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Assessing Learning

At last week’s Morning Meeting, I read Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco to our young students gathered in the multipurpose room. This endearing book explores the discovery of a learning difference in a young girl long frustrated with school. A special teacher, Mr. Falker, comes along in her fifth-grade year and makes a life-changing difference for her. My purpose for reading this inspiring story was twofold. One was to further demonstrate the need to build empathy for different ways we each may learn in the classroom, the other was to remind the girls how influential a teacher can be in the lives of a student. I reminded them that the next week parents would receive a “report card” that outlines their learning and marks their progress at this point in the year. My message included a nod to the hard work teachers put into writing these detailed reports and how it reflects the way teachers know them so well. However, I also emphasized that, like the main character in the story, we all have different ways of learning and the most important comparison is not against the reports of other classmates but against the reports before and after this one as it demonstrates personal progress. It is important to remember that we are all on a continuum of learning and may be in different places with that learning. The important thing is to keep the joy in the process.

The process is always more important than the product, and it should remain exciting and engaging and challenging so we continue to push forward to greater learning. As schools evolve and respond to a changing world, this will only become more important. There will be less emphasis on an end product, the graded essay, the ribbon on the science project and more on a portfolio of ongoing explorations, each one leading to a new exploration. More questions, less answers.

Last year at this time, I wrote about the “love-hate” relationship educators have with numbers, letters and percentages, otherwise known as grades. Too often students and parents become  focused on these marks, which are actually just a snapshot in time and may be outdated even as the report card goes home. We try to emphasize the progress and room for growth as we sit down together with you at conferences. Each child is unique and so is their learning experience. Having an inquisitive mind and knowing the value of struggle and failure is the most important indicator of future success in the classroom and beyond. Discuss with your child how important it is to always try your best and that failure or setbacks are an important part of the learning process.

I have included again the article I shared before about how school systems and private institutions (Gilman included) are exploring new ways of documenting student learning. It will take some time and look “messy” along the way but promises to encourage what we want most for our children- less judgement by others about their abilities or strengths and more of a portfolio-type testament to what they choose to do based on their passions and interests.

An Interesting Read about New Ways of Assessment on the Horizon

Please join us this winter for a parent coffee based on these ideas and more about assessment and learning in a rapidly changing world.

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The Better News about Good Behavior

Later this month author Katherine Reynolds Lewis will speak to our tri-schools about raising responsible children in today’s world. Based on her popular book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, she will shine a light on navigating potential pitfalls of parenting with a message that should resonate with many families. We learned of Lewis’ book last spring and asked our faculty to read it over the summer. Teachers often find themselves searching for advice about how to handle the inevitable conflicts that occur between children and how to motivate students to do the right thing when it comes to behavior. This book addresses many long-accepted strategies about discipline and motivation and offers new methods that promise better, and more long-lasting results. We are so fortunate that someone with such timely advice is able to come and speak to both faculty and families. Ms. Lewis will share her experiences, tell tales from her professional work life, and answer the many questions we have about raising the next generation to be good and self-reliant citizens.

Some of the many “take-aways” I found in the book reflect the teachings of Responsive Classroom. This structure, which we implement in our lower school classrooms, motivates students to do what the community has decided is fair and good by building an innate sense of belonging and empathy for others. Students in our classrooms are never threatened to behave “or else!” indicating some form of punishment or consequence. Neither are they rewarded for fulfilling their role in the classroom. Doing jobs, helping others, following the teacher’s direction are all expected parts of the school day. Children learn that doing the right thing feels good, and that is its own reward. I realize it sounds too simple, and of course there are sometimes break downs in this system. They usually come from misdirection from the adults rather than “that child” who is a problem. Katherine Reynolds Lewis points out that children, by nature, want to please, and they really value their role in the community. They act out when they are not feeling valued or when some other basic need is missing. Rather than “fix” a child who is misbehaving, it is essential to study the behavior and think about what might be below the surface.

Our students learn that they have a set of “tools” at their disposal to use for both self-regulation and to allow for better interpersonal experiences. This “Toolbox” is at the center of many of our conversations about discipline or conflict. Did you use your “Garbage Can” tool and throw the unimportant things bothering you away? Did you consider that your “Personal Space” tool might look different than a classmates’ version, and you were just too close to them? Let’s use our “Breathing Tool” to give ourselves a chance to calm down, or let’s use our “Listening Tool” and remember to listen with our heart, as well as our ears. These methods, like the use of Responsive Classroom, mean that students are being taught about behavior. We are not reacting to good or bad actions, we are enabling our students to control their own behavior so that it becomes the fabric of who they are.

There is great value in connecting to other families as you travel that path that is known as parenthood. Right now it might be getting advice on sleeping routines and teething biscuits, soon it will be how to prioritize after school activities, and then how to set limits on social media use. Parent partners can make sense of what you are experiencing and give you that valuable line, “Not all parents are letting their child do _______!” because you know that others share your values and expectations. I say this because on Sunday, October 20, we have arranged for a tri-school book talk, Whether you have had the opportunity to read, The Good News About Bad Behavior or not, it will be a time to meet other parents in our community and share ideas about raising good children. Look for more details on social media or in newsletters and make this a priority! Please remember that we are in partnership with you and desire the same great outcomes for your children. Lewis states, “Everyone has bad parenting habits.”  I will say every school has a few bad habits when dealing with children’s needs as well. I look forward  to working together to give our RPCS children the benefits of changing old habits into new, child-centered practices that work!

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No Child Left Inside

A teacher recently shared an academic article with me (linked below), and it immediately make me think of an essential topic for my blog, the importance of play-based education, and more specifically here, the value of nature-based education. As we begin yet another academic year with its focus on standards and mastery, it begs the question- where does nature and play fit into the equation. No pun intended, but we, as educators, really struggle justifying time for exploration, time for interacting with nature, and time to “get lost” in play activities. More and more literature indicates that play is at the center of learning. Unfortunately, we still think of play as a young child’s activity, or maybe a much older child’s activity if they work for Google or Apple Corporation.  In between, we look at hard testing data and grouping results to give us a sense of whether our child is learning and on their way to the top echelon of higher education. Our current system demands such measurement sticks, many more actually, and it is difficult to justify a change in how we assess learning. More to come about assessment in future blog posts, but here I want to argue the indisputable fact that being outside is good for children. You will find several articles, TED talks, and organizations that do a much better job than I do at making the case for the environment as a key player in a child’s education. Our Reggio-inspired preschool sees the classroom, indoor and outdoor, as a “third teacher” after the parent and educator. Watching the daily problem solving and design-based thinking that goes on outside my office window every day is a testament to how our Little Reds are gaining life-long social and academic readiness skills. The question of readiness for a more structured Kindergarten environment comes up when parents explore our program. As the academic article states so well in the Abstract, students in good academic or good nature-based preschools do equally well, and the benefits of more time in the outdoors are providing psychological and physical benefits for the young child.

I spoke to the girls at Lower School Morning Meeting on Friday about the idea of “it takes a village” to make a difference in one’s community or for the broader world with a picture book titled, It Takes a Villageby Hillary Rodham Clinton. We quietly reflected after the story on a photograph of Greta Thunberg, youth activist and caretaker for the world. My message stated that, while she has learning differences like many in the world, she sees them as her “superpower” and revels in her ability to stay highly focused on her cause. I asked, what were their “superpowers”, and what would they change for the better in the world. I write this because linked below is an article that links play in outside spaces with a desire to work for the greater good and protect the earth that has given them so much pleasure. At RPCS we want our girls to lead for the greater good. I feel confident that those children who traveled the backwoods each week with Ms. Alice or Ms. Noemie will find a way to keep this beautiful earth enjoyable for generations to come.

I hope these articles, and the link to the organization childrenandnature.org., will inspire you to enjoy even more time outside in nature this fall. What a wonderful time to make new promises to yourself and your children that increase your outside “play” experiences. A quote from one of these sources poses the question, “What could our lives and our children’s lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?” Something to think about for parents but also educators.

I hope the fall (and winter, and spring, and summer…..) brings many outside learning experiences for us all.

Academic Article Linking Kindergarten Success and Nature-based Play

Nature Experiences and Leading for Greater Good

Nature Organization with Good Articles and Links

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The Whiz Bangs and Woes of Technology

Roland Park Country School is fully entrenched in utilizing the best teaching concepts of the twentieth century and at the same time staying true to its more traditional and time-tested curriculum. In other words, we embrace new ways of delivering instruction, often with technology, but only as a better means to the same end. The internet provides educators with a wealth of new ideas. I know that I learn more each week from my Twitter following than from even the best workshop. Never has the world been more at our fingertips, and it is truly amazing. In this way, our girls now have all the resources to learn about everything that makes them wonder. They don’t have to wait until a certain grade level to learn about whales, or the Civil War, or what is the tallest mountain in the world and experience it in three dimensions. Our teachers can move out of the “worn path in the front of the room” and teach from all corners of the space, projecting notes, photos, or student work on the classroom screen. They can teach from afar, giving the girls teacher-created or student-created video to watch from home or teach through a guided program on the iPad that allows the girls to learn at their own pace.  Many of our educators have discovered that teaching about the world is now possible in a more meaningful way through Skype-like programs. Our girls have taken virtual field trips, talked with students around the country and even around the world. They now have a global understanding that generations before could never have experienced at such young ages.

These are obviously examples of the “whiz bang” and “wow” of technology. The world at their fingertips and a constant flow of information sounds great, however as parents and educators know, this comes with a huge responsibility. How do we teach our young children to navigate the world of technology safely and beneficially with so many temptations? Our children watch what we do and how we use technology every day. We are their best educators in how to harness this amazing, evolving resource. Together, we can help our girls become responsible users of technology. Last year RPCS invited speaker, Ana Homayoun, to campus. She told our girls to remember what they are passionate about and make sure they are spending enough time pursuing these activities. She challenged them to leave devices outside of bedrooms and take digital breaks often. Good advice for all of us. Keep her books handy as you navigate the world of devices and pre-teens!

Ana Homayoun on Children and Media Use

Technology extends beyond devices used for social media, information, and communication. We are looking at more opportunities to use technology to explore creation and innovation. How can we take an idea and make it useful for society. Can we make it “work” for others? Can it move, speak, generate sound, or entertain?

We believe our young students have the ability to have big ideas that could potentially be impactful and life-changing. Learning experiences in our STEAM hub area might empower our young idea generators to think in impactful ways.

To help promote this idea of the collaboration between curriculum, learning and technology, we brought in renowned educator, writer, and innovator, Gary Stager, to work with our faculty prior to opening day.  I highly recommend watching Gary’s TED talk linked below, as well as checking out his informative blogs, also linked below. Teachers had an opportunity to talk about the many ways computer technology impacts our lives and why learning to program opens up many possibilities for impactful projects. We will continue to explore ways that coding and programing can become another form of literacy for expressing ideas.

Gary Stager

Here at RPCS, we remain committed to bringing technology to the girls in ways that promote learning and wonder, while at the same time helping you continue this positive experience at home. Please consider joining us on September 19thfor an informational coffee about our new STEAM hub and project based learning using computer technology. Also, look for a notice about our Family Maker Night in November and come program along with your children!

I hope that my communication with you encourages “talking points” to inspire weekend conversation with your children. Here are some “talking points” for this weekend.

 

  • If you are in Little Reds- What are some ways you have been enjoying the outdoor playground? Have you told Ms. Meyers a story on her special story bench yet?
  • If you are in Kindergarten- What are you learning about numbers? Which of the several classroom “centers” is your favorite?
  • If you are in First Grade- Who is your “big sister” in fourth grade? Do you say hi at lunch or recess? How is the outdoor Makerspace?
  • If you are in Second Grade- What makes a good teacher? What did you add to your poster?
  • If you are in Third Grade- What are you looking forward to learning about Maryland this year? What were some of the projects like that students brought in based on the summer novel?
  • If you are in Fourth Grade- What fun facts did you learn about the USA? What did you learn about the Northeast Region? How did you enjoy reading Rulesthis summer- how does it tie into your first literacy unit?

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  • If you are in Fifth Grade- What have you learned about your classmates during Morning Meeting?
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Screen Time and Our Girls

A few weeks ago, RPCS hosted author Ana Homayoun for two days of workshops with our students, faculty, and parents. She was really amazing, and her words still resonate with me. Many of her specific talking points were around social media wellness, however, closely related to that are issues surrounding self-image, positive parent relationships, and sleep deprivation. Ana began her time on campus by talking to faculty and staff about non-judgmental ways of helping families navigate the tricky world of devices. She reminded us that each family has different needs, and the impact from regular screen time use is still being studied. We should not dictate or judge individual families’ decisions about screens and social media. That being said, few parents would disagree that use of technology is a constant worry and subject of conversation in their households.

As a caring institution, we try and address these concerns by bringing in speakers on a regular basis. Next year, as a tri-school, we have enlisted the help of parenting writer, Katherine Reynolds Lewis, who wrote The Good News About Bad Behavior, to speak to parents in the Lower School and Preschool parent community. She will address some of the things that Ana Homayoun pointed to in her talk: setting limits, giving children more responsibility, and establishing intrinsic motivation for heathy habits such as good eating and sleeping routines.

Screen time is a growing concern, and the statistics which Common Sense Media regularly publish are enough to send anyone hurrying to collect device chargers and remote controls. The news media regularly reports on many social ills attributed to increased screen time. Children are sleeping less, childhood obesity is on the rise, depression based on a lack of positive self-image is increasing in young children (and girls are especially vulnerable), and children of all ages seem more distracted- to the point of increased diagnosis of learning differences.

What to do? I have been stepping up my reading on these topics, as they come up frequently in parent conversations. Recently, I read an article published in the Washington Post that outlined some very common sense ideas about mitigating the effects of our “on-line society”.  It talked about avoiding the “ban” of devices, but rather use the opportunity to teach why there are many pleasant and rewarding alternatives to social media and screens. Encourage outdoor play and make opportunities readily available with friends and WITH YOU! Encourage play in general, again with family- things like games. Read books with your children and try and find time to read for extended periods of time, so “bingeing” on book chapters is as addictive as a Netflix series! Stop all media use as a family well before bedtime. Ana Homayoun suggests not allowing your children to bring phones, iPads, etc. into the bedroom when retiring for the night, as it is proven to interfere with sleep. Model good etiquette with cell phones for your children and establish “conversation zones” that remind them that there are times when human interaction is the most important social time one can spend together.

You might be surprised by how grateful your children, and even “tweens”, feel about these thoughtful and realistic guidelines. When Ana Homayoun wrapped up her talk with our fourth and fifth grade girls the other week, one girl raised her hand and offered her new self-imposed rule to leave her iPad in another room at bedtime. The girls applauded!

How to help children use SM for good

 

Ideas for Parents

I hope that my communication with you encourages “talking points” to inspire weekend conversation with your children. Here are some “talking points” for this weekend.

  • If you are in Kindergarten- What is Derby Day and what is the importance of hats? What did Mrs. B’s hat look like?
  • If you are in First Grade- How did you code the Bee Bot to travel your classroom map? What questions do you have about maps and navigation?
  • If you are in Second Grade- What are some things you have learned about Baltimore in social studies class? What special treat did you do with the Kindergarten class involving Derby Day?
  • If you are in Third Grade- What can you describe about the economics of Maryland? What did you learn about forces and motion in science? How did you learn about static electricity in class this week?
  • If you are in Fourth Grade- What organization are you researching for the non-profit fund-raising project? What do they support. and why did you choose them?
  • If you are in Fifth Grade- What preparations did you make to prepare for the Maypole Dance? How is your dance for the spring concert coming? What is the most complicated part?
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Play

 

Much has been written in recent years about the value of PLAY. I emphasize the word because it has taken on so much more than the obvious meaning in the field of education. Until recently, “play” time in American schools was relegated to recess and very early childhood imagination centers. Play was seen as a release, a time to be wasted on running off steam or learning how to share toys. Studies in brain science suggests otherwise. Play is actually a valuable tool for educating the whole mind, body and spirit of humans, as well as many in our animal kingdom. Any trip to the zoo will provide hours of watching animals at play. We now know they are prepping for life in a community and will be better equipped for survival because of these frivolous engagements.

Stuart Brown wrote a wonderful book on the subject titled, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. I enjoyed reading it cover to cover several years ago and highly recommend it as a source of inspiration. He went on to create a National Institute for Play. Quoting from the home page, “Play is the gateway to vitality. By its nature it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community.” The message Brown sends to everyone is that “play” is not for a certain age, grade level, gender, or social economic group. Rather, we all benefit from play and suffer from sufficient lack of play. He begins the book talking about his research on serial killers and mass shooting suspects. This led him to discover the horrific consequences that may be related to a childhood that was deprived of this very basic need. Not to scare the reader, however his institute does present some compelling research that supports encouraging play. I have included a link to his research below.

 

National Institute for Play

Edutopia Article on Play in Early Education

http://www.childrensmuseums.org/images/MCMResearchSummary.pdf

Famous psychologist Jean Piaget says, “play is the work of childhood.” To support the students during any developmental stage, the work they do is through the lens of play. As educators in a school that values progressive ideas and works to stay current with brain research, we place renewed value on experiences in the classroom that use play as a means of exploration and retention. The youngest students in our Reggio Emelia inspired classrooms explore an “investigation” through hours of play. They learn important lessons about the natural world and the community they inhabit by playing. Recent explorations of planes, vehicles, restaurants, and rocks (subjects carefully chosen by the children) used curiosity, imagination, and role-playing to build understanding. In our second grade this week the girls are learning about economics and entrepreneurship through a playful simulation. They signed “loans” from the business office and will attempt to pay them back and walk away with a profit when they host their mini-marketplace next week. Our fifth grade girls ran elections a few weeks ago and have organized themselves into the House and Senate of the lower school putting forth bills and lobbying for change. They presented two bills that passed both governing bodies and were excited to have the motion move forward- fifth grade girls will have an extra study hall to stay organized and will gain the privilege of wearing colored sneakers rather than the uniform white starting Monday!

I hope that my communication with you encourages “talking points” to inspire weekend conversation with your children. Here are some “talking points” for this weekend.

  • If you are in Kindergarten- What did you learn about your animal during the research part of your latest project? What was your favorite part of the assignment?
  • If you are in First Grade- Why are you collecting items for Paul’s Place? What does it mean to do “community service”? Did you enjoy the activity on Friday that involved learning about honeybees? What did you and your big buddy add to your “Save the Bees” poster?
  • If you are in Second Grade- Did it make you nervous to sign a loan agreement with Mr. Booth from the business office? How is developing your product going?
  • If you are in Third Grade- How are you enjoying the novel, Matilda?Do you enjoy the book or the movie in most cases? What have you learned about the 13 colonies and the main causes that contributed to the start of the Revolutionary War?
  • If you are in Fourth Grade- Did you perform for the Multicultural Night? What non-profit organization will you be researching? What does non-profit mean? What did your “quilt” tell about you?

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  • If you are in Fifth Grade- What part did you play in the government reenactment your class held? Did you agree with the debates on the floor of the House and Senate? Do you support the bills that were passed?
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Learning to Handle Conflicts

 

Conflict is inevitable. We all experience conflict at some point in our lives. Most of us experience conflict each week or maybe each day. The secret is to learn how to handle situations that result in conflict. Our young girls face conflict of course, and the way they work through these conflicts provide life lessons. As educators we are constantly torn between allowing the girls the space to work through conflict on their own and intervening with supportive lessons and solutions that “fix it”. We want the girls to learn to work through their struggles with peers and yet we need to protect them from potential physical and psychological harm. Parents weigh in on both sides. Many say that it is important for their daughter to learn how to resolve issues without adult help. They need to use their voice and listen with empathy. This is great, however when things go awry the story goes home and generates much confusion and emotion. Parents and teachers may sometimes be at odds, but ultimately we want the same thing- children to have a positive school experience from which they emerge well prepared for life. Teaching our children that they have the ability to handle conflict and can learn even from negative experiences is so important. I often quote from author Jessica Lahey, who writes about these topics for the New York Times and the Atlantic. In her book, The Gift of Failure, she states, “The social conflicts of childhood are all part of our education in human relationships and failure to negotiate also provides its own lessons. Squabbles are opportunities to be valued, not emergencies to be managed.” As a school we continue to strive to find the perfect balance. We want to teach our girls to use their voice, talk things through and bring a sense of empathy to the conversation. Each week, Ms. Best teaches the girls a new tool for their “toolbox”- including empathy, listening, and, most recently, the apology and forgiveness tool.  Practice with these tools will enable the girls to gain independence from both teachers and parents as they handle those inevitable conflicts with confidence.  For more on Toolbox by Dovetail learning see the link below.

Toolbox

I hope that my communication with you encourages “talking points” to inspire weekend conversation with your children. Here are some “talking points” for this weekend.

  • If you are in Kindergarten- What sound does the letters “sh” make? What animal are you researching for your first “research report”? Are you enjoying hearing everyone’s stories during Writer’s Workshop time?
  • If you are in First Grade- Did you like the way your self-portrait came together in art class?
  • If you are in Second Grade- Which guest speaker had the most impact on you so far? What ideas did you gather as you start planning your micro-business?
  • If you are in Third Grade- Did you enjoy the games your classmates created to illustrate the plot of their Roald Dahl book?
  • If you are in Fourth Grade- What part of the On-Stage performance did you enjoy the most this week when you traveled to Goucher College?
  • If you are in Fifth Grade- What impact did visiting the Supreme Court and the US Capital have on you?