece ragtime band.

Students practiced musical numbers for upcoming celebrations, and created wonderful art, including some spectacular self-portraits and cubist style instrumental collages. Our Spanish and art teachers combined forces to help students make dynamic pieces for our dia de los muertos celebration.
Cubist style instrumental collage

And today, we are getting ready for our elementary Halloween celebration – for me, and most of the staff, that has meant attending early morning dance practice – we have standards to uphold!

Through it all, we celebrated our selection as one of the top private schools in the country.

Friends’ School is a busy place.  Perhaps you can see how it was hard to just pick one story. There is a lot going on.

If you want to be part of an incredible community, come to a busy place. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said that.

October 22, 2015

The Sound of Music

Music teacher Monica Benko singing with our preschoolers
You may have seen the article in the Daily Camera this week about music in elementary school classrooms. 

“A Boulder Valley (School District) task force looking at the ideal school day is considering changes to the fifth-grade instrumental music program — and is hearing opposition from teachers and parents…..(they are considering giving) students an equal amount of time for music, physical education, and art.  The task force is considering requiring fifth-graders to choose one music option or the other instead of taking both.”

A friend of mine with kids in a public school close to Friends’ posted the article on social media and attracted quite a few strong opinions against the proposed changes.

I shared the article with a few people in our Friends’ School community.  Our music teacher Monica Benko wrote back to me:

“This article makes me sad, as I was one of those kids that really wanted to do both choir and band in 5th grade.  To think about having to choose between either, would have broken my heart and probably would have made me less of who I am today.  Thank goodness I was able to do both in my schooling.

Also, this issue is close to my heart as my mother is a 5th grade elementary band teacher.  For the past six years, the school district that employs her has tried to eliminate her position and offer band in middle school only.  There was a tremendous backlash from the community, so luckily she maintains her position and continues to offer students the opportunity to do both band and choir in 5th grade. 

We have had many conversations on the telephone about how to teach the general public about the importance of music (to even those who don't study or have music as their occupation).  We find that in districts where sports and standardized testing are king, the administrations do not necessarily understand the benefits of instrumental education.

 If they only knew how beneficial music education was for the brains of their students, they would never suggest cutting it.  I always refer people to this video about the importance of instrumental education, as it does a great job of breaking down all the science (if you haven't seen it before, it's totally worth the 5 minute watch)...

It saddens me that BVSD is starting to think that instrumental music at a younger age for all students may not be necessary, since I firmly believe (like the National Association of Music Educators) that instrumental music should begin even EARLIER in 4th grade rather than 5th
 Monica Benko

I am also extremely happy that Friends’ School could get Denny and Gaylene to teach our 4th and 5th grade students band/orchestra.  This will only give them the best start to their middle school years musically and academically.  (Friends’ began offering band and orchestra after school this year.)

The more opportunities we can give our kids to express themselves, the happier and more fulfilled our students will be. “

We have expanded Monica’s responsibilities at Friends’ this year to include teaching music classes in the preschool, which is a new experience for her.  After our preschool parent/teacher conferences, Christie Stanford told me, “We have had countless parents tell us their child loves Monica. Additionally, we have children ask almost everyday if it is a music day. Hooray!”

In her time at Friends’, Monica has introduced a ukulele program and added a whole new curriculum.  Last week, Friends’ parents Russ and Diane Hullet hosted one of their famous house concerts featuring artist Joshua Davis for a fundraising event to support the Friends’ School music department.  Davis finished as a top finalist in NBC’s “The Voice” last May.  The concert raised $1,225 for our music program. These funds will go to buying a new set of mini drums, Djembes and Congas for the preschool, four more ukuleles for the elementary school, as well as repairing our Orff instruments - xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels.

It is a busy time in our music program. Dare I say the hills are alive….        

**Post script: after I initially published this blog, the BVSD School Board has since sent out a letter to the community stating: "the Board was unaware of the proposed changes until fairly recently when we started receiving concerned letters from parents and staff. The arguments for the current music curriculum are sound and our community is passionately opposed to the proposed change. I believe we need to take a step back and look at whether the changes BVSD is proposing are truly in the best interest of our children."                                                                                                                  

October 15, 2015

Top 50 In The Nation!

Friends’ School received some great news this week. We have been selected as one of the top 50 private elementary schools in the country. The ranking is from TheBestSchools.org website.

I first heard of this achievement a week ago today when I received an email from Monica Roberts at Best Schools saying that the organization had selected Friends’ School based on several weighted factors, including academic excellence, extracurricular richness, geographical and demographical diversity, and reputation.”

An English cynic at heart (the English, I am told, have a natural tendency towards skepticism), I initially ignored the email.  I figured it was one of those Who’s Who-type of websites that was likely fishing for advertising dollars.  I went about my weekend and gave it no further thought.

Thankfully, Ms. Roberts had also sent the same email to Meg Hansen, our Director of Communications.  Meg saw the email on Monday morning this week and was excited by the honor.  If you know Meg, you know she gets excited by all kinds of things that my hardened English heart dismisses.  Meg immediately called me and asked if she could post the news on our social media sites.

Not so fast! 

I asked her to conduct a whole bunch of research into the Best Schools organization, their reputation and the genuineness of this ranking. If you know Meg, you know she’s one heck of a good researcher too.  This is some of what Meg learned:

TheBestSchools.org is primarily a site for higher education news and information for educators, students, and prospective students. Their original specialization was in ranking online degree programs, because many such rankings on the web are dubious and crafted with special interest. They later extended their research and rankings to both private and public K-12 schools. The Best Schools uses university professors and researchers to create what they call “genuinely helpful material.” 

The editorial team is comprised of six Ph.D. researchers and a handful of qualified freelance researchers. They commission their primary and secondary school articles to veterans in those fields. 

The lead researcher for this private elementary school article was a 30 year veteran K-8 teacher as well as a researcher. She understands how different states measure school successes and considers herself an “information aggregator”. The Best Schools takes information available from state educational departments, and any information from and about schools to start making their ranking lists. They also gather student and teacher reviews, and analyze the environment of schools---how active they are, what are they doing beyond covering essential curriculum, etc.

In other words, they dig and dig, and dig some more. 

Some numbers for you:

According to the Council for American Private Education, in 2012 (the latest year for which the facts are available), there were 19, 697 private elementary schools in the U.S. Between us, we enroll close to 4 million students.

A ranking in the top 50 puts Friends’ in the top one quarter of one percent of private elementary schools in the nation (the English are pretty good at math, it turns out!), and we are the only private school in Colorado to make the cut.

We are pretty proud of that fact.

I gave Meg the go-ahead to post the news and we couldn’t be more excited. Here’s a sampling of some comments on Facebook pages where the link has appeared:

“Best investment I ever made. This news is no surprise to those of us fortunate enough to have found Friends' years ago. Now the entire country will know. Well done Friends'!”

“Excellent pick...Congratulations to Steve and the Friends' school team. Amazing school! Glad it calls Boulder home!”

“Wow! Congratulations - no small feat considering the size of the US and number of schools! Brilliant achievement.”

"Always knew it was the best! Well done!"

Thank you to everyone who is a part of this special school – students, teachers, staff, parents, trustees, grandparents and friends. We are glad you are here. 

October 8, 2015

Many Ways To Give Back

Team work!
Thank you to all of our elementary school students who “moved and bopped” for a solid hour on Wednesday afternoon this week to raise funds for our library collection and technology program.  Thank you to all our parents and family members who supported their efforts, and to Kathy Sherwood and many of our teachers and staff who organized activities and cheered the children on.

While the event supported the school, it was a joy to watch our multi-age teams working together and to see our students challenge themselves with a fitness goal. The obstacle course, which was my station, was a ton of fun for most, but appeared a little daunting for one of our new Kindergarten students.  A five year old hesitant to try, she had her hand held by a fifth grade girl, and together the two made it around the course several times.  Our students often learn best from each other, and I was happy to witness a fifth grader taking such a caring leadership role.

As you know, this year our school theme is The Impact of Giving Back.  Each of our classrooms has been brainstorming ways that they can give back to the
community, whether on a very local or a more global scale.

In the preschool, our classes will be out raking leaves and shoveling snow to help out around the school. Our elementary classroom teachers have shared many wonderful ideas.  Teachers have sought input from students as well as parents – our intention is that we will be doing community-wide initiatives. These include developing awareness of how students may already be giving back by keeping kindness journals; organizing food, clothing and Lego drives to donate to Children’s Hospital, Bridge House and other notable organizations; supporting community food share programs; reaching out to nursing homes and schools in high-needs areas; supporting charitable organizations in Haiti and Tanzania.  Our classrooms are finding no shortage of ways they can help and support others.
For more information on The Impact of Giving Back and the huge benefits to students of all ages, click here on an earlier blog on the topic.

Incidentally, our “Movin’ & Boppin’” event also marked a grand moment when we revealed our brand new school mascot, the Friends’ School Fox.  We decided last year to retire the prairie dog and, through a democratic process, our elementary students have picked the fox.  We will be asking the students to come up with a name for our Friends’ fox in the coming weeks through their student council representatives. Please say hello to our Friends’ School Fox who brings a fresh face and excitement to our school spirit events.

Thank you to parent Alex Teller for the great photos this week!

October 1, 2015


Our 2nd grade class learning about Sisi's trip to China
It is an essential part of a Friends’ School education that each child is known.  Known by her teacher, known by his classmates, known by all of the adults at school.

We accomplish this in many ways.  First and foremost, our teachers spend two years with each student.  They are curious, they ask questions, they observe.  They listen and are in constant conversation with parents.  Teachers go on home visits. They know the children’s likes and dislikes, and the best ways they learn. There’s a high likelihood that they know their students’ siblings, their grandparents, and even their dog if they have one!

Teachers also encourage students to share important aspects of themselves in class.

An email exchange that I was copied on this week highlighted the depth and meaning that ‘sharing time’ can have in a student’s life. These notes were between one family in second grade and other parents in the class.

Diane Hullet’s daughter Sisi was born in China and adopted by Diane and her husband Russ when she was three and a half years old.  This past summer the Hullets traveled back to China, where both Sisi and her older sister Anna were born. They visited the orphanage where Sisi spent her first years of life.  This is part of the letter that Diane sent to other parents in the class:

“Tomorrow, Sisi is going to have her sharing time, and she is going to share slides from our trip to China this summer.  I realized as I was pulling it together today that the slides and the story may bring up a lot of questions for your kids, so don't be surprised by needing to give an impromptu lesson on adoption tomorrow night or in the days to follow!  

Here are some things that may come up, and the language we use around it: what we hope is best practice in adoption language.

    Sisi was born in China, to birth parents she does not know.  Families can be made in all kinds of ways, including birth families, adoptive families, and step- and half- families.  ALL babies are first born from a woman -- adopted ones too.  You know that, but it is often confusing for kids.  In some adoptions, the birth parents and adoptive parents are in contact and may share pictures or letters or visits.  In the case of virtually all Chinese adoptions, there are no known birth parents. 
Sisi with a former nanny at her orphanage.
The sign reads "Welcome to Sisi to
come back to home!"

    Sisi was found as a newborn by a policeman and taken first to a hospital (to make sure she was all right) and then to an orphanage, where she lived until she was 3 1/2.  At 3 1/2, she came home with us to her permanent, forever family.  On our visit there in June, we met people who had known Sisi well in her toddler years.  Her excitement to visit where she had "lived as a baby" was very high, and they were delighted to have her back!

    We never use language like "her real parents" or "she was given up" or "given away".  If your kids do, you can gently reframe it as "birth parents" or "first mommy" or even "Chinese mommy".  WE are the "real parents" -- the ones who are doing all the child-rearing.  

    If they ask, it might be helpful to say something general like: "There are a lot of reasons that sometimes children can't be raised by their birth parents.  Things like being very poor, or very sick, can sometimes mean a child is raised by someone other than their first family."  You could also try saying: "For many years, China had a huge population, which led them to say 'each family can have only one child'.  This meant that many times a 2nd or 3rd child would be placed for adoption."  ... Then again, depending on your child, this may raise more questions than you care to answer!

    You can always say, "That's a question I don't know the answer to -- let's ask Sisi and Diane..."

Sisi’s sharing time was clearly going to bring up big issues, some that perhaps a number of seven and eight year olds had not considered before.  I appreciated, and I know other parents appreciated, not only the heads-up that Diane sent to the parents in the class, but also the language that she provided for them as suggestions to use with their children.

Maya Rogers, who is a grandparent raising a second grader, responded in a thoughtful way:

“What a great summary!  I am glad to have Sisi in James' class and think it's great she's sharing her story.  I believe it's so important for kids to know that families are put together in all kinds of different ways, bound together by love and commitment. 

I hope the discussion about families can expand over time to include children raised by grandparents, solo parents, etc. to help normalize these less common situations.

What an interesting trip you must have had! Look forward to hearing more about it from Sisi, you, and James. Thank you.”

Other parents chimed in with comments like:

“I echo everything Maya said. My daughter was really impacted by today in such a wonderful way. Thank you so much for the "heads up" email and sharing your beautiful stories.” And “Thank you Diane. Your thoughts are very helpful with any questions I may have with how to explain to the boys. I am looking forward to talking to my sons about adoption and this will be a great way to do it! I do think they have already been taught by Sisi :) I appreciate it.”

Additional emails between parents continued on topics such as orphanages in general, the recent shift in China to more domestic adoptions, and the shift to more special needs children being available for international adoption, including boys.

Sisi and her older sister Anna on the Great Wall
I have chosen to share parts of this exchange with our wider community because, for me, it speaks to the importance of relationships in our classroom communities, between children AND parents. It speaks to the ways we honor and celebrate our differences as well as what we have in common.  As a single parent myself, raising two girls, I echo what Maya wrote about the need for expanded discussions.

Knowing every child deeply is a point of pride for our school. Our recently created Vision Statement includes these words:

“A true education is founded in the myriad of life’s meaningful personal experiences and connections. Being part of a community where everyone feels safe, valued and connected greatly enhances learning. Our school is a place where everyone is nurtured and respected for his or her individuality and contributions to the good of the whole. We hold in high esteem rituals and traditions that help children develop self-awareness and understanding of themselves as part of the bigger world.”

Sisi’s teacher Caroline Long told me, “Her presentation was so cool! I was so proud of her courage to share her life journey with our class. The students we so engaged and asked lots of great questions. All of us learned so much about China, adoption, and how families are different.”

Thank you to Diane and Sisi for allowing me to share their bigger world with you.