October 26, 2016

Varying the Routes – Thoughts from our Board Chair

Friends' Board Chair Elizabeth Henna
(and Summit!)
Each year, a number of Friends’ trustees and staff join me at the Annual Conference of the Association of Colorado Independent Schools.  This year, not only did Friends’ School send its biggest delegation to the conference at Beaver Creek, it was a record turnout from forty of the top private schools from across the state.
One of our representatives was Elizabeth Henna, Chair of the Friends’ School Community Board. Following the conference, Elizabeth shared the following with the board.  With her permission, I am sharing her thoughts in Among Friends’.
Here’s Elizabeth….
I love the ACIS conference. Being in the mountains with wonderful board and staff colleagues, hearing inspiring speakers talk about innovative work happening in their schools, and talking with counterparts at independent schools from all over the state fills me with energy and ideas and renews my commitment to Friends’. Usually some point sticks with me. Last year my favorite take-away came from speaker Yong Zhao, who is baffled by Americans’ obsession with getting kids ready for Kindergarten. “Shouldn’t Kindergarten,” he argued, “be ready for kids?“
Right now what is sticking with me from this year’s conference are a couple of points from Dr. Brett Jacobsen, Head of School at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. Brett described how his school seeks to “vary the routes” rather than sending each student on the exact same path year after year. As we all know, the rote memorization-centric, single path of traditional American education was well suited to the needs of an economy focused on mass production but does little to encourage the creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking needed to create jobs in the 21st century and to work effectively in a diverse and globalized environment.
As an example of varying the routes, Jacobsen recounted what happened when one of his students on a field trip asked about a sign posted in a local library restroom. The sign requested that patrons refrain from washing or bathing. The child’s question, and the faculty response, naturally evolved not only into exploration of the local homelessness challenge, but also a school-wide engagement in service learning addressing that challenge.
As Brett spoke, Steve looked at me and said, “Shelby’s doing this.” (Shelby Pawlina is Friends’ Director of Middle School.) He was, I’m sure, thinking of how our brand-new middle school program
Our amazing faculty and staff
is centered on responding to students’ natural interests and curiosity. Accordingly, discussions of physics concepts such as mass inertia and momentum flow from “time trial” competitions between student runners and cyclists in the school parking lot. Mapping, design thinking, budgeting, collaboration, and public speaking skills are currently being developed through an integrated unit in which students are working with Friends’ landscape architect to plan outdoor learning areas at the North Campus.
This responsiveness to students’ passions is, of course, a hallmark not only of our new middle school program, but of all education at Friends’. I remember how Diane Bramble let my son research, create, and present a 45-minute talk on the International Space Station to his third-grade class. That project wasn’t part of any prescribed path for what a third-grade student should do that year, but it was an appropriate and interesting route variation for that student at that time.
Brett Jacobsen described how Mt. Vernon has used design thinking to create route-varying innovation not only in its curriculum, but also in its use of space and in fact every aspect of the school’s operations, from the classroom to the boardroom.
As our teachers, Steve, and staff work so hard to create new and varied routes to fulfilling our mission of educating the whole child – head, hand, and heart, I hope we as a board will take advantage of our incredibly passionate, committed, and creative members, including our rock-star class of first-year trustees, to vary routes ourselves. As our ACIS visiting team report recommends, we should examine our board workings to see where we can make improvements to serve the school better. I am grateful that the Committee on Trustees and many of our other trustees have already jumped into that effort this year and look forward to working with all of you to vary our routes when that makes sense.
There is one other point I’m taking away from Jacobsen’s presentation: the importance of a “culture of fun.” As I told Steve last spring, Friends’ is the happiest school I’ve ever seen. On a daily basis, I see our students, teachers, and staff having fun as they work. Let’s commit ourselves to fostering that essential element of fun in our own operations as well. One of the biggest benefits to serving on the board of Friends’ School should be getting to learn and work with the same joyful spirit our students, teachers, Head of School, and staff demonstrate every day. I am committing myself to working toward that goal. I look forward to doing just that with the help of all of you.
Thanks, Elizabeth
(If you are interested in learning more about board work at Friends’, or any of its working committees, please email Elizabeth Henna at ehenna@comcast.net) 

October 20, 2016

Say What I Mean or Mean What I Say?

My office on our South Campus sits above Friends’ preschool. As I pass through the building, and as I listen to joyful laughter out my window, I hear and see many of the wonderful things that happen in our preschool every day.

One day, I overheard one of our preschool teachers saying to her class of three year olds:

“Before we go outside, let’s see if anyone needs to go to the bathroom.”

One little boy followed the directions to the letter.  He pulled open the front of his sweatpants to literally ‘see’ if he needed to go.

“Nope”, he assured his teacher.  He was fine.  Ready to run outside and play.

I love this story because it highlights so beautifully the importance of language.  As a linguistics major at the University of York in England, I learned that language matters. As I’ve navigated the sometimes sensational, occasionally tricky waters, of adulthood how well I learn this lesson continues to impact my life in meaningful ways.

Learning to use language well is more than just learning to speak in front of others or telling someone what you want or winning an argument. Effective communication is the backbone that elevates our lives. It determines the quality of our relationships, how well we do at work, the balance we experience and the ease and confidence with which we move in our world.

In our preschool, our experienced and highly trained teachers continually encourage their young students to use language well.  They model how to express ones’ needs.  They encourage children to say thank you.  They emphasize the positive by telling children what they can do rather than telling them what they cannot do.  Instead of saying, “Don’t do that!”, they say, “Here’s what you can do instead.”

Our teachers have learned that too much praise is not effective.  Instead of the relatively meaningless “Good job!”, they focus on telling children what they notice that they admire.  “I notice you’ve been working for a long time.”  “I notice all the bright blue in your painting.” Generic praise of kids fosters a dependence on praise and leads to them feeling less secure.  (For an excellent article that goes into this concept in more depth, please read Alfie Kohn’s Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”)

I met with one of our elementary parents recently whose children had both gone through Friends’ preschool. As she was extolling the virtues of the preschool teachers, she said to me something along the lines of “If everyone spoke using the language learned at Friends’ preschool, a lot of marriages could be saved.” 

Or, as Lewis Carroll wrote in the fifth grade play I directed last year, Alice in Wonderland: Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on. 'I do,' Alice hastily replied; 'at least, — at least I mean what I say — that's the same thing, you know.”

(A version of this column appeared in different form in Among Friends' in 2012.)

October 12, 2016

Spotlight on Krysten, new to Boulder and already Bahrain bound!

This is the first in an occasional series that will introduce our entire Friends’ School community to our new teachers and staff.

We kick off with a very warm hello to Krysten Fort-Catanese, who is our new 2ndgrade teacher.

Krysten, her husband Alex and her daughter Francesca, who is in third grade at Friends’, recently moved to Boulder from Phuket, Thailand. There Krysten helped to develop and grow an international school, Phuket International Academy which has recently become United World College (UWC), Thailand. She joined the school in 2009 first as an elementary teacher and then as the school’s first Director of Social and Emotional Learning and Mindfulness.

Krysten’s values and philosophy, which emphasize international-mindedness, differentiation, inclusion and developmentally appropriate practices, are strongly aligned with Friends’ own philosophy.

When Krysten and her family decided to return to the U.S after seven years in Thailand, she had very high expectations of any school she applied to, and therefore conducted a narrow search.  Friends’ was at the top of her list because she was specifically drawn to our educational philosophy of Head, Hand and Heart.

What Krysten admires deeply about Friends’ School is how very explicit we are here about focusing on the social and emotional well-being of children. She loves that there is an expectation at Friends’ on high academics, but even more important to her is that the teachers at Friends’ are consistently aiming to grow future citizens, citizens who are compassionate and will become change agents for a better world.  She knows that Friends’ is a place where kids are supported to take responsibility for their thoughts, their actions, and their feelings now, and for life.

Now that she has a few weeks of teaching at Friends’ under her belt, Krysten clearly sees that her teaching colleagues live and breathe Head, Hand and Heart.  She is impressed at the thoughtful ways they embody it. She believes that strong modeling from the adults in children’s lives is paramount.  
She says that Friends’ has completely lived up to her and her family’s expectations.  They all feel very welcomed, and checked in on, by teachers and by families in both her class and Francesca’s third grade class.  We held a lot of events in September, events which were helpful in giving the Cataneses opportunities to connect with the wider Friends’ community.

Francesca (3rd grade) and Krysten (2nd grade!)
One major difference between our small school in Boulder and a larger international school in Thailand is the diversity of the families.  At Phuket International Academy, families from fifty nations were enrolled.  In Francesca’s class, bilingualism was the norm.

Following this rich experience, as well as earlier teaching positions and opening a school in southern California, Krysten is dedicated to exploring diversity. Her Masters degree in education focused on developing a Cultural Responsive Teaching Practice.

Krysten was eager to join our faculty diversity committee and is passionate to create greater awareness of diversity in our school community. Krysten’s face lights up when she discusses diversity in all its forms: culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic, family background, and more. Even though Boulder is not the most diverse place in America, Krysten feels strongly that our progressive community is open to increasing awareness and opportunity. We can learn a lot from her.

Krysten has been invited back to Bahrain to speak and lead a workshop at an International Schools Conference on the topic of mindfulness and teaching with body, mind, and heart.  She will be in Bahrain for a few days in January, teaching teachers from around the world and sharing what she knows while representing Friends’ School on the international stage.

Our second grade families are already learning that Krysten is a natural teacher and leader.  All of us at Friends’ are excited that she has spent her entire professional career encouraging and coaching teachers to use innovative practices that are challenging, meaningful and nurture a growth mindset. And now she brings that passion and dedication to us.

We welcome her with open arms.

October 6, 2016

The Giant Pumpkin

Preschool teachers Christie Stanford and Katy Hollenbach
bring sunshine and rain to their pumpkin seed
On Tuesday and Thursday of this week, our preschool classes participated in our annual Harvest Celebration. 

This is a long-standing Friends’ School tradition, dating back to our founding families in 1987. Our Harvest celebrates all the bounty the earth offers us, and the traditional year-end harvest of the crops. Families are invited to come together to sing songs, hear a story, and share some food that the class has made together.

In the preschool, teachers tell the story of The Giant Pumpkin.  During the story, preschoolers are invited to close their eyes, and in those magical moments, the pumpkin mysteriously grows bigger and bigger, from a small seed to a giant pumpkin! The Giant Pumpkin story is based on an old Polish folktale of the giant turnip.

Our 2014 and 2015 Boulder Teachers of the Year, Christie Stanford and Jessie Vanden Hogen, have been telling the giant pumpkin story for 17 years!  In more recent years, they have been joined by colleagues Hetta Towler and Katy Hollenbach, and this year by their Teacher Candidates Lauren Mark and Mary Kay Morris.

Jessie, Hetta and Lauren celebrate The Giant Pumpkin
with their pre-Kindergartners
I try to never miss the story telling.  I’ve been to four this week! Words cannot quite capture the teachers’ passionate expression of surprise and celebration each time the pumpkin grows.  Raw joy and pure imagination reign.  For years, these amazing educators have been telling this story and they make it incredibly alive for the children.

Naturally of course, the excitement, delight and mystery follow for the children too – and for their parents – and for their head of school!

In our morning classes, preschoolers shout out all that’s needed to grow the pumpkin: sun, water, weeding, mulch, and love.  In the afternoon pre-Kindergarten classes, children act out the story, with each student taking a part that they practice ahead of time.  It ends with all the class in a line pulling together on an imaginary pumpkin vine.

Following the story, families shared delicious pumpkin muffins, made by the children and teachers.

For our east classrooms this year, the weather was so changeable that we saw both rain and sun to help grow the pumpkin!

Thank you, preschool teachers, for all the love and storytelling. Thank you for the stories, for the music, and for those all-important community moments that we cherish.

Our elementary Harvest celebration will be on October 20th. Please join my story telling of Stone Soup and our classroom celebrations!