December 14, 2016

The Actor, the Boss, and the Shortest Day

One of my favorite places in the whole world is Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore. In the past week or so, two of my heroes have performed readings there.

One was my good friend Jamie Horton, a long-time actor with the Denver Center Theatre Company, who is now an associate professor of theatre at Dartmouth College. Jamie is in town playing the role of George Bailey in a local production of It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost every year, for the last eighteen years, Jamie has presented the annual Holiday Reading at the Tattered Cover.  It’s a firm favorite in the Denver holiday calendar.

My other hero who stopped by the bookstore is a brand new author who just published his first book.  However, you might know him for his rock and roll: Bruce Springsteen.  The Boss was in the same event space a few days earlier reading from his new autobiography, Born To Run.

I have learned a lot from these two men over the years: one I’ve never met, one I meet for breakfast every time he’s in town.
Jamie Horton

Springsteen gave me the soundtrack of my high school and college years. He gave me lyrics that taught me the rhythms of my adopted country. He suffuses his songs with an understanding that life’s a tough road to travel, but hope is real, and redemption is available for everybody. I listen to his music regularly on my commute to Friends’ School.

Horton gave me my first glance behind the scenes of professional theatre. In the few short comedy skits that we performed on stage together, he gave me confidence in my ability as an actor and a director that inspired me to found a children’s theatre program.  I have now directed hundreds of children over the years in over forty full-scale productions – and I know that theatre will always play an important role in my life.

Bruce Springsteen at the Tattered Cover book store last week
At the Tattered Cover on Monday night, Jamie read a couple of children’s favorites: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and The Polar Express.  He read a story by Pearl S. Buck and poems by Maya Angelou and Howard Thurman. There was one poem in particular that truly caught my ear.

This poem, The Shortest Day, by English author Susan Cooper, is a moving commentary on the winter solstice.  As all of our classes, preschool through middle school, observe our Winter Celebrations this week, it reminded me of why we honor the cycles of the seasons at Friends’ through our rituals and celebrations.

The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Developing personal spirituality is a lifelong journey and a natural aspect of childhood. At Friends’ School, we encourage children to have open hearts and minds as they grow, explore, and share traditions, developing self-awareness and understanding of themselves as part of the bigger world.

As we break from school today, and gather with family and friends during these short days and long nights, I wish for you and your family that you:

dearly love your friends,
and hope for peace.
here, now,
this year and every year.

Wherever, whatever, and with whomever you are celebrating at this time of year, may you enjoy!

December 7, 2016

“Beyond Expectations”

Allison and Tori
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, the holidays are upon us and there is much to be grateful for.  There is also another season that takes place in independent schools in December and into the New Year.

Friends’ School is immersed in admissions season.  Every day, our classrooms are hosting visiting parents and students.  We are holding several information sessions for entry into preschool, Kindergarten and sixth grade.  We have lots of interest from families in Boulder and those who are moving here.  It is an exciting time.

While strong interest from outside families is of course very welcome, what is most gratifying to me is hearing from current families when our programs exceed expectations. This past week, for example, I received an email from one of our sixth grade parents, Carol Hoeffler. I read: “The experience the students are having and the quality of their middle school experience - socially, emotionally and academically - is beyond my expectations.”

 She added, “The education my daughter is getting at Friends is not only ample for high school preparation, it excels in life preparation, inspiring independent thought and motivated, interested students.”

Over the years in Boulder, Carol has seen her niece go to Casey, her nephew at Platt Choice and her own son at both Southern Hills and Watershed School. She has a good sense of many different middle schools in Boulder. However, from her direct observation of Friends’ new middle school, she knows her daughter Allison is well on the way to being extremely well prepared for high school and for life.

Our 6th graders worked collaboratively to create
proposals for the landscaping of our new North Campus
Allison told her: “There is more work and more responsibility than Friends’ Elementary, but it’s in a way where if you’re having trouble, the teachers will understand what’s going on. I’m learning a lot this year. The teachers are pushing us but are still really kind. There are more expectations but the teachers are interested in your life and where you’re coming from.”

With such a positive experience for her family at Friends’ North Campus, Carol was inspired to ask other families their opinions of Friends’ Middle School.

These first two paragraphs are from families who are brand new to Friends’ in middle school – their sons attended BVSD elementary schools. The last two quotes are from families who continued from Friends’ Elementary School.

“We feel fortunate to be a part of the ‘pioneer group’ at Friends’ Middle School. It’s been exciting and dynamic to work with such a dedicated team of educators. To us, the most important aspect is that our son comes home genuinely excited about school.  He is inspired by his teachers and is obviously enjoying learning. Since the middle school is new and relatively small, we were pleasantly surprised to learn the students have several teachers. Friends’ students contribute significantly to the direction their coursework takes. Their interests are explored in meaningful ways which are applicable in their everyday lives. As Friends’ continues to develop a rich middle school experience, they do so in a way that is consistent with their mission of teaching to the whole child creatively and with integrity.” – Mignon, mom of 6th grader Tanner.

Middle School science lab
“Friends' sixth grade has been a completely different middle school experience. The creative, open learning experience of flipped classrooms; use of technology and Schoology; the attention to community and relationships, together with inner growth; and many inspired learning avenues create a unique and open learning environment where really being yourself is at the root of learning. My pre-teen is finding is that there is enough room to explore himself and be very excited by the joy of learning.”
- Caron, mom of 6th grader Beck

“I never would have imagined that I would enroll my child in a brand-new, small middle school program! I think of this experience as being an incredibly empowering one for my daughter and her classmates. They are, every day, helping create the kind of school and community they want to be in, and it’s impressive to witness how they are carrying that out. These kids are some of the kindest, most selfless, inspiring, and thoughtful kids (or people!) I’ve ever met, and it is such a privilege for my daughter to be with them every day. The community may be small, but it is boundless in heart….

….it really is ridiculously amazing how many incredibly professional, experienced, and thoughtful teachers these kids have. Many are favorites from the elementary school - Diane, Rachel, Kelly, Stephen, and Erika. Then there is the terrific lead teacher, Kevin, who is inspiring my daughter more about learning, especially in science, than I’ve ever seen and stepping up expectations to an appropriate middle school level. Friends’ Middle School is a unique place and an experience I feel so grateful to be able to give my daughter in this critical time in her life.” – Elizabeth, mom of 6th grader Charlotte

“Going into 5th grade at Friends' School we had a terrible sadness when we thought about leaving
Our pioneering 6th grade class at Community Cycles
our community there. In this day, our sense of community is disparate as we become more global citizens. Our families often live a great distance, we move from our home states and neighborhoods are less community driven than ever. The decision to stay at Friends' for middle school was so much more than an academic one. The real-world learning platform is wonderful, it evolves with them and I see the impact it's making daily. For us, Friends' is more than a school, it's a community. We grow and learn and feel safe to fail there, our friends are there, our family is there... it's home.”
- Cinder, mom of 6th grader Tori

Our first sixth grade class, and some of our administrative team, move into the beautiful, newly renovated North Campus main building in January.  Our construction crew is wrapping up their outstanding work this week.

We invite you to come and see it for yourselves - whether your students are moving on to middle school in the next couple of years or still have several more years in our elementary school. Give us a call.

Please click here for details on all of our upcoming admissions events and feel free to pass on this information to your friends and share on social media.

December 1, 2016

Pint-sized Meditation Guides

Brooks & Grayson
Meet Grayson and Brooks, two Kindergartners in Beth Huennekens’ class at Friends’.

It has been a while since I was a Kindergarten boy.  What I remember from those days is digging in the sand, playing chase, and kicking a ball around.  I’m pretty sure that Grayson and Brooks like to do those things too.  But this week, they were up to something a little different.

They made an announcement to their teachers and to their classmates that they were eager and prepared to lead them in a guided meditation, something they had learned by practicing it themselves.  They asked their Kindergarten friends and teachers to sit in a circle, close their eyes, and place their hands either together in front of their chests or on their knees in a lotus pose.

Brooks took the lead, telling a story, inviting the class to imagine that they were listening to waves, seeing a golden sand castle, and in a quiet clear voice, asked them to visualize a huge rainbow-colored dot that came down from the sky and turned into a hot air balloon carrying a friend. While Brooks created the story, Grayson quietly circled the room, gently correcting the meditation poses for maximum effect. Grayson then picked up the story, asking his peers to imagine walking into a meadow and to think about someone they love.

The guided meditation lasted for four or five minutes, according to our Teacher Candidate Annika Nygren.  That’s a pretty long time for Kindergartners to sit in silence with such focus.  Yet everyone did.

Brooks and Grayson told Beth that, during a different class activity where they were thinking about energy zones, they noticed that meditation was something that put them both in the blue (rest) zone level of energy. They thought it was cool that they had some similarities and differences.

When Beth asked the boys how they thought it went, they initially said, "It went pretty good.  Excellent actually.  The kids' faces looked happy, so that means they liked it.”

Then they said, "Actually, we're not sure it went so well because some friends said it was boring.  That probably means it was hard and something we need to work on."

And that is what a growth mindset is all about – something we focus on at Friends’ School a lot.

Brooks explained, "We want more friends to like it!  We want them to be able to do harder mediation, like when you're totally silent and don't even tell a story."

Grayson added, "Yeah, for like 30 minutes!  That would take a lot of practice."

"Meditation" corner in Kindergarten
The boys created a corner of their classroom to be a meditation center.  They made this sign for it especially. They also told their teacher about how some friends were already showing moreinterest because they worked with them at choice time.  Brooks said, "Maybe they can help teach others!"

There is a great deal of research today about how using meditation in schools is effective in supporting learning. Meditation also brings excellent health benefits and positively affects brain activity. Mindfulness education programs improved students’ self-control, attentiveness and respect for other classmates, enhanced the school climate, and improved teachers’ moods.  This is a link to several studies collated by Friends’ former partners at the Great Good Science Center if you would like to learn more.

I’m pretty sure that Grayson and Brooks are not aware of these studies.  I’m equally certain that they know what feels good – in their bodies, in their brains, and in their classroom.

I’m proud of these Kindergarten leaders for sharing their passion with their class.  And I’m grateful for the experience and skill of Beth and Annika for giving them the respectful space to let this happen.


November 17, 2016

Play Matters (an L.A. Story!)

Our preschool team enjoying Los Angeles:
Caroline, Jessie, Hetta, Katy, Christie
Earlier this month, our entire preschool team had a unique opportunity to travel together to southern California to “grow their brains”, as they so often say to children.

Teachers Jessie Vanden Hogen and Christie Stanford were selected to present at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Los Angeles.  Through generous support from the school’s endowment fund, we were able to send all five team members to the conference – where the team not only supported Christie and Jessie, but also engaged in several days of dynamic learning with thousands of educators from around the country.

This year's conference featured sessions on issues that are of crucial importance to the early childhood field today. The NAEYC president's speech explored practices and strategies that build professional capacity to create a more just world for our programs, the staff who work within these programs, and the children and families they serve. Other sessions explored social-justice education, new strategies to encourage literacy in a digital age, strengthening the early childhood leadership pipeline, and more. 

Jessie and Christie at the NAEYC conference
Jessie and Christie’s session, which was very well attended by more than 200 people, focused on Mindfulness and Executive Function Skills Built through Storytelling. They taught their fellow educators how to help reduce stress, learn about oneself and others, and practice these skills through the art of storytelling and play.  Jessie and Christie are masters of this work.  Through their own deep experiences as long-time preschool teachers, and through sharing the research of other experts in the field, Christie and Jessie wowed their audience and attracted plenty of attention and follow-up.

For teacher Hetta Towler, the conference gave her abundant validation on why our preschool is such a great place to be. “I’m grateful for where we work,” she told me. At Friends’, our teachers believe strongly in the power of play, the importance of allowing kids to engage in physical play, and to practice executive function.

Our teachers believe wholeheartedly in creating play-based, child-centered learning environments.  They understand the beauty of childhood, and the importance of teaching children how to be mindful.  They intentionally teach connection. Our preschool does an amazing job of not only preparing children for Kindergarten and providing the most seamless transition to that next important step, but for all the years that follow. They teach both oral language and social competency.  And they do it through play. These are essential skills that many of us did not receive until later in our education.

Bev Bos with our preschool team in 2004: Jessie, Christie,
and current Director of Middle School Shelby Pawlina
One of the great advocates of play-based learning for preschoolers was Bev Bos. Bos, who passed away earlier this year, served for nearly fifty years as the director of Roseville Community Preschool in Roseville, California. She was a teacher, author and lifelong learner who spoke at more than 6,000 education conferences both in the U.S. and overseas. She believed that, given the proper environment, young children could choose their own learning activities.

Bev Bos taught educators and gave them the ability to trust our children, that they are capable. She is a revered figure for our preschool teachers.   She once said: “There are eleven conditions for human growth, and all of them fit into play. Children need to be outside. They can do so much there. They can feel a sense of belonging there. They can take risks.”

Following Jessie and Christie’s presentation, a young teacher approached them and asked how they got into storytelling.  “Bev Bos would have loved your storytelling”, she told them.

And I say, of course she would have.  Christie and Jessie are today’s experts. And I am glad that our dedicated team got to spend four days learning and playing together.

November 10, 2016

Who We Are

Citizenship day with my daughters Emma and Leah
January 26, 2011
On Wednesday morning of this week, the morning immediately following the presidential election, fifth grade teacher Leigh Houser invited me into her class to speak with her students at morning meeting.  I began with a question: “How many of you experienced big feelings in your family in the last several hours about the election?”  Every hand went up. The election result has affected us all deeply. I gave any student who wanted it an opportunity to express him or herself freely and we all listened. 

Whichever candidate you voted for during this election, there is no doubt that the campaign season was filled with anger, disrespect, insults, and lack of understanding or appreciation for differences.

How do we as parents raise our children to be kind and to be respectful of others when they are seeing and hearing poor behavior on the national stage? 

The fifth graders and I talked for about thirty minutes about the election results and how each of us was feeling.  The conversation was not without rancor.  More than one student expressed strong opinions about the presidential candidates that were in opposition to those of other classmates. Several students expressed being scared for what lies ahead. On more than one occasion, I had to steer the conversation toward respecting our differences and maintaining relationships and friendships even with those who hold viewpoints that diverge from our own.

For this is who we are as a school. 

Our school theme this year is connection. From the very first day that our youngest preschoolers enter our doors, our teachers do an outstanding job of teaching children to express themselves appropriately, to be kind and respectful. Teachers work hard to ensure that we, and others, feel safe.

In Caroline Long’s third grade class on Wednesday, children came in feeling a wide range of emotions: disinterest, excitement, sadness, worry, surprise and nervousness.  Caroline’s goals were to be present, positive and reassuring. She shared President Obama's short video about the sun rising and this poem by Victoria Erickson. Her students reflected and asked questions.
In Liz Richards’ fourth grade morning circle, Liz let her students express questions, thoughts and feelings.  Her responses focused on the following three themes:

• The adults in your life will keep you safe.

Be the change you want to see in the world by continuing to be kind to one another, including family, community, and neighbors, regardless of race, religion, and nationality as that energy permeates out into the world.

  A review of our system of three branches of government and its checks and balances.

Too many times in this election season, issues have been presented to us as wrong vs. right, black against white.  As a nation, we appear to be losing our willingness or ability to think critically, to question, to allow for diversity in all its forms, and to accept nuance.

At Friends’ School, our teachers are very intentional about teaching our social and emotional curriculum. By consciously learning about inclusion, empathy, respect, kindness, and responsibility, our children are learning to see both sides of a situation and to make compassionate choices.  Our teachers give children useful and valuable language and mediation tools so they learn to navigate differences, first with support, and then on their own.  We challenge children to express their emotions using “I….” statements so they learn not to blame or hurt the feelings of their peers.

Friends’ School helps kids learn to accept responsibility if they make a mistake, and to explore ways to make things better. We encourage children to build bridges, not walls, with those around them. We embolden our students to speak up in the face of injustice and disrespect.

Unlike many in our Friends’ and Boulder community, I was not born a citizen of the United States.  After living here for two decades, I made a very conscious choice to become a citizen.  I took that significant step not only because I wanted to play a bigger role in the society in which I lived, but also because I believed wholeheartedly in this country and what it stands for.

As a head of school, I am proud of our teaching staff for how they talk with kids.  As a father of daughters and of a gay teen, I am thrilled to be part of a community that demonstrates respect and kindness each and every day. As an immigrant, I am grateful to be welcomed and to welcome all kinds of families to our school.

These are uncertain times, but I can say with certainty that your children are in a safe place, where kindness and tolerance are modeled. They are in a school where they are getting the tools and skills they need to be successful, and to play their own part one day, in shaping what this country will become.

Caroline and Liz both shared Mahatma Gandhi’s quote "Be the change that you wish to see in the world." with their classes on Wednesday. Several children shared what change they hope to see and how they are planning to put that into action. 

Friends’ School and I will walk tall with them.