Thursday, March 24, 2011

A New Blog

As my focus grows more on my own daily education and transformation, I have written less and less on the topic of primary education. But I love to write, so I created a new blog for a new topic and an exciting new time in my life. Join me on Mindful Matters, my new blog as I share my life's lessons and observations with the purpose of expanding the understanding and wisdom I glean in one area to broader areas of life. Here's the address:

I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kim John Payne Speaks at Shining Mountain Waldorf School

On October 20th, 2010 Shining Mountain Waldorf School is thrilled to be hosting a lecture for the public, entitled "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids", facilitated by Kim John Payne, M. Ed.. This workshop provided the inspiration for Kim's book by the same name, which has just been released in soft cover by Random House in August. His message is one that would attract many parents in Boulder and Denver, those with contemplative leanings, and especially those who are interested in childhood development and education.

Tickets are also available online at A special discount is offered to teachers and students.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Prayer for the Reluctant School Child

My son Jude is having a hard time GOING to Kindergarten. Once he is there he is fine but when faced with the prospect of going he starts crying. Yesterday morning we rode our bikes together and he wanted to keep stopping to stall and/or cry on the way (making us a little late). I told him about the prayers I say every morning on my walk during sunrise to make my day better, even when I am grumpy about getting about of bed. I told him what I say and that it works to put me in a better mood every time. I asked him if he wanted me to say it for him and he said he did. We started with a grumpy frown on his face, but I said:

May Jude be happy
May Jude be joyful
May Jude be filled with Loving Kindness
May Jude be filled with chocolate covered donuts
May Jude feel loved
May Jude's brother be nicer to him
May Jude be kind and respectful to the earth
May the earth be nicer to Jude and not trip him
May Jude get all green lights today (green means good behavior)

I had him laughing by the time I got to donuts and although he needed lots of hugs and kisses to let me go, I left seeing him smiling. I am glad I found a way to make him happy AND keep moving. It made us both happy.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Third Grader is Not Responsible for Your Property Value

The test scores from the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) were recently published and one of the schools in my neighborhood had lower scores than expected by many in the community. It sparked a discussion among many groups about test scores, testing, teaching, leadership, expectations, etc.

What bothered me about some of the conversations that I heard was how often the talk drifted to matters of personal profitability that were peripheral to the subject of education itself. For example, many of those who said that the test scores were "lower than they should be for our community" would often speak about how the test scores negatively affected their property values and even our ranking and competitiveness as a city, state and nation. It troubles me that we are putting so much pressure on our children so that we may sell our houses for more money or have a better Gross National Product.

I know there is no one answer to the question "what is the purpose of education?". My answer may sound quite different from yours. To me, the purpose of education is to raise informed, interested, empowered, creative, tolerant, active citizens. It is to help a child uncover their strengths and talents and interests allowing them to use these skills to make a living, to enjoy life, and to serve others. Education should be a time of wonder and discovery. It should be challenging and enjoyable. I don't think the main purpose of education should be about high test scores or money. I know that test scores directly and indirectly impact jobs, politics, housing prices, and global competitiveness among other things, but it worries me that we will allow the importance of these things to eclipse the importance and purpose of education and change it for the wrong reasons. Is this the tail wagging the dog?

It doesn't seem unreasonable to want high property values (or to keep your job or political office) and to even take steps to ensure our schools help boost them. But if that causes us to focus solely on test scores rather than a broader method of assessment, we may certainly have better test scores and higher housing prices in our neighborhood - for awhile. But we will also see more teacher dissatisfaction leading to burnout at being forced to teach to the test. We will see further erosion of areas that are not tested but are an integral part of life and education, like the arts, recess, physical education, foreign languages, and even enough time to eat lunch at a reasonable pace. We will get higher drop out rates with kids that cannot cope with the pace or narrowed scope of learning. I am convinced that when we mechanize education and squeeze out all of the beauty and individuality to produce a test score that is satisfactory to many who stand to profit from it, even the test scores themselves will not rise in a sustainable way.

It has been said so many times by experts, teachers, students and parents with support by studies and anecdotal evidence that a balanced education with the arts, movement, and languages boost learning, motivation, and satisfaction. It doesn't seem like the people who create policy and foist it on our schools are really listening to that though. I really do think they have good intentions, but it does seem like their motivation and understanding may influence policy in a way that does not truly serve the students. Though that may seem subtle, it can bring disastrous results. If you stand to profit in some way from a higher test score, are you really impartial and acting in the best interest of students? At the very least you should be very open to following the advice of others who are in a far better position to know what is best for students.

I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum back completely away from accountability and back to the uneven and unchecked quality of the past, but I do think we have gone much too far with the accountability movement. There has to be a middle path and we can learn from other systems and cultures that successfully follow a middle path. At any rate, please do not rest the responsibility of your property values and the economy on the shoulders of my nine-year old son. That is not a burden he is prepared to carry, nor should he be expected to do so. In the words of Peach from Finding Nemo: "Isn't there another way? He's just a boy!"

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is Fiction Frivolous?

A few weeks ago I was reading an article by E.D. Hirsch, who said that reading choices in school should not be "random" and that fiction is "frivolous". His point was that the teacher should choose books based on topics of study, rather than students choosing books of interest to them, thereby strengthening other Core Knowledge subjects while improving literacy.

At first glance, taking every opportunity to interleave subjects and focus learning seems like a good thing, especially if your focus is on test scores and retaining Core Knowledge facts. But if you are concerned about nurturing a love of learning, valuing individual interests, or even getting kids to want to read, this is not a good strategy. This line of thinking can extend to art, music, recreation, and movement. If they do not directly contribute to a highly focused subject, than they are not worthwhile. I could not disagree more! Let's not squeeze all of the beauty of life out of education, please! Not only is education far less enjoyable when we do this, we fail to reach the most at-risk students and increase the drop-out rate.

Giving a reader, especially a struggling one, a choice in what they read encourages them to read more and to delve into a subject until they are satiated. Giving students a modicum of control over parts of their education is to invite them to actively participate in it.

In the effort to help boys who straggle far behind girls in literacy, there has been a concerted effort by educators and publishers to provide books that will greatly appeal to them and be within their reading ability to help nurture literacy. These books are called high interest/low level and feature subjects like sports, animals, and all things “gross”. I know from experience that these are the books of choice for many a struggling reader. Do we really think that keeping kids interested and active in their education is unimportant? How sad that curiosity and interest would be casualties in the maniacal effort to raise test scores.

In an article by Nancie Atwell (here), The National Council of Teachers of English were frantically looking for volunteers to defend the teaching of literature because the Common Core State Standards Initiative, dominated by test-makers and politicians, were busy writing the K-12 Common-Core Standards behind closed doors and did not see the worth of book reading. What? Even high-brow literature is unworthy?

When I was learning to read, I was taken to the public library once a week and was allowed to choose a bagful of any books I liked. At one point I was reading a lot of Danielle Steele books. These books did not boost my test scores or elevate my education (except maybe socially) but they kept my nose in a book for hours at a time until I grew tired of them. My bookshelves later filled with books that were not in the Danielle Steele genre, but I appreciated that I could choose what was interesting to me – both in school and at home to encourage a lifelong love and ability to read. I hope my children will have the same choice and say in their education.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Venturing Together - An Interview with Bill Rossi (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of an interview with Venturing Together author, Bill Rossi.

You wrote about the specific benefits students receive when they participate in a substantial, in-depth arts program. I think the components of being substantial and in-depth components were key to providing these benefits - can you talk about the benefits and what you mean by the depth of the arts program?

No matter how technically sophisticated, art is about expression and therefore rooted in emotional experience. A good arts program will develop sophisticated techniques and skills in such a way that they’re attached to the student’s emotional state – there’s no conflict between the two; rather than treating them as something separate, it will work with them in tandem to enhance a more complete expression. When you have the technical and emotional working together you have an in-depth arts program. This can help channel negative emotions into positive expression, which can lead to conflict resolution.

In order to refine their expression, students need to be given both opportunity and good guidance to open emotional avenues and explore their inner landscape while they refine their technical skills. This requires an experienced teacher. The major benefit of this emotional development is that it leads to personal integration – it gets students in touch with inner areas that aren’t really known to them. It also help students with socialization and communication beyond the arts, and can help them come to understand their own learning style – what’s unique in their style - so they get to know themselves. There should be an empowerment thing that happens.

You mention the cost of an arts program for struggling students being a good investment as compared with the cost of social service treatment or incarceration. I don’t think people really get just how important the arts are to some students and how important it is to try to reach them in some positive way. You also talk about the numerous studies done on how the arts improve academic performance and shape community-oriented, well-rounded citizens, yet they are continually marginalized in schools. The arts are held back as a reward for those that can earn them through academic achievement or for those that can afford them, which leaves the students who need them the most. Please explain your thoughts on this.

Regardless of the statistics and abundant living proof of our need for them, the arts don’t share the same status as the other academic subjects or sports. Because they don’t exist shoulder to shoulder with these endeavors, they are often used as supplemental activities - add-ons that are also expendable. It can make for a neat behavioral category if they’re used as reward or punishment or are just expendable.

Established systems naturally resist change – there’s a survival and/or security instinct in play here. And even though people within the system may talk about change or actually try to implement change, it has to fit into their boundaries of financial and emotional security – two very powerful forces. In most established systems, the boundaries are usually pretty narrow, making any real change difficult, and often what’s touted as new is just a makeover of what’s already done - or is something that’s very similar.

A good, in-depth arts program promotes freedom in learning, as it should be. But because the creative arts can take people into different areas than the system is used to, students can seem like random “loose cannons” – difficult to manage in traditional ways, and threatening to those not experienced enough with them. This can seem disruptive and uppity to a system, and the more rigid the system is the more disruptive it can seem.

It’s the nature of the creative arts to enhance, expand, and even challenge the status quo – to try to build on it, push the envelope – that’s the nature of growth and the beauty of the arts. Of course in many instances, systems don’t like to be challenged.

An additional problem the arts can encounter within schools is that schools often don’t encourage and facilitate different ways of thinking or paces of learning, and don’t place much emphasis on alternative ways of viewing the world or personal experience.

The approach for Merge Education is said to combine strengths-based education and mentoring. Can you explain what that looks like?

Passion in learning that taps into what’s right with the student are the key points here – Identifying the student’s natural inclinations, skills, and talents and building on them while developing strategies to work through challenges.
Again, there is an emotional basis at work in the mentoring part, where a mutual relationship develops between equals who share relevant parts of themselves and their experiences that involve both some of their strengths and their challenges.

Please talk more about how creativity helps students in HOW to think, rather than WHAT to think.

WHAT has to do with memorization and accepting and restating other people’s views, and doesn’t offer students the opportunity to explore the subject on their own and to more deeply arrive at their own conclusions.

HOW has to do with developing abilities to explore, think about, and come to personal understandings and realizations, and find ways of expressing those understandings. A student who learns HOW to think is better able to meet and process life experience and emotional conflicts –better able to process what he went through and the impact that experience had on him, positive or negative, so he learns about himself and better understands his personal reactions.

Examining and sorting through a conflict can lead to resolving it through his mode of communication. He’s able to consider his experience in such a way that he comes to a place where he understand something new or forms a new way of thinking about something, and understands how he can apply these insights to his life. He realizes he can start by encapsulating that experience and then can put it into his way of being and articulate it through his art. Then if he’s insightful enough he can apply that to the way he lives his life and interacts with other people. The more whole a person becomes, the healthier he is -- we’re talking about a unification of one’s actions. These are basic principles in creativity.

What is available with your programs and who can access them?

We’ve created a comprehensive system of books, manuals, and evaluation software to help people become more creative in their teaching, parenting, and mentoring, and to help an organization develop its own arts program. Individuals wanting to further explore the teaching approach might enjoy Venturing Together; musicians, artists, and even non-artists who want to work with the approach might find our arts curricula useful (Draw on Experience and Play by Heart are currently available), and we’ve just begun offering our software evaluation tool in beta, for assessment and management of all sorts of programs. We also offer Risks Worth Taking, a soup-to-nuts manual for developing and managing an arts mentoring program. And finally, we offer consultation for any and all of the above.

For more information on Venturing Together go to: or

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Venturing Together - An Interview with Bill Rossi (Part 1)

In Venturing Together, Bill Rossi smartly convinces educators, human service providers, and parents, that students’ creative spirit is what drives learning and personal growth. His approach is student-focused and strength-based, guiding facilitating discovery of each student's intrinsic motivation. Although Venturing Together focuses on mentoring through the arts, the principles described easily translate to many subjects and can offer struggling students a robust way to achievement and success (not to mention...happy). After reading the book, Bill graciously granted me an interview that will be done in two parts because there is a lot to say!

You mention working with two students early on in your career who influenced your approach. One student seemed to be a quick and compliant learner, the kind prized in our education system. The other student seemed “spacey”, didn’t work in a way that seemed systematic, and was slow to make connections. The surprise for you was that once the latter student had explored the music in his own way, he played the piece of music with a depth and creativity that far surpassed the quick and compliant student. Can you explain what you think happened in the different learning approaches and the outcome? Why is it good to become comfortable (for the student and the teacher) to not have an answer right away?

I should probably start by saying that my teaching approach partly grew out of my own learning experience, and also evolved over the course of almost two decades of teaching – a sort of personal inquiry. And as I say in the book, an integral component of the approach is that no matter what type of student we’re teaching, the teacher needs to always be in a dynamic state of learning, addressing and responding to the relationship that’s developing. So while many of my students have provided me with insights into some of the more subtle nuances inherent in individual learning processes, I thought these two in examples presented a very useful contrast.

Take the “spacey” student, for example. One of the things I have found is that the way we learn at any given time is dependent upon many factors – not only on the environment, but very much on what we’re learning. Someone can seem to be more random and global, for example, when they have more of an affinity for what they’re doing because that affinity – or natural ability or talent – will absorb them. When we really like something, we interact with it differently and will exhibit a more depthful kind of approach to learning. So there is actually a dynamic between us and the activity … our learning style sets up a particular way of learning something.

Those students provided a clear contrast of two of the overarching learning styles – often defined as linear learning and global/random learning. But I’m very hesitant to use any label here at all, because that limits our exploration and subsequent understanding. There was a relative logic for each student I described, by which I mean that even their inherent and different ways of learning took a different shape because of their relationship to what they were learning. As I said, the learning process is complex and different for each of us and different dynamics can occur between the student and the activity. Those are the subtle things to look for, the things that matter – the other things are much more general and while they can be useful, too much emphasis is placed on them. While it’s true that each of us has a predominant style, most of us also utilize many other ways of learning in different ways at different times, and our unique and dynamic process creates an inner architecture which – if we learn to understand and work with it – can become one of our greatest strengths.

This leads us to the other part of your question as to why it’s a good thing for both student and teacher to be comfortable with not having an answer right away. Here too, the “spacey” student is a good example because in addition to being a nontraditional learner, his natural inclination to music allowed him to hear things in the music in a deeper way. This ability (and his acceptance of the process) allowed the sound to take him to new places to listen and explore. He was more confident in giving in to the music.

So, “not having the answer right away” can mean coming to enjoy the process of exploration, which can result in looking (listening) deeper so as to bring new perspectives, which can lead to understanding the perspectives of others and appreciating more than one answer, one way. Basically, our not having the answer right away creates many more choices to branch out from and explore – makes for very creative ground.

I was surprised at the comparison to slavery in reference to how some students survive (or not) conventional school. The point seemed quite valid as I read further though. Can you elaborate on that comparison?

While the circumstances surrounding 19th century slavery and today’s students are clearly worlds apart, there are inherent qualities in oppression that exist in both, including the lack of individual freedom to be who you are – the oppression of a person’s basic nature. Of course the comparison stops when you get to the question of severity, as very little can compare to the horrific circumstances of slavery.

The other point I was making regarding oppression was that a person can overcome their circumstances through creativity. In really difficult times (such as those which I believe we are experiencing today), creativity can be found by digging deep into yourself to find new forms of expression and ways of dealing with the circumstance. This develops the individual strength that’s needed to really transcend the experience.

This interview will continue in a subsequent posting, but for now, if you would like more information on Venturing Together go to: or

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina

I was recently invited to attend the annual luncheon of the Public Education and Business Coalition (PE+BC). The keynote speaker was John Medina, who wrote the fascinating book “Brain Rules”. Dr. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. He is also a Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. After listening to him speak at the conference I was inspired to read his book and I do not regret it. I was worried I would have to slog through a difficult, esoteric book, but the truth is I couldn't’t put it down.

Brain Rules presents 12 facts:

1. Exercise: Exercise boosts brain power
2. Survival: The human brain evolved too
3. Wiring: Every brain is wired differently
4. Attention: we don’t pay attention to boring things
5. Short-term memory: Repeat to remember
6. Long-term memory: Remember to repeat
7. Sleep: Sleep well, think well
8. Stress: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way
9. Sensory Integration: Stimulate more of the senses
10. Vision: Vision trumps all other senses
11. Gender: Male and female brains are different
12. Exploration: We are powerful and natural explorers

The book devotes a chapter to each brain rule, explaining how the brain works with regard to each fact, how it evolved, case studies and stories to illustrate the rule, and how these rules impact education and the workplace. I will highlight each of the brain rules chapters, especially how it is relevant to classrooms across the nation.

It turns out that our brains are designed to walk up to 12 miles a day. Exercise increases the blood vessels created throughout the body and brain. The more blood vessels you have, the more oxygen your brain gets, making it stronger. Not only does exercise significantly cut our risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke and heart attack, it also “improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.” In one study children jogged for 30 minutes two or three times a week. After 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly compared with pre-jogging levels. When the jogging program stopped, the cognitive performance gains were lost. Dr. Medina says that the way our classrooms are set up, with kids sitting still for many hours a day and the erosion of recess and physical education is to completely ignore this unavoidable fact. He says that cutting off exercise to do better on a test score is like trying to gain weight by starving yourself, and he advocates even more recess (not less) and movement in the classroom – anything to get our brains enough exercise to be at its best.

Our brains are a constant interaction between two features: the database to store knowledge and the ability to improvise off of that. We are designed to use both of these, yet we are often expected to turn off one and prize the other. If we ignore the improvisatory instincts, creativity suffers. To just focus on improvisation, gives no depth of knowledge or mastery. Also, because we have evolved to cooperate, relationships and the emotional environment greatly affect the learning that is possible. If the relationship is not close enough (say, in a classroom of 30 kids where it would be difficult to get to know each student well) or there is a negative relationship, learning will suffer. The success of a student in a classroom is dependent on feelings, so we must attend to them.

Dr. Medina compares a picture of a class in Junior High with brain development. Just as the students in Junior High show incredibly varied physical development (some get to puberty much faster than others, some are growing taller faster than others), so too is their intellectual development incredibly uneven. To expect certain learning goals to be achieved at certain ages is to ignore this rule. He says that 10% of students are not ready to read when we expect them to do so and that these lock-step models based on age are guaranteed to create a counterproductive mismatch to brain biology. A classroom that obeys that brain rule to optimize success for all students would have fewer students so that teachers could understand what is understood by each and every student and enable them to provide individualized instruction. In fact, he advocates for dismantling grade structures based on age.

Back to emotions: they get our attention and impact retention and understanding. Also, we process meaning before detail, so it is important to go from the core concept to the specifics, with plenty of emotion-eliciting examples that support that. Doing so improves learning by 40%. To optimize this rule, he suggests breaking up instruction into 10 minute cycles, with a relevant emotional hook at the beginning or the end of each cycle. Any longer, or with no hooks loses the audience.

Short-Term (Working Memory) and Long-Term Memory
Dr. Medina states that we forget 90% of what we learn within 30 days, the majority of which is forgotten in the first few hours. Repetition in timed intervals is the best way to boost retention. Cramming in one session is significantly less effective than spreading the studying over time. Also, concepts that are richly detailed, meaningful and contextual are also powerful ways to aid retention, so an interesting, relevant story will help to fasten a core concept into memory. This is because our brains have a natural predilection for pattern matching and we immediately associate with information that has already been assimilated. He suggests that instead of our typical 50-minute classes, we should perhaps devote 25 minutes to a subject, then after 90 minutes return to that same subject, then do return to it one more time. He finds that learning that is segmented and interleaved is more effective than the way we do it now. He looks at this on a micro and macro level, giving importance to this repetition in intervals daily, weekly (he thinks every third or fourth day should be review days) and even reviews of key concepts reviewed throughout the years. Oh, and he also suggests that we do away with summer vacation in schools if we want to optimize the memory.

Getting enough sleep and taking naps is important to aid learning. By accident scientist discovered that when we sleep, our brains do not rest, but instead seem to constantly rehearse and repeat what is learned while we are awake. This mental rehearsal is critical to learning and retention. A lack of sleep “hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.” Dr. Medina says that the “biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal” and says that naps should be part of the work and school day for everyone (not just Kindergartners, who don’t get naps any more now anyway). Just 26 minutes of napping results in a 34% improvement in performance. What other strategy would improve test scores by that much?

Stressed brains don’t learn as well. Researchers noticed that a stressful home life greatly impacts learning capacity, so they tried a marital intervention program with impressive results. Not only did that extra help cause family harmony, but that harmony led to significantly higher achievement in the students whose families received the marital intervention. Dr. Medina feels that this kind of program could be more effective and economically feasible than any academic intervention.

Sensory Integration
A multi-sensory learning environment produces better recall that is longer lasting and more accurate. Learners integrate new information better when more senses are employed in the learning process. In one experiment, the students who were given multi-sensory presentations generated 50%-75% more creative solutions on a problem-solving test than those who saw uni-sensory presentations.

The apparatus in our brain that gives us vision takes up half of the brain’s resources and, not coincidentally, is the strongest sense we have. Simply put, pictures are powerful – more powerful than words alone. A study that was done showed that subjects who received text only presentations remembered only 10% of it 72 hours later, while those who had pictures and text retained 65% of the presentation.

Like it or not, male and female brains work differently and social differences affect language, retention, perception, learning, and more. For example, the language girls use emphasizes their focus on relationships, while boys’ use of language is more indicative of their tendency to negotiate status in groups. Dr. Medina states that the difference between the genders could be described as the addition of a single powerful word. Boys might say, “Do this.” Girls would say “Let’s do this.” Boys who give orders are perceived as leaders and girls who do so are perceived as bossy. Study after study has shown this gender bias solidifies into adulthood.

It seems that the divide in Language Arts that girls excel in and the math and science that boys excel in can be largely attributed to inherent social styles of both genders. A third grade teacher noticed the growing performance gap with consternation and chose to separately teach each gender. After only two weeks of single gender instruction the performance gap was closed!

Babies model how we learn. They do not learn passively, but instead they are active little scientists who test their environment through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. We must take advantage of our innate curiosity and learning style and construct active learning environments that take full advantage of this rule, rather than to fight it.
I appreciated Dr. Medina’s efforts not only to explain each brain rule so thoroughly and entertainingly, but that he also gave concrete suggestions for how we could make specific, reasonable changes that will capitalize on these brain rules. Wouldn’t it be great if schools acknowledged these inexorable facts and did everything possible to create environments that obey them?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How Classism in the Job Market Affects Kindergartners

There is a movement afoot in education to get all school children lined up for college and their motto is "college starts in Kindergarten". I feel uncomfortable with this on so many levels. I realize that the those who tout this notion have wonderful intentions. Their goal is for students from low socio-economic backgrounds to have equal access to college. The thought is that by setting the expectation and providing a college-prep education, all students will go to college and have higher paying jobs. On the face of it, this seems like a great idea. I, too, want ALL children to be able to attend college if they choose. And who wouldn't want to educate more people and reduce poverty? But we should carefully consider the impact of the "college starts in Kindergarten" mindset.

Kindergarten used to be a transition year, a year not even considered part of the regular grade school. Attendance at Kindergarten is optional, not mandatory. Now play is disappearing, naps are gone and Kindergartners have homework. We even need to be "prepared" for Kindergarten. Often there is talk about how difficult it is to get your child into the "right" Kindergarten because it will set your child onto a trajectory for the "right" college and a high paying job. This puts tremendous pressure on any child, regardless of background, to look at the long term, big picture, to constantly work towards the goal, and to succeed. On the face of it, these values and behaviors are what we want our children to learn - but at five? Five year old children do not think this way and it is unrealistic to expect them to behave this way. While we can certainly encourage and nurture this way of thinking along the way, to build an education system around this expectation seems to ignore the very population you are hoping to serve. We must provide a developmentally appropriate setting which will nourish children in the way they learn if we truly want them to succeed.

It has been well-researched and documented (see the Alliance for Childhood's "Crisis in the Kindergarten" report here) that children learn through play and must have enough movement, creativity, and rest to properly learn. This is ignored more and more by schools in favor of pushing for academic achievement in just the tested basics at ever earlier ages. "College starts in Kindergarten" only exacerbates this condition. As Sir Ken Robinson says in this wonderful TED presentation here, "a three year old is not half a six year old", meaning that we should children treat as they are, not as we would aspire them to be in later years.

We are already a society that struggles to be present. We have been raised to multi-task and to hurry and to "get things done." This way of thinking permeates every aspect of our lives, to how we eat, how we work, how we spend our free time, and even how we relate to others. Making college begin in Kindergarden increases this "ever forward" way of thinking at the cost of missing out on the present moment. If we are constantly thinking and worrying about the future, we are not experiencing what is happening right here and now and it makes us an anxious society. Childhood should be savored not rushed.

Making college seem like the only valid choice feels wrong to me. There are many kids in every socio-economic category that will not be best served by going to college. There are many different paths to a happy, creative, productive adult life and college is not the only path. If we imply that college is the only way, we create the mindset that money is the single most important factor in choosing a career, ignoring things like strengths, interests, talents, fulfillment, and happiness. A recent New York Times editorial profiled the success of the robust German apprenticeship programs that provide alternatives to a college degree that put their apprentices in higher demand for higher paying jobs than their college graduate counterparts for the same investment of time and for far less expense. The article advocates for more apprentice programs like the Germans have and for the return of vocational choices within our educational system without tracking students in them.

Speaking of investments, attaining that college degree can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but many graduates these days are not finding the high paying jobs they have prepared their whole lives for. The students from low socio-economic backgrounds do not have the resources that are available to others to pay for this degree and so they disproportionately incur a tremendous amount of debt in student loans. This puts them at a significant disadvantage at the beginning of their careers and increases the pressure to find a job that will allow them to pay off their loans to make college worth it.

It seems to me that we should be fixing this societal problem from the end rather than at the beginning: at the job market. Education inflation abounds today. It used to be that a college degree was the exception, now it is the rule. But it is not just a B.A. that is necessary, now we routinely see a master's degree as a requirement for many jobs. A closer look at several job categories will show that it is completely unnecessary to require that much education when experience would be far more valuable. For instance, the job I have had for the last 10 years in telecom sales required a bachelor's degree. It made no difference that my bachelor's degree was in Spanish and English Education, which had nothing to do with the job. All sales people have to learn the specific product or service they are to sell on the job anyway. To require a college degree when it is irrelevant is classist and essentially discriminatory. If jobs that didn't actually need a college degree were opened to a larger pool of talent as they should be, there wouldn't be so much pressure on everyone to get a college degree and all of the baggage that tends to go with it.

I think college is a great choice and provides many significant benefits to be sure. If we put the appropriate value on a college education, vocational education, and apprenticeship programs, we could also value Kindergarten for what it is intended for as well. If the job market ended unnecessary, discriminatory policies and every student had equal access to many paths to a variety of careers, perhaps we could preserve childhood and we'd see many more happy, productive adults unhampered by debt.

Friday, May 28, 2010

GALS - Girls Athletic Leadership School

There is a new school opening in Denver that is sure to be a success. It is a Denver public charter school serving girls in 6th-12th grade with the expeditionary learning framework. I have had the pleasure of speaking with several of the schools leaders, including Liz Wolfson (founder and Head of School) and Nina Safane (Director of New Schools Development) and they were happy to share more about their school with me.

How was the idea for this school born?  

Liz Wolfson created the concept for GALS out of an innate desire to help girls find their voices. She spent most of her adult life implementing visions as a consultant for CEOs, philanthropists, politicians and corporations, and then realized what she wanted to do was implement a vision of her own. After reading and researching and talking to folks in the education world, she realized that a girls' school grounded in mind-body development could offer young woman the opportunity to access the skills and knowledge to be leaders of their own lives as well as the world. It would allow a space where they could find that this path was their birthright. And she realized that this choice was not yet available to parents.

Why just girls?  What is the value of separating the genders?

Girls' schools demonstrate wildly successful academic achievement across the country. They provide girls the opportunity to step up in leadership roles, to take risks, and to focus on their academics. Graduates of girls' schools have bigger visions of the world and their own path within it. For GALS specifically, a girl-only environment allows us to focus on how girls learn as well as issues particularly relevant to their development and address them in ways that foster leadership, global responsibility, and positive self-image building.
Explain the importance of engaging health and wellness in education, especially in an urban setting?

GALS draws on health and wellness as a key contributing factor to success in education. At our school this plays out in a number of ways as we consider the whole child on the path to academic success and personal development. We draw on the brain science behind engaging in physical activity/movement before a student's most difficult classes in order to stimulate the neurological and behavioral connections between the brain and the body. We supplement this with the use of active and engaged teaching and learning practices that encourage students to fully participate in the learning process. We foster a community where healthy choices are valued whether that relates to food or relationships or anything else. We also pay particular attention to the psychosocial dynamics of what it means to grow up female in today's world - issues that if not addressed, become barriers or risk factors to academic success and positive self-image building.
What kind of families are attracted to the school?

GALS attracts an incredibly diverse population. It appeals to students from a wide range of backgrounds and will support their diverse needs well. This model is meant to be a choice for any family who believes in single gender education and the importance of health and wellness being integrated into a school philosophy.
Expeditionary Learning allows the student more choice and autonomy in her education.  How do you feel this model fits with the GALS mission, as well as the overall success of students who attend the school?

The framework of EL allows students the ability to connect with their education. It integrates subjects when appropriate, draws on their relevancy to the world, and focuses on engaging students at  individual access points. It allows school to be relevant and interesting by using projects and drawing on local expertise and resources -- a particularly important framework for a girls' school, and it will allow students entering a classroom with a diversity of skills and knowledge to begin at a place that works for them and work off of a model of individual growth.

I love that every student has an Individual learning plan (ILP), which is something I have advocated for because it helps all students and reduces tension related to giftedness and struggling students, among other benefits.  I’ve heard that “this can’t be done” though.  How are you making it happen?

First and foremost, GALS is committed to a staff of educators who believe in this model of education. EL provides a great framework for differentiation, but the school will be built on a culture where a student is expected to own her education and work with her peers and faculty achieve appropriate growth.

 How might a successful student that graduates from GALS look and sound different than one that graduates from a conventional public school?

A GALS graduate will emerge into the world with the knowledge of how she learns best both intellectually and physically and how she needs to take care of herself in order to succeed. She leaves with courage and commitment as well as a strong sense of the responsibility of communal leadership and well-being. Throughout the course of the journey at GALS, she will explore 10 general physical and character traits that begin with the premise of power and strength and end with an understanding of balance. As she moves into the world, she can come back to these core skills and apply them in her life.

For more information on the Girls Athletic Leadership School, visit

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Formula

In construction there are some formulas used for planning purposes when an owner requests a project to be expedited. There are a couple of different ways to expedite a job. One is to work longer hours, employing a day shift and a night shift. Another is to add more employees to the job. Both of these are effective in a limited way.

One formula shows that if you have an 8 hour day shift and an 8 hour night shift, you will yield about 13 hours of production over a 16 hour shift. The reason that doesn't add up is that a night shift is inherently inefficient and dangerous. In fact, night shift production has been shown to go down by as much as 37% and the likelihood of accidents increases. Simply put, people who are tired do not perform well, so understanding this fact will help setting realistic goals and promises.

Another formula shows that adding all sorts of personnel to the jobsite can only increase production to a certain point. At a certain level of manpower "stacking", productivity begins to decrease dramatically. The reasons for this are numerous. More people results in:

- more chit chat and other non-work related activity
- a greater sense of anonymity that tends to decrease work ethic
- a crowded worksite that raises inefficiency (a drywaller, a painter, and a finish carpenter cannot work in the same room at the same time)

In education we have tried similar strategies with results that mirror the construction industry. The pressure to increase the speed and scope of learning while spending fewer budgetary dollars has caused strategies such as longer hours in the classroom, reduction or elimination of recess, cutting out the arts and physical education, increasing class sizes, etc. Each of those may work in their own way for a short term gain in productivity, but in the long run they are doomed to fail. We can look at the world of construction to extrapolate from their experience.

Akin to the night shift strategy, increasing school hours while decreasing recess, the arts and physical education results in tired, burned out, unhealthy, uncreative learners with limited ways to allow them to identify or build upon their strengths. Any of these strategies will work in a "final push" scenario, just like it does for short periods of time in the work world. But these strategies are not used as temporary measures and therefore are not sustainable. A woman I recently met told me with pride about a school that goes from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM with a one hour break in the middle. How would you like a work day like that?

Just like adding personnel to the project, increasing class size has very similar affects. Students who are aware that they are known and understood cannot hide in a crowd. Their teacher will not fail to interface with them frequently and will know whether they understood a concept or need more help. That inability to hide also reduces time spent on non-academic behavior (goofing around, chit-chat, etc.). Finally, a crowded classroom is full of students with a wide range of abilities in each subject that it makes it more and more difficult for a teacher to facilitate learning for each student based on their needs.

A lot of lessons can be learned from the business world and the formulas for efficiency may be one of those valuable lessons that can be applied to the world of education. For optimal learning: take your time, go for quality rather than speed, work when alert according to natural human rhythyms, and work in small groups with ample space where you are well-known and supported. Do our students' classrooms look like this, or do they more closely resemble a night shift loaded with hurried tradesman stepping on each other?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Help Make School Lunches Better!

In the last year, hundreds of thousands of people have spoken up for America's children and asked for improvements to the National School Lunch Program. As a result, Congress has drafted a Child Nutrition Bill with the deepest investment and strongest standards in the program's sixty-year history.

But now our progress is on the line: Senate leaders are thinking about postponing the bill's passage for another year or two. Our deadline for changing their minds is tomorrow.
Can you help out today by emailing your Senators?

The progress we've made with this bill is the result of months of hard work on the part of Slow Food USA's network and our many allies in the food movement. As it stands, the bill will equip schools to buy and cook healthier food, strengthen nutrition standards (including for school vending machines), and provide new support for local food and school gardens. Since school lunch is a federal program, the only way to make some of these big improvements is via Congress.

Senators Blanche Lincoln and Saxby Chambliss are circulating a letter asking Senate leaders to schedule time for the bill. The deadline for Senators to add their signature is tomorrow, Wednesday, May 19 -- so please write your Senators today.

Thank you,

Gordon, Jerusha and the rest of the Time for Lunch team at Slow Food USA

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Enneagram of Parenting - A Review

A friend recently recommended I read "The Enneagram of Parenting" by Elizabeth Wagele because I was struggling with the fact that discipline strategies that I use on one kid do not work well with the other kid. The book helps you to identify your child as one of nine different types and gives a little insight their habits and behaviors. The point of the book is not to pigeon-hole your child into a static, limited identity, but, as my friend pointed out, it helps to understand that your way is not the only way to relate to the world.

The nine types are:
1. The Perfectionist
2. The Helper
3. The Achiever
4. The Romantic
5. The Observer
6. The Questioner
7. The Adventurer
8. The Asserter
9. The Peacemaker

Each type gets a chapter and the book starts each chapter with a quiz that helps you determine whether you or your child are that type. After the eight-question quiz, there are plenty of cartoons that illustrate each type in humerus ways. Toward the end of the chapter there is a section called "Approaching Ten Common Problems with a Child in the _______ Style". This section talks about each type's challenges with such topics as getting to school on time, study habits, manners, getting along with others, decision making, and more.

It turns out that I am a Perfectionist and my husband laughed out loud when I read the quiz that acts as a description for it. As a child I willingly did chores, cleaned my plate and took school work seriously without external pressure. I was (and am) an idealistic leader who likes to share knowledge with others.

My older son is a Romantic, who tends to be melancholy and has feelings that are easily hurt. He has a strong sense of the dramatic and likes to engage in fantasy play. He is a creative, soulful humanitarian. He reacts well to a rational heart-to-heart talk after a cooling down period and I have learned to ride out his dramatic side without getting sucked into it.

My younger son was harder to peg and I read the book for the express purpose of learning how to better parent him! He was a little bit of everything, which didn't help me. A time out for him only serves to fuel his anger, not cool it off. He is also very physical and is not one to talk it out - he'd rather duke it out. But he is also very loving and loves to be with his family the most.

The book is a quick, interesting read that helps to understand others and relate to them in better ways. I would have preferred a lot more examples of kids in each type and more specific strategies for dealing with each type, but I did enjoy the book and it spurred a lot of good conversation about parenting and personalities in our house.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Denver Green School: A new community school in Southeast Denver

The Denver Green School will be opening this fall to a tremendous amount of community support and enthusiasm. This is one school that truly deserves the excitement it is garnering as a new neighborhood school within Denver Public Schools.

I talked to two of the Founding Partners and came away more excited about the school than before. Mimi Diaz has been a special educator for 15 years, an Instructional Specialist, and an Assistant Principal at Schmitt Elementary, until she had the idea for this school and met others that had similar dreams. Frank Coyne is currently the Associate Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning at the University of Denver and oversaw the partnerships between DU and DPS. Both of them shared their contagious enthusiasm for the unique school that will open in a few months.

What was the inspiration behind the creation of this school and how did it get started?
I (Mimi) attended one of the first "Innovation" schools in the country, The Center for Self Directed Learning at New Trier East High School in Winnetka, Illinois. This experience is what has driven not only my career in education, but also a lifelong love of learning and leading. The experience inspired me to research green schools and renewable energy around the nation and best-practice 21st century learning models. Through Earth Force (, I met Jeff Buck, one of our Founding Partners and gurus on sustainability. From there, it was just meant to be, as the nine of us met for the first time and quickly honed in on a vision and mission, and the dream was born. We felt that project-based, service learning model in a diverse setting would work well in a classroom and make for a strong, sustainable school. Together we have 147 years of combined experience and it’s been two years in the making. We can’t wait for our doors to open.

Shouldn’t all schools be promoting and practicing environmental awareness and good policy? Why a separate school for this with such a focus?
It’s not a school just about the environment, but about sustainability. It follows the Cloud Institute’s Education for Sustainability Standards. The Cloud Institute ( is not only about environmentalism, but they focus on sustainability in the economy, social constructs, and teaching and learning as well. It’s about sustainability for the whole child, and we are excited that we will have a three-year consulting relationship with them for their support.

This school is promoted as being project-based and student-centered. How is this different from experiential learning models?
It is quite similar in the project-based and service learning components, but the main difference is that the Experiential Learning model tends to take school outside with a strong physical focus, and the Denver Green School will make efforts to bring community action inside to learn across disciplines. Earth Force will help us integrate that across all areas of our curriculum. We intend to be a community school and build reciprocal relationships with our community to build investment in the success of the school.

Describe the service learning model and how that is beneficial for learning and communities.
The research shows that the more kids are engaged, the more they learn and service-learning takes a hands-on, brains-on approach to engage kids in active learning. An example of a strong service-learning project would be that instead of just cleaning up a river in our neighborhood, we would encourage analysis, research and upstream problem solving. They could research the source of the litter, the frequency of visitors, the propensity of trash cans, etc. This is problem solving through analysis, synthesis and critical thinking – the higher order thinking skills for successful learners and change agents of the 21st Century.

What kinds of families are attracted to the school? What kinds of students will thrive there?
We were recruited by this neighborhood because they wanted a strong new model in this great building (formerly Fallis Elementary) and it very much fit within our vision of sustainability and diversity. There are 50 different languages spoken within our boundaries. Many are attracted by the green movement and sustainability approach. The student-centered, project-based model attracts others. They will each inform each other. The model is based on instructional practices that work for all kids. Every student will have an Individualized Learning Plan that will address not only his academic strengths, but also his interests and learning styles, and talents. Because learning will be balanced and tailored to each student’s need, it is truly an approach that will meet the needs of every student. So, in essence, we find that we are attractive to boundary families and choice-in families, too, both of whom are attracted to our “hands-on brains-on” model.

I understand you do not employ the typical hierarchy but instead go for more democratic model that also translates at the student level. Describe the leadership at DGS and how this will affect student life.
It is a Democratic model of governance. There are nine Founding Partners who are part of the decision-making body, along with students, staff, and community. There will be three Lead Partners who will take on more of an administrative role and directly carry out the mission, values, and vision of the school on a daily basis. Getting that kind of consensus and buy-in from the top down is an investment in sustainability and cooperation within the school and community. It’s not an easy process, but it creates long term buy-in and we think it’s worth it.

Denver Green School will be hosting a Community BBQ Saturday May 15th and all are invited. 3:00pm – 6:00pm at the school, located at 6700 East Virginia Avenue.

All students, families and community members are invited to DGS to meet our school leaders, interact with teachers and tour the school – all while grabbing dinner and checking out some live music. Enrollment forms will be available. We will have lots of fun activities for the kids, too!

For more information about the Denver Green School, go to:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Donnell-Kay Foundation - an Interview with Amy Anderson

Amy Anderson is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Her career has shown a commitment to promoting and expanding high performing public schools around the nation from the very beginning. Her work at the foundation includes new school development, social science research, and education policy analysis. Amy and I shared breakfast and our passion for education recently, and she told me about the work that takes place at the Donnell-Kay Foundation.

How did the Donnell-Kay Foundation get started?
The foundation was incorporated in 1965 through a trust by the Kay family. The board of trustees is led by Allen Dines, a former Colorado state legislator, who has an abiding interest in improving public education. The Executive Director is Tony Lewis.

What are the goals of the organization?
The mission of the Donnell-Kay Foundation is to improve public education and drive systemic school reform in Colorado through solid research, creative dialogue and critical thinking. The Foundation focuses on funding systemic reform and state level policy in the areas of early childhood, K-12, and higher education. The Foundation also provides operating and program funding to school districts and non-profit organizations statewide - with a focus on urban schools in metro-Denver.

What kind of education reform does the foundation support and how does it do it?

A major area of focus is increasing the supply of high performing public schools, especially in areas where a lack of such schools exist. We also have invested considerable resources in efforts to reduce Colorado’s drop-out rate. We are also exploring business models to link more Early Childhood Education (ECE) to charters, having them co-located, and recently held a Summit on Blended Learning that introduced leading ideas and approaches for integrating online and innovative technologies into brick and mortar schools and classrooms.

It seems that if a school has a waiting list to get into it, there should be more schools of that ilk that enable more students access to that kind of education. Why aren’t there more expeditionary learning schools or more schools like Denver School of the Arts? Why is the supply not keeping up with the demand?
Some schools cannot keep up with the demand, while others, especially new schools, struggle for enrollment. It takes efforts on the district part to close underperforming schools in order to make room for new, higher performing options. And, it takes more marketing and education to help families to understand what their choices are.

One reason why there are not more of the schools you listed above is because it is a lot of work to start a new school. It takes leadership to get a school like this up and running and it is a task that is overwhelming for many people. Some schools are replicating, like DSST, while others are growing to meet increased demand, such as Odyssey will do if it is able to raise the necessary funds to build a new building and grow. As for Expeditionary Learning (EL), that organization is planning on creating a regional center that will foster the creation of more EL schools, develop teacher and leadership pipelines to work in these schools, and provide ongoing support for existing EL schools in the area.

I love how the Donnell-Kay Foundation looks at nearly every aspect of a student’s education and where improvements can be made based on research. Tell me about some of the projects that are not academic, but greatly impact student’s lives.
Yes, this is largely a function of what our interests are. We are interested in improving the lives of students in a holistic way. We’ve worked with health foundations and health care providers to expand school-based health initiatives and have spend considerable time over the past couple of years to bring healthier school lunch options to Colorado.

We went to Revolutionary Foods in California and recruited them to come here to improve the school lunches in Denver. This was the easy part. It’s the policy negotiation, the district hurdles, and the state statutes that are still ongoing that are the difficult part of reforming food service programs. Initially, some of the school districts we met with were resistant to working with a group like Rev Foods and/or revamping their lunch programs in order to serve freshly prepared, non-processed meals. That said, a handful of districts have agreed to release charter schools from their school lunch programs, allowing them to use Revolutionary Foods. We launched and funded this initiative, and much of the work now is being handled by the Colorado League of Charter Schools. Interestingly, this year DPS unveiled a healthier lunch program as a means of trying to attract back some charters that had left, provide different options for non-charter schools, and keep others from opting out in the future. This new optional lunch program will roll-out in selected DPS schools next Fall.

Looking through your website, I see a lot more effort to improve education and very little about accountability/standardized testing. This is a refreshing break from much of the government’s focus on education. Tell me about the foundation’s general view on the accountability movement.
The testing is necessary to monitor teacher effectiveness and student growth over time, but the success of a school is more than just doing well on a test.

For more information on the Donnell-Kay Foundation, go to the website at:

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Public Education and Business Coalition - an Interview with Rosann Ward

As the Public Education and Business Coalition’s annual business and education luncheon approaches with keynote speaker Dr. John Medina, author of “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School”, I have been taking a closer look at PEBC and wanted to learn more. Their work is impressive and worthy of more attention. Rosann Ward, the President of PEBC was enthusiastic about sharing information about the work of this organization.

First, what is the history and mission of PEBC?

It started out as two separate organizations. One of them started in 1983 and was called the Public Education Coalition. It was founded by two business people, both lawyers looking for ways that the community could improve overall school quality. They convened with superintendents from Denver, Cherry Creek, Jefferson County, Douglas, Littleton and Boulder and the participants concluded that the most pressing need was help with professional development for teachers. This was the first of nine of organizations funded with Ford Foundation funds. This was part of a larger public education network – there are many around the nation.

The other organization was started in 1982, called the Colorado Business Alliance for Youth. This group had the same leaders, though no superintendents and their goal was to understand how to support student achievement. This group developed mentoring programs, internships, and modules for health, science and math toward that aim.
In 1995 the two organizations merged and all board members stayed on. It is comprised of about 60% business people and the rest are superintendents, school staff, and the President of the teachers union.

Over time, we have spun off some direct student service programs to groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Good Will, etc. and we are now focused primarily on professional development. Our footprint is Colorado especially the Front Range from Thompson to Douglas County, but we do work nationally as well.

How have the vision and goals changed over time?

In the first 15 years we worked primarily in suburban elementary schools. Over the last 13 years we have focused more on urban K-12 schools, or suburban schools with high needs. We focus a lot on literacy and literacy in the content areas. Often the issues around math and science proficiency have more to do with literacy problems. We work a lot now in math, science, and social studies, as well as in the language arts with the focus on strengthening literacy in K-12 classrooms and schools.

PEBC prides itself in working on site with school staffs. Describe the direct work done with schools.

Each year, we work in about 50 schools in Colorado. We coach in classrooms working with teachers directly on site with kids. We work with principals, coaching and mentoring them to increase their instructional and organizational leadership skills. We create professional learning communities involving whole school teams or departmental teams. We support educators in employing best practices in instruction in a sustainable way without significant ongoing support from us. We also consult at the district level, and have multi-school projects. For example, in Cherry Creek we are working with the literacy coaches for all Title I schools.

Another example of the direct impact we have is the Boettcher Teachers Program. This is a program that recruits teachers from the across the country; many are second career folks from the business world. There are typically 100 applicants for about 30 spots. They get a fellowship that pays for the cost of their teacher certification and master’s degree along with a stipend, in exchange for a five-year commitment to teach in high priority schools in the partner districts. This puts high quality teachers in the classrooms.

Another important project of the PEBC is EdNews Colorado. With the closing of the Rocky Mountain News and the diminishing attention paid to education information and news in our state, we felt that there was a gap in education journalism, so Ed News Colorado was created. The site gets 1800 hits a day and is updated multiple times a day so that influencers, policy makers, parents and school staff can keep abreast of policy and other education news.

Why should business leaders care about schools?

Public schools are in their interest, especially in terms of the workforce pipeline and the implications of a highly prepared workforce on the economy of our region. A recent study done by the Alliance for Excellence Education calculated what would happen if Denver Public Schools halved their drop out rate. It showed that if there were 4400 additional graduates, Denver would see an increase of $69M in earnings, $47M more in spending, and $18M more in investing. Good schools are beneficial for students, communities, and businesses.

How can we see PEBC’s impact in community and schools?

The Boettcher Teacher’s Program boasts a 98% teacher retention rate. This means that highly trained, committed teachers in high needs schools are staying in the profession, far more than the national average. This is correlated to improved student achievement.

The schools we serve have 19% more growth in reading tests than at other schools. Over 27 years we have touched 18,000 teachers, 700 principals, and one million students.

Our staff has written and published 21 books, primarily action research from their work in classrooms and as classroom teachers. These books have sold nearly five million copies nationally. Normally it takes 10 years from research to actual practice to show up in the classrooms. The work we do abbreviates that time considerably.

What are the sources of PEBC’s revenue and how are funds spent?

87% of our funds go directly to program work. This is impressive because the average for organizations like ours is around 75%. We spend 11 cents on the dollar raising money (the average is 35 cents per dollar).

One third our revenue comes from fees. We charge districts in Colorado only 50% of the cost of the programs.

One third of our revenue is from national programs. When our programs are done nationally, they are charged cost plus and that revenue generated from national work is spent exclusively in Colorado.

About a third comes from philanthropy and all of that money is spent within Colorado.

We also have one big event per year, which is the annual business and education luncheon you mentioned. This event is May 6th and Dr. John Medina, whom you mentioned, will be the keynote speaker. This is an event open to the public and tickets can be purchased by April 29th at

When can you say “our work here is done”?

When I was hired 15 years ago the person who brought me on board said that she would like to think that in 10 years we would be obsolete. I bought into that vision, but it is not a reality.

Systems are in flux because of all of the reform measures. Most of the work being done under the guise of reform and is around structure. There is very little reform work that improves instruction. Districts don’t have the ability to get into the classrooms and help with instruction, so that is our niche. This is where the need lies.

For more information about the Public Education and Business Coalition or to purchase tickets to their annual luncheon, go to:

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Family Values in Alignment with School Values

When choosing a school for your child, it is important to understand your family values and look for a school that will be in alignment with those values. If your values are at odds with the school's, it will be difficult to fully support your child's education. Here are a few of my favorite types of schools and what those schools tend to value.

Montessori schools might be for your family if you appreciate:
- Independence
- Individuality and practicality
- Self-direction, self-control, and self-reliance
- A strong work ethic
- Purposeful play and realism
- Order and responsibility
- Respect for others and harmony
- Kinetic learning style

Waldorf schools will be attractive If you value:
- Imagination and creativity
- All things natural (materials, foods, crafting handmade items, and nature itself)
- The arts, the classics, and tradition
- Spirituality, reverence, and mindfulness
- Family life without any (or much) TV or video games
- Community, harmony, and peace
- Teacher-directed learning

Expeditionary Learning schools will be a good match if you value:
- Courage, perseverance, and leadership
- Self-control, self-mastery, self-motivation, self-discovery
- Service, responsibility, civic engagement
- Community, collaboration, trust, and teamwork
- Critical thinking and kinetic learning
- Goal-oriented thinking
- Project and field-based learning
- The outdoors, adventure, taking risks
- Teachers as facilitators and physical challenges as learning opportunities

Open/Democratic schools will work for your family if you value:
- Community
- Independence and autonomy
- Self-control, self-reliance, self-motivation, self-discovery
- Responsibility and resourcefulness
- Civic engagement and democracy
- Fairness, justice, liberty, and equality
- Trust and harmony
- Mentoring and project-based learning
- Creativity and adventure
- Teachers as facilitators and advisors
- Project and field-based learning

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mistaken Identity

We mothers pride ourselves in knowing our children. We make it a point to know who their best friends are, what their favorite subject is, and the things they like to do. We catalogue their strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes and put them in their permanent record. We are naturally interested in our children, so it's easy to remember facts like weight and height percentiles at each stage in their lives, and share this with every acquaintance. We like to be known and understood, but sometimes this is not in the best interest of the child.

A couple of weeks ago, a new friend asked if Ronan would want to sign up to play basketball with her son. Ronan heard her ask and looked neutral on it (well, mostly because he was engaged in something else). I told her, quietly, that Ronan wouldn't like to do that, and that he was not a very "sporty" kid. But this isn't true, really and I do him no favors by putting him in such a permanent category. He likes biking, skateboarding, and skiing. Those are plenty sporty. Just because he has asked to sign up in the past for such sports as T-ball, gymnastics, and karate and then asked to quit, doesn't mean he is permanently unsporty or a quitter.

Recently, I took a friend's child along on a bike ride through our neighborhood. When we returned, I told his mom how easy he was. She emphatically shook her head, signally the contrary was true. I clarified saying that he stopped at every street corner and waited for me to give the all-clear call before he proceeded. "Oh, yes, well, we have him well-trained for that", she said. Neither of us were right about him though. He is not easy or impossible all the time. He is a complicated human being like the rest of us.

This is how a child can be labeled cooperative, easy-going, or mature one year, but difficult, uncooperative or immature another year. It depends on the teacher making that judgment, the dynamic of the classroom, what is going on in the child's homelife, and a myriad number of other factors. It is safer to talk about the behaviors rather than attribute them to character traits.

One of my favorite parenting books, "Buddhism for Mothers" by Sarah Napthali talks about the well known Buddhist perspective of "no self", meaning there is no essential "you" in any stable, permanent way. The author points out that defining the self in a stable, consistent way is impossible. Descriptive labels change over time and in different situations, so you are not always joyful, optimistic, or mean. We could look to past behavior but perspectives and memories are notoriously unreliable as "the truth". As we mature, as we learn lessons from our past, or as situations differ, we behave differently. We are not the roles we play either, as our circumstances or willingness to play those roles change from time to time. We know our bodies grow, vary in degree of health from time to time, and are constantly renewing cells, so that is not who we are either. If we look to others to define our self, that definition would be different from each person, depending on perspectives, values, and limited interactions with us. We may be flattered if their definition makes us look good, or feel hurt if it does not. Either way, it doesn't mean those definitions are categorically true.

Of course it's good to strive to know your child, but it may be helpful to look at each interaction with fresh eyes and refrain from judgment. Without restrictive images to live up to, our children might surprise us, deciding that they really do like broccoli after all. They also get the opportunity to understand themselves and the world and to grow in a way that is far less static than we think.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Nature and Purpose of Education by Maurice Holt

“The Nature and Purpose of Education" by Maurice Holt was originally published by the Center for Ecoliteracy. © Copyright 2004 Center for Ecoliteracy. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

In her celebrated The Classic Italian Cookbook, Marcella Hazan wrote: "What people do with food is an act that reveals how they construe the world."

At the time — 30 years ago — it was a sentiment that needed a word of explanation; the Japanese meal respects aesthetics, the French cuisine respects subtlety, Italian food respects its ingredients.

We now take what we eat much more seriously, and it is timely to ask: What does a school lunch of reheated burger and chips have to say about how we construe the world? For that matter, what does it say about how we construe the nature and purpose of education?

Pausing to ponder the nature and consequences of a burger bar in the center of Rome was how a major eating revolution began. Carlo Petrini, a prominent Italian journalist, was walking past a newly opened McDonald's franchise when he stopped and said: If this is fast food, why not have Slow Food? In much the same way, I was thinking about the standards-based school curriculum, with its emphasis on regurgitated gobbets of knowledge, when I recognized the analogy with fast food. What we have created, with our tests and targets, is the fast school, driven by standardized products. So why not devise a Slow School, driven by an emphasis on how ideas are conceptualized, just as Slow Food is driven by how the innate qualities of ingredients can be realized?

The concept of Slow, as it has emerged from the Slow Food movement, derives its power as a metaphor from its moral force. It is about what it is good to do; to enjoy "quiet material pleasure," as Carlo Petrini has put it, which entails making judgments about conduct, virtue, and balance. In the Slow City, for example, the virtue of courage emboldens citizens to restrict the growth of hypermarkets so that specialist providers are not put out of business. As a result, people can conduct themselves thoughtfully in a society that values personal experience.

Since education is essentially about equipping our children with the ability to act responsibly in a complex society, the idea of a Slow School follows very readily from the metaphor of Slow. It brings to mind an institution where students have time to discuss, argue, and reflect upon knowledge and ideas, and so come to understand themselves and the culture they will inherit. It would be a school that esteems the professional judgment of teachers, that recognizes the differing interests and talents of its pupils, and works with its community to provide a rich variety of learning experiences.

Unfortunately, schools in a number of countries are obliged, by political decisions, to conduct their affairs in a totally different manner. This is particularly the case in England and the United States, where public education has taken as its model not the moral character of Slow Food but the commercial character of fast food.

What matters in fast food is not the process of preparing or educating, but the outcome. And the product itself is so worthless: a burger has little nutritional value, and schooling based on standardized tests and targets treats students as vessels to be filled rather than people who want to understand, to be inspired, to make something of themselves.

These "fast schools" do little to prepare students for the world of tomorrow, based as they are on the idea of "standards," which in practice means comparing performance on content-based tests. If we want our students to look ahead rather than in the rearview mirror, the metaphor of the standards-based school has to be replaced by the metaphor of the Slow School. The metaphor of standards conjures up a folk memory of fighting battles and winning wars, of steadfast purpose and reliable automobiles. It's a powerful image, but it's completely wrong-headed.

The underlying assumption is that if we can make car engines to a high standard, why not turn out students to a high standard? The answer is simple: manufacturing crankshafts is a technical problem, while educating pupils is a moral problem. As Aristotle recognized, different kinds of problems need different methods of solution.

In the case of the Slow School, we have to solve complex, practical problems of a moral nature. So at the heart of the Slow School is the idea of bringing together, when new proposals are to be discussed, the responses of its students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders. In this way the school renders a continuous account of what it is doing to those with a real interest in its work. Accountability is built into the process of curriculum — it's part of a continuing narrative that has real meaning for pupils and parents.

This is much better than the summative form of accountability generated by standards-led schooling. Parents are confronted with tables of comparative performance on tests which baffle rather than illuminate. Numbers alone tell us very little. Who benefits from this emphasis on standards? Certainly not students, who find such a curriculum boring; nor parents, who are totally excluded from real judgments about their children's school. As for teachers, the effect is to lower their morale and undermine their professionalism. Only the politicians benefit; when the numbers go up, they take the credit, and when they go down they blame the schools.

Support is growing for the Slow School movement. Some schools, already on the right track, are beginning to discover that they are really Slow Schools! And an inspired way to get the Slow metaphor into schools is to confront the burger-based lunch and show students how to devise their own, home-grown, slow lunch. At a stroke, they have to challenge received opinion, think about fundamentals, and devise alternative strategies. It's a good recipe for learning how to build a Slow School curriculum.

For more information, visit .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On the Positive Side - a Public Education

I have spent a lot of time on this blog talking about the challenges of public education, but in all of my research I have learned that there is no perfect educational setting. I also learned this week that there are plenty of things that are good about public education. Even in Ronan's fourth day back in public school it is clear to see that there are many good things about it, however imperfect it may be.

- The socialization factor is significant. Because we were eclectic in our approach and non-religious, we had a difficult time finding age-appropriate homeschooling peers to interact with on a regular basis. It is probably easier if you are pure in your approach, like homeschooling with only Waldorf materials and lesson plans. At a public school there is a built-in rich social structure with age-appropriate peers of different races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds.

- The public school we attend is considered a neighborhood school, which tends to strengthen neighborhoods and build communities. In only four days, I have gotten to know a few of the parents of Ronan's new friends and we will both likely deepen those friendships and create more through time and common experiences. This tends to create a web of relationships that support and nurture those who are part of it. It also creates a stronger sense of place for our whole family within our community.

- The separation of the roles of mother and teacher proved to be important in the health of my relationship with Ronan. He had a hard time with making errors because I think it seemed important to him that I saw him as very capable or smart. Every mistake was regarded by him as proof against these traits he so valued, rather than an opportunity to learn. It is often remarked that our kids seem to behave differently with other groups of people than they do within the family. Maybe the stakes aren't so high if a teacher sees mistakes. Also, as a friend who also tried homeschooling for a short time said, being your child's teacher seems to magnify the inherent challenges in your relationship. A separation of those roles helps to reduce the tension that comes from those challenges.

- There is something to be said for having a trained, passionate teacher with a prepared curriculum, who has plenty of support in place to educate your child. The teachers that Ronan has have already found ways to motivate him with novel materials and approaches. It is also helpful for children to learn to cope with different styles of leadership, as they will do throughout the school years.

- Peer pressure sometimes works in our favor. Ronan saw his brother Jude doing a lot of playing and he naturally wanted to join him and not do school work. Now he is with a group of kids who are doing school work when they are supposed to and he wants to gain the level of competence and ability that he observes in some of his classmates.

- Although I have had plenty to say against school bells and rigid schedules, there are positive attributes to it. Kids like routine and like knowing what is coming next. It also helps to have consistent exposure to each subject. I loved the flexibility of the homeschooling day, but that flexibility didn't provide as much consistency and routine that Ronan seems to thrive on now.

- Support and involvement of a school is a great way to be a part of something bigger than yourself. It is the most natural way of doing good and working with a group toward a common goal. This kind of civic duty is one of the earliest examples of philanthropy and altruism your kids can observe and someday emulate.

- A public education is (mostly) free! In that way it has the potential to be the great equalizer in that everyone has an opportunity to learn and better themselves.

I can see the benefits of homeschooling, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, and private schools. After having tried nearly all of these options, I know there is no perfect solution. What works for one family may not work for another. What works right now, may not work well later. I am grateful to have so many choices. What riches we have before us for learning and growing! I am especially grateful that our current choice is going so well and has produced a lot of happiness and relief for everyone in our family. After all the negatives I have pointed out in the past, I can't help but appreciate a public education right now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

St. Elizabeth's Episcopal School

I recently toured St. Elizabeth's Episcopal School in Denver and asked many questions of Walter McCoy, the charismatic Head of School and the parent representative that graciously guided us around the school and told us all about it. Here is what I learned about the school.

I understand that socio-economic integration is a chief goal of the school. Why is that so important and how do you ensure that goal is met?

Part of the main mission of the school is to integrate children for different socio-economic backgrounds because that actually helps improve learning. By having a sliding scale for all families, it ensures that more students, regardless of family income, have the choice to attend a private school such as ours.

The largest class size is 18. That is much lower than Denver Public School’s cap on class sizes. Why is this important and why 18 as a cut off?

Small class sizes are critical to good learning environments.

Arts are featured heavily in your school. What do you offer, how often and why?

There is music and visual arts offered multiple days a week. We feel it is important – creativity stimulates the senses and improves education and performance.

Do you use standardized testing?

There is no standardized testing. Teachers routinely assess each child as the year progresses and communicate the progress to parents.

St. Elizabeth’s is an Episcopal school, yet it is said that students from all religions are welcomed. How would a Buddhist or a Jewish person feel at the school? How much of a role does religion play at the school. Please describe the beliefs and traditions of an Episcopalian.

The Episcopal Church is liturgical, similar to Catholic and Lutheran churches, and there is “chapel” time twice a week for 20 minutes followed by a Faith Studies class that looks at what all the world’s religions offer. Episcopal schools enroll a wide range of Christian and even non-Christian families. We do not proselytize, and we hope that whatever faith a family brings to schools will be stronger when they leave.

Describe the community feeling at your school. How do parents and students integrate with others of different socio-economic, religious, or racial backgrounds? How is community nurtured and encouraged at the school?

There is a strong Parent Association that is very active. We have events that foster community and there is a lot of volunteer work that unites people. Play dates and birthday parties abound. Our sliding scale tuition, the Family Commitment Plan, unites families in a sense that all contribute according to their financial ability.

How long has the school existed? Where do most of your students come from and why did they choose the school?

The school has been around for 2 years now and most of our students come from varied socio-economic backgrounds from the Park Hill, Stapleton, and Five Points neighborhoods.

Respect and dignity are mentioned more than once on your website. How is this fostered? How are learning styles and speeds honored? How do you handle a child who is reading below grade level or not doing as well at math as a second grader might do?

There is a learning specialist that helps students who need help. Reading is a big focus.

Do you have a pre-school? Do you have an after care program? What are the hours of the school?

There is no pre-school, it is currently K-2 and we’ll add a grade each year. School lets out at 3:10 and there is an after-care program until 6:00.

I saw some “workbooks” and understood that worksheets are sent home for homework. How much do worksheets and textbooks comprise the work and homework?

Kindergarten: We do not send home homework. Most of our classroom time is spent manipulating and investigating new concepts and then followed up with showing that knowledge on paper.

First Grade: Our homework in first grade goes home to students on Monday and is due on Friday each week. We have a reading chart on each assignment sheet so kids can track how many minutes they read each night. The written homework is comprised of weekly spelling lists (that follow phonetic patterns) to study, a language arts worksheet, and a math worksheet. We also have occasional special projects, such as our mathematical masks for the 100th day of school for which students gathered 100 items for the masks at home.

Combined First/Second Grade: Worksheets and textbooks are used for daily lessons as well as for homework. All work is interrelated for a classroom theme or subject. I would say we use them about 50% of the time. The rest of the time, we are using Morning Journals, Literature Logs, and guided or leveled readers.
As for class work, we are a traditional program in the sense that we do expect our students to complete written work that coincides with our thematic units. We keep the classroom work balanced, however, so that kids are completing written work, doing art projects, and working together in different hands-on centers.

How are science, social studies and history learned? Do you use textbooks?

Kindergarten: Our science, social studies and history are all comprised by the teacher and based somewhat on core knowledge content standards as well as standards used in other schools we chose to model our program from. We do not use textbooks.

First Grade: We align our science and social studies units with the Colorado state standards, but do not use textbooks. Judy, Kim, and I have met to determine what units the kids should be learning in each grade level so there isn't much overlap. Judy and I integrate our thematic units, which usually pertain to social studies and/or science, into our daily language arts work in order to help students make meaningful connections. Kids complete written work, do research projects, and delve into hands-on work as they learn about science and social studies. Our field trips are almost always designed to enrich our science/social studies units.

Combined 1st/2nd grade: Science and Social Studies are taught at the first and second grade levels. We create our own units through various resources. We do not have textbooks for these two subjects.

For more information about St. Elizabeth’s School, go to