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) 

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