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Alan became the Valley School's Head of School in 2014, bringing with him extensive experience as an educator and administrator. Prior to joining the Valley School, Alan spent 23 years at the Northwest School where he served as the Assistant Head of School for 12 years and as Middle School Director for ten years. His teaching background includes five years teaching fifth grade at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and three years teaching middle school classes at The Northwest School. Alan received his Master of Education degree at Harvard University where he concentrated on teaching, curriculum, and learning environments. He brings to Valley deep expertise and local educational connections as well as a passion for the holistic development of children, the professional development of faculty, and the building of community.
 

Recent Posts

FORTIFYING COMMUNITY RELATIONS AND COMMUNICATIONS

Sometimes it takes someone from the outside, someone with an objective mind and fresh perspectives, to remind us of what we’ve got.  In early May, a teacher trainer from the Bridges math program spent a full day at The Valley School, observing math lessons, giving feedback to teachers about their teaching, and sharing strategies for implementing our new math curriculum. At the end of the day, she remarked at how strong the sense of community and the ethic of care and kindness were among Valley children, something she sees only rarely in the many schools she visits each year. She knows – as we know – that a strong sense of connection and relationship among kids provides the foundation for successful learning. 

In two recent surveys, the first done as part of the Strategic Planning process last year and the second, our own community survey this spring, we examined that sense of community and connection at all levels, within the current parent body, the faculty and Board of Trustees, and alumni families. Both sets of results point to the strong sense of community here. And still we know that there is important work to be done to create stronger connections internally and externally in the broader community. We captured our aspirations for an even-stronger community and more effective outreach in one of our five Strategic Plan areas, called Fortifying Community Relations and Communication

This year, we have already achieved some of our goals in our efforts to “Improve Upon Internal Communication.” We published our first-ever curriculum guide, thereby giving us a valuable tool for communicating about the progression of learning that takes place each year at Valley. We completed the community survey to help gather feedback about the learning and community experiences at Valley. Going forward, the school will conduct community surveys every two years, thereby building our capacity to track trends, gauge levels of satisfaction, and monitor progress in key program areas. 

The strategies we identified to “Enhance Messaging and Storytelling” include focusing more of our messages in our communication tools, such as our newsletters and website, on the benefits and features of a Valley education. This year, the school’s use of social media, particularly Facebook, has reached a new level, giving our community more real-time stories and images of the activities of our Valley children. When our fourth grade class invited Paul Cheyok'ten Wagner of the Saanich First Nations of Vancouver Island to an All-School Sing to share his heritage and culture, it was quickly shared on Valley’s Facebook page.

This kind of outreach and the effective use of communication tools also support our strategic goal of sharing our “good works” in the community. More community outreach in our marketing efforts and through engagement with local organizations aligns with our strategic goal to “Strengthen our Enrollment Management and Outreach.” As with all small independent schools, our financial strength and sustainability depend on steady enrollment at all grades. Our hope is to increase the number of people in Seattle who know about Valley and are inspired by what they learn so we can add families who are committed to our mission and educational program. Recent changes in how we do tour days, such as giving visiting parents a chance to talk with current parents, reflect the school’s commitment to meeting the needs of a more competitive admissions landscape.

As we look outward in marketing and communication, we are also looking inward to “Create a Culture of Generosity.” Engagement in The Valley School community can take many forms, from reading in classrooms during lunchtime, sharing an area of professional expertise during a science unit, serving as a class representative, or helping organize our Fall FUNdraiser. Just as kids learn better when they feel a connection to their school community, parents also support the educational experiences of their children when they feel the same connection. Last spring, the school administration was reorganized, and a new position, the Director of Admissions and Community Relations, was created to bring focus and expertise in the areas of development, communications, and relationship-building. This year, Lora Kolmer spearheaded the creation of a new Philanthropy Committee. This committee has been active this spring in setting the stage for a revival of our annual giving campaign. The Annual Fund will allow parents, grandparents, and members of our extended Valley community to support our strategic commitment to building a more diverse school community, particularly through support for financial aid and for a more culturally-rich learning experience for children. A “culture of generosity” also means giving back to our community. The Philanthropy Committee is also planning school-wide community service projects, such as this fall’s “gleaning,” when families will be able to harvest produce at a farm in Snohomish to give to local foodbanks.

The Valley School’s strategic planning process last year gave our community the occasion to pause and consider what matters to us most. Our decision to include community relations and communication as areas of strategic focus reflects our shared knowledge that good people are at the heart of good schools. But keeping our community strong and connected requires effort, resources, and planning. In the years ahead, I look forward to joining all members of the Valley community in telling the stories of our school and in building the relationships that will ensure a vibrant future. 

ENHANCING OUR LEARNING PROGRAM: A Strategic Plan Initiative

On most days of the week, I carve out time in my day for a “walkabout,” my tour of the Valley campus and of each classroom. Always my favorite part of the day, this tour lets me see for myself what kids are learning.  I am always impressed by the engagement, comfort, and energy of Valley kids, whether they are seated around a table working together on math puzzles or constructing an obstacle course on the playground.  Learning is what we do in school, and so a school’s strategic plan, on some level, has to consider the quality and the development of the learning program. 

During Valley School’s Strategic Planning process last year, I participated in a six-person task force that also included two teachers, our librarian, our Curriculum Coordinator, and a Board member who is both a parent and Seattle Public School administrator.  Over the course of several months, we considered those elements of our program that needed to be preserved and those parts that needed enhancement.  Many of our “Enhance our Learning Program” goals have already been met:

  • This year, we increased the frequency and breadth of formal evaluations by adding a mid-year report in first and second grade and two progress reports in pre-K and kindergarten. Including the fall and spring parent-teacher conferences, we now provide four touchpoints for sharing our assessment of student learning with parents.
  • We developed a framework for the Board’s oversight of the learning program. Although leading and assessing the learning program is the responsibility of the Head of School, in collaboration with teachers, our Board has an interest in knowing that our students are being well served by our curriculum.
  • We are enhancing the use of the Valley School playgrounds as our “second classroom.” One of the main trademarks of The Valley School, our playgrounds have long been the setting for rich learning and growth.  This year, a Playground Committee has been introducing different elements to spark the creativity and exploration of children at all grades.
  • We have also made changes to our curriculum to reflect more cultural diversity and a growing commitment to our goals of inclusivity and equity. Whether it’s a new unit on the Underground Railroad in second grade, a unit in third grade on the international character of Seattle, or an examination of Washington state history in fourth through the lens of “counter narratives,” our students are gaining a sense of the complexity and richness of the human experience.
  • In keeping with our goal of identifying and addressing areas for improvement, this year we adopted the Bridges math program in grades one through five. Using Bridges ensures a consistent scope and sequence across the grades and an integrity of instruction in helping our students develop numeracy skills and a math mindset. 

We’ve made progress in this first year of our Strategic Plan. And over the course of the next several years, this plan will continue to provide a catalyst and framework for our efforts in solidifying and strengthening our learning program. Specific future projects include:

  • Examining our use of digital technologies, in the context of both our school philosophy of child-centered learning and current research, and articulating our goals for appropriate digital literacy and citizenship in elementary education.
  • Articulating the benefits of heterogeneous classrooms as a dynamic environment for powerful learning, while taking measures to ensure that we are, in fact, meeting the needs of students within a broad range of development. 
  • Gathering data and testimonials from alumni about the benefits and outcomes of a Valley School education.
  • Continuing to develop All School Sing as an extension of our curriculum and a place where we celebrate our community while learning in ways that reflect and extend the classroom curriculum.

In looking ahead to my “walkabouts” in coming years, I anticipate walking through classrooms that will look and feel very much like the ones I walk through today.  And yet I anticipate seeing new activities, new teaching methods, and new educational tools that point to a dynamic and responsive school that reflects both changing times and a long-standing commitment to the wonder and distinctive experiences of childhood. 

STAY PUT, STAY SMALL, CELEBRATE WOODCHIPS

During my time at The Northwest School, I knew lots of Valley graduates.  I always admired the fondness they had for their elementary school. There was something special about Valley that always led them to consider this their favorite school. 

During our strategic planning process, we spent hours considering the “irreplaceable characteristics” that are vital to our identity and culture. The Aspirational Future Work Group, made up of Board and faculty members, alumni, and parents, looked at how we could preserve these qualities, amplify our impact, and spread the message about the wonderful things that take place at Valley.  Of the five strategic areas – also including Learning Program, Diversity and Inclusivity, Community Relations and Communications, and Campus Plan – this was the group that looked most expansively and broadly at the purpose and future of the school. 

To preserve the best of Valley and to enhance our impact on future generations of Valley kids, and families, we committed to the following strategic initiatives:

  • Increase the standing of The Valley School in our area by further outreach with other schools, particularly through more involvement within the Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS).
  • Continue developing our assistant teacher program. Already an obvious asset of the school, it can become an even more prominent destination for people exploring careers in early childhood and elementary education.
  • Expand our summer camp offerings over the next several years. A larger summer camp will enhance our outreach in the community, meet the needs of current families, and support our financial sustainability. It will also provide professional development opportunities for our teachers.
  • Continue our sensible and careful financial management practices that allow us to offer a successful learning program for our students while compensating our teachers and staff fairly and competitively.

Part of what makes The Valley School special is our campus.  In the literature I read about effective schools, I increasingly see education experts citing the importance of school climate.  The climate of a school is based on many elements.  The human element – the community, kids, teachers, parents – has a profound impact on school climate.  But the environment also plays a significant role in building school climate. 

The Campus Plan Work Group focused intently on the environmental and physical dimensions of The Valley School.  We love our campus, with its open spaces, with its classroom buildings scaled to the size of neighborhood homes, with its woodchips, animals, trees, and gardens.  The Board’s Strategic Plan recommitted to our size and grade configuration, with one section at each grade, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. And we committed to preserving the geographical features of the place and enhancing the child-centered dimensions.  In essence, we said, “Let’s stay put, and let’s stay small.” And, like homes, our school buildings require regular maintenance and upgrades, and our budgeting for the future ensures that we maintain the financial reserves needed for wise maintenance and smart enhancements.

As Head of School, one of my goals is to ensure that our kids graduate from Valley with big, kind hearts and active, curious minds – and a fondness for Valley that, years later, will still keep their elementary school ranked as their favorite school.

Kids and the News

The topic of how kids respond to the news keeps coming up. A recent faculty meeting, a lunch for Heads of School at the NWAIS All Schools Conference, sidewalk conversations with parents – these are all settings where conversations have turned to the anxiety and confusion about the impact of news on our children.  An unusually contentious and uncivil presidential campaign is certainly one catalyst for these discussions, and librarian Marilyn Nicolai’s recent article in Life at Valley does a good job of exploring how parents and teachers can help children understand this election. But after the election is over, the challenge of knowing how to help kids make sense of the world will remain, and one of their lenses on the world is the news.  It’s one of our more challenging balancing acts: knowing how to both shelter a child from the world and bring a child into the world. 

Here are some thoughts for your consideration:

  • A child’s ability to understand and give appropriate significance to news depends on his or her age, maturity, developmental level, and personal experiences and temperament. What a fifth grader can handle is very different from what a child in kindergarten can handle, and we need to adjust our approach to a child’s stage in life.
  • The very nature of news media, especially in an age of non-stop, 24/7 coverage, is to over-dramatize and sensationalize what’s reported. Statistics show, for example, a decrease in the incidence of crime in our country, and yet reporting of crime has increased dramatically.  Natural disasters, wars, acts of violence, and scandals take up a disproportionate amount of time and space in news coverage, while, in reality, these are rare occurrences.
  • When it comes to the news, parents need to serve as filters of information: some news gets through, and some news stays out. Parents should make thoughtful choices about the presence of news in the lives of our children.  We need to think carefully about whether we listen to the news while driving to school in the morning, for example, or whether TV news is on in our homes.  When my kids were little, I made a practice of looking carefully at the pictures and the headlines on the front page of the morning paper before leaving it on the table. 
  • Experts in child development and psychology are weighing in with greater clarity now about the need for parents to limit the time children spend on digital media, or “screen time,” but I have yet to see specific guidance relating to exposure to the news. For our younger kids, especially pre-kindergarten, it may be that “no news is good news” is the right approach.  For older children, there are good web resources that present news at an age-appropriate level, including Scholastic Magazine and Time for Kids.
  • Parents should answer a child’s question about the news truthfully, but only with as much truth as the child can handle. As adults, we often want to answer what we think underlying questions and concerns are, but what a child usually needs is a direct, simple answer – and little more. When it comes to questions, we are wise to lean towards following their lead rather than leading them in directions they may not need to go. 
  • One key to helping children understand the news is to reassure them of their safety and to remind them that both home and school are safe, dependable places. Kids need to know that you, as parents, will be there for them.  Reassuring words and the physical proximity and intimacy of family members can help mitigate the emotional distress caused by the news. 
  • Children take their cues from the adults around them. How we react to news and what opinions we express about people and events in the news both send powerful messages to our children about how they should respond.  Our openness to conversations and questions about the news also tells kids that, as adults, we are also inquisitive, engaged in the world, and committed to our civic responsibilities. 
  • As parents, we need to be available to talk about the news and to help them make sense of often confusing messages about current events. These conversations allow us to lessen the negative impact of news and to reassert the values of kindness, compassion, and respect for others that Valley School families believe in and work to promote. 

Our job, both as parents and teachers, is to shepherd kids into the world, shielding them from harm while introducing them to experiences that build resilience and equip them for what comes next.  In this digital age, where communication about the news is rapid, frequent, and ubiquitous, our roles as parents and teachers are more complicated and confusing than they used to be.  But a thoughtful, balanced, attentive, and age-appropriate approach to the news can help our kids feel safe and make sense of their world.  

Why A Strategic Plan?

“If I were to ask you to describe The Valley School using single words or short phrases, how would you do it?”  Back in January, during the first stage of our strategic planning process, 144 members of the Valley community – parents, faculty, alumni, and Board members – were asked this question.  The most frequent words were “creative,” “child-centered,” “supportive,” “playful,” “caring,” and “community.”  The resulting “word cloud” graphically illustrates the frequency of these words, with the biggest words in size being the words most commonly used in the interviews.  

One reason to do a strategic plan is to understand what makes us who we are and to identify those steps that will preserve what’s best about us for future generations of Valley children.  A vibrant school is a school that is constantly learning, a school where all members of the community, children and adults, actively experience the wonder and the challenges of growth and change.  Like all institutions, schools are complex, multifaceted organisms, and, for institutions to remain healthy and sustainable, they must know where they’ve been, where they are, and where they are going.  Doing a strategic plan ensures that a school reflects on its past, present, and future in a thoughtful, comprehensive, and inclusive way.

In the research stage of the strategic planning process, which involved surveys and interviews conducted by Ian Symmonds and Associates, our consultants, a handful of themes emerged.  These themes captured both the wishes, concerns, and visions of The Valley School community.  Borrowing from the work of Wiggins and McTighe, creators of the Understanding by Design method of teaching, we can think of this stage as defining the “Essential Questions” for The Valley School.

  • Who are we, what do we stand for, and how can we preserve the best of Valley while remaining vibrant and responsive to a rapidly changing world?
  • What defines the educational philosophy of Valley, and how do we ensure that every child benefits from the learning program at our school?
  • As a community that values inclusiveness, do all members feel connected, known, and included?
  • What steps must we take to ensure that our relationships, practices, and policies support a diverse community and that our curriculum reflects this richness of backgrounds and experiences?
  • Do the stories we tell ourselves about Valley match the “word on the street?”
  • What strategies and steps can we adopt to broaden our reach to more families in Seattle and to people of more diverse backgrounds?
  • To deliver the highest quality Valley School education, are we the optimal size and do we have the right facilities?

Five Strategic Planning Work Groups tackled each of these questions.  These five groups – Aspirational Future, Learning Program, Diversity and Inclusivity, Marketing and Communications, and Campus Plan – developed action steps that we will implement in the next five years. 

When successful – and I’m confident ours will be – a strategic plan brings about a positive shift in focus, a thoughtful allocation of resources, and a galvanizing of collective energy.  Our first-ever Families of Color Dinner in September, for example, was early evidence of the action and momentum sparked by the discussions about diversity and inclusivity this past spring.  A public version of the Board’s Strategic Plan will be unveiled at our Curriculum Night on Thursday, October 13.  I will also update our community about our progress through my Head of School blogs this year and at “Coffees and Conversation with Alan.”

The ultimate goal of The Valley School’s Strategic Plan is to ensure that generations from now – 20, 30, 50 years in the future – the parents, kids, teachers, and graduates of Valley will create a similar “word cloud” and still describe our school as a “creative, child-centered, supportive, playful, caring community.” 

SNOW WHITE, MARSHAWN PINCH, AND THE ANIMALS AT THE VALLEY SCHOOL

For the most part, I knew what I had signed on for when I took the job of the Head of The Valley School – except for the animals. On my first day on the job, July 1, 2014, I listened to a phone message from a neighbor who reported that she had “one of our chickens.” She had “rescued” Snow White, who was being “henpecked” by the other two chickens. This moment marks the start of my education in animal husbandry at Valley. I was vaguely aware that the phrases “henpecked” and “pecking order” describe real social dynamics among chickens. Now I know the truth. In the last year and a half, my appreciation for both the complexities and benefits of having animals in an elementary school has only grown. And now, I am clear that the benefits significantly outweigh the occasional dramas, kerfuffle, and mysteries.

According to my recent animal census of The Valley School campus, we have:

Three hermit crabs named Startle, Swirl, and Marshawn Pinch

One hamster named Humphrey

One guinea pig named Squeakers

Two classroom mice named Popcorn and Brownie

Three egg-laying chickens named Snow White, Sassy, and Red

One rabbit named Sir Flops-A-Lot

One white French bulldog named Gus

Countless slugs

Countless snails

Itinerant squirrels and birds

135 human beings, give or take a few, depending on the day

Having animals around means that we never want for stories. There’s the recent story of Humphrey, the kindergarten hamster, who went AWOL in December. After searching high and low for Humphrey, we determined that Humphrey had “gone on vacation.” In mid-January, a month later, Humphrey turned up in the classroom recycling bin, looking very healthy and not too pleased about his return to a cage. How he got out of his cage in the first place and what kept him plump and healthy for a month remain mysteries – and inspirations for imaginative stories by kindergarten kids.

The pre-K children build elaborate homes for our three hermit crabs, including one named Marshawn Pinch, after the Seattle Seahawks running back. We keep looking to see whether he/she imitates “Beast Mode.” The hermit crabs thus provide a context for imaginative story-telling, construction projects, and play-based research. Every year, our younger kids show an almost insatiable interest in slugs and snails, and they spend considerable time examining the habits and habitats of these little critters. All the while, they develop their powers of observation and gain an appreciation for the natural world. The animals at The Valley School therefore play a vital role in an emergent curriculum that draws on the natural curiosity and passions of children.

The emotional and psychological benefits of having animals in our lives are well documented. Juvenile delinquents show tremendous progress when given responsibility for caring for pet dogs. Elderly people show cognitive and social growth when caring for animals. A recent article in the New York Times magazine described how parrots are used in helping patients recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We have none of these populations, and yet we know from experience, for example, that holding a guinea pig can help calm a distressed kid. Taking care of animals brings a sense of responsibility and empathy. As part of their afternoon chores, fourth and fifth graders clean the rabbit hatch and the chicken coop. Classroom animals need care over weekends and vacations, and, when children take care of a classroom pet, this responsibility gives them real-life lessons with far-ranging benefits.

Having animals in our classrooms and on our campus also puts Valley School kids in contact with death. Animals die, and, since I started working at Valley, we’ve lost five animals. These events put kids in touch with the arc of life and with the realities of loss. In these situations, classroom teachers spend time helping students sort through complicated emotions. Kids will have a wide range of reactions to the death of an animal, and, with help from our teachers, Valley students learn that there are different ways, all natural and authentic, to respond to loss.

Learning takes place on multiple levels and through multiple interactions. The interactions between Valley kids and Valley animals are one of the many experiences that make this a special and engaging place for young learners.

THE COURAGE TO TEACH

My favorite book about teaching is Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. It’s been my favorite exploration of what it means to be a teacher since it was first published in 1998. Despite reading many other books about teaching and education since then, it’s the one book I go back to, again and again, for insight, wisdom, and rejuvenation. I recommend it frequently, to both new and seasoned teachers, and to anyone who wants to understand the complexities, joys, challenges, and rewards of this important work.

The subtitle, “Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life,” gives an indication of the focus of The Courage to Teach. Palmer’s premise is that good teachers choose a vocation more than a profession. The word vocation shares the same Latin roots as the words voice and vocal. A vocation therefore is a calling: it is an activity that gives voice to who we are as individuals and helps integrate our identity, purpose, and life work. In Palmer’s words, good teachers teach from “their hearts – the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.”

Good teachers don’t fit a single mold. Good teachers come in a myriad of styles, backgrounds, and personalities, but they share certain characteristics. They are “truly present in the classroom, deeply engaged with their students and their subjects.” They have a high degree of self-knowledge and the resilience to navigate the complicated “crossroads of personal and public life” that all teachers encounter. For good teachers, teaching is “an act of generosity,” and, when we are effective, our work brings a sense of “deep gladness.” 

One of Palmer’s most powerful insights is in identifying the place of paradox in a teacher’s life and the need to hold opposing forces in balance. My own view of teaching has expanded to incorporate this idea of paradox, “a view of the world in which opposites are joined,” thus forming a deeper and truer appreciation of the work we do with children. There are many powerful paradoxes in teaching:

  • Good teaching requires predictability and order; good teaching requires flexibility and openness.
  • Teaching is a very public activity, with one’s actions on display daily; teaching is a very personal activity that involves great vulnerability and frequent isolation.
  • Good teachers exercise authority to make a classroom work well; they relinquish authority at times to allow children to grow.
  • Good teachers embrace the magnitude of their power and influence, they are keenly aware of the limits of their impact.
  • Good teachers focus on the needs and growth of individuals; good teachers focus on the well-being of the whole group.

Both research and experience tell me that the quality of a school depends on the quality of its teachers more than any other single factor. At The Valley School, we are blessed with dedicated teachers who have chosen teaching not as a profession but as a vocation, where, each day, they bring their identity and integrity to the sacred work of helping children find their voices and speak their truths. I work with people who have the courage to teach.

WE VALUE PLAY, SERIOUSLY

I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that I read Parade, the pullout magazine of popular culture that accompanies the Sunday edition of The Seattle Times. (I pull my self-esteem back up by reading The New York Times.) But I read Parade strictly for professional reasons – seriously! – and for the insight it gives me into mass media and popular trends. I tell myself that I need to know what the rest of the country is thinking about stuff. And so I felt vindicated recently to read a short article in Parade titled, “Act like a Kid: Get happier, healthier, smarter.” It’s always gratifying to read something I already know: “But more and more research is revealing that fun is not frivolous. It’s crucial to good health and well-being whatever your age. In fact, being playful may help you think better (and more creatively), remember more, lower your stress levels and bolster your immune system.”

But Parade is not the only publication touting the benefits of play. Every few weeks, I run across new articles and editorials promoting the advantages of play in education and bemoaning the erosion of play time and exercise in school schedules. Thanks to brain-scanning advances, we now understand that young brains, particularly in the early elementary years, respond better to active exploration than didactic methods of instruction. In the August edition of SmartBlog on Education, Lucien Vattel writes: “Play embodies our natural inclination to explore and experiment with objects and systems outside of us and integrate them first-hand into our psyche. Through educational play, we get to explore new ideas and come to know ourselves, as well as those around us in often-profound ways.”

This embrace of the power of play and the potential synergy between work and play reminds me of the concept of flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi* describes activities that bring a heightened level of concentration, immersion, and enjoyment, when our sense of time is suspended and fluid. In flow, we reach the “sweet spot” of challenge, where our activity is neither too easy nor too difficult. Just as in effective learning, there are clear goals and immediate and specific feedback in flow activities. In flow, our sense of self-consciousness recedes as we become fully engaged in what we are doing. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow, like play, is autotelic: it’s an activity that is done because doing it is has its own rewards.

At The Valley School, we’re serious about “being playful.” That may seem oxymoronic (which is always a fun word to use). In fact, taking play seriously means that we recognize the educational, emotional, social, and intellectual benefits of play, and we build play into the daily experience of our students. It also means that we don’t always segregate work and play, often an artificial separation. Instead of saying that play is what happens outside during recess and work is what happens inside the classroom, we believe that play, outside and inside, often has all of the components and benefits of work. Similarly, the more academic work in literacy and numeracy that happens in the classroom can often be playful, spontaneous, enjoyable, and creative. For this reason, we talk at Valley about “playful work and purposeful play.”

On my daily “walkabouts,” when I stop in on every class, I see ample evidence of teachers and students “being playful.” Whether it’s three kindergarten boys building a pyramid of 171 red Dixie cups that is “as tall as Alan” – yes, 6’4” – or all fourth graders singing a mathematics song called “Inspector Factor” and composing a rap about the commutative property, Valley students are learning that learning can be fun and playful. On our playgrounds, children take the initiative to dig trenches and study how water flows; it’s both play and work. They pick up chickens and learn how to handle animals with sensitivity and respect; they learn about animal care through experience, not just books. Simulation games, like the role-playing pioneer journey that fifth graders do in the spring, pull children into a deeper level of engagement in the topics they are studying. Through the games they invent, both in the classroom and the playground, they learn cooperation, conflict resolution, negotiation, risk-taking, communication, and creativity, what many educators have called “21st Century Skills.”

Yes, we are serious about play.

And so it’s only appropriate that now, in our 30th year as a school, we pause and celebrate “30 Years of Play” at our Valley School Fundraiser on Saturday, November 7.

Let’s play, seriously!

  • That’s pronounced “cheek-sent-me-hy-ee”!

 

 

WHAT SHOULD KIDS LEARN IN SCHOOL?

In the bustle, excitement, and nervousness that always accompanies the start of the school year, it’s easy to forget to ask fundamental questions of purpose. Why go to school? What are the essential lessons our students should learn this year? After two days of faculty meetings during the week prior to the start of school – and after we reviewed topics like playground expectations, earthquake drills, and communication plans – we paused to reflect on this crucial question: 

What are the qualities, attitudes, and skills that we want Valley School graduates to exhibit?

To ensure that all voices were heard, we broke into small groups of four to contemplate and discuss what lessons our students will have learned after their years at The Valley School. In the report-back discussion, we heard a consistency of purpose that was both remarkable and expected. I was both pleased and reassured about how aligned we are with each other in identifying what matters most.

We want our graduates to be optimistic, playful, imaginative, creative, and resilient problem-solvers. As they move on into middle school and the rest of their lives, we want kids from The Valley School to be self-confident, independent, trustworthy, well-rounded, inclusive, and kind members of their communities. We want them to love learning and to love the challenge of trying new things. And we expect all of our graduates to have good reading, writing, speaking, math, and thinking skills, the academic building blocks for continued success in school.

In leading this discussion, I deliberately left comments about our Mission Statement and Values until the end. As I expected, our exploration of the outcomes of a Valley School education provided a natural transition into a review of our Mission and Values.

The Valley School creates educational experiences that encourage children’s innate passion for learning through abundant opportunities for intellectual exploration, imaginative thinking, and the practice of kindness.

And we value Collaboration, Fairness, Respect for Individuality, Kindness, Creativity, and Inclusiveness.

Our discussion before the start of school reminded me of an article in the Winter 2015 edition of Harvard Ed. Magazine, a quarterly publication of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The article, entitled “What’s Worth Learning in School,” focused on the recent work of David Perkins, co-founder of Project Zero, a think tank at HGSE. At an international education conference, Perkins posed this question: What do you believe are some of the most important knowledge and skills for students to learn toward our complex future? The answers from leading education experts around the world echoed the ideas that came up in our beginning-of-year faculty meetings. The list that emerged at Perkins’ symposium was long and included, among other things, conflict-resolution, learning to learn, collaboration, mathematics, and global perspectives, but the five top ranking skills and knowledge sounded very familiar: thinking, self-understanding, empathy, ethics, and communication.

It’s good to know that we are in step with some of the brightest and most influential minds in education.

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Winston Churchill’s observation about the connection between people and buildings has been on my mind for much of this school year. Even before I arrived as the new Head of School in July 2014, many members of The Valley School community – teachers, Board members, architects, construction project managers – had envisioned new dimensions of our campus that would shape the learning and growth of Valley children for generations to come. This future is taking shape before our eyes. In the past five weeks, we’ve witnessed, first, the razing of our administrative house, then the digging of a big pit, and recently the construction of a foundation and basement for our new classroom building. What was once a plan on paper is now becoming a reality on the northeast corner of the Valley campus.

My enthusiasm for our building project is grounded in my belief in the power of proximity. Dynamic learning in schools depends on kids and adults bumping into each other, sometimes physically – and gently, we hope – but always intellectually and socially. With our third, fourth, and fifth grade kids together under one roof, in side-by-side classrooms rather than in two buildings on opposite corners of our campus, they will spend more time talking about what they’re learning. With more frequency, they will share their excitement about the new books they’ve discovered. Third graders will watch the fourth graders design and construct their state project presentations and will start to think ahead to what state they will research next year. Teachers will get to share teaching strategies and curricular improvements, and the synergy sparked by collaborative colleagues will only enhance the educational experiences of Valley children. In these ways, a new geography and a new building will shape us.

The accuracy of Churchill’s insight has become more evident to me in the past two months. Since I moved to the second floor of the yellow house, the future home of the administration, the soundtrack to my days is the joyful, exuberant banter of third grade kids below me and Carrie’s encouraging voice asking them to “have a think.” I know these children better than I did before, they greet me with more confidence and warmth, and I have a better understanding of what they are learning. My connection and understanding of The Valley School are deeper and more complete because of the change in my daily geography. I anticipated this change in perspective.

But other changes in our campus have brought unanticipated results. With the chicken coop and the rabbit hutch now located on the side of the lower school building, we’ve experienced a significant rise in the interest of pre-K and kindergarten kids in the lives of our school animals. Before, these five animals were just outside the sphere of awareness of our youngest kids, but now they are frequent contributors to the care of our chickens and rabbits. The question of who gets the eggs at the end of each day became a new, more complicated question than before. A lottery system developed by the fifth graders now ensures that every child who wants to take home an egg will have that opportunity before the end of the year. The seemingly simple relocation of the animals forty yards to the west created new and unexpected puzzles that called for creativity and collaboration.

Over the summer, the new upper school building will take shape and the yellow house on 30th Avenue East will get a face lift and an inside remodel. With new pathways between buildings, new opportunities for “intellectual exploration” and “creative thinking,” and a new geography for learning, the educational experiences we offer Valley children will only get better. I confidently anticipate these changes, and I look forward to discovering the unanticipated and serendipitous opportunities, like who takes home the chicken eggs each day.

We are shaping this new campus, and thereafter it will shape us.

HOMEWORK: HEADACHE OR HELP?

Homework, like other topics in American education such as standardized testing and digital technologies in the classroom, has become something of a lightning rod subject, an issue that brings heightened passions and polemical stands.   In the past decade, persuasive books by experts have decried the damage done to children through excessive homework. In reviewing the recent literature about homework, I find myself agreeing with much of what the critics say. And yet it is the nature of critics to often tell only part of the full story.

The link between school and homework is so strong that many children, before they get to kindergarten, assume that homework is just part of what you do in school. At Valley, our kindergarten kids occasionally ask to do homework, and, when appropriate, we let them. I’m reminded of my daughter, who was so eager to do homework in pre-school that her very accommodating and astute teacher occasionally gave her a few notecards to fill out after school. Leila was delighted to discover the missing letter in words like “c _ t” and “d _ g.” To her, this was fun work: it certainly did no harm, it helped her feel a sense of accomplishment, and it reinforced the early literacy skills she was developing. What I see in our kindergarten and what my daughter experienced both point out that homework, when handled in a way that responds to the interests and passions of children, can be one of the tools that teachers use to encourage learning. Unfortunately and too often, homework crosses the threshold into drudgery. Rather than sparking the flame of learning, it snuffs it out. Instead of becoming a catalyst for learning, homework becomes an impediment to learning.

During the fall at The Valley School, we spent time in several faculty meetings discussing our philosophy and practice around homework. After much discussion and several drafts, here’s what we settled on:

At The Valley School, we believe that the experiences children have during their school day provide sufficient time and practice for the learning we expect. The push to introduce homework in the earliest levels of elementary education too frequently deprives children of time for family activities, play, and downtime; creates tension within families; and can lead to sapping the enjoyment from learning. We therefore give no homework to our youngest children, including pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade. Starting in second grade, we ask our students to devote time to independent reading for pleasure and spelling practice. In the upper school, as children get older and develop more fluency in reading, writing, and mathematics, we increase the amount of homework gradually.

A modest amount of homework, when balanced with ample time for after-school activities, family time, and recreation, can help students develop a sense of responsibility and independence and can give them practice with organization and time-management skills. These academic skills will serve our graduates well when they enter middle school, where homework is the norm. At Valley, homework takes a variety of forms, from daily exercises to week-long assignments and projects, and reflects the needs and interests of students and the thoughtful discretion of teachers.

Excessive homework, particularly homework for its own sake, runs contrary to the educational philosophy of The Valley School. Our aim is always to create a climate where learning is engaging, meaningful, and playful. Our goal is to graduate children from The Valley School who love learning and are prepared for the next stage of their education. Our balanced approach to homework is one of many pathways towards this destination.

For teachers and for parents, the challenge in our jobs is to strike the right dynamic balance between focusing on the present and preparing for the future. An elementary school that gives children no experience with homework is probably not giving them the experience that they need when entering middle school. On the other hand, an elementary school that gives an excess of homework, where homework is disconnected from classroom learning and where homework breeds resentment and frustration, has done a disservice.   The transition between elementary and middle school is fraught with complicated steps. A school, like Valley, that strikes a thoughtful and purposeful balance on the issue of homework has prepared kids well for the next stage.