February 25, 2016

Expanding Our Influence

Liz and Erika with Mindset author Carol Dweck
Friends’ teachers and staff have been heading to points west this week, seeking knowledge and sharing what they know.

One major goal from our newly minted five year strategic plan is to “reinforce the schools position as a leader with expanding influence in educating students and teachers to thrive in a changing world.”

We believe we do this every day in the education we provide for our students as well as in the ongoing training that our teacher candidates receive in pursuit of a Colorado teaching license and (in many cases) a Masters’ degree.

Many of our teachers and staff were given an opportunity to expand their influence a little further afield in the past few days.

Fifth grade teacher Liz Richards and math specialist Erika Norman were in Santa Fe, NM, over the weekend, attending the MidSchoolMath National Conference, a conference designed for middle school and upper elementary math teachers. Their big take-aways were the critical importance of giving students real-world math problems to tackle and not necessarily providing students with all the data.  In this day and age, when we are educating today’s students for a workplace that barely exists yet, it is important for teachers to ask students “What else do you need to know to solve this?” and “How are you going to get that information?”

A highlight for Erika and Liz was the chance to hear and meet renowned author and psychologist Carol Dweck, who wrote the book Mindset. Dr. Dweck’s book has been a huge influence for our faculty since its release in 2006 and continues to guide the way we think about chldren’s learning and growth.  Needless to say, there was some jealousy back home among their colleagues when Liz and Erika circulated the photograph above.

Our entire preschool team was in Denver on Friday and Saturday at the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Conference. There, they convened with preschool and early elementary teachers from all over the west, discovering the latest research and best practice in their field.

Our very own Jessie Vanden Hogen and Christie Stanford presented at the conference onBuilding Young Mathematicians Through Play.”  Our back-to-back teachers of the year drew a crowd of over 130 educators, teachers of infants to 3rd grade, who came to learn how to recognize mathematical learning opportunities within a classroom setting. Christie and Jessie demonstrated that children’s play is rich with possibilities for building early number sense, using mathematical language, understanding time, measuring and estimating, noticing patterns, and discovering geometry.

Our Director of Finance, Jen Cope, left on Sunday for a few days in balmy Los Angeles, to attend the annual conference of the National Business Officers Association.  Each year, business officers from over a thousand independent schools all over the country gather to participate in three days of extensive professional development and networking. Among the notable speakers was Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy online learning.  The focus of the conference was how big-picture strategic thinking generates actions and possibilities at every department of the school, stretching beyond short-term issues or narrow focus.

Jen returned to school armed with new information on insights on important topics.  These include HR law, financial aid, budget modeling and forecasting, audits, and strategic communication.

Last but not least, Associate Head Mandy Stepanovsky and I are in San Francisco (where I’m writing this blog) presenting at the National Association of Independent Schools’ annual conference.  This is a big convention of over 5,000 educators and school leaders from 1,700 private schools nationwide.

The theme of the 2016 conference is Stories Matter. School leadership and independent education thrive on building communities and connections driven by the interwoven narratives of people and institutions. It’s part of the reason I make time each week to write this column and to share stories from our school community with you.

Mandy and I are discussing Friends’ School’s year of mindfulness, which was our schoolwide theme last year. We are presenting today (Friday) on how we weaved the topic of mindfulness throughout our school culture.  It was not just part of classroom ritual, but became a big part of our parent education program and culminated in a wonderful Hang Up and Hang Out event.

All of these professional development opportunities, including travel costs, are supported by the Community Board’s release of funds from our school’s endowment fund.  A portion of funds from the endowment is specifically restricted to support professional training, with additional dollars earmarked for encouraging and rewarding our teachers to present and publish.

For this we are very grateful. 

February 18, 2016

Affirming What Friends’ Does Best

5th grade scientists 
Thank you to everyone in our Friends’ School community who participated in one way or another in our re-accreditation visit from the Association of Colorado Independent Schools.

The six team members from schools across the state spent four days at Friends’, exploring every aspect of our school.  They interviewed every teacher and staff member, several of our trustees and Board committee members, some of our students and alumni, and a number of parents.  They observed in classrooms and dove deep into our financial statements, policies, and practices.

According to Avi Halzel, who chaired the team, they came away extremely impressed with Friends’ School.  He and his assistant chair Andy Davies gave an overview to our staff at the end of the visit and thanked us for our gracious hosting.

We have yet to receive a copy of the visiting team report. While we need to wait until a vote from ACIS’ accreditation committee and Board of Trustees, all signs point to a highly successful visit and a strong recommendation for re-accreditation.

We do know that Friends’ received ACIS’ highest commendations in five principal areas:

 - the extremely high quality of our faculty and staff and the full engagement and joy evident in our students
 - the very strong sense of community at our school, along with outstanding mission congruence which supports program excellence

- our sound fiscal practice and conservative management of our finances

 - highly efficient use of our limited space

 - the planning, preparation and management of the new middle school which will open in August.

The full report will contain further commendations as well as recommendations and suggestions for how we can continue to improve as an educational institution and a community.

I am grateful to everyone who participated in the visit (and all parents who filled out the parent survey in November participated!)  It was not easy for our staff to fulfill their everyday obligations while hosting such a multi-day event.  In particular, I would like to extend my great appreciation to Dacia Horn and Jana Bledsoe for the amazing preparations and workload that went into making sure the week was a successful one. Thank you to all.

Ten years from now, in 2026, we’ll do it all over again!

February 11, 2016

Family and Meditation

Jana Bledsoe at the Shambala Mountain Center
Each year, Friends’ Schools gives awards from the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund. 

My predecessor, Polly Donald, Friends’ Head of School for seventeen years, believes
that an individual’s personal growth inevitably enriches those with whom he or she comes into contact. In her name, the school created the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund, which aims to revitalize, inspire and support the personal growth of Friends’ faculty and staff. 

This year, the award winners were preschool teacher Jessie Vanden Hogan and administrative assistant Jana Bledsoe. Jana oversees our Alumni Association, as well as supports the work of the development, business, and admissions offices and helps to keep me sane and organized. Each received a cash award so they could pursue a passion and feel inspired.

Summaries of Jessie’s and Jana’s experiences follow:

This past summer I was fortunate enough to receive a PTD grant, which afforded me the opportunity to connect with my entire family on a memorable trip to Kauai. With half of my family living in the States (Boulder, CO and Green Bay, WI - go Pack!) and the other half living in Australia (Sydney and Old Toongabbie, NSW), we try to get together every 5 years and this was our summer to all be in one place.

Jessie with Connor and his sister Annabelle
After a month-long traumatic event with my nephew last January (with many complications still ongoing), my family felt a pull towards needing to honor our plan to spend some quality time together to decompress, continue healing, and celebrate life. What are the first words that come to mind to describe your feelings of spending 10 days in the same cozy house with 13 of your family members…as an adult? Believe it or not, my first words are: Rejuvenation, Renewal, Laughter, Love, Fun, Connection, Balance, and even Growth! It was hot, hot, hot and humid, humid, humid, but there was no shortage of connection, fun and love. Everyone had their moment to shine. We snorkeled, cooked amazingly colorful, tasty meals, took photos, told stories, played bar dice, hugged, cried, danced, and laughed.

This gift gave me quality time with my family that fed my soul. It was a therapeutic trip for all of us. I am so lucky to be able to leave my family and come home to my FriendsSchool family. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to this fund and to Polly who always helped me to think and grow outside of my box. This experience refreshed and reenergized me, as well as inspired me to grow as a teacher, co-worker, aunt, sister, daughter, granddaughter, and friend.
Jessie hugging her 'little' brother
Pieter who lives in Australia
As far as my nephew Connor, his journey and his ability to live by his hero Vince Lombardis quote was a lesson to all of us to persevere…

“Its not whether you get knocked down, its whether you get up.”  - Vince Lombardi

He has taught us all to celebrate life and that is what we were all doing in that cozy house on a tiny island in-between the States and Oz.
Good on ya mate, no worries!



The Polly Talbot Donald Enrichment Fund is a phenomenal gift of revitalization. I chose to use my award to attend a week-long intensive mindful meditation program at the Shambala Mountain Center at Red Feathers Lake. My goal was to do something radically out of my comfort zone. I was hoping for an experience that would shift my paradigm from a “tasking” lifestyle, working 2 jobs and single parenting, to one of mindful awareness, adding more depth and breadth to my life.

I was a bit nervous when I discovered that I was the only participant in the program who had never meditated before. I thought perhaps I should have reflected upon the meaning of “immersion” before registering. The next seven days would consist of 14 hours of meditation….each day. The 14 hours involved sitting meditation interspersed with walking meditation as well as three meals, which were “performed” ritualistically, in silence, on our cushions, using the basic principles of Oryoki.

I actually found the first day exhilarating and remember thinking “oh, this isn’t so hard”. I came to realize that I wasn’t actually meditating at all but instead “thinking” about all of the things that I was grateful for. Come to find out, “thinking” is actually the antithesis of meditating.  I didn’t have a clue. I struggled the next day to try to “clear my mind” which proved to be about as easy as herding 120 cats with a couple pit bulls thrown in for additional distraction. 

In theory, mindfulness meditation practice couldn’t be simpler: take a good seat, pay attention to the breath, and when your attention wanders, return. How could something so simple be so difficult? 14 hours felt like 14 days when it was broken up into 60-second intervals of success before the next assault of “thought” bombarded me like a Star Wars fleet.  The paradox was that when I was able to just be present to my mind and body, the stress would quiet down—but when I tried to quiet my mind down, I would just add fuel to the fire. This realization eventually allowed my intervals of “quiet” to increase. Over the course of the week, I found my entire nervous system slowing down. Every day seemed to bring with it a profound introspection and appreciation for the simplicity of eating, breathing, walking, essentially just “being”.  Every day the practice became somewhat easier, but also more profound. By the end of the week, my eyes had been opened to the richness of simple mindful living, I had a set of tools to work with, and most importantly, my heart was open.

I want to thank all of the members of the Polly Talbot Donald Enrichment Fund committee for giving me the opportunity to “revitalize, inspire and support my personal growth”.  This experience was truly one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had.  Life happens and I suspect that the journey to living mindfully will be progress not perfection. I am beyond grateful, thanks to this experience, to now have a “touch stone” to serve as my compass. Priceless.

Meditation is not escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to truly help.”  Thich Nhat Hanh


February 3, 2016

Seeing Through Others’ Eyes

Last week, our elementary school hosted a number of visitors from Denver Public Schools. They had heard that Friends’ School was a leader in social and emotional learning.  In particular they wanted to learn more about how to integrate the intentional teaching of character traits (gratitude, mindfulness, resilience, etc.) into mainstream education.

Our guests were teachers from Sabin World Elementary School in Denver, and staff members from DPS’ head office, and from a professional development unit within Denver Public Schools called Imaginarium.

Sabin is an International Baccalaureate World School, one of just three public elementary schools in Denver to offer the IB Primary Years program for all students, from early childhood through fifth grade. Imaginarium is a unique, multi-faceted group of experienced educators whose mission is to promote innovation in the district.

Our guests spent about two hours visiting our elementary classrooms. Afterwards, I met with them to learn about what they had seen and heard and to answer their questions.  I wish I had thought to audio-record their comments and pass them on to you, because they were so upbeat and positive. It was rewarding to get an outside perspective on our school from professional colleagues from very different settings.

Our visitors immediately noticed the "smiles and the overwhelming joy” at Friends’ and the evidence of a strong community, how different and happy it felt compared to other schools they knew. They noticed the language teachers used to encourage students to pay attention to their own emotions as well as the emotions of others.  They loved the portfolios they saw, particularly the evidence of student self-reflection, which they believed to be totally authentic.  

One of the teachers talked about a time when she began to introduce mindfulness exercises and yoga to her class: she was told to stop by the principal because of the time lost from instruction.  We had a great conversation about the opposite: what students gain by participating in these activities. Another teacher, at recess, only noticed one of our students who was on her own, and loved when, within a minute, another student asked the first to play with her group.  They were amazed at "the lack of arguing” on our playground.

They noticed an emphasis at our school on storytelling. In fifth grade where class where students were doing readers’ theatre for history, they were blown away by Liz and Eric’s focus on what people might have been feeling at that time in history, the connections and the empathy.  When I mentioned this to Liz later, she said she hadn’t planned it specifically that way - it was just the way she approached it naturally.

Overall, this was a group whose eyes were opened to the kind of heart-focused, kind, strong community we have at Friends’.  The teachers at Sabin left excited to take back to their school many of the ideas and qualities that they had seen.  We hope to continue a relationship with their faculty to support the change they want to bring to their school.

Thank you to our teachers for opening their doors – and opening some eyes!

And a brief reminder that we will have more educators visiting our school next week – this time, colleagues from the independent school world who are here Monday-Thursday for our re-accreditation visit.  We are confident they will also enjoy their time at Friends’.