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.

Michael Simpson
Head of Lower School

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.

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.

Collaboration Across Campus

Natalia Hernandez, Director of Curricular Programs, writes about how Greenhill students collaborate with each other in class.

Collaboration is a skill; one that is widely recognized as foundational to success in school and eventually the workplace. Last week, as I traveled from classroom to classroom, I witnessed students collaborating from Kindergarten to 12th grade both organically and by teacher design.

Collaboration is everywhere in kindergarten because the students still haven’t conformed to adult constructs of learning. My favorite example was Zac and Betty who worked together to disassemble a discarded computer. Zac said, “You hold it steady so I can get the screwdriver to turn.” Betty answered, “Okay, but then you hold it so I can take this screw out and then we can take the top off.”


In Middle School, Ms. Nihill assigned small groups the task of presenting on either Aphrodite or Hephaestus. Each group was to present a description of their chosen character and then act out an interview that gave the audience more information about the character. I asked one group how they divided up the tasks. This was one student’s answer, “We talked about the things we are good at and then gave each other jobs. When we were finished with our own parts, we talked about it with the group and then made changes.”

In freshman algebra, Mr. Gibson’s students were given problems to complete. Instinctively, they turned to each other as they finished to verify their answers and understand the thinking behind each other’s solutions. When I asked a student why she did that, she said, “Mr. Gibson tells us there are many ways to arrive at the solution. The more ways we understand, the better off we are.”

Collaboration is a necessary skill. Teachers at all levels must engage in active and purposeful teaching of the concepts that lead to collaboration such as negotiation, empathy, listening, disagreeing respectfully, challenging, and compromise. Our students are learning these skills each day – and many of them do not even realize that they are doing it.

From the Notebook of a Grateful Teacher, November 26 – December 10, 2012

Kim Barnes, Head of Early Childhood, reflects on her everyday experiences in Greenhill’s Early Childhood and Lower School divisions.

– Mr. Simpson, Head of Lower School, gave a fourth-grader new sand buckets, shovels, and sifters for the playground. The child’s excitement was contagious as he and two other fourth-graders (one of whom sand play would have been my last guess for his choice of play), a third-grader, a second-grader, and a pre-kindergartner dug and sifted sand during the next thirty minutes of early morning recess.

– Pre-kindergartners and kindergartners were working on the “river.” I asked a pre-k’er what she is going to do about the leaves. “The leaves don’t matter. Water is a liquid and it will move under the leaves. Watch!” The water did, indeed, flow right under the leaves without disturbing anything. “See! That’s what liquids do. They go anywhere.”

– With full hands, waiting on third-graders to make their way into the cafeteria, a third grader stops everyone behind him and motions me to pass through the line. All stop even the students from older grades. Thanks were issued and then back from the original student, “My pleasure, Mrs. Barnes.”

-First grader is headed to class. She stops to tell me, “My parents forgot my backpack. No, I mean I forgot my backpack.” She wants to know what accountability is after I tell her I am proud of her for the accountability for her action of leaving her backpack.

– This has been a week of flexibility and risktaking for several of the adults in the building. After exhausting the list of substitutes, second grade was headed out on a field trip, short a few adults. An office coordinator is eager and ready to step in and help chaperone, never a worry to the time she is giving up on her work. Teaching fellows and teachers readjust schedules so 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade classes are covered. This generally means giving up a planning time the only break in a day; it also means teachers readjust as the second adult with these young children is now gone. Heard through the grapevine that one of the fellows created a Jeopardy game on the spur of a moment to cover science vocabulary.

– Coming in from the playground, a child is eager to share his destination. “Mrs. Barnes, Mrs. Barnes, I found these coats on the playground. I’m going to all the classes to find out who left them on the playground. They are going to need them.”

– Leaves seem to be the topic of the day. This morning a kindergartner and third grader want to know why the leaves can’t stay on the playground. The kindergartner said she wondered what those men were doing with their leaves last week; “We need them for our play on the playground. We don’t want them to take the leaves. Can you tell them to stop?” A couple of pre-kindergartners echo the same thing later on the pre-k/k playground. “We need all the leaves and acorns.” As I walk out the pre-k/k door, four second-graders are actively gathering leaves and playing in them. The girls roll in the leaves, push the leaves together, swing each other around, laughing and giggling the entire time. I think the leaves need to stay.

Empathy, accountability, exploration, nature-connection, “civic” change, risk-taking – take a moment to listen and watch.

Helping Children Solve Problems and Develop Confidence

Michael Simpson talks about a typical day as the Head of Lower School at Greenhill involves helping students solve their problems and in the process, build their confidence.

When I took this job five years ago, I did not anticipate the stereotype that comes with being a school principal. Our culture feeds that stereotype in books and movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes to mind), and I see it and hear it when a parent drops by my office and jokes “Ooohh, been a long time since I was in the principal’s office.” Yeah, right. The stereotype is that principals only do discipline in a school. I would beg to differ, at least in my situation. There is no paddle in my office! My contact with students is about much more than discipline. Take this past Monday, for instance:

At 7:55 a.m. I meet with a first grade student who a difficult day at school Friday and I wanted her to check in with me so I could let her know that was behind her and she was going to do better.

After our assembly at 8:00, I meet with a fourth grader, at her request, to talk about her frustration with another student. We talk for about half an hour and we strategize ways she can assert herself with this classmate.

At 11:30 I walk over to the pool to meet with a student and the PE teacher to discuss pool safety.

I return to my office to find a letter from two third grade boys who would like to talk to me about another boy in their class.

Walking to a classroom, a fourth grader finds me. She wants me to know she is concerned about Hurricane Sandy and the people who will be affected by it. She informs me that she is standing ready to lead any support drive at Greenhill. We talk about how that works. She emails me that evening to let me know she is still following the hurricane’s devastation and is eager to help.

I join a second grade science class and have a great time with a table pair that is refreshing their worm habitat and making worm observations. They teach me all about what the worms need to grow and how they function.

I drop by the Primer classroom, and on the way out another second grader finds me and has a letter for me. I read it and discover she has seen much wasting of food in the cafeteria and wants to make some signs reminding people to take sensible portions. We discuss this and I tell her what the next steps will be.

On my way back to my office I spot two first grade boys heading back up the walkway toward the classroom building. They look a little disappointed, and there is no nurse slip in their hands so I know it was not a nurse visit. I ask what’s wrong and one says that he lost his fleece jacket. We spend some time retracing steps, then I remind him there is a lost and found in the gym. He brightens, sure that’s where his jacket is.

Of course there are many other aspects of being a principal: working with teachers, parents and other administrators, developing curriculum, operating the divisional budget, providing resources and support, helping out with Development and Admissions, and participating in the school leadership team. But ask any educator in our Lower School what they enjoy most, and they’ll tell you it’s working with the children to help them solve problems, develop confidence, and learn from mistakes.

Children’s Play Hasn’t Changed

Head of Early Childhood, Kim Barnes, talks about the importance of big bold play.

I felt a tap on my shoulder early one morning as I was watching a group of children play King of the Hill on the burm on the Lower School playground. A tap on the shoulder and the hair on my arms stood up as I braced myself for a confrontation for a group of parents had been watching the play on the hill for a few days and I had been waiting for one of them to ask, “why are you allowing this play?” I turned to find a parent with a big smile standing just behind me; she simply wanted to comment that “the games children play haven’t changed much, have they?” This parent was correct and my heartbeat slowed down as here was a comrade who realized the importance of what the children were doing.

As my observation continued, the ebb and flow of natural laughter and, to be quite honest, squealing hung in the air. The boys and girls had their hands open, palms to the inside, revolving with one another in imaginary circles, big smiles, and bursts of exuberant, joyful laughter. Occasionally a child fell or slipped down the hill and there was always a hand or two to pull them back up into the melee of circling.

Swat and down went a child! Although the child jumped right up, the fall was a bit hard. He didn’t say anything to the other child and he was ready to return to his play. Another child had witnessed the fall and he made a point to both the boys that the hit was too hard as he demonstrated what motions and actions could take place so everyone would have a good time and would feel safe.

Before school begins each morning, the Lower School children are enjoying opportunities to participate in self- selected, big-body, bold play. The games and activities they feel they are creating (but we know better) are building muscle tone, upper body strength, lower body strength, agility and balance. Affective and intellectual learning is also taking place. Children learn to take turns and the give and take of physical games. These children are learning to “even the playing field” as they learn to judge how to make allowances for another child’s size and age and how to communicate these expectations. They are modeling appropriate play behaviors for one another as these behaviors become innate life skills. These children feel empathy for an “injured” party and learn to care for one another in a nurturing manner. No one is excluded – all are welcome and many come.

A watchful eye is always nearby. The urge to step in is always close to the edge. It takes great confidence in children to not intervene. Yet time and time again these wonderful little beings prove they know what to do and how to interact. If left to the devices of children, play hasn’t changed much over time nor has the craving and need for that big bold play. Sometimes it’s just a matter of trust.