Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kindergarten should be developmentally appropriate...

 This article in the Washington Post made me so sad! A kindergarten teacher quit after years of joyous teaching because of the unreasonable demands being made upon her and her students.

Seneca Academy was founded on the belief that educational programs need to pay attention to the developmental stages and needs of children. We pay close attention to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional levels of each class and build our programming to ensure that students will be successful. We set high achievement standards for each of our students, but ones that are attainable. This is one of the reasons we don't see the outrageous behavior at Seneca Academy that is described in the article.

Peek into our kindergarten class and you will see students actively engaged in meaningful work (reading, writing, art projects, building, listening, planning, presenting, discussing, etc.) that enables them to gain important and foundational knowledge, while practicing thinking and problem solving skills. While there are 2 teachers in the classroom, students are often doing independent or small group work. There is rarely "mis-behavior," as all children know what is expected of them, and they work to meet expectations. Their work is displayed proudly around the room, and demonstrates a high level of conceptual knowledge and ability.

And 9 times out of 10, you'll see the kindergarten teachers smiling. :)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff...

Whew! It has been quite a January 2014!! We’ve had a lot going on around here at Seneca Academy, and not all of it positive. We started the month with a sprinkler pipe leak, followed by cancelled and delayed school openings due to snow, and then our primary communication system for letting folks know about delays and cancellations was unreliable! It was enough to make anyone frustrated!!

I usually do not get stressed-out very easily, but I have found myself irritated recently by these unexpected twists and turns life has presented. Then I read this article “Why We Shouldn’t Sweat The Small Stuff” and it reminded me why it is important to focus on what is positive. The article not only describes how the brains of “even-keeled,” less stressed folks are different from those who frequently become stressed over little things, it offers helpful suggestions for how to respond to life’s trials and tribulations in a calmer way.

I think the practice of calming oneself in the face of stressful situations is particularly important for us as parents. For starters, our stress levels directly impact our children’s stress levels. When we “freak out” or get heated about something trivial, like traffic or weather, this signals to our children that they should feel stressed too. As the article mentions, this raises their cortisol levels, which over time can have all kinds of negative effects.  Secondly, our children model our behavior, whether we like it or not! So if we present them with parents who are constantly stressed-out during daily routines, the likelihood that they will become stressed-out adults is increased. How much better would it be if we helped our children to maintain a calm outlook on life, thus reducing the levels of cortisol rushing through them on a daily basis, and provide them with models of how a calm, cool collected adult life might look like?

I know I’ll be working on some of the strategies mentioned in the article, such as re-framing circumstances, focusing on the present, and embracing optimism- especially in front of my kids! For example, we got new carpeting because of our sprinkler leak; I was able to get a lot of things accomplished at home during our snow day; we are improving other forms of communication to replace the unreliable one; and I love snow anyway!! 

What do you all do to maintain calm in the face of your daily storms?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On the Importance of Balance

Photo by A. Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter’s classmates from last year had a reunion of sorts, and got together to ride the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Although we were a group of close to 30 kids and parents all in one car, and the atmosphere was therefore rambunctious and loud, for me it was actually a relaxing and leisurely trip. These are not words I typically use to describe my days!! The train ride from Cumberland to Frostburg was about 45 minutes, through mountainous, rural, western Maryland. It was a gorgeous day, with the autumn leaves just beginning to show. Not only was it picturesque, I was a captive audience. After about an hour walking around Frostburg, we got back on the train for our return trip. As I was driving to and from this excursion (2 hours each way- more leisure time), I reflected on my family, my work, my goals, and my relationships. Without the normal pressures of time commitments, appointments, schedules, and other expectations, I was able to think deeply and creatively about a variety of things. During this very productive “down time,” I was reminded how important it is for busy people to regularly change their routine in order to build in time for rest and reflection. In my definition of “busy people” I automatically include parents! How often do we schedule time for ourselves to just stop, think and reflect?

At Seneca Academy, we promote balance as one of our IB/PYP attributes, and teach this concept to our students. We ask them to balance academic time with active time, reading time, creative time, social time, technology time, etc. We ask them to balance their focus on learning about math with learning about social science, language, music, writing, etc. But are we, as adults, practicing what we preach? By balancing the busy, hectic times in our lives with restful and reflective times, we allow ourselves to move from reacting to reflecting; from focusing on details to focusing on the big picture. The most important aspects of our lives can then become clear. And we model what we expect from our children. By taking the time to drive out west for a fun activity with my daughter, I was reminded, once again, of the need for balance in my own life as well.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thoughts about learning in preschool

One of our alert, engaged, and knowledgeable teachers shared this blog post with me recently. These thoughts, written by a former preschool teacher, are so articulately written and so perfectly consistent with what we believe at Seneca Academy, that I wanted to share them with everyone! The author is Alicia Bayer and her blog is called A Magical Childhood. I think this is a wonderful reminder of what is important in a young child's life for optimal development!

What Should a 4 Year Old Know?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The best job in the world!

I have the best job in the world!! In my role as Head of School, I am able to see excellent teachers engage eager students in meaningful work. I observe happy children interacting with peers whom they trust and respect. I witness caring young people who translate their studies into action, aimed at helping others.

My gratitude for this opportunity was heightened recently when I accompanied the 5th grade class on a field trip. We went on an Underground Railroad hike to support their unit of inquiry on conflict and the U.S. Civil War. I was struck by how many of our IB learner profile attributes the students displayed on our trip. I loved seeing the expression on our conductor’s face as our students provided extremely knowledgeable responses to his questions (e.g. C:“Why was it called the Underground Railroad?” S:“Well, a man named Tyce Anderson was crossing from Kentucky to Ohio…”). They were very principled as they went through the
2-hour, 3-mile hike, needing no discipline or behavior management at all! They were excellent inquirers with their insightful questions, and independent thinkers as they came up with solutions to the conductor’s problem scenarios depicting what runaway slaves encountered. They were caring of each other throughout the trip, but especially after our picnic lunch when they were asking one another who wanted to be part of a tag game. Finally, they were reflective on the bus ride home when Ms. Luk asked them to discuss what they had experienced and learned.

The best part is that I could write paragraphs about each class of students in our school like the one above! I see our students demonstrate these character traits every day. Thanks to parents, teachers and students for giving me such a wonderful work environment!!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Building Confidence

There is a kindergartner who comes into the office once or twice a week, just to give me a hug. He walks in with a huge smile on his face, arms outstretched, confident that he will be received with pleasure and appreciation (and he always is!!).

Not long ago during morning assembly, the gathering room was arranged differently than usual, with chairs set up for our Open House. One of our second graders, a shy and somewhat anxious person, came up to ask me where she should put her bag, as the normal 2nd grade place was not there. She didn’t know what to do, but knew how to solve her problem. She was confident that I would help her without making her feel badly about not knowing.

During that same assembly, one of our 6th graders stood before the entire elementary student body to describe a trip he will be taking this winter break to help children in El Salvador. He asked for donations of sports equipment and clothes to take with him. He spoke loudly and persuasively, fully expecting the respect and attention he received from the students.

How do we foster confidence in our children? How can we get them to believe in their own abilities to further their learning, problem solve, and interact positively? I think of confidence as similar to self-esteem: it is not something that parents or teachers can give to a child; it has to be developed through self-reflection, trial and error, failure and success. Confidence is one of the “attitudes” that are promoted by the IB/PYP and by Seneca Academy. Possessing confidence can lead to other positive attitudes and attributes such as independence, effective communication and risk-taking.

So what do we do to foster confidence? I think the most important thing we can do as adults is to ensure an environment that is “safe” from shame and ridicule. This will allow students to freely demonstrate curiosity and risk taking. Next, we need to facilitate developmentally appropriate opportunities for children to try new skills, experiences, interactions, and perspectives. They must be real experiences, where achievement is meaningful. Creating pretend situations where “success” is guaranteed is a ploy that most kids see right through.  As positive reinforcement has been shown to be the most effective in shaping behavior, supporting even small successes during children’s attempts and minimizing focus on the mistakes (especially in younger children) is the most beneficial way to build confidence.  As children get older, providing opportunities to consciously learn from mistakes in a non-judgmental way is also helpful.

Often times I think we as parents try to protect our children from failure or mistakes in an attempt to preserve their confidence. But if they don’t have experience “failing” or making mistakes, how will they build the confidence that they can overcome failure? How will they know that making mistakes is not “the end of the world?” I think it is by remedying our mistakes and overcoming failures that we build our own confidence as adults– which makes it so important to support and encourage our children through the same process.

Friday, October 12, 2012

On Authorization...

In the couple of weeks since Seneca Academy received the notice from the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) that we are finally authorized as a Primary Years Program (IB/PYP), our focus has been on advertising and marketing; getting the good news out to everyone we can. Throughout all of that though, I’ve been reflecting on what authorization means to me, and to the school.

I think this recognition from the IBO primarily provides validation: of the hard work we have done, and the accomplishments we have made. It means our teachers, administrators and students have lived up to a long list of standards set by international experts in education. 

But this authorization hasn't changed us significantly since we received it. We started on a journey when we first applied to become an IB/PYP school 4 ½ years ago, and we have come a long way on that journey. As a result of our efforts over the past years, our students are conversant in the learner profile ( and the attitudes we promote, are comfortable asking and answering conceptual questions, and are more knowledgeable about the wider world. Our teachers regularly plan together, and are creative in finding ways to fully engage students in the learning process. Our Parent Association is focused on ways to integrate global awareness and multi-cultural activities into their events.

However, our journey isn’t over. Seneca Academy has always promoted lifelong learning, which is supported by the IBO. We will continue to routinely be reflective of our practices and strive to enhance them. Receiving the IB authorization at this point in time is much appreciated (and exciting) confirmation that we are on the right path, and is recognition of how far we have come. It is encouragement to continue on our journey, and we will.

Fundamentally, Seneca Academy has been implementing the Primary Years Program for some time now; authorization now gives us permission to trumpet that to the world!

PS. We would love your help with that trumpeting so please feel free to spread the word!