Walk Out, Kneel Down

On March 14 at 10:00 in the morning I was observing in a fourth grade classroom when Simon, a fourth grade student, approached me with a question.

“Miss Clifford, there are children walking out of their schools today to remember the people in Parkland, Florida that are hurting. Can I walk out?”

Personally I have been doing a lot of reflecting on this event, just like I did after the few school shootings prior to Stoneman Douglas High School. In my role of head of lower school, my primary concern is to have a culture of safety and inclusion for five to ten year olds to experience childhood – love their teachers, make friends, play freely outside, go on expeditions, learn, fail, and grow. I want children to be little. To be protected from the bad in the world – hate, discrimination, violence, and judgement.

It is hard to figure out how to have developmentally appropriate conversations about the real-world events on the news. It is hard to expose such innocent and happy minds to tragedy. Unlike our Middle and Upper School, as a Lower School we did not initiate a conversation about the Parkland shooting. Rather, we responded by increasing our awareness of what the children were saying, followed their lead, heard their fears, and encouraged hope for them.

I asked Simon if he knew why people were walking, and I was surprised at the mature level of his understanding. Another student in the class, Reilly, overhead us talking and chimed in, “I’d like to walk out too.”

I agreed to take the boys out at 10:30. It was a cold morning, but they did not want to go back in for their jackets. I told them about our Upper and Middle School students’ plan to walk out for a moment of silence on the 17-yard line of the football field. I would have loved for these two fourth grade boys to walk over and see how many of our students on the other campus were taking a stand. Since that was already over, however, I asked them what they wanted to do for our 17 minutes, and Simon simply responded, “Pray.”

In the sunshine on the green courtyard, the three of us knelt down to pray. Simon went first. Of course I assumed he would pray for the victims, their parents and their friends. But Simon did not start there. He prayed for the shooter and his parents. He prayed the shooter would find God, heal, and be okay. He prayed for the shooter’s parents to find peace, support, and forgiveness. I felt the tears well up in my eyes as I realized the empathetic heart of this ten-year-old boy. While I wanted to protect him from even knowing about an act of violence like this, he wanted to face it, pray for it, and talk about how to help. Simon prayed and prayed – for as many people he could think of that were involved – teachers, students, families, friends, doctors, and rescue workers.

Reilly prayed next. Riley prayed for the guard that did not respond to the call. He prayed that he would forgive himself and that people would understand that he did the best he could in that hard moment. Reilly prayed for schools around the world to be safe. He prayed that teachers and classmates would start standing up to bullies and pay attention to people in their classes who were hurting. He prayed for courage for people. Reilly got it! He understood the root cause. People are not bad. If a person does a bad thing it is because something is wrong, and it is everyone’s responsibility to take care of each other.

It was my turn to pray. I had to swallow hard because the knot in my throat was growing so large I was afraid I would not be able to speak. I was so thankful in that moment for the two boys who asked me to walk out with them and for a school that values prayer. I offered up my gratitude and thanksgiving for these two empathetic children and the opportunity to pray with them, be inspired by them, and learn from them. I echoed their concerns for all of the people, all of them, in Parkland. I prayed for wisdom, protection, and healing.

After I concluded my prayers and said amen, we talked more. The boys shared what they knew about the actual event and asked some hard questions to each other. They talked about schools, people, feelings, and how we all have to work together. They talked about gun laws.

We talked about how short life is and how every day is a gift. We reminded each other that we are all going to make mistakes, but when we do, we need to make it right as soon as we can. In my 14 years in education, I have had a lot of moving moments with my students, and this one will certainly stand out as one of the most powerful.


Collaboration, Assess It

We have studied the skill of collaboration. We have modeled it, mini-lessoned it, and planned lessons that required it. How do we know if the students are building their collaboration muscles?

With the help of EdLeader21 resources, we have designed proficiency scales for different grade levels with “I can” statements to help outline the learning progression of collaboration skills. The scale we use for third and fourth grade is below.

Grades 3-4 Collaborator Proficiency Scale

I can partner with different people
I am a member of a team.
I am a member of a team and can lead with teacher assistance.
I can lead or follow on a team and generate ideas to meet our goal.
I can move flexibly between leading and following in my group by listening to others’ ideas and providing feedback.
I can teach, coach, and lead by example
I can work independently alongside of a team.
I can work independently and complete tasks with my team. I can listen to contributions of others.
I can positively contribute and adjust to the needs of the team. I can appreciate different ideas and incorporate them into a task.
I can build trust with my team by positively contributing and adjusting to the needs of the team. I can encourage different ideas and incorporate them into a task.
I can accept feedback, implement decisions, and share the credit
I can listen to feedback from my teacher and/or classmates.
I can listen to feedback from both the teacher and my classmates and may consider revising my work
I can listen to classmates’  and teacher feedback and revise my work. I can offer helpful feedback in a respectful manner.
I can consistently show a willingness to change my ideas or opinions based on the information exchanged. I can ask for and accept feedback to improve my work. I can share the credit for group successes.

Creating the scales, of course, was a learning experience in and of itself. However, after the scales were created, we needed to figure out how to use them. Our team created and piloted a few tools to record and track progress. These took the forms of exit tickets, test questions, checklists, anecdotal records, and student-reflection questions.

Reflection questions may have included prompts like,

  • “Which of the Mount Vernon mindsets do you feel you exhibited strongly today?”
  • “Did any of the characters in today’s story (or history lesson) show strength in one of our mindsets?”
  • “Set a personal goal for yourself regarding a mindset you want to use today. At the end of class, reflect on your progress.”

At Mount Vernon, we believe that you assess the things you value. We value collaboration, creative thinking, and communication skills. We value ethical decision making, solution seeking, and innovating. So we are committed to tracking our learners’ progress in these areas. We still have a lot of work to do, and a next step that I am excited about is building some performance tasks at scaffolded levels for Mount Vernon Mindset practice and progress.

Collaboration, Teach It


Like many big words teachers use in elementary school, collaboration can be an abstract concept for little ones. One of our goals of the year at Mount Vernon, however, has been to help every child in Lower School develop stronger collaboration skills. In order to do that, we have broken collaboration down into three main areas.

  1. Diverse Partnerships
  2. Coaching Others
  3. Accepting Feedback

Diverse partnerships thrive when emphasis is placed on the classroom’s culture. The most important thing we do with our learners, is build a strong culture of community in our school. First of all, we start the day with prayer to focus on gratitude. Then we use mini-lessons and jingles to help little ones build collaboration skills. Our Kindergartner partners learn the Reader Workshop chant, “Elbow to elbow, knee to knee, book in the middle, so we both can see!” We sit in a circles and host class meetings; one of my favorite class meeting agendas is the compliment circle. It is priceless to hear first graders compliment someone for who they are or how they have treated someone else in the class. We encourage students to be out of their comfort zones by trying hard things, greeting new people, and celebrating differences that make them unique. To build an inclusive culture in second grade, each child created a new “Crayola” color this year to recognize and appreciate their own skin colors. We had some original color names like “tan sugar cookie,” “peachey latte,” and “double chocolate muffin chocolate chip.” A focus on culture and community takes intentional lesson planning and classroom time, but it is some of the most important work we do.

Coaching others is not easy. It is not easy for adults or children. Sometimes, we instruct children only to worry about themselves, and we suggest that being bossy is the “teacher’s job.” Other times we tell children they need to work it out on their own. I imagine it is hard to figure out when the wisdom of a seven year old is needed and when the child should defer to the teacher!

Some strategies we are using with our youngest learners are developing common language like, “Stop. That bugs me.” as well as, “I like…, I wish…, I wonder.”  In regards to social negotiations and building friendships, teachers are trying to stand back more and let students work through social situations and playtime. We schedule unstructured play time, observe and evaluate skill development to inform our next lesson. We introduce new objects for students to explore and games that will require some teamwork. The children can learn so much from each other, and redirecting a tattle tale to be a peer coach is an amazing accomplishment. Classwork is also designed with peer coaching opportunities. We use empathy interviews to improve our prototypes, and we have learned to show evidence of others’ suggestions into our iterated products. We often ask students what they changed in their story or design based on the feedback of a classmate. We help students see that often times our first idea is not our best idea, and different perspectives make our ideas better.

Finally, at Mount Vernon we believe that feedback is a gift. We focus on accepting feedback by really listening to the one giving it. Considering another’s ideas and then trying their ideas can be hard when you like your own idea. One of our brainstorming norms is going for volume. Good collaborations have lots of ideas, varied ideas, wild ideas. Strong collaborators make sure everyone has a part and gets credit for what they did, so we create credit slides and compliment our teammates. And, of course, as with any gift, when we receive feedback, we always say, “Thank you.”

Teaching collaboration takes intentional planning, both of the tasks required of the learners and of the mini-lessons or focus areas for infusion of the skills.

The Road to Collaboration


It’s 2018. Time to dust off the cobwebs and pull out the ole blog again.

In the last 10 years I have seen numerous articles on collaboration. I have read about how CEO’s need to see this skill more fully developed in their new hires. I have heard how collaboration is the new creativity, and I have read about how the value of diverse networks is needed to strengthen a team. I get it.

I am hesitant to believe, however, that I can add anything new of value to this conversation. As I review the literature, though, I find that little has been written to show us how to teach collaboration and how to measure it.

At Mount Vernon this year, all students are receiving evaluative feedback on the six dispositions of our Mount Vernon Mind, including collaboration. Specifically, the School has broken collaboration down into three focus ares:

  • Builds strong partnerships within a diverse team
  • Teaches, coaches, and leads other by example
  • Accepts feedback, implements decisions, and shares the credit

We are using a four-point scale to represent a student’s individual collaboration skill development:

  • LE: Lacks Evidence
  • AE: Approaching Expectations
  • ME: Meets Expectations
  • EE: Exceeds Expectations

I am excited about the journey that we are on, yes/and each step I take brings more questions. How often are we intentionally infusing mindsets into our lessons? How do we teach a child to coach a peer? What evidence shows strong partnerships exist? Additionally I wonder about how to measure collaboration skills. What do we expect 2 year old collaborations to look like, and how does this advance with age? What tools best capture evidence of collaboration? Who sets the standard? How does one’s collaboration style and skill level change based on variables like team, the topic at hand, or time of day?

The next two posts will share some of the strategies we have used to promote and measure progress on the skill and disposition of collaboration in the Lower School. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas as well.

Grandparents are Curious

While much of our Grandparents Day messages concentrated on connections between their grandkids today and their own childhood, we also pointed out some of the differences as a result of our changing world.

Grandparents know more than anyone else how much the world has changed, and how schools need to change in response. So unlike the teachers each grandparent recalled from his or her own childhood, our Mount Vernon teachers…

not only teach children to find their voice as writers of stories                                    but they also teach children to write code                                                not only teach children to read books                                                                                    but they also teach children to read and analyze blogs                               do not teach about science through textbooks                                                                    rather, they invite children to observe and question their world,                      create and conduct experiments in a lab, and analyze results like                    scientists and engineers                                                                                     provide opportunities for students to develop the skills of design thinkers            digital citizens, and global citizens

We hope this sets each child on a journey to do whatever he or she wants to do and to be whatever he or she wants to be. And as we told the grandparents, the brightest of the bunch want to grow up to be…

Just like their Grandparents!

Grandparents are Multiplers

Friday, November 28 was our annual Grandparents and Special Friends Day. This is an unusual day in that we are hosting and celebrating our wise and loving grandparents. However, it is a typical day in that we are celebrating our kids – because that is what we do every day in Lower School; we celebrate kids!

I know that many lower school students may not even realize that their grandparents were once 5-10 year olds too. However, while seated in the audience, grandparents took a moment to reflect on their elementary school years and the teachers who were most impactful on their lives. It is no surprise that  memories are so vivid. The formative years of elementary school are some of the most influential on a child’s life. For the first time in a child’s life, factors outside of the home have the biggest influence on the child.

Children in these formative years are forming opinions of themselves and what they value. They are forming attitudes about school. Do they like it? Do they need it? Is learning fun? They are also making friends that will influence life decisions and direction.

While some aspects of these formative years have remained the same, some aspects of teachers  have too. Our teachers still cheer hard to encourage perseverance when things are hard. We set high expectations and hold our students accountability because we value life lessons and character building.

Grandparents were able to connect to these examples, and it is good to know that kids are still kids.

She asked…

After a recent classroom observation, one growth-mindset, goal-oriented teacher asked me for feedback. Normally, I write up my notes on an instructional rounds tool and add an “I like, I wish, I wonder” component to the FOLIO page. I always offer a 1:1, face to face, meeting to debrief the notes, but few teachers take me up on my offer.

This teacher, however, initiated the ask before I even extended my offer. After we discussed our individual reflections on the lesson, I offered some additional insights. We focused on four areas.

  1. Classroom Practice
  2. Classroom Culture
  3. Programatic Design
  4. Leadership

We discussed strengths and identified opportunities for growth in each category in her role as a teacher-leader. This reflective, collaborative, and strategic discussion was a great reminder of the many facets of an educator’s role. These conversations are a great reminder of what I love about my job and my School!


Elizabeth Payne led a recent Parent University on a Strengths-Based Approach to Parenting. She shared that talent is something you are naturally good and it helps us shine. She reminded us that when we ask people to operate in a weakness all the time, and offer negative feedback, it is frustrating and unproductive.

So there is much value in knowing your child’s (or your own) strength. When we focus on strengths, we are 3x more likely to report a happy quality of life, and we are 6x more engaged. Elizabeth outlined 4 clues to finding our child’s strengths:

  1. What do they yearn to do?
  2. In what settings are they rapid learners?
  3. When do they automatically know the next steps?
  4. When do they ask, “How did I do that?”

As adults it is our responsibility to celebrate and cultivate our children’s strengths. We can appreciate their curiosities to learn more, and give them hope for an optimistic future.

A Tough Conversation

Tough conversations are usually a sign of growing times. When a team needs to work through a difficult issue, it is important to follow our assume the best protocol. In an attempt to do that in a recent situation, I have a few great take-aways to share.

  1. We must celebrate successes first. Each person should be able to recognize strengths in the other and share those.
  2. Based on our own reflection and the feedback of others, we need to take ownership of our own growth – determine our own goals and hold ourselves accountable.
  3. We must be open to the feedback, even if we were not expecting it to go that way.

So I began a recent meeting by establishing the purpose:

  1. We want to be our best individually and as a team in accomplishing the mission and vision of our School.
  2. We want to show that we care for and respect each other as a valued member of the team.
  3. We want to agree on an outcome that requires change on everyone’s part.

So, we sought to sort through differences and identify what keeps us from doing our best. We shared stories or specific times, rather than blanket statements. We exchanged, “What I need from you is__________” statements.

This was a good reminder to all involved that the need to get things done does not equal a partnership, so we cannot value tasks over relationships.

Learning Walks are Scaling Up

More and more parents are expressing their interest in the daily Lower School experience. So far we have had three successful learning walks with parents. The goal is to share the open-door culture and practice of classroom observations with our parent partners. We also seek to receive feedback and grow from this process. Observing the flow of learning kindergarten through fourth grade brings many “I likes” and “I wonders” to an engaging debrief.

Some of the insightful feedback we have received includes:

I like

  • “Learning at Mount Vernon is extremely different than my school experience. It is so respectful of children.”
  • “I was surprised to see that learning is tactile all the way through fourth grade. I saw lots of math tools and lots of connections being made between math and science.”
  • “I saw how students were encouraged to think differently and allowed to enter the thinking at different times or using different methods: verbally, on ‘spider legs,’ or on post-it notes.”
  • “The centers in first grade. Everyone was doing something different, but they were all engaged and learning.”
  • “Rich vocabulary was everywhere even for the classroom helpers like electrician and tailgunner. This makes kids feel important.

I wonder

  • “Why do you teach nonsense words?”
  • “Why do some fourth grade classrooms only have math resources and others only have Language Arts?”
  • “What is this?” (a rekenrek)
  • “When do we start teaching US History and wars?”

We are excited to continue this practice with more learning walks being offered in the second semester.