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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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Go Outside!

When our children were young – they’re now 20 and 17 – we started taking family day trips to Ebey’s Landing. Two or three times a year, we drive north and catch the Whidbey Island ferry at Mukilteo. Half way up the island, we turn left at Coupeville and, minutes later, we arrive at one of our family’s favorite spots in the world. Ebey’s Landing is at the westernmost point of the island, and it looks directly west down the Strait of Juan de Fuca and out into the Pacific Ocean. On the bluff hike, when the skies are crystal clear, we can see north to Victoria, south to Mount Rainier, and east to Mount Baker. We delight in the panoramic vistas of the Pacific Northwest landscape. On the return beach hike, we take equal pleasure in examining the small things, the variegated striations on the rocks we pick up or the grebes floating off shore in Puget Sound.

Richard Louv, the keynote speaker at the NWAIS Fall Educators Conference in Portland on October 10, asked the provocative question: “Where is your special place in nature?” My answer, Ebey’s Landing, came to mind immediately. The implication of his question was clear: everyone, every child, should have a special place in nature, a place that provides the restorative, calming effect that comes from spending time unplugged and untethered from the busy pace of our modern lives. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Louv argues persuasively that children today are losing a vital connection to nature. As parents and educators, we owe it to our children to give them “meadow memories,” experiences when they can taste, see, touch, hear, and smell the natural world for themselves.

The health and education benefits of giving children more “green time” are numerous. They develop powers of observation by noticing how plants grow and how animals behave. As amateur ecologists – an amateur being someone who does an activity for the love, amour, of it – children learn to recognize connections between climate and topography. For children with Attention Deficit Disorder, time in the out-of-doors can have a longer and healthier calming effect than medication. Playing outdoors gives a child a chance to chart her own explorations and to respond in the moment to the things she discovers, whether it’s a bird nest, an unusual flower, or a hill that she turns into a slalom course. Invention, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving can flourish unabated in the natural world.

At The Valley School, we treasure and preserve our natural surroundings. With over 30 trees, countless bushes, native plants, trademark wood chips, and the recently added bales of hay, our two acres of land offer children a direct experience in the natural world while going to school in a city neighborhood. Our chickens, rabbits, and classroom pets give Valley students daily contact with other living beings, reminding them that we humans are not the only creatures on this planet. Valley kids climb trees, they roll down hills in plastic barrels, they skin their knees, they get splinters, and they play outside in all kinds of weather. It’s no wonder I was given a pair of mud boots at my first Friday all-school meeting this past May!

We should all follow the advice of the self-assured pre-K boy who, in the midst of searching for slugs and snails one morning recently, gently admonished me: “Alan, you can go and do your work, but really you should come outside more often.” How true: we all should get outside more, whether it’s to a neighborhood park or to Ebey’s Landing or to your own special place.

My summer reading included, first, a piece of classic fiction, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and then a piece of recent non-fiction, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  In my reading, I always try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, just to keep my perspective broad and my mind thinking in different ways.  The second book, finished while I was camping with my family on Orcas Island, makes a strong case for why non-cognitive skills like resilience, self-regulation, social intelligence, and empathy are better predictors of success in life than the more conventional predictors like test scores and IQ.  Citing extensive research and providing compelling anecdotes, the author demonstrates that these qualities can be learned through experience and instruction.  With frequent practice, these qualities can become habits.

One of the many reasons I’ve chosen to join the Valley School community is that we already place the right value on these qualities and experiences.  Tough – what a serendipitous last name! – argues that schools need to shift their focus to include more character education.  This doesn’t mean that we abandon teaching literacy and numeracy, critical skills in school and in life, to be sure, but rather that we help our children develop those attitudes and aptitudes that transcend the acquisition and analysis of information. With our mission of creating “abundant opportunities for intellectual exploration, imaginative thinking, and the practice of kindness,” the Valley School already takes seriously Tough’s charge to give young people multifaceted experiences that build their grit and compassion.

For an equally insightful guide to raising sturdy kids, I also recommend Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg’s Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings.  Ginsberg identifies the seven C’s of resilience: Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Contribution, Coping, and Control.  Several powerful themes, with equal relevance to both teachers and parents, run through his book:

  • Listening to what children have to say is an important way of building their confidence.
  • Children live up to – or down to – the expectations of the adults around them.

  • Getting out of the way is often the best strategy for helping kids learn and grow.

  • In order to thrive, children need unconditional love, a feeling of safety, and a strong sense of connection to peers and adults.

  • Children gain confidence through experiences in which they exhibit competence and make meaningful contributions.

  • Focusing on a child’s assets and strengths will do more to build her confidence and competence than dwelling on her weaknesses.

  • Children learn more from our actions and behavior as adults than from our words and instructions.

I am calling this year, my first year at Valley, “my year of discovery.” And as I discover more about the history, philosophy, and practice of child-centered education here at the Valley School, I see ample evidence of the practices that Ginsberg recommends.

In a chapter in How Children Succeed that touches on his own path through schools, Paul Tough talks about “the lightness of being a beginner.” This phrase resonates with me, as I begin a new chapter of my career and my life.  I suspect that the children at Valley, in their own ways, might recognize the “lightness of being a beginner.” The start of a new year at school is a beginning rich with possibilities and promise.  Children new to the school get to forge new friendships, and children returning to a new grade can look forward to developing a relationship with a new teacher and a recalibration of their connections to their classmates.  

Welcome to a new year at the Valley School!

Lettter to the Valley Community
July 10, 2014

Dear Valley School Parents,

Tuesday, July 1 was my first official day as the Head of The Valley School. After three months of anticipation and many hours devoted to my transition, I was relieved and pleased to be sitting at my desk in my new office. Late in the day, I heard a soft humming outside the west-facing window: a hummingbird was hovering over a flower bed. Moments later, I looked out of the south-facing window to see one of our kindergarten boys helping his father feed our chicken, Snow White. This father and son, Snow White, and this hummingbird make up this place called The Valley School – and now I am part of this place too!

I have believed for a long time that children – in fact, people of all ages – need a sense of place. Children need classrooms and playgrounds and neighborhoods where they feel safe – physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. With its spaceship, its trees, its wood chips, its sunlit classrooms in former homes, and its three animals, The Valley School provides our children with a joyful place where learning can flourish and relationships can grow.

This place called The Valley School will be changing a bit next summer. For several years, the Board of Trustees and members of the Valley administration and faculty have been considering possible enhancements to our campus. This spring, the Board approved a cohesive campus plan that would include tearing down the house on 31st Avenue East, the current administration offices, and constructing on that site a one-story building with classrooms for the third, fourth, and fifth grades. In addition, the yellow building on 30th Avenue East that currently holds the third grade and library will be remodeled to become the new administration building. In addition, a Library Learning Center, with improved technology and tutoring space, will be developed in the big building, and the entrance on 30th will be enlarged and improved to become the main entrance to the school. This construction will take place entirely during the summer months next year, June through August 2015, with all buildings ready to welcome children back at the start of school in September.

The Valley School’s location in Madison Valley also influences our sense of place, and the strong connection between The Valley School and the neighborhood is one of the defining features of our school – and one of the many reasons I chose to come here. The design and scale of the construction project next summer honor the architectural traditions of our neighborhood. The renovation of the house on 30th will mostly involve interior changes, with exterior improvements on the siding, paint, and windows. The new classroom building will be constructed mostly off-site, thereby reducing the length of the project during the summer months and significantly lowering the impact on traffic in the neighborhood.
The City of Seattle is also sensitive to the impact of construction on neighborhoods and therefore invites comments from residents before ultimately approving projects. On Thursday, July 3, the city posted two yellow signs by the school fences, one on Thomas and one on 31st. These signs, Notice of Proposed Land Use Action, invite commentary during a two-week period ending July 16. On that same day, Kelly Smith and Kathy Park distributed a letter from The Valley School to all of our neighbors who border the school. In that letter, I introduced myself, gave some background about the construction project, and invited them to an information reception late Monday afternoon, July 21st.

As a new Head of School, this construction project represents a wonderful opportunity for me. It gives me even more reason to get to know our neighbors and to engage them in conversations about the school and our shared commitment to our community. I have the opportunity to reassure them that the building and renovation are meant to enhance the quality of education for our young children and not increase the overall enrollment of The Valley School.

Within our own community of Valley families, I will have many occasions to meet with parents and discuss the project and present opportunities for engagement. Many alumni families have already made contributions to this future project. While The Valley School is strong financially, with balanced annual budgets and appropriate reserves, the construction project budget will still depend on some fundraising. A Capital Campaign Committee has already engaged a consultant to help provide support in our fundraising efforts. Each of us in The Valley School community will have an opportunity to invest financially in the coming year to the present and future of our school. This summer, one of my first steps as new Head of School will be to start building the case for why families will want to contribute to improving our facilities and bringing greater cohesiveness to our campus. In the fall, Valley parents will have more opportunities to learn about these exciting plans.

Next summer, this place will be humming – and I hope that hummingbird outside my window will still contribute to the humming! I look forward to working together with you as we help build The Valley School’s future.

Sincerely,

Alan Braun
Head of School
The Valley School