Headlines from The Head

Weekly Blog by Rod Stanton, Head of School

2021-22 School Year

May 25th: Timing is Everything

Well, maybe not everything, but important, especially when it comes to the lives of children. SRV has always been tuned into timing and children’s rhythms. A clear example of this is the middle of our day, which involves recess, followed by lunch, then quiet time—play, eat, rest. Over many years, SRV teachers landed on this sequence as the best formula for student learning and general wellbeing.

Fun fact: President Lyndon Johnson was famous for his daily afternoon siestas. After waking at 6:30 or 7 a.m., LBJ read the papers, worked until 2 p.m., took a swim or brisk walk, put on his PJs, and napped for 30 minutes.

What activities we are doing when matters too. Having read Drive (2009), when Daniel Pink’s book When came out in 2018, I immediately picked up a copy. Pink and his team of researchers spent two years analyzing more than 700 studies in fields ranging from economics to psychology to unearth the hidden science of perfect timing. Like Drive, it resonated with me, and I was struck by how relevant the content was for young learners. One salient piece for me was researching the relationship between specific brain processes and the time of day. For example, Pink recommends that we tackle analytical problems in the morning and save creative pursuits for later in the afternoon and early evening. This can have profound implications for school schedules.

Timing can also be age-related.Biologically, teenagers have a different circadian rhythm than people of other ages, for example. Their internal clock, which tells their body when and how long to sleep, doesn’t line up well with the norms of the school day. Forcing teenagers out of bed early in the morning to go to school can affect their physical and mental health, attention span, and learning ability. Some high schools have adjusted their schedules to accommodate later arrivals in response to this research.

All this being said, each child is a unique being, and some just aren’t morning people, and some may be night owls, for example. Observe these patterns in your children and compare those with your routines and schedules and those they experience in school.

May 18th: Flexible Thinking

Recent advances in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is far more malleable than we ever knew. We can increase our neural growth by taking actions, such as using good strategies, asking questions, practicing, and following good nutrition and sleep habits. Children must develop flexible thinking skills—the ability to think about something differently.

It can be easy to get stuck in the habit of rigid thinking, and this can be problematic. Dr. Carol Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe people’s underlying beliefs about learning and intelligence. When students believe they can get more imaginative, they understand that effort makes them stronger and put in extra time and effort. They rebound while other students feel devastated by even the slightest setback. Teachers and parents can have a significant impact on children’s mindsets.

Flexible thinking will be critical as we adapt to post-pandemic living. Our instincts may be to return to the way things were. We want the comfort of the familiar. We don’t have to go back to the way things were, though, and there are several things we probably should leave behind. In his recent Education Next column, “Move to Trash: Five pandemic-era education practices that deserve to be dumped in the dustbin (2022),” Michael Petrilli identified five pandemic-era practices which should be scrapped post-pandemic. These include asking teachers to instruct half of their students in person and the other half remotely at the same time, awarding course credit based on a minimum amount of instructional time (seat time), so-called “asynchronous” learning days, grade inflation, and graduating students regardless of whether they mastered learning expectations or not.

May 11th: Pretzel Houses

You may have noticed several small, wooden houses around campus. These are referred to as pretzel houses, and the original pretzel house is located at the head of the trail to Bamboo Island. The structures are simple and utilitarian, allowing children to imagine them in any way that suits their needs. Commonly, the pretzel house is an ice cream stand serving all sorts of delicious delicacies. I noticed that, most recently, students used chalk to write on the newly fitted roof, courtesy of parent Chris Sembrot, to advertize “assum” ice cream for sale, followed by a list of “speshel” ice creams. I frequent these businesses often and am never disappointed.

The original pretzel house came about as the result of a student fundraising effort. The kids sold pretzels and collected enough money to buy the materials and build the house, hence the name. We have multiple pretzel houses related to our Annual Auction, which we haven’t hosted in recent years. At the Auction, a replica pretzel house, built by our Facilities Manager, Dan Tracy, is put up for auction and delivered to the winner’s house. The interesting phenomenon is that as children grow older, they no longer need the pretzel house and gift it back to the School. Dan picks it up and brings it back to campus. The house essentially comes back home to SRV.

Like the pretzel houses, our amazing alumni come back to SRV often. It was wonderful to see so many alumni at May Fair this past Sunday. SRV is unique because alumni from every era in its history visit the school frequently and cherish their time here. This typically happens in high schools, where alumni come to homecoming or other events but not so much in schools with young children. Something about being a student at SRV becomes part of your identity, and I think it’s soothing and reassuring to return to it. Like the pretzel houses that they played in as young children, although they have long outgrown them, they and the School remain symbols of an extraordinary and foundational time in their lives. The lessons learned, the strong character developed, and the joy for learning instilled is as solidly constructed as the frame of the pretzel house, able to provide shelter and protection from stormy weather when needed and, of course, the most delicious invisible ice cream you’ll ever taste.

May 4th: May Fair

The campus is abuzz with excitement this week—May Week—in anticipation of our annual May Fair this Saturday, May 7th. In classrooms, students are immersed in the schoolwide theme of Dragons. They are writing acrostic dragon poems, playing dragon-inspired games to reinforce spelling patterns, designing dragon costumes, and reading books about dragons. They are learning how dragons are represented in different cultures around the world and about Barcelona—Drakcelona – the City of Dragons—through the lens of Architect Antoni Gaudi and learning about the dragon at the entrance of Parc Güell.

Mini-Courses are happening this week and involve a variety of projects such as making May Fair crowns, paper flowers, wooden trinkets and tokens, and dragon kites. They are learning about dragon eggs and fire breathing and how to draw dragons. They’re even repairing the iconic knight who stands guard outside the Woods building.

On Saturday, we will gather as a community to celebrate the many rich traditions that never fail to bring appreciative laughter, joyful tears, and indelible memories. May Fair is… puckery-good lemon sticks…our children’s painstakingly practiced and beautifully performed dances (hence the tears)…crafts and games produced by our own students…sandbox treasures…delectable parent-made goodies, student-made “trinkets and tokens” to buy…and of course, the exquisite maypole itself, choreographed and brought to life by the Oldest Group (Janet Riddle, 2009).

The kids are so excited, and when I asked them what May Fair means to them, I received some pretty precious responses.

“It’s like a big festival with pony rides and lemon sticks.”

“Last May Fair, there was a tunnel on the green slide!”

“My family moved away for a year, and May Fair is one of the reasons we came back.”

“I’m excited to have a real May Fair, do the sword dance, see all of the other kids’ dances, and eat lemon sticks.”

“It’s a giant park with dancing and balloons.”

“It’s in like four days (holding fingers up)!”

“It’s Everything!”

April 27th: Community

Building a sense of community for our students is essential to their development and well-being. Children learn best when the significant adults in their lives work together to encourage and support them. Students in schools with a strong sense of community are more likely to be academically motivated (Solomon, Battistich, Watson, Schaps, & Lewis, 2000). Children continue to learn values when they enter a classroom and don’t stop learning at home. They observe how decisions are made, adults in their lives treat one another, and problems are solved. We all need to be on the same page.

SRV has always been a caring, inclusive, and participatory community. Today, we echo the commitment of parents in the 1930s and 40s— who worked on weekends and evenings to construct our buildings—during events such as Putter Day. This past weekend, many families came together to weed and mulch garden beds and trees, put roofs on playhouses, and move play structures. The campus looks great, and I am grateful for all of the help. Our “statement on community,” which can be found in the parent handbook, includes the elements of commitment, trust, respect, partnership, and diversity.

We all have basic psychological needs for emotional and physical safety, close, supportive relationships, and a sense of connectedness (Resnick et al., 1997). We want a say in what happens to us and to be able to contribute in positive ways. The Pandemic limited our opportunities to connect, and it feels like families are simply busier than ever before. As we work together to navigate our current landscape, I hope we can actively cultivate respectful, supportive relationships among students, teachers, and parents, emphasize common purposes and ideals, provide regular opportunities for service and cooperation and find appropriate avenues for autonomy and influence. If you feel that you can contribute to these goals, I invite you to let me know.

April 20th: Optimism

After living with the Pandemic for several years and now facing global turmoil, it can be pretty difficult to feel optimistic these days. However, it is essential to exude feelings of optimism for our children and teach them to be optimistic.

Optimistic children view obstacles and as temporary and are better equipped to overcome them, while children who are pessimistic see obstacles as permanent. Children who practice optimistic thinking are more resilient and less likely to give up. Overcoming challenges gives them a sense of control and confidence rather than defeat.

How can we build optimism in children?

Model being optimistic. If children hear lots of optimistic comments, they are more likely to develop this way of thinking themselves. Be aware the running commentary on life that you present to your children. Look for and point out the good side to events and experiences. Offer specific interpretations of specific events. Emphasize control and influence and allow for a different outcome next time. Look on the bright side and find the positive even when things haven’t gone well.

Interpret failure as an opportunity. Present failure as a natural part of learning that helps us recognize what we don’t yet know or can’t yet do. Always say what your child did well before discussing what they could do better. Help them to evaluate what went well and what could be changed. 

Encourage children to set their own goals. When children are anxious about failing, allow them to develop their own plans and work out how to achieve them. And encourage your child to thik about how to influence future events and develop a plan of action to effect change. Direct them to participate in activities where they will experience success. Even if they set low expectations, if it is an achievable goal that they accomplish by themselves, they will gain a sense of competence that will lead to them setting a more challenging goal next time.

Challenge negative explanations. Encourage children to look at different sides of a problem rather than settle on their first explanation. If a child is interpreting events negatively, don’t contradict them but encourage them to come up with reasons as to why something happened. 

Let them sleep. A 2011 study of Finnish children showed that sufficient sleep quantity is associated with higher levels of optimism, and good sleep quality is associated with higher levels of optimism and self-esteem (Räikkönen, Scheier, M. F., Matthews, K. A., Pesonen, A. K., Heinonen, K., Lahti, Komsi, Paavonen, & Kajantie).

April 6th: Preschool to Second-Grade Educators' Diversity Summit

I am so excited for the Preschool to Second-Grade Educators’ Diversity Summit (P2EDS) this Saturday. This event has been the focus of much attention in the past few months and it’s hard to believe the day is almost here. Nora Quinn and her group of volunteers have done an amazing job of planning and preparing and it’s going to be great!

P2EDS is an event that is sponsored and planned by the Greater Philadelphia Diversity Collaborative (GPDC)—a collective of independent schools that are committed to addressing issues of diversity, equity, and social justice through curriculum, professional development, and school-wide events. 

P2EDS is a biennial event, hosted by The School in Rose Valley (SRV). This full-day conference will feature a keynote address from educator and activist Rosetta Lee of the Seattle Girls School, as well as offer activities and workshops on social justice, equity and anti-racist concepts in our schools, performances, conversation groups, reflection time, and meals. Attendees will gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their peers as anti-racist educators, while exploring issues of diversity, equity, and identity as it relates to the world of their young students.

There is a significant need for this type of programming. We often think that young children are colorblind to differences, and we are hesitant to point out differences for fear that it promotes prejudice (Denton, 2011). The truth is that infants as young as six-months-old can categorize people by both gender and race. As they move through toddlerhood to age five, children notice and reason about race and eventually express preferences for their race (Kinzler & Spelke, 2011). As a result of this disconnect, our small schools of young students face unique challenges and opportunities to create developmentally appropriate diversity-related learning experiences, foster dialogue among parents and staff about diversity, equity, and social justice topics, and promote anti-racist ideology. 

Our hope is that SRV can not only provide a space for dialogue and collective growth but that we can learn from our fellow educators and find ways to address bias in our classrooms and community and move forward in our journey to becoming a more diverse school community.

March 30: Families' Role in the School

As the campus becomes more open and we begin to gather together, it will be helpful to understand the role of parents at the School. For this, I turned to The School in Rose Valley by Grace Rotzel to understand the intention of our founders. Chapter 15, Parents Roles in the School, shows how parents echoed the pedagogy of SRV by engaging in learning by doing.

The first parent project was the construction of the Mushroom, which was in use for only four years, followed by the Main building, in which I sit as I write this piece, then Chip and Rawson. Other activities saw parents busy putting on a play, hosting art classes for adults, and fundraising for the School. The first May Fair began as parents supported the children’s efforts to raise funds for a school that had flooded in Holland. Putter days were opportunities for parents to help with landscaping, maintenance, and whatever else needed to be done. Beyond just the financial necessity of doing it yourself was the feeling of working together for the common good. It seemed that everything was done to benefit the children and the School.

There are so many examples of how this tradition continued between those early years. Rob Oaks and John Baker led a group of families in constructing the Apple Core—the large ship in the southeast corner of the campus by the woods—and have continued to maintain it through the years. The picnic tables in the garden and the bridge linking the Woods and Main buildings were constructed by parents. Putter Days continue to be opportunities for families to prepare the campus for winter, clean it up in the spring, and do a few much need projects. 

What I like best are the informal conversations that happen when parents linger after drop off or pick up, or join me for coffee. Better yet is when our students have the opportunity to share their work and invite parents into the classroom. Last week, students in the Primary Circle showed their parents their space books. It was fantastic to listen to students read their stories about the planets—with great fluency, I might add. Their faces lit up as they described the rings of Saturn or the weather on Jupiter.

When School is not in session, the SRV grounds are open to the public. Families are welcome to use the grounds and playground equipment, excluding the swimming pools, at any time. We ask that our community takes care of the School by being careful yourself, cleaning up after use, and letting us know if you see any damage. 

SRV was established and maintained by parents. As we move into the endemic phase of the COVID crisis and our interactions become less siloed, the true ethos of SRV will emerge. I look forward to having everyone on campus and sharing in the joy of our children’s learning. I can’t wait to hear how it’s going for your family at SRV.

March 23rd: Middle School

The adolescent years are such a formative time in a person’s life. Recent research identifies the teenage years as a period of significant brain development and malleability, similar to the time from birth to three years old. 

SRV graduates go on to their next destination and enter adolescence well prepared. Historically, students have transitioned into local public districts, such as Wallingford Swarthmore and Rose Tree Media. We are recently seeing a migration to local independent schools such as Westtown, Shipley, Friends Central, and The Benchmark School. 

Education specifically targeted to the pre-adolescent and adolescent years has a long history in the United States. In 1888 Harvard University president Charles Eliot launched an effort to reorganize primary and secondary schooling. At that time, eight-year elementary schools and four-year high schools were the most common institutions. Eliot argued that young adolescents wasted time in the last years of elementary school and should be introduced to college preparatory courses such as algebra and Latin at an earlier age. He recommended reducing elementary schools to six grade levels (1–6) and increasing secondary grades to six (7–12). Unfortunately, these schools began to adopt the curricula, grading systems, large size, schedules, regimentation, and impersonal climate of senior high schools. 

The Middle School Movement, which resulted in combining sixth-, seventh and eighth-grade students, began in 1963. The movement gained tremendous traction in the 1980s and became identified with practices, such as team teaching, interdisciplinary curriculum, and advisory. Self-selected projects, flexible scheduling and grouping to allow for deeper learning and interdisciplinary units, a reduced focus on peer competition, interdisciplinary team teaching, discovery and inquiry methods, teacher-adviser plans, flexible scheduling, exploratory courses, and ungraded programs were characteristic of these schools. If this approach to learning sounds familiar to you, it should. It’s been typical of progressive schools since the early 20th Century. Unfortunately, attempts at national education reform and federal policy changes resulted in more significant academic pressure and a return to more traditional models in middle school. This and a lack of attention to children’s social and emotional development has led to higher rates of teen suicide and bullying in schools.

I believe that children should stay through sixth grade at SRV. We’re focused on these formative years. Our teachers, curriculum, resources, and expertise all center on the developmental needs of early childhood and young adolescent learners. We are a healthy, supportive environment. We provide a comfortable, nurturing community where students are known and come to know themselves. We are a community where children are known, can be themselves, take risks and make mistakes, and grow at their own pace. We value childhood. As a result, children tend to have a higher sense of self-esteem and confidence, contributing to healthier adolescent development. For more about the value of 6th grade, I invite you to read the following article: 6th Grade Is Tough; It Helps To Be ‘Top Dog’: NPR Ed

For so many of our families, life after SRV may not be on your radar, but we would like to be your partner when the time comes. We can be active and insightful collaborators, searching for the best-fit school for your child.

March 16: Swarthmore College

It was the spring of 1929. A group Rose Valley parents had been studying child development during the winter; their probings had raised questions about education and they went to Dr. W. Carson Ryan, head of the Education Department at Swarthmore College, to ask whether the new knowledge they had gained was actually being used by teachers. (Rotzel, 1971)

The School maintained a close and collaborative relationship with Swarthmore College throughout its history. Parents in Rose Valley partnered with SC to found SRV and find its first principal, Grace Rotzel. We continue to work with the College and benefit from the partnership, and SC faculty often choose SRV for their children’s education because it aligns with their progressive values.

Each year, we welcome practicum students from the College. These are semester-long placements where students join a particular class that aligns with their career path once or twice a week for a few hours. They observe and assist at the beginning of the practicum and then plan and deliver lessons later in the year. We also welcome student teachers who spend the semester or full-year learning alongside a master SRV teacher. These placements are significant because of our relationship with the College and because it allows us to train the next generation of teachers. Sometimes, as is the case with Kenny Bransford, SRV Preschool Assistant Teacher, they wind up working at the School. I take this responsibility of training teachers seriously and am glad to introduce future educators to progressive education.

From 2019 to 2021, SRV partnered with The College on the series “Talking with Young Children about Identity.” In securing a grant and planning the event, Swarthmore College formed a collective that included Learning for Justice, the Department of Educational Studies, Office of Inclusive Excellence and Community Development at Swarthmore College, The Greater Philadelphia Diversity Collaborative, Swarthmore Friends Nursery School, Rose Tree Media School District, The Melting Pot Parent Group, Media Providence Friends School, and the Wallingford Swarthmore School District, and The School in Rose Valley. This collaboration represented a unique partnership of public schools, private schools, and local organizations that put children at the center of their efforts. The result was a robust collection of virtual workshops focused on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. In pursuing, securing, and realizing a grant from Learning for Justice, Swarthmore College went beyond its initial goals and presented a model for cooperative change that will hopefully continue.

March 9th: Book Share - A Literary History of Progressive Education

Progressive schools are the legacy of a long and proud tradition of thoughtful school practice stretching back centuries. Progressive education can be challenging to define due to its reputation for resisting conformity and standardization. Its foundations date back to The Enlightenment and progressive pedagogy crystallized into a movement in the early 20th century. Educators then experimented with the concepts espoused by John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Rudoph Steiner, among others, in their schools. The Movement’s standard-bearer, John Dewey, championed a vital role for schools in awakening students’ social consciousness and activism. This is all too relevant today as we worked to dismantle oppressive systems.

There has been much written about progressive education, so to capture it all would be challenging. A somewhat idiosyncratic list of books that I’ve encountered on my progressive journey follows.

Progressive Education Foundations
Emile by Jean Jaques Rousseau
Leonard & Gertrude and Enquiries into the Course of Nature in the Development of the Human Race by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
The Student’s Froebel: adapted from “Die Erziehung der Menschheit” by FriedrichFröbel

Progressive Education Movement
Experience and Education John Dewey

The Montessori Method, Pedagogical Anthropology, The Advanced Montessori Method—Spontaneous Activity in Education and The Montessori Elementary Material by Maria Montessori
The Philosophy of Freedom by Rudolph Steiner
Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich 
Democracy and Education, by John Dewey
I Learn from Children by Caroline Pratt
The Eight-Year Study: From Evaluative Research to a Demonstration Project Education Policy Analysis Archives
Talks on Pedagogics: An Outline of the Theory of Concentration And Other Writings by Francis Parker
The School in Rose Valley by Grace Rotzel

Progressive Education Continuum 
Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner 
Horace’s School and Horace’s Compromise by Ted Sizer
Keeping Wonder and Intellectual Hunger Alive by Bruce Shaw
Confessions of a Headmaster by Paul Cummins
Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform by Dianne Ravitch
The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier 
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Avery Trade
Schooling Beyond Measure And Other Unorthodox Essays About Education
The Schools Our Children Deserve. Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” by Alfie Kohn 
Loving Learning by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison
Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School byMatthew Knoester
Drive, When, and the Power of Regret by Daniel Pink
Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education by Sir  Ken Robinson

Dismantling Oppressive Structures
Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol
Progressive Reading Education in America: Teaching Toward Social Justice 1st by Patrick Shannon
Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools and Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls by Monique W. Morris
Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education by Noliwe Rooks
Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby
The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom edited by Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy

March 2nd: Looking Around the Corner

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the NAIS Head’s Summit in Baltimore, Maryland. The Summit consisted of meals together, keynote speakers, workshops, and roundtable discussions. It was such a luxury to spend time with heads of school from across the country and share stories and experiences.

The second keynote speaker was Rita McGrath. As one of the world’s leading experts on strategy and innovation, Rita McGrath is a writer, teacher, speaker, and advisor, helping people answer the question, “Where do I start?” She is the bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage and four other books, including her latest release, Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen. McGrath is consistently ranked among the top management thinkers globally and was ranked number one for strategy by Thinkers50. She is committed to helping organizations create real opportunities through innovation and helping people translate powerful ideas into action. 

I feel like, in many ways, the COVID pandemic helped develop our skills of looking around the corner. There was information available and signs that could be seen, and we were even able to prepare for the March closing of schools somehow. But I couldn’t help feeling that I wished I had months of preparation time. That preparation time began immediately, and by the fall of 2020, we secured a health coordinator, rebuilt the School’s technological infrastructure, and prepared teachers. I wonder if this experience has taught us to expect the unexpected and look for signs. Are we more tuned in now, and why is it important. If COVID taught us anything, it’s that you need to think innovatively to respond quickly. The innovative business survived and thrived. According to Dr. Bart Demaerschalk, medical director for synchronous services at Mayo’s Center for Connected Care, change has come from this crisis: “The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially accelerated U.S. digital health by about ten years.” Several independent breweries converted their distillery to produce sanitizers. Telemedicine is another example. Whole Foods converted stores in Los Angeles and New York to better serve customers and protect employees. Kroger and Giant Eagle converted stores into dark stores or order fulfillment centers. Cruise, the autonomous car division of General Motors, recently brought its self-driving cars out of dormancy to make food deliveries around San Francisco for two local food banks. 

McGrath, in the fall 2020 innovation leader special issue, offers tips for “re-evaluating your innovation portfolio,” and these tips may be helpful in schools. Did you know that more than 60% of Amazon carts are never purchased? This is because an item might be out of stock, can’t be shipped in time, or doesn’t come in a particular color. McGrath talked about the importance of understanding how customers experience an organization at every engagement point. This got me thinking about how this plays out in the school admission processes and why.

In some ways, SRV has been innovative. We revisited the typical open house strategy and did it differently. Many schools host large groups of parents as part of an open house. This usually begins with a few remarks by the head of school and the admissions director, followed by a tour. For several years now, SRV has followed a model of individual family tours and an admissions visiting day where the kids come to school, participate in activities, and interact with teachers. This allows us to get to know our families more intimately and them us. In addition, we’ve abandoned much of the print advertising that is so common in independent schools. This has eliminated an ineffective marketing path and freed funding to streamline admissions, such as the purchase of the FACTS student information system and sophisticated digital marketing.

What else could we do differently? Many schools at the post-secondary level are getting creative in finding alternatives to traditional admissions. Bard College in upstate New York has gone so far as to offer an admission path based purely on the submission of four 2,500 word research essays, which more closely mirrors actual college coursework. Chicago Booth’s MBA program accepts a four-slide PowerPoint presentation instead of a traditional essay submission. Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business challenges applicants to tweet why they wish to attend its MBA program. Google Analytics has become the norm to understand the many alternate entries and exit points of today’s enrollment paths. Schools are seeking to apply this accumulated data to derive long-term trends. Paperless admissions software, such as AMP, make it easier to organize graduate admissions from application to interview, providing access to applicant portfolios, custom reporting, and much more. Google analytics has already helped improve our understanding of our customer base, and the FACTS system has streamlined the admissions process.

I believe it’s important to build community the second a family encounters the school, whether online or in person. In addition to individual tours, how can we make these early opportunities to get to know our families? Are there other forums that might work? Something less formal, like a brunch? Further, the enrollment season ends in late February, and we are in a unique position, given that all grades are complete, to begin the work of building community with all families. Toward this, how can we engage with parents and children new to the school this spring and summer? Of course, events like May Fair bring us all together, but it’s a big event. How can we ensure that our newest families are known and cared for?

February 23rd: What’s the Rush?

Are we in a rush for our kids to grow up? I hope not, but when we set our sites on graduating from Yale, we lose sight of our children’s immediate needs. I think this can be harmful to their development. 

One of the root causes of “the rush” is the feeling that we need to cover everything. The reality is that children need time to explore their interests deeply. Ted Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools Movement founder, emphasized the depth of knowledge over breadth, with the mastery of a few core subjects preferred over the scattershot spate of disciplines. You might consider playing the “right notes” in music rather than all the notes. Think of B.B. King versus Eddie Van Halen. I had the pleasure of seeing B.B. King one time down at the Philadelphia waterfront. It was a blues festival, and he was the headliner. King famously said that “notes are expensive, so spend them wisely.” I think childhood is precious so we should let children spend it wisely. Of course, this stance in no way diminishes my love for the music of Van Halen, a band I sadly never got to see.

The more we “push” the curriculum down and change our readiness expectations, the more we stray from developmental science. A child may be able to read fluently, for example, but may not comprehend what she read. If a math problem is too challenging, the child may negatively associate math and hate it later. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) in the 1930s to describe the sweet spot where instruction is most beneficial for each student. Here, their work is neither too difficult nor too easy. It’s just challenging enough to help them develop new skills—what they can do with targeted assistance—on those that have already been established or what a child can do independently. Children should not move past the ZPD before they are ready.

SRV has long been a place where childhood is valued and protected, and the truth is that our holistic approach to learning results in healthy, happy adolescents and, eventually, adults. SRV students don’t fall behind because they approach learning deeply and meaningfully. Instead, they emerge with a more fully developed skillset and understanding of the world and themselves. More importantly, they continue to love to learn, which allows them to reach any heights they desire. ​​Alternatively, the result of a “rushed” approach to learning is academic pressure and stress. Research shows that academic stress leads to less well-being and an increased likelihood of developing anxiety or depression. Students who have academic stress tend to do poorly in school. To me, the choice is obvious and why I chose SRV.

February 16th: Foreign Language

Spanish is a weekly subject for students at SRV in preschool through 6th grade. At every level, the Spanish teacher uses singing, games, chants, and fun activities to help the children feel comfortable as they develop vocabulary and fluency. Songs are fun and help teach pronunciation and memorization through repetition. Some songs are sung daily in all Spanish classes, and a few have become part of the school’s repertoire for all-school Sings and Assemblies. Play-dough, blocks, puppets, and stuffed animals also support SRV’s Spanish program’s interactive and hands-on approach. Younger students learn how to communicate greetings, colors, numbers, opposites, family, action words, animals, and body parts. As they get older, these themes are reinforced and they are also introduced to numbers, calendars, and more sophisticated concepts.

Jessica, SRV’s Spanish teacher makes lessons fun and engaging. I stopped into the kindergarten this week and loved what I saw. They began with some singing, then participated in an activity—Spanish Bingo—and ended with a mindfulness activity—tiempo tranquilo—to calm their minds before transitioning to the next class. Jess is doing a wonderful job with the kids and I am always impressed with how facile our students become with Spanish. My son, Bennett, often speaks Spanish around the house and has an extensive vocabulary at eleven years old.

Why offer foreign language instruction to children of such a young age? The benefits are immeasurable. The brain is in its most flexible stage between birth and three years old and is uniquely suited to learn a second language. Young learners benefit from flexible ear and speech muscles that can detect differences between the sounds of a second language. Interestingly, infants in bilingual families excel in seeing a switch in language as early as six months old; simultaneously, they learn to walk and understand their primary language. As adults, we have to consider grammar rules and practice. Still, young children absorb sounds, structures, intonation, patterns, and rules easily, so being exposed to a second language does not negatively impact their native language acquisition. 

“Learning another language is like becoming another person.”  -Haruki Murakami

Spanish lessons are also an excellent opportunity to learn about other cultures. According to the Modern Language Association (2009), one of the best ways to develop empathy, particularly intercultural empathy, is the study of foreign languages. And the The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) asserts that “there is no better tool for understanding the perspectives of different cultures than the study of foreign languages” (ACTA, 2017-2017, pp. 9-10).

February 9th: Dig it!

As you navigate the SRV campus, you may encounter any number of holes—places in the lawn where children have removed the dirt. Some are shallow; some are deep, circular, and some are oblong? Small shovels, spoons, and even hands make efficient tools for digging.

Digging is often embedded in imaginative play. The students may move dirt in their play vehicles, buckets, and containers or walk it somewhere with their shovels. They often need this material for a “recipe” or potion, or it may represent a favorite food item they want to sell or give away.

There is a tract along the sidewalk outside of the Rawson Building where water collects. There are drainage grates and a pipe under teh ground there, but the water doesn’t always make it into the channel. I stumbled upon several students in Primary Circle (first and second grade) who were digging holes in this puddle. They were effectively gathering the water into circular holes, therefore reducing the large puddle. There were excavators moving the dirt onto a miniature dump truck. There were drivers driving the dirt to another location. There were shapers, working in the excavated hole, rounding and tamping it. No one seemed to be in charge, but all were busy at work as if someone were. I watched this with amazement for quite a while and then finally asked what they were doing. “Making skating rinks” was the response I received. As much as I thought this a worthwhile endeavor, I have to admit; I did not have full confidence in this project. Not only had I skated on hockey rinks for 45 years, I once worked for a company that built hockey rinks, so I was familiar with the engineering that was involved and I figured that all of the water would seep back into the ground the next day. Much to my pleasure and surprise, when I returned to campus the next day, there were three perfectly round, pristine, mini-skating rinks where the puddles had been. They were equidistance from one another and exactly the same size. It was as if a corps of miniature engineers had come in during the night.

One can find children busy at several holes on any given day, especially wet ones where the soil is malleable. In the spring, I will order a large pile of soil, fill the holes, seed the top, and rope off the area so the seedlings can take. The grass will return, and the excavators/rink builders will move onto another location.

I wondered what the essential skills are required for excavation, bulldozing, regrading, etc., so I looked it up. It was interesting how much these skills aligned with preschool and elementary crafts. Operating engineers and construction equipment operators need to:

  • Communicate
    • Understand spoken information.
    • Speak clearly so listeners can understand.
    • Listen to others and ask questions.
  • Reason and Problem Solve
    • Notice when something is wrong or is likely to go wrong.
    • Follow guidelines to arrange objects or actions in a particular order.
    • Combine several pieces of information and conclude.
    • Use reasoning to discover answers to problems.
    • Concentrate and not be distracted while performing a task.
  • Manage Oneself, People, Time, and Things
    • Check how well one is learning or doing something.
    • Manage the time of self and others.
    • Go back and forth between two or more activities or sources of information without becoming confused.
  • Work with Things
    • Operate and control equipment.
    • Maintain equipment on a routine basis. Determine when and what kind of maintenance is needed.
    • Watch gauges, dials, and output to make sure a machine is working correctly.
    • Determine the causes of technical problems and find solutions for them.
  • Perceive and Visualize
    • Quickly and accurately compare letters, numbers, objects, pictures, or patterns.
    • Imagine how something will look if it is moved around or its parts are rearranged.

So if you have any small excavation, regrading, ice rink construction, or similar projects around your house, I recommend with confidence The School in Rose Valley Construction Company, LLC! They are a highly-skilled organization.

February 2nd: Sophistication

It may seem counterintuitive, but I’d like to make a case for increased sophistication in lesson planning. I believe that the more complex a lesson or activity, the stronger, the more salient the learning is. Multi-modal lessons that incorporate cooperative learning strategies and that are embedded with choice and flexibility, lead to more substantial cognitive progress. 

Multiple modalities allow all students in a classroom to access learning. By modalities, I mean different ways of sharing meaning, where different abilities, senses, and muscles convey understanding or connotation. Our senses are designed to work together, so when they are combined, the brain pays more attention and encodes the memory more robustly (Medina 2014). Teachers can ​​plan activities that tap into students’ visual, auditory, inesthetic, and tactile abilities. For example, while studying the Empire State Building, students could watch a video about it, make a play about how it came to be, and build a model. When learning is multi-modal, teachers engage all students in the learning process, improve the quality of learning, reflect the complexity of real-world interactions, develop students’ skills in all modes, maintain novelty in the classroom, and encourage cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning strategies allow students to learn from one another and teachers to differentiate. Cooperative learning means using small instructional groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s knowledge. Cooperative learnings strategies, such as those designed by Spencer Kagan, allow for greater complexity within these groups. A great example is CORNERS, which I often used in teaching middle school. CORNERS involves students expressing and listening to various opinions on a topic while honing listening, critical thinking, and self-expression skills. The teacher can make each corner of the classroom represent a stipulated view. For example, three possible corners could constitute For, Against, and Undecided relative to a topic. Students move to the corner that represents their viewpoint. Next, students discuss their opinions or respond to comments within their corners. This could first be done in pairs, and later with pairs joining other pairs to make groups of 4, or with subsequent changes of partners to form new pairs. Cooperative learning skills are crucial for students, significantly as globalization and technological and communication advances increase the quantity of accessible information and the need for collaboration (Willis, 2021). 

Flexibility allows for deep, emergent learning. When a teacher has the freedom to respond to student interest or design lessons that reflect a trend in behavior or a common interest among students, learning becomes more meaningful to students. Therefore, they are more engaged. With so many minds involved, curiosity and ability level can lead the topic of discussion in a different direction than what has been laid out in a lesson plan. This organic movement helps facilitate learning, as it allows students to naturally explore subjects through their questions, ideas, previous knowledge, and level of intelligence. Essentially, flexible teaching accommodates this curiosity, allowing lessons to have a much looser structure, letting discussions and thoughts play out, and following them to see where they go.

I am not advocating for sophistication in all situations and at all levels. There are limits to the level of sophistication, which is related to developmental readiness. An activity or lesson with so many moving parts that it’s confusing can be frustrating for younger students. This will ultimately lead to a negative association with the activity or lesson and possibly the subject. In addition, it can be impractical to expect that teachers plan every lesson with a high level of sophistication. There is simply not enough time in the day. Instead, I think this is an important concept to keep in mind and experiment with when time allows and when it is developmentally appropriate.

January 26th: Reflective Practice

During last Tuesday’s Staff Development Day, SRV faculty engaged in a protocol called the Descriptive Review of the Child. The Descriptive Review of the Child was developed by Pat Carini and her colleagues at the Prospect School for children and formed the central vision for getting to know a child. This activity was purposely timed to coincide with the writing of student reports. We also conduct protocols monthly in Critical Friends Groups (CFGs) that we refer to as Learning Circles and use the Tuning Protocol, which derives from the work of Ted Sizer at Brown University and the Coalition of Essential Schools.

The Descriptive Review of the Child has long been a staple in teacher practice at SRV. In 2004 and 2005, The School in Rose Valley, PA, celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary by hosting a two-part national conference, Progressive Education in the 21st Century. The focus of the COnference was the Descriptive Review, and educators from all around the country brought lesson ideas and student work and conducted the Review. Near the end of the conference, a group of seven educators rallied to a call-to-action to revive the Network of Progressive Educators, which had been inactive since the early 1990s. As a result of the committee’s efforts, the Progressive Education Network (PEN) was formed, and in 2009 was incorporated as a 501 (c) 3 charitable, non-profit organization. The group hosted the organization’s first national conference in San Francisco in 2007. Conferences followed in DC, Chicago, and LA, with attendance numbers growing from 250 to 950.

Teacher reflective practice is ultimately concerned with determining what works and refining practice to positively impact student learning (Wyatt, 2020). I continue to appreciate how teachers have kept alive the spirit of experimentation since the School’s inception. In the 1930s, SRV teachers looked to experts in the educational field, such as Samuel Orton, Dorothy Baruch, Sylvia Ashton Warner, and Alfred North Whitehead, incorporating their ideas into their daily practice to see what worked and what didn’t. Today, we read together authors like Carol Dweck, Daniel Pink, and Ibram X. Kendi to benefit from current research and understand dilemmas facing our youth today.

Educators are self-reflective first but rely heavily on collaboration with other professionals to develop as reflective practitioners (Hall & Simeral, 2015). I am confident that our founding principal, Grace Rotzel, provided ample time for and encouraged collaborative and individual reflection and planning, and we continue to hold this as necessary. In addition to Learning Circles, SRV teachers participate in peer observations today. They have individual planning/reflection time, team meetings, meetings with teaching partners, and individual planning time built into their daily schedule. In addition, there is a weekly discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and Assistant Teachers meet weekly as part of their shared experience. Committee work this year focuses on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, sustainability, literacy, and SRV culture. Finally, ensuring opportunities for every teacher to receive ‘at the elbow’ support and coaching during the difficult phase of implementing significant change in the classroom is a feature of effective programs. At SRV, teachers who are new to the School and teaching are assigned a mentor. The mentor meets regularly with the teacher, observes the teachers, and provides feedback. I also conduct observations of teachers and conduct clinical observations.

Collaborative, reflective practice drives experiential learning that transforms professional practice (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). This contributes to effective teaching practice, strong teacher retention, a healthy school, and ultimately, positive student outcomes.

January 19th: Why SRV?

I enjoyed spending time with some of our incoming and returning families with younger siblings this past weekend at our admissions visiting day. I asked the group, which had gathered in a circle in the gymnasium, “Why SRV?” Our families share various reasons, each of which affirmed my hopes for what SRV provides. Three themes that emerged were our wooded campus, our progressive pedagogy, and our reputation in the community.

Several responded that they were drawn in by SRV’s wooded campus and beautiful grounds. The School sits on ten acres that back up against a 13-acre preserve with Ridley Creek running through its center. They shared how this environment allows for exploring our children’s natural surroundings, promoting questions, and encouraging discovery. Our campus was designed for movement in that it requires children to move from place to place and go outside. We encourage children to get dirty and use the natural materials they find. We hope they encounter their environment physically and emotionally and that the feeling of connection to place and the earth remains with them their entire lives.

Some responded about our commitment to progressive education. They remarked how we, more so than other schools in the area, remain true to our founding principles established in 1929. Students flourish as mathematicians, readers, writers, builders, athletes, artists, scientists, and musicians. As progressive educators, SRV teachers provide a framework and context for students’ work. Students regularly pursue their own interests in collaboration with their peers with guidance from their teachers. Indoor and outdoor play and exploration and the solid social/emotional curriculum remain features of SRV’s curriculum.

Several commented about SRV’s excellent reputation in the community. The word on the street is that we have weathered the COVID pandemic well so far, and people appreciated our desire to provide in-person learning opportunities. I heard that confidence in the School’s academics has grown over the years and that children’s cognitive development is as strong as their physical and social-emotional development. Our efforts to develop and articulate this aspect of our program while still maintaining our progressive identity are working and known. I couldn’t be happier.

I know that the decision to enroll or re-enroll at SRV can be complex. There are many educational choices out there, and it’s hard to be sure you are making the right choice for your child. I believe that SRV’s is the most unique School you’ll find, and I believe in its ability to be transformative and to lay a foundation that lasts. Most importantly, I know that SRV is a place where childhood is still valued and precious, and that is the main reason why I chose SRV.

January 12th: Sympathy and Empathy

Teachers and schools often talk about teaching empathy or teaching students to be empathic. Author Brene Brown articulates the difference between these two concepts by metaphorizing a deep hole down which someone fell. The empathetic person gets into the hole with the person, and the sympathetic person looks down from the top of the whole. Brown jokes that an empathic person hardly ever says, “at least” (e.g., my marriage is failing/well at least you’re married; my friend died/well at least she lived a long life).

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a critical difference between empathy and sympathy is that the latter involves a degree of judgment or evaluation–that the sympathizer assumes they know what another person might feel and then extends that emotional experience to pity, for example. Empathic people can take another’s perspective, stay out of judgment, recognize other people’s emotions, and communicate their understanding. 

True empathy is elusive for children because of their biological makeup. They cannot fully realize the capabilities of their frontal lobes until much later in life. MRI scans show that only at 21 years of age the frontal lobe area of the higher brain (neo-cortex) mostly matures to allow top-down brain pathways to be developed to override lower brain functions—just in time for them to graduate from college!

So how do we teach children to be empathic?  

  • Model empathy. As children observe an action, word, or thought that is calm, warm, firm, kind, and playful, their mirror neurons fire and form new neural pathways as if they were acting themselves. So we can model these behaviors in the hopes that our children will mimic them.

  • Coach empathy. If we teach them to manage strong feelings effectively, they will better understand themselves and others. We can coach them to respond sensitively to other people and to read their emotional and social cues so they know when to say “I am sorry,”  “please,” or “thank you.” We can help them think, plan, reflect and make choices, all of which are conducive to being empathic. Similarly, problem-solving, self-awareness, kindness, concern, delayed gratification, creativity, and imagination should all be added to their “empathy toolbox.”

  • Let them play. Play enhances the emotion-regulating functions in the frontal lobes, helping children manage their feelings better. The rough-and-tumble kind of play activates the PLAY system, a genetically encoded emotional system in the brain. Research shows the increased gene expression in the frontal lobes after play.
January 5th: Joy

Before becoming the Head of School at SRV, for over 13 years, I worked at The Crefeld School in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. Crefeld is a progressive school housed in a historic mansion for seventh through twelfth-grade students. During that time, I had the pleasure of working with Peter Capper, the Director of Emotional Support at the School. Peter had exceptional talent. He could walk into the building, put his finger in the air, and predict how the day would go. He was so tuned in to students’ emotions that he developed an uncanny sense of the “mood” of the place. And he was right most of the time. Because I was the Assistant Head of School, if students were having a difficult day, they usually found their way to my office. Peter might say, “better be on your toes today,” and sure enough, he would be spot on.

SRV, as you know, is a highly joyful place. I was impressed by just how joyous it was when I first arrived here, and I continue to be amazed by how happy the children are every day. I hope to have a sense of things as strong as Peter Capper’s someday, and one way I hone my skills is by fine-tuning my “joy-ometer.” 

Joy is defined as a feeling of great happiness (Merriam-Webster, 2021). So how does one go about detecting this element on campus? The first indicator, to mind, is the sound of joy. I think that joy sounds like the rolling wheels of trucks, dozens of little feet hitting the ground with thumps, giggles, laughter, and even screams. It’s children shouting, “wait for me” or “look what I found.” What does joy look like, you might ask? I think it looks like smiles on faces, wide eyes filled with surprise, and gaggles of children running across the field, hanging upside down in the swings, and hauling large logs to Fort Town. 

Teachers cultivate classrooms full of joy—a positive environment where happiness flows freely, where students meet academic challenges with acceptance and determination. This is conducive to healthy development and learning. Cultivating happiness in the classroom has been suggested to help students sustain a sense of resilience, mindfulness, and even physical health (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008; Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006). Additionally, brain imaging has indicated that positive emotions are vital to effective learning; instructional styles that support positive emotions have been correlated with more effective cognitive processing (Hinton, Miyamoto, & Della-Chiesa, 2008).

Our campus—and the activities children do each day contribute to the feeling of joy at SRV too. Our campus feels like leaves that just fell off the trees crunching under feet, dirt and mud oozing through tiny fingers. It’s the flowers blooming in the spring; It’s the smell and taste of fresh raspberries picked from the garden and muffins baking in the Oldest Group kitchen–they always bring me one. It’s the feel of wool and even the almost metallic-y but sweet, grassy smell from the lanolin on the sheep. Most importantly, our school is joyful because it is filled with children and adults who enjoy and care about one another. Mark Twain wrote, “To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with.” At SRV, joy is a social venture, and everyone benefits from sharing it.