Author: Shelley Clifford

Head of Lower School Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

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!

Talent

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.

Connectors Build to Last

Multipliers build to last because they are curious, and they are connectors. We are designing learning experiences with your children that connect foundational skills to real-world opportunities and future possibilities. As you know we launched a new schedule prototype designed by our most fabulous maker, Jim Tiffin,  this year to experiment with extending the minutes and build continuity in connections classes (i.e. music, art, maker, science and Spanish). The previous model allowed for about 30 minutes every week. The new model provides connections teachers with 300 instructional minutes for one full week for deep project work. Classes then rotate every five weeks.

This extra time provides more opportunities for student curiosity and passion to drive learning. It also enables our teachers to have increased ownership over their own curriculum. Our outdoor playspace Frontier and newly renovated STEAM wing [the art studio, science lab, and studio(i)] are also inspiring creativity in all of us. Teachers are thinking more innovatively with five-hour chunks of time rather than 30 minutes.

Piper Hendryx, fourth grade Mustang, describes her love of maker classes in studio(i), “If I had to tell someone about studio(i), I would tell them they will have the time of their life here! It lets your creativity go wild. It sets you free!” She goes on to explain her maker project with four magical objects and how she writes computer code in Scratch to manipulate those objects. She also loves working with PicoBoards, and its various sensors like light and sound, to help her programs interact with the physical world. This connects to the science and engineering happening in homerooms as well as the science lab. Next, Piper plans to bring one of her stories she wrote in her literacy block to life using the tools in studio(i).”

The Worst of Me

If you work closely with a team, you would benefit from some of the exercises that our strengths coach, Elizabeth Payne, has used to build the relationships on our team. We believe that relationships are foundational for learning, and they are also foundational for leading. Taking time to reflect on your strengths and your passions, as well as the strengths and passions of those on your team, could help you go much further faster.

Understand yourself. Develop your strengths. Develop your team. Ask your teammates for feedback on what they see as your strengths. Consider completing and sharing two transformational statements together:

  1. You get the best of me when…
  2. You get the worst of me when…

When you are ready to take this team building to the next level, consider exploring these two statements:

  1. You can count on me for…
  2. I need you to…

This process should empower individuals on a team and accelerate growth.

Leadership

Who is a leader? In our work with Elizabeth Payne, our strengths coach, we have learned: A leader might be defined as anyone who has responsibilities that impact others. Leaders support and serve. They read people. Leaders inspire others to follow them. They take risk. They care. They are driven by a purpose, yes/and they prioritize the greater good over individual needs.

So, what qualities make a leader effective?  Effective leaders offer stability and have earned the trust of those whom they lead. Effective leaders show compassion. They also offer security and provide hope.

We know that high performing people feel safe in their working relationships and need that security to take risks. They need to be known and understood to be happy. We must be able to separate who a person is from what they do but also know that some of our work is a direct reflection of who we are.

To lead a division well, we try to start with wins, say thank you, and have fun when we are together. We use our strengths to contribute and ask for the strengths of others to round us out. We overcome obstacles together. We strive to set, express, and evaluate clear expectations.

Leadership is a journey, and each of us is the master of our own journey.

Planning for a Class Again

It would be interesting to know how many hours of lesson plans I have created since I took my first education class as a junior in college. Through college and graduate school I wrote many lessons and received feedback from my professors. After graduation I began teaching third grade. Planning every minute (and many extra minutes in case the students caught on more quickly than I anticipated) from the 7:30-3:15 school day for 18 little boys was much more challenging than my hypothetical plans in college, and the feedback was much more immediate. Little boys will quickly let you know if something is too boring or too hard. But they will also let you know when they are having fun or when they “get it” for the first time. And that feedback is why I teach!

Since moving into administration five years ago, though, I don’t plan as many lessons. I have had the opportunity to design lots of professional learning experiences and collaborate with teachers on their lesson plans. But it has been many years since I have designed my own class for kids. I am excited to plan this experience for 10 students. I want to design with the end in mind and develop essential questions that these students will wrestle with. I am going to spend this weekend planning the big idea of a Ted Talks for Kids PlayMaker Class. But I can’t wait to meet my class and find out what their goals are for signing up. I am interested to learn about their passions and let those direct my plans.

Below is the opening communication I will share.

Dear Speakers,

Thanks for signing up for our PlayMaker Class! We are going to have a lot of fun this trimester.

f you can’t write a speech yet, do not worry. I bet you can write a list. If not a list, I bet you can write a word. If you have never given a speech before, get excited about the opportunities ahead. Wherever you are now, you are going to learn to say that word, list, or speech with power. Depending on what your goal is, we will create a plan and document progress along the way.

We will look for opportunities to share our final product with an audience. Hopefully this process will bring laughter because we will be silly. Yes, and after lots of practice we will entertain, inform, or inspire someone to make an impact.

We will act. We will memorize. We will write. We will practice, coach, and say thank you for the feedback. We will laugh. We will listen. We will take each communicator as far as he or she is ready to go.