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A Letter from Tim
Finding life paths that have resonancePosted by Tim Barrier on 3/7/2019
Last week I had the opportunity to attend the National Association of Independent Schools’ annual conference. The conference brings together school leaders and teachers from across the association’s 1,800 school members and includes workshops on all sorts of governance, classroom, and school operations topics. The opening keynote speaker this year was Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis. She shared her personal life’s story, drawing on the archetypal hero’s journey to put her own experience in context of a greater, human striving to find oneself and rise above one’s circumstance. Her story was powerful and moving, with lessons for all of us, educators and parents alike, about how we can help our children find their own authentic path.
Ms. Davis talked about growing up in poverty in a Rhode Island neighborhood in which hers was the only African-American family. She described relentless racial bullying from schoolmates and frequent domestic violence in her home. She was one of the youngest of six children, and she described a pivotal moment in her life when she was reunited with her oldest sister after some time apart, and her sister asked her a simple question that changed her life: “What are you going to do to get out of this?” Her sister, playing the role of the mentor/guide in the hero’s journey, had planted a seed in her that grew and nurtured the drive to think about who it was that she wanted to be. Ms. Davis described seeing another mentor, Cicely Tyson, on the screen some years later and being transfixed. She found herself determined to become “an actress and an educated black woman who overcame poverty.” She did well in school, attended Julliard, found great success on the stage, and became one of the great actors of our time.
Ms. Davis described a critical moment in her late twenties when she “hit a wall” as she described it. By that point, she was well on the way to success, but she felt she couldn’t shake the negative self-messages that had been cast upon her by others throughout her childhood. She shared her own journey of overcoming these messages to make the point that so many people growing up suffer from the “need to belong, to sell somebody a lie in order to fit in, to become a messed-up avatar of yourself which gets in the way of your joy.”
She also talked about hitting another kind of wall later in her career, a “ceiling called greatness and success.” Our society, she noted, is obsessed with awards and competition. If anyone has experienced success, Viola Davis certainly has, yet she reflected that once she reached the pinnacle of her craft she had to “take the last step, one of significance and legacy.” Her realization has propelled her to dedicate her work to addressing issues of rights for women and people of color.
Her story inspired me to think about our opportunity and responsibility to create an environment in which our children can find what motivates them, what has meaning, and what they care about. Ms. Davis described our society’s “assault on individuality” that keeps perhaps all of us from being the best selves we can. She said, “the sooner you know you are divinely made, the more beautiful your life will be.” I think many of us may intuitively support this notion, and the question is what we’re willing to do about it. When someone asks us about our kids, do we describe what they do and what they have achieved, or do we try to describe who they are and how they are doing? How do we resist the temptation to overvalue the award-competition-achievement mindset? What are we willing to do to affirm the life paths that have resonance with our children as they grow, even if those paths are different from ones we might have imagined?
All the best,
Tenuous hero status restored, drama ensuesPosted by Tim Barrier on 2/14/2019
Many of you are, or will be at some point relatively soon, the parent of a seventh grader. When you are the parent of a seventh grader, your fortunes (as a parent) tend to rise and fall dramatically each day. I was reminded of this truth last week on the occasion of our first snow day in quite a while. The two weeks prior, my stock had been somewhat low, as I apparently had missed a couple of prime opportunities to call a snow day. When I failed in my duties, my seventh grader was left feeling like she’d somehow failed hers, because her friends assumed she had some pull in the decision; they were not spare in expressing their disappointment in my performance and hers. Fortunately, last week provided a chance for me to redeem myself, and my tenuous hero status was restored.
This week, our seventh graders took the stage to present their Drama Showcase, a series of comedic skits directed by drama teacher Laura Gibson. Students became all kinds of characters, from an internet cat to zombies to superheroes, and some of the skits were written by the performers themselves. The demands of playing a role much different from oneself draw on many talents – empathy, listening, creative expression – and also provide a break from the world of being a young adolescent. At a time when so much of one’s energy, by design, is focused on self, having the opportunity to step outside oneself and take on another perspective and persona can be a benefit indeed. Congratulations and thank you to our seventh graders for a most entertaining evening!
100 days and ways to make 100Posted by Tim Barrier on 2/7/2019
It was a busy week for our K-1-2 students! Tuesday morning was K-12 Dance Day; each homeroom had the opportunity to share performances led by director Angie Martyn. The dances were expressive, uplifting and joyful, and I can’t imagine a more direct embodiment of our value of creativity, joy and the celebration of childhood.
This week also brought one of our great K-1-2 traditions, the annual “hundreds day” celebrations. In typical creative fashion, our students displayed individual representations of what one hundred looks like. This year's variety included everything from one hundred melting crayons to one hundred popsicle sticks to one hundred fingers (well, twenty handprints). The imaginative projects integrate math, art and presentation skills, and at the heart lies a key element of our approach to teaching mathematical concepts.
We give students many ways to experience what numbers mean. Instead of simply talking about a number like one hundred, which for K-1-2s is a substantial number indeed, we give them hands-on opportunities to build their understanding of what the number 100 represents. One student chose to create one hundred ways to make one hundred with addition and subtraction – with equations such as: 63 + 37 = 100 and 1,900 - 900 = 100. Once the concept of a hundred is firmly in place, students can expand their personal number sense to larger numbers; in other words, "If one hundred looks like this, what would a thousand look like?" “What about a million?”
Active Care for the Whole PersonPosted by Tim Barrier on 1/31/2019
At Stanley, we often reflect on the essential role that social-emotional development plays in student learning. We respect that learning is at root a social endeavor, and we know that it’s important to build a healthy social-emotional context for academic learning to thrive.
Columnist David Brooks, in a recent NY Times opinion piece, offers his own perspective on the human element of teaching and learning. Emotions, cognitive scientists have shown, play a critical role in learning by helping us determine what’s important and what we care about, and therefore how to make good decisions.
Neuroscience is increasingly interested not so much in where learning happens in the brain but how complex neural pathways in the brain are activated. Full engagement of those pathways relies heavily on a social context. Brooks references a study from the University of Washington that showed that the social brain pervades every learning process. Infants were given Chinese lessons, some in person with a tutor and some through a video screen. Those taking in-person lessons activated the social brain and learned sounds quickly. Those watching the video screen “paid rapt attention, but learned nothing.”
Brooks offers that neuroscience affirms that “a key job of a school is to give students new things to love — an exciting field of study, new friends. It reminds us that what teachers really teach is themselves, their contagious passion for their subjects and students. It reminds us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.” He references schools that understand that “social and emotional learning is not an add-on curriculum,” and he points to some that do little or no academic instruction the first week, instead providing time for everybody to get to know one another.
I think of our teachers at Stanley, and I reflect upon how well they understand the meaning of “offering active care for the whole person.” I think of the upcoming Stan Talks, on February 7th, in which we’ll be honoring another teacher, David Marais, with our annual “Spirit of Stanley” award. He’ll join past recipients Betsy Lewis and Lynne Forstot as teachers who have embodied Brooks’ reminder that “children learn from people they love.”
The Goals of True EducationPosted by Tim Barrier on 1/24/2019
At the end of last week and the beginning of this one, we took some time to reflect on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We choose to honor Dr. King in intentional ways, out of respect for the legacy he left and in recognition that his vision for our greater community is one that Stanley BPS shares.
At last Friday’s assembly, Jeremy Michael Vasquez, a visiting artist and activist from the Bay area, joined our student presenters on the stage and shared some of his original poetry as well as reflections on the importance of believing in yourself and in your ability to truly make a difference.
On Monday, perhaps bolstered by the beautiful weather, the Stanley contingent at the MLK Marade was stronger than ever. I'm proud that our school makes the event one of our annual traditions, joining many civic organizations and people of every background in a peaceful display of celebration and hope for what could be in our society.
Both our school celebration and our civic participation support Dr. King's observations about the role of schools: "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education." On that note, take a minute to read Donna Meallet's blog post on the Middle School's new Students of Color Affiliation group to learn more about another way Stanley's support all students and voices in our community.
Please note that on February 12, our Parent Multicultural Affairs Committee, in collaboration with our Parent Association, is holding an evening meeting featuring Dr. Nita Mosby-Tyler. Dr. Mosby-Tyler led a couple of parent workshops last year on the topic of implicit bias, and we are excited to bring her back to Stanley BPS. She is the founder of The Equity Project, an organization that “exists to provide comprehensive tools for businesses, local governments, nonprofits and community organizations to explore equity ineffective and transformative ways.” The meeting on the 12th will re-introduce Dr. Mosby-Tyler to the Stanley community and also set the stage for a more extensive parent workshop she will lead on the evening of March 20.
Kids do better when teachers know them wellPosted by Tim Barrier on 1/17/2019
I hope you and your children have settled back into the rhythm of the school schedule. More than one of you commented to me last week how pleased and ready you were to have your kids back at Stanley..
I enjoyed re-reading a May 2018 article from the Hechinger Report, a non-profit education publication focused on inequality and innovation, about the importance of teacher/student relationships. The title sums it up well: “Kids Do Better When Teachers Know Them Well.” The author cites two recent studies involving elementary-aged students that examine the impact of “platooning” and “looping” on a range of academic and social/emotional outcomes. Platooning refers to the practice of allowing teachers to specialize in a particular subject or two, with children spending time during the day with two or more specialists instead of with one core teacher providing instruction in all or most subjects. Looping describes the practice of children spending more than one year with a teacher.
One of the studies, from Harvard University, compared results from schools in which platooning was the norm with results from schools that followed a core homeroom teacher format. Classrooms that retained students in homerooms throughout the day fared significantly better, both in test scores and in measures of positive student engagement such as attendance and behavioral issues. In another study, from economists at Montana State, researchers studied the impact of classrooms in which students spent a second year with the same classroom teacher, and they found that academic and behavioral measures improved. The article also references a number of countries, including Austria, Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Latvia, and Israel, in which “not only don’t they use specialized teachers in elementary school at all, the average teacher in these countries stays with the same group of elementary school children for at least three years.”
Naturally, great teachers at any age level are proficient in and excited by the subject matter they teach. But the studies do support what we know about what makes truly effective teaching and learning. The ability to know children is critical. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum; teachers need to have the time to understand what makes each student tick, and what’s going on in each child’s life. Who just lost a tooth? Who is worried about a family member? Who is having an easy time with friends, or a hard one? Different from industries that may find efficiencies in specialization of labor, schools work best when they respect that kids aren’t widgets, they’re people with complex lives, hopes and needs. The dedication and the time to understand those lives, hopes, and needs is what makes great teachers.
All the best,
Welcome back to school and to 2019!Posted by Tim Barrier on 1/10/2019
I hope your winter break was joyful and restorative. We are excited to be back together as a school community.
We’re jumping right back in to classroom routines with a busy and engaging second half of the school year to look forward to. Next Friday, we’ll hold our annual assembly and celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some years, the program consists entirely of voices from our own student community, and some years we invite someone from the greater community to join us.
This year, we’re pleased to welcome, or actually welcome back, Jeremy Vasquez, a self-described “artivist” and spoken-word poet from the bay area in California. Jeremy spent a few days with us in the fall (see December in the Learning Report blog), sharing some of his writing and leading students in conversations about their own strengths and personal power. He was most enthusiastically received, and we’re thrilled to have him back for two days, including the assembly next Friday, January 18. Parents are welcome to join us, 8:30 a.m., in the ballroom
The celebration continues on Monday, January 21. This year’s day of observance for Dr. King, and as is our custom, we invite all to participate in Denver’s Marade. It starts by the MLK statue in City Park, and we aim to begin gathering at about 10:15 a.m. (We’re usually just to the south and east of the statue, carrying a Stanley banner).
All the best for a healthy and happy new year!
Understanding each student’s learning stylePosted by Tim Barrier on 12/13/2018
The first part of our mission reads, “We engage, challenge and inspire children to reach their potential and develop their own voices within an inclusive, diverse and collaborative community that values distinct contributions and abilities.” One of our primary responsibilities as educators is to continually reflect on what it means to “engage, challenge and inspire” children to meet the potential that lies within them. We do this by intentional differentiation of both teaching and learning and through ongoing refinement of our classroom practice. Classroom differentiation is designed to meet each learner’s need, from additional support or scaffolding to advanced thinking or problem-solving.
Differentiation in the British Primary model starts with understanding each student’s learning style and knowing what he or she needs to progress. Teachers develop that understanding through careful observation of the child, by reviewing assessment to data to support observations, and by collaborating with parents and with other teachers. Teachers build upon a foundation of knowing each learner to modify, adjust shape their own teaching strategies. They use one-on-one time and small group work strategically to address specific needs of students. They design lessons that draw on the many intelligences present in their students.
Teachers also promote student agency. Children develop a keen sense of themselves as learners over their years at Stanley. They reflect on what they need to be most successful- what challenges them, what inspires them, what strategies lead to success – and they also identify what’s not helpful. Students are often given the opportunity to decide how they will demonstrate their learning to a peer, a teacher, or a wider audience.
While our overall approach and objectives of differentiation apply across all the grades, each grade-level division employs intentional strategies to meet the developmental needs of children.
In our multi-age classrooms, over three years, we come to deeply understand our students – their interests, their identities, their challenges, their strengths where they are in their learning. We develop relationships of trust from which learners are willing to take healthy risks, challenge themselves develop confidence to learn on their own.
From knowing our learners well, we recognize the cusp or brink of where learners are in their growth and then open possibilities for development. We meet learners in their proximal zone, the zone in which learners learn best. At times, we plan differentiation in advance, such as reading just-right books, at other times, as learning unfolds in a given moment. This adjustment may include repeating, rephrasing, abbreviating/or extending. At moments when the students are actively engaged, we observe and listen and, decide how and at what moment to support – posing an open-ended question to extend a student’s thinking, demonstrating a strategy for solving a problem, giving feedback that extends understanding, supplying additional materials, or suggesting where more information might be, or what skills they might use. We adjust instruction as needed for each student to be successful. We also know when to support and when to stay out of the way to promote independence.
With some children, it is more complex to figure out how they learn and what they need from a teacher. To ensure each child maintains his or her confidence as a learner, continues to have a positive self-image and continues to learn, we work as a team. We draw on the strengths and insights of others, including parents, and at times a range of specialists, to help us understand how a child learns best and what we need to do to meet their learning needs – what strategies, what approaches, what resources. Each K-1-2 classroom has a part-time Learning Resource teacher who supports our classroom teachers in meeting the needs of all our learners, challenging and engaging them.
In our third-, fourth- and fifth-grade program, much of class time dedicated to core academic skills (reading, writing, mathematics) is designed to accommodate individual or small group needs. Teachers confer one-on-one with students around books selected to accommodate each student’s interest and reading level, setting individual goals to help each reader advance. In book clubs or reading groups, content and level of questioning varies, from prompts geared toward building comprehension skills to deeper thinking skills, such as inferring author’s intent. Spelling groups are leveled for all students across all classrooms. Math groups within each classroom are similarly leveled and include challenge options for older students. In social studies and science, much of the work is project-based, allowing room for both differentiation by student interest and the opportunity to demonstrate learning in varied ways suited to each student’s learning style.
Problem-solving, and employing multiple strategies, is a learning objective across the curriculum. It is revealed perhaps most directly in our math program. Teachers continually encourage children to use a variety of strategies to solve problems. This allows students to think at a deeper level than simple rote memorization or following a set of procedures. Teachers often have the children share their strategies with their peers, demonstrating there is no single right way to solve a problem. This creates a learning environment in which differing approaches to a problem have merit and value. In addition to promoting differentiated learning, sharing multiple strategies helps students develop a lifelong capacity to inquire about other perspectives and ideas and to use those thoughts to improve one’s own thinking.
In middle school, learning resource teachers partner with classroom teachers to differentiate instruction across all subject areas. Our Learning Resource Team recently returned from the National Association for Gifted Children Conference, part of their professional development plan to grow our capacity to better meet all needs of our students, from those who need additional repetition or time to those who benefit from a faster learning pace and more abstract thinking opportunities. Learning resource teachers support direct differentiation within classes by serving as a second teacher, working alongside the classroom teacher to address individual and small-group needs.
Following the developmental needs of our students, the middle school program also offers a number of specific programs designed to appeal to, and intellectually challenge, our students. Our Constitutional Law team for seventh and eighth graders draws strong interest each year. Through our weekly “skills class” program, we offer a wide variety of mini-classes targeted to a range of academic needs and interests- such as Creative Writing, Science Fair, Philosophy, Math Support, Spanish Conversation an Advanced Geometry track (6th, 7th, 8th grade). We incorporated an inaugural Geography Bee this fall and are holding a middle school Spelling Bee later this winter.
Valuing the Individual and the Community
Driven by our educational philosophy and our values, we also put differentiation in the context of learning to be a member of a community. Our mission calls on us to help students reach their potential certainly, but also to reach that potential “within a diverse and collaborate community.” We want children to find individual challenge in their work and we also want children to see their role in supporting others. Sometimes the needs of others take priority. A good example might be a second grader reading with a kindergartner. The focus for that moment may be on mentoring a younger child, not on challenging the second grader, yet critical learning goals for both students are clear.
The younger child benefits from the mentorship of the older, and the older student practices empathy and care while consolidating skills by teaching them. The same philosophy shows up on the sports field in middle school. Some athletes bring years of experience to Stanley teams, and for others it’s the first time they’ve tried a sport. Experienced athletes are not necessarily challenged at the level they might be in a program that that includes only similarly skilled players. But what they do get on a daily basis is the chance to mentor others, to be a model of positive sportsmanship to provide leadership that makes others better.
Like much within our British Primary philosophy, we ultimately look for balance between a student’s individual needs and the needs of the community. We don’t see the two as existing in tension but rather in complement to each other. Returning again to our mission, we strive to truly value “distinct contributions and abilities,” and we know that one’s potential is reached only when one finds purpose and connection with the lives of others.
All the best,
A school's moral purposePosted by Tim Barrier on 12/6/2018
“Our world has been so tremendously enlarged and complicated, our horizons so widened and our sympathies so stimulated by the changes in our surroundings… that a school curriculum which does not show this same growth can only be very partially successful. The subject matter of the schoolroom must be enlarged to take in the new elements and needs of society.”
I think few would argue with this premise. One of our core obligations in schools is to continually think about and evolve our practices to make sure we’re helping our children successfully navigate the society we live in as well as the one they will experience as adults.
It seems never more important than now, yet John Dewey wrote those words just over one hundred years ago, in "Schools of Tomorrow." In the book, he identifies schools from around the country that he feels are getting it right, schools that “have a tendency toward greater freedom and an identification of a child’s school life with his environment.” He also articulates what he finds to be core flaws in the way schools go about preparing children for living in their communities. One critical issue he finds is that the school’s basic curriculum often misses the mark. “Schools take the accumulated learning of adults, material that is quite unrelated to the exigencies of growth, and try to force it upon children, instead of finding out what these children need as they go along.” “To a very large extent the schools overlook, in the methods and subject-matter of their teaching, the social basis of living. Instead of centering the work in the concrete, the human side of things, they put the emphasis on the abstract, hence the work is made academic- unsocial.”
In these comments, he returns to a theme that runs through much of his work, the idea that learning is essentially social in nature and must be recognized as such. If one the purposes of education is to prepare children to engage productively in the working world, the interpersonal aspects of learning must be brought to the forefront. As Dewey notes, “work is essentially social in its character, for the occupations which people carry on are for human needs and ends.”
Ultimately, Dewey finds a strong moral purpose in schools. He argues that a school’s success in the end should be measured by how much students are encouraged to build their paths toward supporting the greater good. And in building those paths, Dewey knew that students need to do more than just learn about morality in abstract, removed ways; they need to practice it every day, though regular social interaction. I think about the fundamental nature of our mixed-age homerooms and about the many opportunities Stanley students K-8 have to interact with peers and with those either much older or younger. As important as traditional academic skills are, we must always keep our focus on providing intentional, meaningful opportunities for children to interact with one another, and on their terms, not always on ours.
As we say in our values statement about Community Responsibility, “We cultivate in our students the ability and desire to be responsive and contributing members of the world.” As Dewey would certainly agree, the key is in the “cultivating” bit. It comes through regular practice, from habit formed by ongoing commitment, and from observing adults and mentors demonstrating genuine care and respect for others. Dewey understood that school is at its core a place where children learn how to live positively and productively with others in society. It’s a responsibility we take to heart at Stanley.
A note of gratitude
Every non-profit has high hopes for reaching their goals on Colorado Gives Day. This year you – our generous parents and alumni families – helped us jump-start annual giving for The Stanley Fund by contributing over $143,000 on Tuesday. We still have a way to go to reach 100 percent participation, but this Gives Day turn-out shows the value you place on what we are doing here every day. On behalf of the faculty and staff – and our students! – thank you so very much for your enthusiastic support and generous contributions to making Stanley a great place to work, and learn and grow.
All the best,
Ongoing reflection is a cornerstone of learningPosted by Tim Barrier on 11/8/2018
We were pleased to share your student’s progress with you during our fall conferences last week. The conversations we have with you are designed to be collaborative assessments of where children are, academically and socially, and how we can help them progress. As with all forms of assessment, we believe that the purpose of the conferences should be less about evaluation and more about illuminating specific ways students can improve and grow. Towards this end, our assessment process begins with mechanisms for children to reflect upon their own learning, in age-appropriate ways.
In the earliest grades, children respond to such questions as What is your favorite thing about school? What is the hardest thing? At the 3-4-5 level, children identify areas of strength, areas to work on, and goals for themselves. In middle school, students complete self-evaluations in each area of study, again following a format that notes specific strengths and areas for improvement. Our goal is to help our students take ownership of their progress and discover that the habit of non-judgmental self-reflection is a powerful tool for learning. The first of our 7 Goals for Learners focuses on “Self-Awareness – including self-advocacy and confidence in one’s beliefs and abilities.” We strive to find ways within our program for students to learn about themselves – their strengths, their challenges, their passions, and their hopes. The current conference and progress report cycle provides such an opportunity. We know that our students graduate from Stanley with a deep capacity for self-reflection and a heightened self-awareness. In high school, this translates into better decision-making, an ability to set formal and informal personal goals, and an enthusiasm for meeting those goals with confidence.
Ongoing reflection is a cornerstone of learning at Stanley. We know that when students, or any of us for that matter, are given time to reflect about what they’re doing or what they’re learning, they understand more fully why something is the way it is, not simply that it is, and I think this distinction is critical. For learning to progress beyond basic recall of information, or application of a rote procedure, to the level of true understanding, we must give our students chances to reflect upon how the learning connects with them or with our previous knowledge.
Parent Association Meeting -- Tomorrow, Friday, the 9th at 8:30 a.m. in the lunchroom. Division Heads Joanna Hambidge, Stephanie Collins, and Greg Chalfin will lead a discussion on homework, including why it’s part of Stanley student experience and tips for helping children manage this responsibility.
Multicultural Feast – Saturday, November 10 at 5:30 p.m. in the ballroom. Hope to see you there!