How Fast A Year Goes By

In his last weekly letter of the 2012-13 school year, Greenhill Head of Lower School Michael Simpson shares his reflections on how much happens to each of us during a single school year.

Dear Families,

Last night, attempting to get some words going for this letter, I googled “how fast a year goes by.” I found a wide range of topics, all having to do with time: why we perceive time to go by faster when we are older; how to slow time down; a trucker’s reflections on the first year in the business; it’s been a year since __________ (we moved, the triplets were born, my estranged father died, etc.), just to name a few.

Here you are facing the end of your child’s journey in a grade level, a season of time and life. Most likely, you feel that time has gone by quickly. But really it hasn’t. So many things have happened in the past ten months. Consider the news timeline: Olympics in London, Curiosity landing safely on Mars, the Presidential election, Hurricane Sandy, the Newtown tragedy, Fiscal Cliff diving, and the Boston Marathon bombings. Much has happened.

Maybe it helps to look back on our child’s year in the same way. List the headlines. Go back to the first day of school and picture your child. He or she was smaller, and a whole grade more immature. In the past year friendships evolved, small and large tasks were accomplished, new skills developed, practiced ones became automatic. Think of special family occasions or travel, holidays, school events, illnesses, parent teacher conferences. Take the time to reflect: what were you thinking and feeling? What were you excited about, worried about? What were the conversations? What was the suspense? How did it all turn out?

Thank you for your partnership and support this year, through good times and difficult moments. The growth we have seen in our students this year does not happen without dedicated teachers and supportive, thoughtful parenting. Have a wonderful summer.

Sincerely,
Michael Simpson
Head of Lower School

Ending Well

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about the end of the school year, both how to approach the end, and what happens in the last few days before the summer.

I have often counseled my own two children about ending well – no slammed doors, no demonstrated loss of interest, no placing one foot out the door before the current responsibility has officially ended. It’s a good life lesson for our students to continue to give 100% even in the waning days of the school year, or a job, or a project. In schools, we often use culminating assemblies as formal acknowledgements of “ending well.” Of course all of the ceremonial recognition of the end of one stage of learning and the beginning of another are treasured moments, ones commemorated across the educational community at all levels.

In fact, “ending well” can be seen in the Middle School on a much smaller, but arguably more effective, level. Created by our teachers to promote a synthesis of knowledge and skills, these activities are fun, positive, and upbeat. Last week, sixth graders participated in the Amazing Race, where they raced across campus to stations that required them to recall some key piece of history knowledge from their year. Fifth graders planned and designed poetry cafés, hugely successful gatherings for parents where students highlighted their own poetry in the midst of a café complete with food, decorations, programs, and more. Seventh graders presented “happiness projects” – culminating activities stemming from advisory study of positive psychology. And eighth graders ended their year with scenes from Shakespeare, student-created videos, a one-act play, final musical concerts, and more.

All of these final events represent high levels of student engagement. Their teachers have created opportunities for them to stay the course until the very end. Our students end the year proud of their accumulation of knowledge and skills, active participants all. Built-in reflection is a critical element of learning, and students who can look back at how far they have come will be ready for the next set of challenges.

Last August, we challenged the students in the Middle School to take action, to find a way to make a difference and to be the difference. In ways big and small, they have met this challenge. They and their teachers have come to the final few days able to look back and assess all that they have learned. It’s been a wonderful year and it is definitely ending well!

Fourth Grade Stock Brokers Learn About More Than Math

Head of Lower School Michael Simpson writes about how much the fourth-graders learn during their stock market unit.

If you were to walk into the second floor computer lab last week you might have thought you stumbled upon a roomful of stock brokers rather than a class of elementary school math students. You’d have seen them checking the feeds from various news organizations, researching the latest quotes and trends on NASDAQ and NYSE, filling out purchase requests and delivering them to the head broker (their math teacher), and suggesting stocks or asking questions on e- message boards. Fourth graders were engrossed in the annual stock market unit, and they are loved it!

Mrs. White began the unit several years ago, back when stocks were still listed as fractions. She saw it as an opportunity to apply math skills to the real world: fractions for the stocks, decimals with the money, and percentages with brokers’ fees. She expects her students to learn how national and world news can affect the economy. She describes the stock market unit as intertwining math skills they’ve practiced in school with real world math. I’m not sure who enjoys it more: the kids, because as one said, “It feels real—it feels like you’re a businessman!” or Mrs. White, because she loves math and loves watching kids get excited about math.

Although Mrs. White’s been teaching the unit for several years, she updates it with the latest technological tools. She conducts class in the computer lab so she can make use of both the Smartboard and a computer for every child. She begins the unit with a Power Point presentation on the history and basic concept of the stock market, complete with video of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She teaches them necessary vocabulary. She teaches the class how a company develops from private to public, how to fill out a purchase request, and how to figure the broker’s commission. The first assignment is to note objects and experiences in the world around them that are produced by a corporation that might offer a stock. She shows them how to examine trends. She directs students to check the stock pages of the New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and Reuters. Each is RSS active, and Mrs. White teaches the class about regional, national, and international perspectives. She gives each student $5,000 and a checkbook. Mrs. White facilitates the discussion by providing a message board for each homeroom; after just four days, 567 messages had been posted! Each class typically starts with a short lesson, and then she lets them loose to capitalize. They spend class researching, filling out purchase requests, monitoring the news, and messaging each other about stocks. The time must fly by.

This unit of study exemplifies what we value in the Lower School: authentic application of basic skills, planning and predicting, collaboration with peers, fun, appropriate use of technology, and higher level thinking such as synthesis, evaluation, and analysis. The kids eat it up, parents participate, and the teacher finds great reward in her students’ learning.

Why Walk When You Can Klaw?

Head of Early Childhood Kim Barnes writes about how conversations turn into learning opportunities all around the Greenhill campus.

A Conversation before School on Thursday, May 9, 2013

“I know I can walk up backward, but I have never tried to walk down backward,” said a teacher. “Is it scary?”

“No,” replied the four-year-old, “it’s the same. It’s not scary.”

“I think it is because my body feels like it is going to fall and my head wants to turn and look.”

“Just try it!” was the reply, “You can do it. Trust me.” (He must have heard that somewhere.)

“You know, when Anansi* goes walking, walking, walking, what would it be when he goes walking backwards?”

“You just say it backwards. Sound it out,” says the child.

“Sound what out?”

“Sound out walk backwards.”

“What would that be?”

“You know! /k/!!”

“Then what?”

Long pause – “/l/”

“Ok?”

With a roll of eyes, “/w/!”

“Wait, there’s no vowel. We have to have a vowel in every word.”

A second grader listening to the conversation and also walking down the berm backward joins in, “Do you mean the a in walk?”

The four-year-old looks at the adult with a puzzled look and without saying a word questions with his eyes.

“I don’t know. Is that the vowel in walk?” said the teacher.

The second grader assured that was correct and she began to spell walk backwards – k, l, a, w.

“Okay, now sound it out like he said.”

(Sidebar – When a second grader is walking down a hill backward and trying to sound out a word, you can literally see the cogs turning and working in tandem to figure the word out.)

“/k/ /l/ /a/ /w/ – claw. Walk backwards is claw. Klaw!”

As she walks up the hill backward, the second grader begins to chant and add hand motions, “I am klawing, klawing, klawing up the green hill.” The pre-kindergartner runs to join her. Up and down they go, backward all the way.

Conversation like this happens all over the Greenhill campus, all day long – our campus is one large classroom and each walk is a walk of wonder and questioning. Each recess is a time of imagination and pondering and each step may unearth a treasure or solidify a lesson. Hmmm, I wonder if they are ready for gniklaw.

*Anansi is a trickster spider in African folklore that the students learn about during pre-k.

Middle School Relationships

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about the importance of the student-teacher relationship in Middle School.

“Mrs. Woody, how do fish mate?

This query from two seventh graders, fielded by Head Librarian Donna Woody, sums up many of the qualities we value in the Middle School. Humor and curiosity immediately come to mind, because, after all, it makes you laugh to hear such a funny question. Also, they really wanted to know the answer!

Underlying this question and many others is a comfort level and connection that plays out every day here in the Middle School. Students like and respect their teachers. Conversely, teachers like and respect their students. They connect both personally and academically across all grade levels, and these connections forge greater learning and growth opportunities for all students.

Monday mornings are filled with news of what happened over the weekend. Did you see a movie? Did you have a game? What did you think about that news story? Teachers and students develop relationships based on the details of their lives. One fifth grader loves white chocolate. An eighth grader is designing a green initiative to promote responsible use of our earth’s resources. Another group of teachers and students loves a certain television show. And what about those Rangers? Everybody has something to share, and the teachers consistently engage with each student, solidifying relationships that emphasize inclusion.

At an age when students seek to know themselves, teachers model respectful and friendly interactions. They are non-judgmental and demonstrate a wide tolerance for a variety of personal preferences. Often, one result of these informal interactions is that students want to work hard for the teachers with whom they feel connected. Although we wish for all students to develop inner motivation and drive, the first step may be to seek approval through hard work.

In the Middle School, all learning begins with relationships, and we consciously seek to initiate and maintain positive ones. But what about the mating fish above? After Mrs. Woody answered the question, first saying that the answer wasn’t very exciting, she said, “Okay, now you two can go back to work!” And they did, productively and happily. That’s life in the Middle School.

Giving Children an Optimal Environment for Learning

Head of Lower School Kim Barnes writes about how Greenhill’s Lower School provides students an optimal environment for their individual learning needs.

During the early years of formal education, it is important for children to begin to understand how they learn best. Children need to understand if they need areas of quiet, or if they can work through background noise; if they need fewer distractions, or if others can be moving around them as they work; if they need to stand while working, or if lying on the floor is a better support method, etc. Over the past several weeks as I have moved in and out of classrooms, the examples of support for each child and his or her individual learning style has been staggering.

A teacher is concerned with a child’s reading progress. Something is not quite right as this child has everything in place to be reading fluently. The teacher has heard about varying background colors and the way this may help a child see words on a page more clearly. She borrows a set of reading overlays and works with the child to figure out if one color is more helpful than another. There is one color that appeals to the child, and when combined with previously established skills, the student’s reading becomes stronger. An additional benefit to the child is exposure to adult problem-solving skills – identifying the problem and continuing to look for alternative solutions.

Another teacher might be concerned about a child’s core muscle development. Lower School faculty understands this need of development. Walk into one classroom and you will see large balls replacing some chairs; these balls allow children to have the movement required for concentration and focus. No one ever falls over or rolls around as a distraction since this is what that child’s physical body required. Other students have knobby seat cushions that provide stimuli and deep muscle tension required by some individuals and can frankly be the envy of a few others. Sometimes deep muscle pressure is needed through the upper body. Swaddling through tight vests or jackets provides some children with the ability to feel more grounded. Minor weights placed in jackets or vests or shirts provide the pull on the deep muscles of the upper torso. Teachers also allow (encourage) children to work on the floor knowing core muscles are developed through these movements. Our faculty ensures these options are available and in turn, children know about them.

What about focus and distractibility? Children independently set up barriers with portable individual carrels; interestingly it varied from class to class as to which students chose to use these. Earphones are available in many classes; no music is needed, just a better way for some children to block out their distracters.

Educators facilitate options for children and incorporate alternatives into the learning day. Sometimes the need is provided through physical paraphernalia and outlets. We know the brain and the physical body are intertwined in ways educators have long been aware and in ways we are just now recognizing through continuing research. Examples abound pre-k through 4th grade and it is difficult to limit these to just a few to share. Thinking about how an individual thinks and learns begins early in the Lower School.

Greenhill School Hosts Third Annual Advancing Core Principles Conference

Director of Marketing Kerry Shea shares her experiences at Greenhill School’s Advancing Core Principles Conference.

Chris Gunnin, Head of Upper School at Trinity Valley School, opened Greenhill School’s third annual Advancing Core Principles conference, by sharing stories about childhood experiences that both shaped him, and taught him about honor in our often chaotic world. To a room full of smooth student faces, and a handful of faculty members, he reminded everyone that our personal values serve as a rudder, guiding us when life “gets in the way.”

But values don’t just happen. They need to be cultivated and nurtured, much like a student would perfect a more-concrete skill, like reading or writing. Gunnin’s talk provided the perfect opening to a conference about maintaining, or even creating, honor in school cultures.

During the three breakout sessions that I attended, I was impressed with the level of student dialog about complex ethical and moral situations. In one session, titled “Honor in Athletics – how can athletics help fulfill a school’s mission?”, students struggled with how to find honor in an activity that encouraged one team to beat another. If you are trying to win, can you still be honorable? If a referee makes a bad call that favors your team, do you do anything about it?

Another session, “Honor Pledges, Codes and Councils”, reviewed how to set up an honor council, and even showed a sample case that an honor council might evaluate. While somewhat more prescriptive in nature, the session also demonstrated that the honor code violations that students review are layered with shades of gray. In an open note quiz, is it ok if a student uses the notes in the margin of his textbook? Should the person sharing lab notes receive a punishment as harsh as the person copying the notes into their own lab book?

In the session, “So What Happens Now? How to Rebuild a Foundation of Trust”, students and faculty members shared surprisingly divergent views on how to handle a student after an honor code infraction. While faculty members shared that they would often put a student “on watch” or “on probation” after an honor code violation, as soon as that student demonstrated remorse and/or a change of ways, the faculty member returned to treating that student like any other. Students were far harder on their peers. If a student found out another had cheated, he or she would be far less likely to forgive that person. The power of this session was the way in which it helped participants understand that everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves forgiveness and a second change.

By the end of the conference, everyone had a new perspective or viewpoint, possibly even an idea or two, to take back to their home campuses. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing from the kids, but I was most impressed with Dan Kasten and the entire Advancing Core Principles team for creating an environment of reflection and openness, a place for challenging conversations. If we don’t pause to consider our values on occasion, then our personal rudder will cease to work, and the conference reminded us that we all need a guide in an often less than honorable world.