Thursday, October 6, 2016

The 2016 Presidential Election - Are we listening?

This year’s presidential race has been contentious to say the least. During this blog I will attempt to remain non-partisan and present two opportunities for learning and growth for our children hopefully, in an unbiased manner.

Observing the first presidential debate and listening to the vice-presidential debate, it’s obvious that both sides have clear differing agendas that they want to promote regardless of any agreed upon rules of conduct prior to the debates. This year's quadrennial presidential election is creating more than a democrat-republican divide, it is creating a social and cultural divide as well.

Through history we have seen elections like this that have not only shaped our culture and social fabric, but our Constitution as well. A look at the 1800 presidential election (made famous through the musical Hamilton) of Thomas Jefferson brought about the 12th Amendment of the Constitution. Some of the rhetoric of that campaign (which brought rise to the two party system) mirrors the current divide in philosophies we have today.

Regardless of where you stand on different issues, a clear message can be sent to our children...and that is to listen. Simply listen to each other. Listening can open doors of understanding which then can lead the higher order thinking skill of empathy.

The noun empathy refers to: (1) the ability to comprehend another person’s actions and emotions, (2) the identification of thoughts and emotional states within others, (3) the capacity to understand a person’s emotional reaction, (4) the awareness of another’s problems, without experiencing them. In general, empathy can be understood as “walking a mile in another’s shoes” or to “see where they are coming from.”

Developing active listening skills and empathy can bring us together rather than keep us apart. Whether the larger issue is police violence/racial tensions, foreign trade, or sharing blocks in kindergarten, these skills make us better.
It is my hope by beginning a dialogue about active listening and empathy within the home and our school we will create future leaders who will be able to see issues more clearly. 
Sumner Academy will begin the process of our own presidential election after Fall Break. Our eighth graders will conduct voter registration prior to the election and issue voter cards to each student pre-kindergarten through eight. They then will assign electoral votes to each grade based on enrollment. On election day, the eighth graders will open a polling station and be responsible for the collection and tabulation of popular votes as well as electoral votes. Results will be announced after they are verified by the “election commission” (also eighth graders).
The process of working and participating in an election goes to the core of our democratic society and provides wonderful learning opportunities for our school. Hopefully, this process combined with a focus on listening and developing empathy will provide our children with lifelong tools.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Read to those Kids!

It was the summer of 1983 and I had just learned that I would be teaching fourth grade at Clark Elementary School in Charlottesville, Virginia. My very first full time teaching position! At that time, I was a breakfast bar manager at Shoney’s. An unexpected thing happened after I announced the fact to a few co-workers. Toby the bus “boy” had worked at Shoney’s since it had opened and was probably in his late 60’s at the time. He came up to me and said the following, “Heard you’re gonna be a teacher. I only know one thing about learnin and that is you need to read to those kids.” This was some excellent advice from an unlikely source.

I did read to those fourth graders, and to the second and fifth graders I taught as well. This year as I was preparing to teach U.S. history to our eighth graders, I was able to sit down with Sumner Academy teaching legend Brenda Whitsell. I was delighted to hear that she regularly read picture books to the eighth graders for U.S. history. She said student faces lit up like it was like a holiday if they saw a picture book on her desk.

Story time can set the stage for a love of reading. If you do not currently have a regular time to read, here are some guidelines for you:

(1)  Schedule a regular time to read. Bedtime is good, but I usually would fall asleep until nudged by one of my children.
(2)  Have your children predict what a new book will be about by examining the cover illustration.
(3)  Vary your books to expand their exposure to different kinds of books.
(4)  Let your children participate by discussing the illustrations, turning pages, finishing rhyming lines, etc.
(5)  Use different voices for different characters.
(6)  Take turns choosing. Children have traditional favorites which they will ask for over and over again, this allows you to introduce new books for your turn.
(7)  Have one evening per week designated as reading night…no screens!

Reading is the essential tool in the attainment of all of our learning. When you model reading, you set an example which your children will emulate. Just remember to stay awake while reading!

Here are some recommended lists for reading aloud:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Back to...already?

Back to…already?

It seems that major retailers clear out Fourth of July displays and bring in the Back to School displays…much to the dismay of children around the country. In the spirit of the Back to School supplies everywhere, I’d thought I’d send out a blog about getting your family ready for the start of school.

(1) Re-establish those School Routines - For younger children it is wise to start backing that bedtime up so it’s not such a shock on the first day of school. Also, start moving wake-up times earlier during the last two weeks of summer.

(2) Keep Morning Madness to a Minimum – Mornings with children were always hectic in my household. It takes practice to have everything down to a science to make your mornings enjoyable. It’s a good idea to have those school clothes out the night before, lunches packed and ready to go, homework checked and in the backpack, notes to the teacher, permission slips signed, etc. All these take practice to help you get to school on time in the morning.

(3) Attend Orientations and Meet and Greet at the School – Whether you are new to a school, or a seasoned veteran, meet the teacher and check out the classroom with your child. This calms much of the anxiety they may have about the new school year. This also provides you practice if you drive your children to school. How long does it take? Am I taking the best path in terms of morning traffic? How does carpool work?

(4) Make a Sick Day Plan – With most families having both parents working, this is critical. You don’t want your child waiting at school feeling terrible, so it’s best you have a plan ready to go.  If you have multiple children, find a family who lives nearby who can help with carpooling. The school should help you with a list of those who live near you.

(5) Create an After School Plan – Your child should have a regular time and place for homework designated within your home. It makes homework easier to manage when your child has supplies they need right there, instead of asking you every four minutes where the ruler is.

(6) Make the Process a Family Affair – Be aware of school events and programs and try to join in as a family. Be involved with the school through volunteering. Those who work during the day can still volunteer. Teachers have tons of projects for volunteers that can be done at home.

(7) Stay in Touch – Ask the teacher how they prefer to be contacted. Some like texts, others emails, and still others phone calls. Know how and when your teacher likes to communicate.

(8) Make the First Day Memorable - First day pictures adorn FaceBook every year. Perhaps you would like to make a special breakfast that first morning. Others may go out to dinner to celebrate a successful first day. You may want to write a special note for your child’s lunch. You know your children the best, match up a special event to celebrate that first day.

This will be my thirty-first first day of school as an adult. I still get excited about the start of every new school year. Now I just need to follow these eight steps!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Let's Head to the Movies

Occasionally I will post a blog which is not education related. Shocking I know, but there are actually other things roaming around in my pea brain!

Amy and I love going to the movies. One of our first dates was at Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia to see “The King and I” on the big screen. For the last several years, we have enjoyed going to Oscar nominated films. Not just in the best picture category, but across the board. This became much easier once we became empty nesters. I am not a film expert and have not taken any classes, I just rest on my 50+ years of movie going. From my big brother taking me to “The Jungle Book” in the 60’s to this year’s  “American Sniper.”

So, here are my thoughts on this year’s best picture category (minus “Whiplash” which is the only movie we have yet to see). I would place two movies together in the “out there” category: “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Both were well acted (especially Michael Keaton) but storylines were a bit too wacky for me. “Boyhood” is in a category all of its own. No one has done what Richard Linklater has done before, so it is difficult to judge. To me, it was too much like real-life. I go to the movies to escape real-life, you can give me a good story like "Gone Girl" any day. We watched “Selma” on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Loved the acting and story line and learned things I did not know about the three marches. “American Sniper” was excellent showing one man’s realization that we all have limitations, but we can in fact make profound differences in what we do. That leaves two more “bio-pics” which I found outstanding: “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything.” Both stories were engrossing and enlightening since I knew very little about Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking. These would be my two favorites.

Best performance by a lead actor goes to Michael Keaton in “Birdman.” Steve Carell was creepy-good in “Foxcatcher.” Lead actress goes to Reese Witherspoon. She gave a great performance in “Wild.” Julianne Moore’s (not one of my favorite actresses) role in “Still Alice” is heartbreakingly good. Supporting actor is close to me, but The Judge, Robert Duvall gets the nod. Best supporting actress has some really good performances like Laura Dern in "Wild," but you can’t bet against Meryl Streep.

Disappointment of the year goes to “Unbroken.” I understand this story is long and full of twists and turns and would be very difficult to make. Apparently the sound was incredible. While it was enjoyable, it did not catch the essence of the book. This goes into the great book, movie OK file. Unlike my file for “The Monuments Men” which was a great book and lousy movie. Another disappointment was the omission of “Life Itself” which is a documentary on the life of Roger Ebert. This was outstanding.  

So, here are my random thoughts. Next time, it’s back to school.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

One Week - Eight Middle School Classroom Observations

The strength of any school can and should be found in the classroom. This is why one of my all-time favorite job responsibilities is to observe each classroom instructor formally. In the fall of 2013, our faculty set forth on examining what should go into a lesson at Sumner Academy. It was specific to our mission, students, and gifted instructors. What came from that meeting was a lesson design with five components; introduction, presentation, checking for understanding, independent practice and closure. Also, eight teaching characteristics which should be present for every lesson. They include; classroom management, compassion, effective communication, enthusiastic/encouraging, expertise, flexibility, high expectations, organized.

So, during an observation I look for the five components of the lesson design as well as the eight teaching characteristics and keep a running narrative on what is occurring in class as well as thoughts on significant points on the lesson and possible changes for improvement.

From my week of observing and learning, I now know the following: (1) the origins of the discovery of DNA and how to find the DNA of a strawberry and a human; (2) the controversial role of Brutus in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar;” (3) factoring trinomials forward and backward using the smiley face method; (4) the proper usage of quotation marks; (5) various Spanish ocean related vocabulary; (6) using complements such as predicate nominatives and predicate adjectives; (7) writing traditional and modern haiku poetry; and (8) the culture and history of civil disobedience and activism.

Whew, I’m glad I just observed and did not have to complete the homework assignments!

Here are a couple of commonalities I saw in our instructors during the week. The first was how passionate they each are about the discipline they teach. Without this passion, it would just be reading the textbook, answering the questions, then completing the homework. Our instructors go far beyond the classroom and bring technology to our students to enhance their learning. I saw video clips, articles from magazines, web based research, fun cooperative learning activities, hands-on learning and much more. Another commonality came when I met with each instructor individually. To a person, they were eager to hear what I had to say and observed…even when I made a few suggestions. They each are willing to change and adapt to make even more difference in the learning process for our students.

One instructor told her class I would be observing the following week. They were concerned with some of her "techniques" and "props" she used during instruction. Each subsequent lesson, the students would tell her, "uh, that might not be a good idea when Mr. J. comes in to observe." They even collected many things from the room and placed them in a "Tools of the Trade: DO NOT USE DURING OBSERVATION." You just got to love middle schoolers!

While my role of headmaster has many duties and responsibilities which keep me from the classrooms, this truly is my favorite time of the school year. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Humble in Victory, Gracious in Defeat

I was a loser in college.  Yup, check the records, in each sport I participated in, I was a big loser.  On second thought, they probably have burned the records by now.

When I was fourteen, I tried out for and made the Arvco International junior soccer team.  This was a select group of teenagers from around Kalamazoo, Michigan who excelled in soccer and traveled around the state on the weekends.  I still remember that first jersey, red and white vertical stripes with the number 14 on the back.  I also remember playing fullback and while trying to clear a ball, having it slip off the side of my foot for an own goal.  They kept me around until I graduated from high school, and I was fortunate enough to play in college for the Olivet College Comets.

Our first season was solid, winning as many games as we lost or tied.  We played in a league that featured two highly ranked Division III teams, Calvin and Hope Colleges.  It kind of fell apart half way through my sophomore year with a bad losing streak to end the season.  The non-winning streak continued the next season and then the next.  We managed to tie a few games but victory was something we did not experience.  In fact, check the record book, I believe they went three more seasons without a win.

This experience and a few more taught me valuable life lessons about why we do the things we do.  It gave me a base of humbleness and one of introspection.  It’s easy as a parent to insulate our children from losing, but having them know that you are supporting them in success as well as failure is even more important.  Our children need a sense of stability and structure that only we as parents can provide.  Rather than ask how many goals you scored, or what your batting average is, we need to ask them if they gave it their all.

I know that while playing soccer or other sports on teams that were not successful can create stress and even a sense of failure, but we as parents need to place the focus elsewhere.  Our children need to know it is OK to fail and that we have failed in our lives.  True growth comes from learning from your past mistakes.  Did I mention I also played tennis in college.  My record of 2-23 REALLY made me very humble.  I did more apologizing to my opponent than celebrating.

I’m not sure if Olivet College is still in the Division III NCAA soccer record book anymore and I’m not really going to research that, but the experience is one that helped make me who I am today.

* Last year the Olivet College Comets were nationally ranked!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

At the Core of Being Grateful

All across America, we will be sitting down to a big Thanksgiving meal and sharing what we are most grateful for in our lives.  Near the top of the list for me is being grateful to lead an independent school.  Having the opportunity to lead outstanding educators in knowing precisely what is needed to teach our children well.  Being independent allows us to teach to each child’s needs.  We have been preparing students for high schools in this manner for a very long time and doing it exceptionally well.

Our friends in the public schools have lost the opportunity to teach what they feel is important due to the Common Core Curriculum.  When we lose control over who we are, what we do, and how we do it, we are lost.  Adrift.  Wandering. 

I have collected three quotes about the Common Core from experts in education who are far smarter than me.  This is what they had to say;

“The curriculum is to schooling as blueprints are to builders, as maps are to travelers, as patterns are to clothing manufacturers, as models are to designers, complicated by the fact that what needs to be understood is dynamic, therefore impossible to model with a static curriculum.”  Marion Brady

“Some states adopted them without seeing a finished draft. The standards, unfortunately, were never field-tested. No one knew in advance whether they would improve achievement or depress it, whether they would widen or narrow the achievement gap among children of different races. It is hard to imagine a major corporation releasing a new product nationwide without first testing it among consumers to see if it is successful. But that is what happened with the Common Core standards.” Diane Ravitch

However, for me there are two far bigger problems with the Standards themselves – errors that arguably caused the bulk of the current backlash. The writers of the Standards (especially in Math) did a terrible job of 1) justifying the Standards as appropriate to college and workplace readiness, and 2) explaining in detail what the Standards imply for educational practice. The documents simply fail at communicating the kinds of changes the Standards demand locally.” Grant Wiggins

While the debate rages on, I will sit down to our Thanksgiving meal grateful for Sumner Academy and knowing we are doing what is best for our children.

Our mission is to discover and cultivate each child’s unique abilities.