Summer Reading Letter 2018

Dear Primary Families,

Once again, as we come to the close of this school year I approach you with summer reading suggestions.  Since keeping the writing habit alive during the summer will increase the ease and writing stamina for all the children, this year I am also adding some writing ideas. When reading and writing are pleasurable family activities, chances are that these routines are brought back to the classroom with favor, ease, and engagement.

Sending out a summer reading list is a way for us to say goodbye to the current school year, and it’s also a way to share our common belief about the importance of building literacy skills in children. Reading and writing abound in the Primary Division and we are quite picky about our choice of literature. We ask the children to think of reading in the same way that healthy eaters think about food. A healthy diet of reading consists of a bit of realistic fiction, some fantasy thrown in, spiced up by poetry, and with ample nonfiction, like biographies and informational texts. Graphic novels follow as a tasty dessert.

We are pleased to announce the Summer Reads for the summer of 2018!  This year, we have three summer books in place to complement the big studies and developmental phases of the Primary Division children.

Assignments to accompany the books:

Kindergarten-3rd: Find an intriguing rock to bring into class the first day of school. You might find one in a local park, at the beach, in the mountains, or even on the sidewalk.

4th Grade: Please select a sentence or two from the assigned book that brings a clear picture to mind and sketch or paint what you imagine in your head. Add the inspiring text to your art.

5th Grade: Investigate some of the elections that are occurring in November and bring in a written piece about one of the compelling candidates you discover. Where are they from and what makes their voice strong?

Enjoy all your reading and writing this summer. The more children read, the more comprehensive readers they become, the greater is their vocabulary growth, and the more diverse are their ideas. The more children write the easier writing becomes and then there are more reasons to express ideas in writing.

Remember, all the books for summer reading are available at local public libraries, so if this is the summer your children get their own library cards and you decide to do a comparative study of borough fun!

I will leave you to peruse the list and begin to create your own lists.

 “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

Happy reading,  


Posted on June 3, 2018 .

Summer Math Practice!

by Esther Kim, Math Specialist and Meredith Lorber, Math Coordinator and Middle School Program Developer

Dear Blue School Families,

In order to ensure that students do not lose the math knowledge and skills they have gained this year, we recommend that you spend some time doing math and playing math games throughout the summer.  We have put together a list of topics for each grade along with examples and explanations to help guide your practice.  Spending only a few minutes a few days a week practicing math can make a big difference in student abilities in the fall. We have also included a list of recommended websites, apps, and other games that are great for summer math work.  Please let us know if you have any questions and have a wonderful, math filled summer!

Esther and Meredith

Posted on May 31, 2017 .

Summer Reading 2017

by Patricia Lynch, Primary Division Director

Dear Blue School Families,

Summer is upon us and the following reading list will hopefully travel with you as you visit seashore, mountains, relatives. Speaking of relatives and vacations, one of my all time favorite stories to read aloud to children is Cynthia Rylant’s, When the Relatives Came. The story is a whimsical recount of relatives who arrive on vacation and fill up a house with lots of noise and even more love. It’s definitely worth a trip to the library.

As you all know, Blue School children love to read. Visitors to Blue School are always impressed with the children’s ability to discuss the books they’ve read and proclaim their favorite authors. As many of you noted after the Blue School Reads classroom discussions this year, reading builds community, and I believe we are on our way toward a strong, thoughtful reading culture at Blue School. How wonderful to continue the book talks next year and begin to stretch the conversations across grades and into other divisions. Although we educators love to take credit for success, we also honor the support that is obviously coming from the homes. Thank you.

When parents ask me how they can help their child with reading, my advice is always the same. Read to your child. No matter what the age. Read newspaper articles, food ingredients, great novels you enjoyed as a child and historical accounts. Research has shown that children who are read to fare far better in the long run with reading comprehension and critical thinking. So it’s certainly worth the enjoyment.

For our Primary Division summer read, we have chosen, Faith Ringgold’s masterful classic, Tar Beach. I suspect that many of our current parents read the book as children as it was first published in 1991. It tells of a young child’s imaginary summer flight above New York City, and more specifically over the George Washington Bridge. At the beginning of the school year, the children’s teachers will have an activity connected to the book.

Don’t forget to keep the writing going over the summer as well. Photo journals, maps of trips, diaries, memoirs, all that wonderful stuff that children really want to remember and share. And for the younger children, let’s all remember that pictures are the first attempt at writing.

Please help your children keep a list of the books they read so they might share the list on the first day of school. The lists will be useful for children seeking reading suggestions. Make those lists fancy! We’ll display them all over the school.

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

Happy reading,  Pat



Posted on May 25, 2017 .

Wholeness through Difference in the Threes

By Jeannine Sloane, 3's teacher

See photos from this exploration in materials here.

One day in 3b we read a compelling and lovely book entitled, Mixed Me!, about a child from a mixed race family, by Taye Diggs, that inspired thoughtful conversation among children and teachers. We wanted to share some excerpts from our discussion following the story as they are examples of how we approach thinking about difference in our community, and how we can affirm and extend such thinking. While we may not always know what to say in the moment, as teachers whose goal it is for children to leave school feeling whole each day, we know that it is important to create a culture in the classroom that encourages children to verbally express their questions and discoveries about their world and their growing awareness of the world around them.

Story Time 3/22/17

Children are gathered on the rug after hearing the story read aloud.

Jeannine: Do children have any thoughts they would like to share about this book?

Child 1: The children scratching their heads said you don’t match. The mom has a ponytail and she (Mike) doesn’t and the dad has no hair.

Jeannine: You’re starting to notice that these folks have different characteristics and that messages from others like, "You don't match" may not feel so safe.

Child 2: There are styles in her hair.

Jeannine: (reads from current page) "It’s my hair don’t touch."

(Points to illustrations of hands holding various tools to change hair) Why might these people be trying to change her hair?

Child 3: Why were they trying to cut her hair?

Jeannine: It sounds like people had different ideas to change this child’s hair.

Child 3: But why did they want her to cut her hair?

Child 4: They were trying to cut her hair because they thought her hair was too long.

Jeannine: Another thing I read was that they wanted to make her hair straight instead of curly. Did that feel comfortable for this child?

Many children: No!

Jeannine: Let's try something kind of neat. You can stay in your spot and look around the circle at your friends and teachers. Do we all have the same hair?

Child 5: People have different hair because sometimes they get a haircut like Mommy. I notice that Alex and I have different hair. His is curlier.

Child 1: Can I see the Mommy’s hands again? They look different. She has white.

Jeannine: You’re noticing the color of the skin on their hands. Do you call this color white?

Child 1: I call it sparkly!

Jeannine: Now let’s look around again. What do you notice about our skin colors?

Child 6: (Holds his arm up next to Naomi’s) I notice it does match.

Some children move around and begin to compare their skin color to each other and to teachers. Exclamations of delight ensue, “I’m darker!”, “I’m lighter!”

Child 1: Me and Laetizia have a match!

Kay and Child 7: Look, we match!

Child 1: It’s close, maybe Beatrice is a little darker.

Child 7: Yeah.

Jeannine: This brings up a question for me. Do your parents or grownups have to have the same skin color as you?

Many children: No.

A few children:Yes.

Child 8: Some say yes, some say no.

Child 5: My daddy has spikes on his chin. But I don't have spikes on my chin.

Jeannine: That is something that's different from you. Can you still be family?

Child 5: Yes.

Child 2: My daddy has spikes like this too.

Kay: My mom is actually a lot darker than me and my dad is a lot lighter.

Jeannine: Similar for me. My mommy has a darker shade of brown skin and my daddy has very light peachish skin. I am a just-right-for-me mix of my grownups.

Child 7: My daddy has darker skin.

Conversation continues.

Jeannine: Friends, it sounds like you are noticing and are very interested in the colors of your skin. Would you like to use paint to mix our own skin colors? Then you can name the skin color you make whatever name feels just right for you?

Many children: Yes! (Cheering)

Child 7:  Can we do it tomorrow?!

Jeannine: Yes, I suppose we can do it tomorrow.

Child 1: And hair colors too!

We began our work the next day, as promised, by determining how to mix the color brown using tempera paint. In small groups children added other colors to the brown base, achieving lighter, and darker tones, pinker or bluer, until a color emerged for each child that they felt was a match with their own skin color.

Throughout the room children began to notice materials they had used before in a new light - “Look our wooden people have different skin colors!” Soon they realized that the wooden people did not have a diverse enough array of skin colors to represent each child. One child suggested, “We can use our skin colors to paint the wooden people.” We strive for the careful balance between exploring their curiosities about the world around them and providing a context that is developmentally appropriate.

This work continues to live and be of meaning in our classroom and we will continue to give it time, space, and materials while it resonates for children, even when it means changing our plan for the day, or holding off on another current thread of inquiry. We are grateful to be teachers in a community in which we can nourish, explore, and empower children around the many stunning dimensions of their identity.

Posted on April 21, 2017 .

On Fearless Girl and Being Unafraid to Ask Questions

by Ashley Semrick, 4th Grade Teacher

I first read about her on Tuesday. The diminutive, sneaker-clad, child statue who had quietly stepped into the path of the bull in Lower Manhattan. Right away, I knew had to take my class to see her. Immediately, I texted my boss. “Can I take my kids on a walk to the Wall Street Bull tomorrow?” I asked, and followed up with a Reuters link to one of the earliest news stories about the piece. “Of course!” came the reply. Like most of my colleagues at our small, progressive Manhattan independent school, I had chosen to not strike that day but to spend it with my fourth grade class. It was not an easy decision. I was instead planning to devote Wednesday’s entire curriculum to exploring the lives of change-making women, past and present. This trip fit right in.

Before I was a classroom teacher, I was a museum educator. I taught children of all ages to ask questions about art and artifacts to facilitate connections. Inherent curiosity, when honored, is the most authentic of places to begin learning. As a teacher, one of my most important tasks is to listen to questions. The questions define which direction to lead the students. At my current school, I see firsthand everyday what it looks like when teachers devote their practice to listening to conversations, wonderings, and questions that children have. We provoke young minds with carefully chosen content and materials, and then we guide them through a process of inquiry that will eventually lead them to a greater understanding of not just the content, but of themselves as learners.

On Wednesday morning, International Women’s Day, my class gathered and headed out for our “mystery field trip.” I front-loaded the event by letting them know we were going to see the Wall Street Bull, which many of them have seen in passing. I told them that under cover of night, another artist had just added something to the sculpture and we were going to check it out. As we rounded the corner near Bowling Green and the bull came into view, we were surprised to see a crowd gathered on the narrow median between Broadway and Whitehall Street. As we made our way closer, we caught a glimpse of the new addition. Someone had placed a pink pussy hat upon the bronze, pony-tailed head of the life-sized bronze statue. Someone in my class shouted, “Look! It’s a girl! There’s a girl there now!” We made our way over to the statue and watched as people around us stepped forward to pose with the compelling new work whose face, tilted upward, seemed to demand “bring it on.” Not one person took their spot next to the Fearless Girl without mirroring her shape and strength. When, I wondered, was the last time I had seen such a reaction to a piece of art?

I had intended to lead an inquiry session with my students then and there, but the crowd was growing -- media, tourists, and New Yorkers -- all excited to welcome Manhattan’s newest downtown resident. We made some quick observations as a group and shot a few photos. I also pointed out that we were standing on the spot where Revolutionaries from an earlier era had committed another historic act of defiance: they had torn down the statue of King George III in Bowling Green Park upon declaring themselves independent from the British Crown. Today, we are in a new era and living through a new kind of revolution, hundreds of years later.

Upon returning to school, my students reflected on the experience. The Fearless Girl was made of bronze, just like the bull, they said. I asked why they thought the artist would chose the same material. “To show that she has the same power as the bull,” one student wrote. I shared with them that the creator of the statue, Kristen Visbal, felt the piece was a way to send a message about women and power. The students made the observation that Fearless Girl was striking because it gave voice to the underrepresented - in this case, women and children. They named themes of inequity, determination, strength. They analyzed her posture and compared it that of a superhero - feet apart, fists on hips, hair and skirt blowing as she stood against the wind. They believed the bull was actually afraid of her. After all, one student pointed out, it looks as though he is veering left to avoid confrontation with this fierce and Fearless Girl. My students are savvy, and they know when they’ve been seen as people, and this work of art meant that someone had seen them and found them worthy of representation. Taking time to appreciate and discuss the merits of artwork that validated them as young, strong voices was tremendously empowering for them.

And, as though our exciting trip, conversation, reflection had not been enough, we awoke Thursday morning to find that a photograph of our class standing strong with the Fearless Girl had been shared far and wide across the world. The students were all over Twitter, Instagram, CNN, and the New York Times. It turns out the rest of the country was just as captivated by her as we had been. The kids were quite proud of their sudden fame, but the “why” behind taking them to see this new piece was certainly was not to get media attention. In my class, we talk a lot about untold stories and unheard voices. We look for those voices all the time, especially when it comes to literature, art, history, and social studies. I encourage them to ask hard questions like "Who is telling this story? Who has the power? Who didn't get a say?" Digging into the ideas behind art like Fearless Girl is deeply connected to this process.

Mind you, these are nine-and-ten-year-olds. They remind me every day just how deeply children think. They remind me to look closely, while I encourage them to do the same. We don’t always find the answers, and that is okay. We keep looking, and we ask new questions. So keep asking questions, and encourage children to do the same.

Looking at art and the context in which it was created is important. Trusting kids to gain insight and perspective is critical and necessary, and it allows for creative, intellectual exploration. It breeds compassion, understanding, and productive dialogue. If we are going to fight back against the kinds of things happening in our country right now -- the dismantling of education programs, the abolition of support for the arts and humanities at the national level -- we are sending the message that the ideas of artists and children no longer matter. We have to speak up using our practice, our voices, and our expertise. We have to train and trust the voices of our children to connect with the curricula of the humanities, because they are ones who are next in line. We also have to write and share the stories of our classrooms.

Posted on March 21, 2017 .

On Thinking

By Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School

As the late educator and writer, Ted Sizer, so aptly taught us, the purpose of education is to help us to “use our minds well.” In the weeks and months ahead, which will no doubt be punctuated by pronouncements, changes, and events that may cause shock or worry, we persist with this simple idea.

I see children of all ages (including my own) alternately overwhelmed, worried and emboldened by the adult reactions and activities they witness. We want them to follow positive examples, of course, but even more, at school, we want them to experience rich and critical thinking.  While we have individual power as citizens, parents, artists, family members, our power as educators is to privilege thinking over responding, curiosity over fear. We ask our students to consider: Whose voice is speaking? What perspectives am I missing? What would the other side say? Given all the evidence, what do I believe?

Our middle school framework is built on “ways of thinking,” which were identified as an outgrowth of the strengths of the preprimary and primary program. They are a helpful start:

Over the weeks ahead, we will continue to teach the value of thoughtfulness and discussion. We will teach the values that undergird our democracy, the power of people to change their immediate worlds and the human condition for good or bad. We will teach the power of poetry and art, and continue to examine problems from all sides using civil conversation and productive disagreement. With our youngest, we will listen to or read stories that promote understanding of others and discuss our friends’ perspectives whether in conflict or working together. Being a creative and disciplined thinker is how we come to know and solve problems, how we can open ourselves up to other people, how we can understand and improve the world.

We will also continue the hard work of building our empathy “muscles," for empathy may be the defining features of a great leader and citizen.  Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, remarked in a recent interview, regarding a recent killing of a young black man, that while she had heard the police officer mention feeling afraid for his life and acting in their proclaimed self-defense, she could not understand why, when a young man’s life is slipping away, the officer would not take his hand or administer first aid. When we look to our informal and formal leaders, we hope to see integrity, a commitment to not only their ideas, but also to holding the complex perspectives of many, and acknowledging the human and at times heart-breaking consequences (unintended and intended) that come with every decision. We expect leaders to study the history of the problem they are striving to solve, to uncover the dilemmas and mine the stories and perspectives of those who disagree. We expect them to use and move towards the light in all of us and to push towards the great "arc of justice.” The real and difficult dilemmas presented by the American commitment to diversity, inclusion, and liberty for all are necessarily messy; that is what makes them so rife with opportunity and what has made our democracy flourish despite its failings. These dilemmas demand leaders who take care, see nuance, and have courage. We can help empower positive leaders by promoting and celebrating empathy, and by giving our students the tools to both evaluate leadership moves and to hold our leaders to account for the thoughtFULLness (or lack thereof) of their actions.

I know that each of us will have our own perspective and our responses personally, and we will act accordingly. Here at school, we will continue to teach our students to use their minds well in service of a more just, empathetic, and thoughtful future.  

Posted on February 6, 2017 .

Election 2016 Thoughts

by Allison Gaines Pell

This has been an intense week to be sure. By the time you read this, I hope we all have used the weekend to restore ourselves somewhat after this long and tense election season.

I have moved through many stages of many different emotions this week in service of restoration.  I have been inspired and supported by the incredible teachers, educators and leaders around me who, through it all, have been present and hopeful with children and communities, promotive of civility and respect, and exceptionally kind.

It is the children, however, who are showing me the way.

On Thursday morning, I went for a run to settle my thoughts. I found myself grappling with deep sadness about the loss of the opportunity to live in a nation that elected a female president and for the future that might have been. I know this moment will come one day, but when I think of what my grandmother and my mother have lived through and fought for to ensure that it was possible, it both roils and breaks my heart. When I thought about the possibility of my daughter and son being adolescents under female presidential leadership, I felt a swell of pride, the same pride I feel at every achievement I have earned in my own life as a result of what my mother and grandmother taught me and gave up for me. Among other things, I also felt deeply concerned about the language and behaviors that some in our nation may feel emboldened to use as a result of the tenor of this election. Regardless of which candidate one supports, in our school and in our nation, we strive to work against bias, against hateful words, against bullying and disrespect. We work here and in America - in whatever flawed or awkward ways - towards liberty and justice for all, and for the pursuit of happiness. And I want to believe - and have experienced - that people can love and respect and learn across differences, however mighty or ideological. That is the world I want our children to inherit and to believe in.

Returning home that morning, having watched the sun rise again over the changing trees, I sat down next to my daughter. When I told her what was troubling me, she turned to me and said, “But you know, there are so many people who are good and kind, and who are working hard to do the right thing. There are still so many good people and we have to work hard to find the best in each person.” There are so many similar anecdotes just like this one that transpired this week in our school and, I'm sure, in your homes.

While it remains essential to honor whatever feelings we are having this week as well as the important work ahead to fight for what is right, it helps to try to lean into the wisdom we can glean while listening to children at home and at school. They are our better angels. Let them give us strength for an open mind and an open heart so we can look for the best in each person and allow the change to begin with each of us. Let them show us the “cracks in everything,” because, as Leonard Cohen so aptly reminds us, “that’s how the light gets in.”



Posted on November 14, 2016 .

Mathematics is the Music of Reason

by Allison Gaines Pell

Mathematics is the music of reason. To do mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture, intuition and inspiration; to be in a state of confusion— not because it makes no sense to you, but because you gave it sense and you still don’t understand what your creation is up to; to have a breakthrough idea; to be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty; to be alive, damn it. Remove this from mathematics and you can have all the conferences you like; it won’t matter. Operate all you want, doctors: your patient is already dead. - Paul Lockhart, the Mathematician’s Lament

What if math could be, as this quote suggests, thought of as an intellectually engaged, artistic pursuit, with the “basic skills” as a necessary but not sufficient aspect of the curriculum? What if math can be the place where collaboration, persistence, mistake-celebration, growth mindset, perspective taking and creativity come from the shadowy margin to the center?

I spent a week this summer with a group of nine of Blue School’s fine educators taking an online class with Jo Boaler, a researcher and professor at Stanford University. She discussed and shared research on mindset, mistakes and perseverance in mathematics, and moved through a series of applications for teaching math (or maths as she calls it) that are purposeful, research-based, creative, pragmatic and effective.

Along the way, within our group, we talked about our own math education, about the types of classrooms we want and have, and about you, our families, and how to share the inspiration and learning we have gained over these years. We also wanted you to be assured: all of the changes we are seeing in mathematics teaching through the introduction of Common Core and the development of shared best practices, which often look very unlike the ways we all were taught, mirror the best thinking about the brain, learning, and our approach to education. We want to find ways for you to experience this, which as we know, is the only way to learn it.

A few key take-aways:

  • Mistakes are the most important work we can do to grow our brains: When we make a mistake, synapses in our brain fire and help our brains to grow. This can happen with small and big mistakes, and obviously can be applied to many disciplines and of course, to life!

  • Students should own the cognitive demand of their work: There is a “didactic contract” that pervades many of our classrooms. This unspoken contract reflects a dynamic in which teachers, wanting to support students, give so much support as to empty the learning from the task. Teaching math by elevating thinking, through talking about, visualizing, debating and exploring numbers, allows for the focus to be on the cognition. We have to believe and ensure that thinking is at the center.

  • Stop the cultural acceptance of talk about ‘hating' math and about designating who is a 'math person.' We all send terrible, fixed messages about math because of our own possibly negative experiences with it, and because somehow this has become acceptable in our society. We all need to always bring curiosity, creativity, and love to math, not because it will just help students, but because MATH DESERVES OUR DEEP ADMIRATION AND LOVE!

  • A “growth mindset" is very important: As has been widely researched, praise that is offered around specific work done (“You worked really hard on that problem” or “What an important idea you’ve had!”) nurtures a growth mindset, critically important for learning and life. A fixed mindset, created by many messages such as groups who are thought to be naturally “better” at math or feedback such as “you are so smart!”

  • Conceptual mathematics and problem-based learning is equated with both higher test scores and more challenging, professional jobs. In a study completed in England of two schools with a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach vs a traditional memorization and didactic approach over three years saw dramatic differences in test scores for the PBL school, and in a longitudinal study of the same students, saw dramatic differences in their job and career choices and abilities. When interviewed about why a student thought she did well on the exam, she said “I just go into them thinking I can do them; I just work it out from my own knowledge until I get there.”

This also comes to an important question about the purpose and orientation of education. In one section of the course, we watched a video of interviews with freshman at Stanford University, presumably young people who graduated at the top of their classes, and whose academic and social achievements are many. In many cases, these students spoke about their lack of intellectual engagement in school, how they never understood that learning could be about collaboration, thinking, engagement, and interest.

So, let’s bring our love, curiosity, and celebration of mistakes, achievements, struggle, and mathematics to our work here at school and with children.

Here are some great resources for your perusal:

Daring to Stumble on the Road to Discovery, by Peter Sims

YouCubed - a week of inspirational math to do together!

You Cubed Parent Resources and Articles

Jo Boaler’s Online Course - for FREE!

Mindset Boosting Videos

Advice for Parents from Jo Boaler

Upcoming Parent Math Workshops

  • December 7, 2016
  • February 8, 2017
  • March 22, 2017

Notes from Meredith and Esther's first Math Workshop. (Wednesday, October 5, 2016)

Posted on October 14, 2016 .

Community Meeting

from Anna Padgett - 4/5's Teacher and Community Meeting Leader

Community meeting is one of my favorite whole-school rituals; this will come as no surprise to people who have known me the past few years!  Even for a committed anti-morning person such as myself, the practice of children, teachers, and families gathering to start their week together in song and movement is one I love.  The counterpoint of structure and freedom is both grounding and freeing:  we sit in the same location, we start at the same time, we mostly follow the same rules.  We hold one another accountable for paying attention, listening, and respecting each other’s presence and contributions.

Within that consistent shape, we have the physical, emotional and creative space to tell our most ridiculous jokes, share our most sincere gratitudes and present our proudest work. Having worked in a variety of school settings, I am particularly aware of how lucky Blue School children are to have the weekly opportunity to get on the microphone and share their ideas and humor with a playful and accepting audience of friends, teachers, caregivers.  It is one I am so glad my daughter had as a younger Blue Schooler and one I so wish I had had as a child!

In preparation for a new year of Monday Community Meetings, second graders, as the oldest and (for the longtime Blue Schoolers) most experienced meeting-goers, have worked with me to brainstorm norms that they will share with us this coming Monday.  These will help us work together to have the best Community Meetings possible.  On Monday, we will also meet and greet all the 4/5s through second grade teachers, both new and returning.   We will start to build our repertoire of songs -- starting with some familiar favorites and, in the coming weeks, moving to some new material.  As the weeks progress we will share poetry with one another, join with 3rd through 7th grade for our beloved Joke Day tradition, create opportunities for individual classes and specialist teachers to lead and try out some exciting new structures.  Details coming soon! 

See you Monday.  Come ready to sing.  


Posted on September 16, 2016 .

Talking With Children About Orlando


From Alice Mangan, Ph.D., M.S., School Psychologist and Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School

Dear Community,

Last week our newsletter came out quoting Callum on his wisdom that what is hard now will someday, possibly, seem easy. And yet today, in the wake of learning about the events in Orlando has no doubt made many of us question whether this kind of hard will ever yield to something easier. Personally, today has me feeling quite hopeless.

Hopeless because what is called "senseless violence" by so many seems to make sense to some individuals. Hopeless because there are people in Orlando today without loved ones who were here just moments ago and the depth of this sadness is unimaginable. Hopeless because we seem collectively to be deciding over and over to NOT control gun use in this country in a meaningful way.

I believe very much in our collective power to make good from bad when we choose to do so. We have, after all, worked towards progress on so many fronts. I hope for the people of Orlando, and for all of us who see this as an attack on expressions of sexual and gender identity as well as basic human rights, that this tragedy can be a catalyst so that we can turn back towards hope.

We may all be feeling some measure of anxiety and fear.  As the grown-ups in children's lives, we are charged with the very difficult task of managing our own reactions to this massacre, while also being attuned and appropriately responsive to the reactions our children may be having or demonstrating.  I wanted to offer some words of support, along with some resources attached below to guide you during this difficult time.  

We all naturally reach toward our secure base when our safety feels threatened. You may find yourselves doing this since learning of this tragic event.  And your children may likewise be reaching toward you, their teachers and other important adults in their lives.  Some children, particularly older children, may know details about the shooting and want to talk about it.  Others may not want to talk but still may sense the increase of tension, grief and fear that surrounds us all during times such as these.  It is important that we not leave children alone in these experiences, and that our response be rooted in an underlying message of essential safety--as impossible as this is for us to guarantee.

For older children reviewing the "facts" of the event is helpful and clarifying. Grounding the discussion in various "issues" can help children to defend against feeling too overwhelmed or vulnerable.  For example, discussions might center around hate crimes, Islamophobia, the political response to the tragedy, policies on gun control, or important events in LGBTQ history (Stonewall; same-sex marriage; the movement toward equality and justice for Transgender people and their families).  It is also powerful to help children turn their feelings toward action in these moments.  Actively using their minds and voices to respond increases a sense of power and agency while simultaneously warding off overwhelming fear and vulnerability.  Older (and even some younger) children can be particularly motivated to protest against injustice.  

Tread lightly with younger children. If your younger child has not voiced or demonstrated non-verbally any knowledge or upset, you may wish to not share any details.  Remain observant and attuned and if your child seems more anxious, provide containment through your presence, extra physical contact, words of love and reassurance.  

A few points to keep in mind:   

1.  Tune into your child to notice signs they may be feeling signs of distress.  Watch their play, listen to their words, notice dramatic changes in behavior.  

2.  Talk to them in reassuring and containing ways, avoiding detail that you perceive will elevate their anxiety to an unnecessary degree.  Walk a fine line here: validate feelings, while not exacerbating them unnecessarily.

3.  Take breaks from processing the event and set limits about how long you might engage in talking about it.  

4.  Turn off the TV, the news, and reduce the entire family's access to the Internet. Repeated commentary on, descriptions of and visual images from the massacre will be unnecessarily upsetting and triggering.

5.  Take action. Join with others in finding creative and important ways to resist hatred and increase love.  Go to a vigil, sign a petition, write a letter, or go to Pride events the last weekend of June--whether you are a straight ally or a member of the LGBTQ community.  In the wake of trauma, social supports are vital, and for members of marginalized communities who already feel vulnerable, allies are essential.  

6.  If your child asks you a question to which you don't have an immediate response, tell him or her that you need time to think about the question.  Take that time, and then be sure to come back to it when you are prepared.

7.  Be sure to have your own sources of support as you navigate these troubling and tragically recurring events.  

For more advice and thoughts, please visit the Fred Rogers Company website.  We also recommend this article from Common Sense Media about talking with your children about the news.

As the Mayor of Los Angeles said, "in the face of hatred, hold someone tight."


Posted on June 16, 2016 .

Summer Reading 2016

Dear Blue School Families,

This week's post is from Patricia Lynch, Director of the Primary Program

There is nothing more luxurious than summertime reading. When we indulge ourselves in summer reading, there seems to be no calendar or clock that nudges us toward distraction; we have reached a serenity seldom found. The more deeply we become immersed in a book, the more reflective our lives become. Our connection is with the words, ideas, images that eventually enliven the thinking we bring to life.

These beliefs are brought to life in Blue School when I walk into a classroom and a child is laughing out loud about something she has read. When I listen in on the provocative conversations about a story read in a class, when I hear children outraged or mystified because of a character’s behavior, and even empathically near tears. These instances are certain proof that stories and narratives bring about vital emotional connections for everyone. Reading is not solely an academic pursuit, but more importantly, an activity that helps us define our identity, and gives us the strength and understanding to face daily challenges. Afterall, if Alexander can live through a horrible, no good day, so can we.

When parents ask me how they can help their child with reading, my advice is always the same. Read to your child. No matter what the age. Read newspaper articles, food ingredients, great novels you enjoyed as a child and historical accounts. Research has shown that children who are read to fare far better in the long run with reading comprehension and critical thinking. So it’s certainly worth the enjoyment.

The former has all been a bit of a drum roll to announce the Primary Division Summer Read and Reading List. Through perusal of many, many outstanding picture books, the faculty and I have decided upon a summer read. This summer we are asking that all children entering Kindergarten through 5th grade read, Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie. Please make sure that your child reads the book over the summer because s/he will be given an activity based on the book within the first days of school. This book, and all the books on the connected summer reading list can be purchased through Amazon.  You may also want to use the summer as an opportunity to reconnect with your local public library. Libraries are magical places with lots of free programs in the summer.

And finally, a bit about fostering writing over the summer. Why not keep journals together, especially when you visit new or exciting places here or elsewhere? Sketch tiny findings, add some words to describe the drawing, and voila, you’ve got a pithy poem. Make lists together, develop characters based on people you see in the subway and on the streets and write monologues for them. Letters, letters, lots of letters written. Grandparents or other family friends always love to get emails and snail mail from favorite children.

I can’t wait to hear about all your reading experiences. Keep a list of favorites. Enjoy your children and have an adventurous and peaceful summer.

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”

Lemony Snicket, Horseradish


Happy reading,



Lift Off

From Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School

In the year 2000, I completed a year at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. When I arrived there in the fall, I felt powerfully alive, more so than I ever had (and I am among the lucky who treasured every moment of my education prior to that). I connected with amazing colleagues who I am still in touch with (and who have gone on to a variety of roles changing education nationally), found my calling, vocation and passion, and felt like I’d died and gone to a heaven just for those who want to talk about everything I do all day and night long. There is much I could say about the experience, and I use what I learned there almost every day, but I wanted to share this video from the weekend’s convocation address. In these five minutes, it forcefully reminds me of the power of educators to improve, change, and infect the world with their inspiration and words. Please take the time to listen and watch (or if you’d rather, just read the words printed there). Dominic Livingston (HGSE ‘16) is one to watch.

-- Allison

Thoughts on 2s and 3s

- Laura Sedlock, Director of Pre-Primary

What I love about working in early childhood is how much we are able to notice of the whole child, before we inevitably starting looking at children through the lens of particular subject matters or skills. Clearly, at Blue School, we strive to keep our focus on the whole child throughout all of their years here, but there is nothing so pure and immediate as those first few years when every moment of what a child does feels equally as important as the next.

This year, in Preprimary,we have been working to ground our conversations about children in specific moments, revisiting these through video, photographs, transcripts of conversations, and discussing what we see in these moments that can lead us to a deeper understanding of children and how they learn and make meaning.

A few weeks ago, I came across a piece by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the schools and approach in Reggio Emilia, Italy, from a 1993 seminar entitled,  “Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins”  I was especially moved by this one passage about observing and seeing children:

"The child wants to know that she is observed, carefully, with full attention. The child wants to be observed in action. She wants the teacher to see the process of her work, rather than the product. The teacher asks the child to take a bucket of of water from one place to the other. It's not important to the child that the teacher only sees him arrive with the bucket of water at the end. What is important to the child is that the teacher sees the child while the child is working, while the child is putting out the effort to accomplish the task - the processes are important, how much the child is putting into the effort, how heroic the child is doing this work. What children want is to be observed while engaged, they do not want the focus of the observation to be on the final product. When we as adults are able to see the children in the process, it's as if we are opening a window and getting a fresh view of things."

So on Tuesday of this week I set off into our preprimary classrooms to observe some children “in the process.” One of the first classroom I walked into was the 2s during their exploration time. I noticed a child, H., at the water table and settled my eyes and attention on him and what he was doing. When I started watching him, H. had almost finished filling up a pitcher with water, using the rubber top of a baster to fill it up scoop by scoop. When the pitcher was full, he poured the water over the baby’s head. H. continued to do this 1, 2 3 times - scooping the water, filling the pitcher, pouring it over the baby and starting again. He would pause from time to time to look around the room at other children or respond to a particular sound, but would always return to the process of scooping, filling and pouring. After a few minutes, Karen came by and knelt down beside him. H. pointed to the baby’s wet head as he looked up at Karen, then he gently took her hand, placed it on the baby’s head, and poured water over it, allowing Karen to experience the wetness and the pouring.

From the moment I started watching I felt lucky to be witnessing this moment and to learn about H. - to see his method, focus and perseverance, his intention and caring gesture towards the baby in the water table. If I had walked away after that I would have already learned so much, but then I saw the moment when he chose to share his experience with Karen. There was something so touching about the way he took her hand and placed it on the baby, asking her to join him in feeling what he felt. I truly had that sense Loris Malaguzzi mentioned of a window being opened, of “getting a fresh view of things.” It made me think of all of the other moments happening simultaneously throughout the school, with each child demonstrating their own heroic effort, wanting these to be seen and shared with others.


Posted on October 23, 2015 .

Blue School Approaches to Problem Solving

We always hope that every day, week and year is problem-free. However, problem solving is a big part of school (and life). It is the foundation on which we build trust. During my time as an educator, I have always felt the way by which we approach and attempt to solve problems is part of the way we create and sustain our culture. Considering all this, problems are really important.
Over the spring and summer, I wrote down some thoughts on this issue.  I shared them with the Families Association and faculty to gather input and feedback. We share it with you here as a statement of philosophy on problem solving and communication. Families Association co-presidents ( Kira Wizner and Natasha James and I invite you to take a look. We welcome your questions and comments. 

Here’s to many problems approached and solved.

Thank you for reading. – Allison


Blue School Approaches to Problem Solving

In a school, there are always challenges and dilemmas. This is part of the everyday work. The joy and challenge of working on these problems is part of what brings educators to this career. We believe human beings are complicated and problems require nuanced responses, conversation, empathy and thoughtfulness. To that end, our Families Association and school leadership team support the following guiding parameters for problem solving when issues come up:

— Reach out with questions. All teachers love to talk about their work. They work hard, often in unseen ways, and want you to ask them questions about what they are doing with children because this is their life’s work and our passion. Please ask them!

— Curiosity first. This applies to problems as well; please ask questions first. Teachers and leaders think deeply about their choices in classrooms and within the school. If something is happening that you are uncomfortable about or your child is coming home with worries or anxieties, try to find out more from your child’s teacher, but assume first that there is already some observation and thinking behind it. If the issue doesn’t resolve, please keep talking with us.  If you feel other parents have a growing concern, you should, with the spirit of open conversation and supporting the whole class and community of parents to move forward together, bring that to your teacher, as well. School communities and children are complicated, and our partnership depends on the respect that our shared curiosity about one another’s experiences demands.

— Email communication is okay; face to face is better. When an issue is difficult, please use direct communication in person. Teachers are able to set up meetings with you when you have a difficult conversation. Emails between parents that don’t include teachers can make the problem worse.  It could create worry without including those who can help solve the problem. Let’s all try to be in a problem-solving stance as much as possible. We can all hold one another accountable for this, as we are all guilty of forgetting this sometimes.

 Schools are as imperfect as the humans that work in and attend them. Over the course of your time at Blue School, there will be decisions you question or even dislike. There will be questions you have and things you don’t understand. Please feel free to ask about those things, and understand that we will always hear you and share our thinking as appropriate, even if we do not agree, or cannot speak as openly as you might like.

 Respect for all children and families.  There are times when parents want to discuss other children in the school. Faculty members will of course speak with families about their own child’s experience, and about concerns brought directly to them, but please understand that we cannot speak openly about other people’s children.

— Communication is essential to prevent problems from arising, but with a balance. Please understand that we have to strike a balance of documentation, photos, and blogging and being present with your children. Most of the time, we will expect teachers to prioritize being present with children and planning their instructional next steps, over taking a photo or blogging. Communication is an expectation for all teachers, and we know it can often prevent questions and concerns from arising, but being with and noticing your children is our priority. Please be forgiving if blogs are not as timely as you’d like; we assure you they are coming as quickly as is reasonable.

Thank you for reading and helping us all see problem solving as a positive part of the work of our community.


Posted on October 16, 2015 .

Pre-Primary Thinking

- Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School

As you can see in our lobby, this year's big idea for professional learning centers around various ways and types of thinking. While adults may automatically associate ideas like synthesis and reasoning with our upper grades, these ideas are, in fact, at the center of our goals for the preprimary division.  Children are busy building these “muscles” and skills from the moment they arrive here at age 2, 3 and 4.  I wanted to share some thoughts on this with you, and provide lenses with which to look at your preprimary experience here at Blue School.
As you know, story, early literacy, and numeracy all happen in various ways in our early childhood program. Our overall approach to early childhood reflects our belief in the intellectual capacities of children, the importance of nurturing specific intellectual building blocks in the early years to facilitate lifelong learning, and meaningful living.

Dr. Peter Gray, in a recent blog post , makes a distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘intellectual’ skills, citing a succinct and wonderful piece on this topic by acclaimed early childhood teacher and thought leader Lilian Katz. Academic skills are, he writes, “means of organizing, manipulating, or responding to specific categories of information to achieve certain ends. Pertaining to reading, for example, academic skills include the abilities to name the letters of the alphabet, to produce the sounds that each letter typically stands for, and to read words aloud, including new ones, based on the relationship of letters to sounds...Academic skills can be and are taught directly in schools, through methods involving demonstration, recitation, memorization, and repeated practice.” In contrast, he writes, “Intellectual skills... have to do with a person’s ways of reasoning, hypothesizing, exploring, understanding, and, in general, making sense of the world.  Every child is, by nature, an intellectual being--a curious, sense-making person, who is continuously seeking to understand his or her physical and social environments.”

Where can you see these skills at work?  When you walk into a preprimary classroom here, consider:

  • How much agency do children have to interact with authentic materials that are flexible to 'become anything else' (including wood, stones, blocks, books, special papers and materials for building)?
  • How are children making decisions about their work and their interactions with others, make believe, reflect on their conversations and endeavors, work through conflict with one another, establish new connections, hear and play out stories?
  • What opportunities for connection and relationship building do children have during the day?
  • What happens when children ask questions? Are the questions elevated and explored?

A great classroom serves intentionally to support the intellectual skill development of each child to build the most effective platform for learning and living as they grow. In our twos classroom this week, we saw children are working with clay, and graphite, exploring how the movements their bodies make affect the impressions on the paper or clay. In threes, we saw children discussing the care for the babies, bringing knowledge from their worlds, negotiating with one another about what materials in the classroom (block, paper, fabric) could represent what supportive item for the baby (bed, table, bottle). In fours/fives, children discussed how to tell a friend they did not want to play a game with them and suggesting another.

We are in a zeitgeist-shifting moment in education. Many minds and pens are turning to early childhood as a foundational time by which thinking skills necessary for a 21st century learner and human are either nurtured or negated. We are proud to be able to be practice and modeling the balance of academic and intellectual skills. We are also proud to be considering these ideas with the many visitors this week and every week at Blue School, and with you, our larger community.

Please be sure to read your classroom blogs to understand all of the varied ways that this work happens. We will be sure to begin linking to all of them weekly by the end of October! 


Posted on October 9, 2015 .

Welcome Event Remarks, 2015

- Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School

While I am not a religious person, something I enjoy greatly from the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) is the concept of hineni, which means “here I am.” It is a way of talking about showing up, noticing, taking a pause to remember that we are here, and to figure out how we are participating in our lives, showing up with our children, with one another, and with ourselves. While I’m sure we can each think of ways that we can show up more and more and say “here I am” in our lives, I have found myself thinking about this phrase a great deal as we enter our 10th year.

So tonight, I want to take a moment with you to say: here we are, and to reflect on where we have come from, where we are now, and where we are going.

We come from:

  • From 14 children in a living room with materials, sound, play, good hearts and big idea
  • From a board and founders who have been, from the start, tireless in their efforts to push the school forward
  • From several moves – a roving tour, even! -- all throughout Lower Manhattan, and a lightning fast build out of our beautiful permanent home at 241 Water
  • From growing pains, authentic conversations, openness, and warmth
  • From genuinely wanting parent voices and helping them to give shape to our work
  • From a superstorm that diminished our neighborhood and our school, but made our community stronger
  • From a group of faculty who have committed to working in a more demanding place than is the usual because of the intellectual rewards of this work
  • From parents who, despite being told way back when that they would not know the next year’s location before signing a contract, insisted on staying because they believed so deeply in this journey
  • From parents who met with me over one summer to start a real life Families Association that lives today and supports so many of our efforts
  • From members of our community who, when they heard the call for a small old fish market next door that was yearning to be a school, stood up to be counted on to support us to make it happen
  • From many long discussions, risks, rewards, and creative innovations in the pursuit of being, despite all odds, the school that could

and so much more…

Here we are:

When our founders set out to build a school, they imagined a place that would both practice and model a truly dynamic (even electric) balance between self and social learning, academic mastery, and creative thinking. Today, 10 years in, I have the truly happy news to share that so many of you see this approach in our classrooms and hallways. You tell us in person and through surveys how much you see this balance, the creative ways your children are being challenged, the way they (and you) are seen and known, how much they strive for and discover each day in their intellectual pursuits.

And we, the lucky, who get to spend our days around your children and these classrooms, get to see it first hand. We see joyful struggles, dynamic discussions between young children, joyful romps in the wonder room, forts built and refined by three year olds, and inspiring studio studies of space and nature. We see the deep and thought-filled discussions among faculty members, the late night runs to the bookstore for that book a teacher MUST have for the next day, the conversations that happen in meetings in which they carefully reflect on what they notice in your children. We hear the community board presentations by seven year olds, the buzz of the letter-writing campaigns, the delicious and inventive writing by 9 year olds, the passionate discussions of sentence structure by 10 year olds, energetic and purposeful play by our fours and fives, the careful and thoughtful probing of natural phenomenon, the big stories being drafted, enacted, and revised, and the mathematical mysteries pursued with struggle and joy. We see hugs and laughter and holding hands.

We appreciate every day that we get to be here because of your belief and sustaining support of our work.

So, what happens now? Ever energetic and evolving, with one strategic plan behind us that was focused on building, streamlining, operational steadiness, and communications, we decided that while our big goals remained the same, our strategies were ready for refreshing. We are now finalizing our 2015-2020 strategic plan that will focus on key, critical areas informed by many discussions and input from you. The summary highlights of will include:

  • increasing coherence in teaching and learning practices throughout our three divisions while allowing for natural and developmentally appropriate differentiation to take place between them
  • Increasing the ways and means for recruiting for a more diverse and thus more mission-driven population, including striving to increase giving for tuition assistance across the school
  • Furthering our work on diversity and perspective taking, including a yearlong monthly seminar led by and for teachers trained by SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity)
  • Opening our extended campus at 233 Water Street and building out a master plan that will include more facilities growth for the school, as well as vigilant care of our beautiful home here at 241
  • Maintaining steady and rapid growth while we preserve the warm, connected, authentic ways of doing business that make this such a great place to be
  • Increasing the visibility of the public facing work we are doing with our conference “On Thinking,” our Blue Notes speaker series, and pushing ourselves to build out our public purpose
  • Last, but not at all least, we will also continue to push ourselves to do all of the other good stuff of making Blue School great: daily energy towards the best and most powerful classrooms anywhere, led by the most hungry and dynamic teaching faculty anywhere, ever more efficient, responsive, and effective in its operations, and with your help, a stronger foundation of financial support

It’s going to be a huge undertaking, and this wasn’t even close to a complete list! As it is ready, we will be excited to share the full plan with you.

So tonight, in addition to sharing all of this with you because it is important for you to know, I also want to let you know how important your support is, in all ways, to make this happen.

We know that you pay tuition. We know you work hard to make the gift of Blue School a reality for your child. We know that that is a big commitment for which we are grateful.

I ask you to give to Annual Fund because you know that we, like all independent schools, do not cover the cost of the education of each child with tuition alone. The difference between this number and the number we need to raise each year translates to materials, trips, professional development, compensation for teachers, tuition assistance, and so much more.

I ask you to give because of how fast your children ran to school on the first day, the questions she or he brings home at night,  and their very serious curiosity.

Give in honor of someone in your life whom you wished had had a Blue School education, whose life could have been altered because of the nourishment and intention that Blue school gives each learner.

Give because you see that the neuroscientific research, the industry pleas for people who are problem solvers, collaborators, creative thinkers, and the pushback from parents and authors everywhere when they see the impact of standardized education are converging to a point. Give because you believe that Blue School has a responsibility to amplify these understandings through conferences and speakers and to ensure we reach a tipping point that translates into impact for schools.

Give because this is the hardest working group of teachers and administrators anywhere and they deserve the answer to be yes to any request for supplies, trips, and professional learning that we can make possible.

Give because you want more children who wouldn’t dream of applying to Blue School due to the tuition to get the message that they can, that they should, that we have funds to support them.

Give because it feels good, no matter what the level.

Give because you are saying “here I am” and “here we go,” onto the next ten years, our adolescence, which will be filled (as our middle schoolers lives will be) with wonderful new friends, conversations, ideas, risks, and rewards.

For all those reasons, consider and make your gift and send it in, but before you do, in the spirit of 10 amazing years at Blue School and as a wish into the universe for the 10 years to come, multiply that number by 10.  I’m kidding. Sort of.

Seriously, if you are interested in gift at a higher or more strategic level, perhaps associated with initiatives such as our STEAM program, scholarship support, or our programs focused on impacting schools outside Blue School, contact James or me and we’ll find a time to sit down with you to talk more.

I end tonight with a quote from the letter written by our founders that is on our website.

“Blue Man Group started as an outrageous idea: We wanted to inspire creativity in both our audiences and ourselves. We wanted to speak ‘up’ to the intelligence of our audience members while reaching ‘in’ to their childlike innocence. We wanted to create a special kind of organization, a place where people continually learn and grow and treat each other with just a little more consideration than is usually evident out in the "real world." We wanted to recombine influences to create something new. And we wanted to have a good time doing it.” Having a good time is what tonight is about.

I wish you a great year, in the ideas and new accomplishments your child shares with you, the connections you will make with one another, and in your own lives outside of Blue School. Thank you for your support, for showing up in the big and important ways that you do.

Posted on October 2, 2015 .

Summer Reading

This week's post is from Patricia Lynch, Director of the Primary Program.

Summertime means rest, sun, family and, oh yes, reading, reading, reading. We have attached a selection of books for each grade level to keep you wrapped up in text for a long time. As you know, for better or worse, children demonstrate what we model for them, so show them how much you enjoy reading and select a special time when you are all reading and discussing books together. Help your children get to know authors and identify genres. Dust off those library cards and visit several different public libraries for a little comparison shopping. When we help children establish the reading habit early in life, it lasts a lifetime.

We are pleased to announce the family summer reads to you. We are requesting that if you have a child moving into the 4/5s through 2nd Grade, the children come to school the first day prepared to discuss Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. In 3rd through 5th Grades, we would like the children to read The Can Man by Laura E. Williams. (Middle school families: you'll be getting your assignment from the team next week!) Both books support our belief that children can be moved toward empathy and understanding through literature. The books can be purchased on Amazon* or, of course, your local library could find them for you.

*Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to Blue School whenever you shop on AmazonSmile. Use this link to select Blue School as your designated organization.

A bit about fostering writing over the summer. Why not keep journals together, especially when you visit new or exciting places here or elsewhere? Sketch tiny findings, add some words to describe the drawing, and voila, you’ve got a pithy little poem. Make lists together, develop characters based on people you see in the subway and on the streets and write monologues for them. Letters, letters, lots of letters written. Grandparents or other family friends always love to get emails and snail mail from grandchildren. Remind children about how fun our Blue School post office was and that we have our own big scale postal system in the USA as well.  On the last day, all children will also receive a bag and instructions to collect and describe an object from the summer to bring in and add to our object library display. Great stories to tell can sometimes begin with an object as inspiration!

As E.B. White so wisely wrote: “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”

Posted on June 9, 2015 .

Messiness is the goal of hard work

Messiness is the goal of hard work. 
– Alice, 4/5 A

Earlier this week, someone asked me what Blue School stands for. Of course, this answer can be found in our mission and vision statements, but at my core as an educator and as part of a movement to rethink how we conceive of education – and really, our beliefs about children – I’d like to share some thoughts with you about what I think we stand for, not in the formal sense, but in the ideas and dispositions with which we choose to show up every day.

We stand for the notion that school needs to look like and offer more opportunities to practice what we want for our world – an act of furthering the journey towards a more dynamic and vibrant democracy.

We stand for the rights of all children to be thinking actively – and to be in a thought-FULL environment – all day long. Without thinking, there is no understanding.
We stand for a notion of school that begins not with a statement but rather with a question to ponder deeply and joyfully, and a group of people young and less young to do it with.
We stand for a definition of a good day that contains both success and failure.
We stand for a daily curiosity about the nuance and ambiguity of the human mind, alongside all the science that seeks explain it.
We stand for speaking up to the intelligence of children and young adults, challenging them to work together to talk across difference, to argue, to persist, to create, to ask how they know what they know.
We stand for question marks first, exclamation points next.
We stand for joy that is rooted in the deep satisfaction that comes with effort and mastery. We stand for small moments of joy that come with laughter, friendship, and connection.
We stand for teaching that is complex, magical, intellectual, instinctual and ordinary all at once. and the discipline, intensive reflection, flexibility, and time it requires.
We stand for learning that is filled with the same joy, satisfaction, creativity, and wondering from infancy all the way into adulthood, even as it changes its look and feel.
We stand for an understanding that learning and growth is possible only when people are known, seen, and heard by one another.
Working in the parameters of today’s world, which prizes sameness, order, speed, and instantaneous perfection, requires vulnerability and patience. Believe me when I say that we yearn, just like everyone else, to fix, to correct, to answer, to invest in beautifully clean lines rather than shades of grey. I struggle with this every day. In this spirit, a great hope I have is that we can continue to say out loud that education requires this struggle, depends on our intentionality and openness, and a refusal to cling to quick fixes.

Posted on May 21, 2015 .

One classroom at a time

"System wide change is something a lot of people talk about, but I think it happens one classroom at a time. That's where the action is."

-- Doug Reeves, author of On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities

Last weekend, I attended a conference for educators. Those of you who attend conferences in your own professions will no doubt recognize the experience of the “Exhibition Hall,” where salespeople call from the left and the right that they have THE solution to some problem that you face. I was reminded of the very keen understanding I've developed and live by that if we knew how to do education perfectly well for every child, we would all be doing it that way by now, and that teaching and learning remains the pursuit of questions and uncertainty, a science and art that is as much about humanity as it is about practice. When Doug Reeves stated the quote I've posted above, it resonated deeply. The action is indeed in the classroom: teacher by teacher, and small teaching move by small teaching move, minute of engaged thinking by minute.

So, here it is. Upon returning to Blue School, I arrived to another 10 letters in my Blue School Mail Spirits box. This culminating work by our first grade has brought our community together in ways we could not have anticipated. By following their questions and curiosities about the postal system, they elevated the art of writing and communication, brought kids and families together, and actually, changed Blue School. Their mail service will end April 1st, but they have actually changed us. They have much to be proud of.

Also this week, we learned that our very own Kindergarten engineers have been invited to build their proposal for a mini golf hole in this summer's FIGMENT Artist Mini Golf Course at the festival on Governor's Island. This class has pursued an extensive study of water, and began their year building water machines after becoming inspired by a local “water wall” installation. They wondered how water moves up and down, where it comes from, and how it can be moved. When invited to submit to FIGMENT on the theme of “Here to There,” they looked at all of the elements of the mini golf hole, drew ideas for designs, and then collaborated as one group to determine which idea would be submitted. Now, they are on to implementation, and plans are in formation.

So there you have it. There is no “buy it now” option in school. The answer is inside our classrooms, and in the questions young people ask and the intelligence and intuition -- and practices -- with which teachers listen.

Posted on March 27, 2015 .

STEAM: Person, Place or Paradigm Shift?

This article was published in The 2015 Parents League Review and most recently, the Huffington Post.

STEM as an acronym was born, as many things are, out of worry. In 2006, President George Bush stated that there was a significant concern about the lack of high quality STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) research and education initiatives, resulting in an urgent concern about our nation's ability to compete. He announced, during his State of the Union address that year, the federal assistance program "American Competitiveness Initiative" which promised millions of dollars to STEM initiatives in education and R&D. As a result, science, engineering and robotics programs have been popping up in schools. Recently, there has been a movement to add the "A" for arts and design into the mix, led by John Maeda, Rhode Island School of Design's former president (and Advisory Board member at our school), among others, and there is now a caucus focused on this at the Federal level. The STEM to STEAM movement is based on the belief that "art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century."

At Blue School, we have been exploring the relationship between these five disciplines since 2006. As a school with STEAM in our DNA, we have been pursuing both high quality and deep implementation of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics with children from the aged two through 10. We believe that these ingredients cannot exist outside of their relationship to one another, nor can they exist without a deep and rich understanding of history, literature and the human condition. But contrary to the idea that STEAM is an add on, a place, or a person, the existence of STEAM in our DNA derives from a set of beliefs that define how we think about education to support the unknowable demands of the future.

Begin with a definition of creativity

This may sound like a strange place to begin, but, if the "creativity economy" is where we are headed, we should share a common vision of this goal. For us, a working definition for educators is Sir Ken Robinson's notion of "imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and have value." He posits that describing someone as creative ...

..Suggests that they are actively producing something in a deliberate way. People are not creative in the abstract; they are creative in something: in mathematics, in engineering, in writing, in music, in business, in whatever. Creativity involves putting your imagination to work. In a sense, creativity is applied imagination. (Robinson, Out of Our Minds, 2001)

This definition is important, because while it is natural to say that a four year old is creative when she draws a face in a new way to experiment with unique color choices, true creativity (per this definition) takes place after mastery of a domain when a new intervention is made within it. Beginning with a definition is essential to knowing what kind of learner we are attempting to cultivate with our work, and also what it looks like when we have achieved the goal.

Along with a definition, we create the conditions for creative thought to take place. This is where in-depth attention to insight and metacognition come into play. Dr. David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership and Your Brain at Work, argues that insight requires quiet, internal focus, a slightly positive outlook and, ironically, not focusing on the problem. Because teachers and classrooms cannot always provide all of these conditions at once, Rock and his colleagues wanted to know what the best proxy for these could be, and found that they revolve around metacognition. They asked these simple questions:

1) What are you trying to achieve?
2) How long have you been working on this?
3) What is your best guess about the best way forward? 
4) How many different approaches have you tried?
5) How close to a solution are you?

They found that by asking these five questions during problem solving, subjects increased the amount of insights by 55 percent.

Authentic materials

Children -- at two years old and at 12 -- need to have real materials in their hands. Whether it is at two as they study water and soil, or when they are five and they use masking tape and cardboard, or at 12 when they create robots to solve every day problems, STEAM requires us to put the same tools in the hands of students that are those used by the professionals. If you want the child to be an artist, give him the same materials an artist would use; if you want her to be a scientist, give her the tools and materials she needs as well.

Of course, there are developmental questions about what types of materials to hand to children, but we try not use proximal materials or representations. The technologies and inventions we have in today's world are likely the least advanced our children will ever have in their hands, so we give them the tools to make things better as early as we can. Classrooms should be stocked with materials, and children should know where to find them, how to use them, and how to care for them.

True curriculum integration

Neuroscience tells us that we learn best when ideas and domains are integrated, and when we are following threads of our own interests and motivations. As adults, we know this: When we have a burning question or idea to pursue, the content is extremely engaging, the search is a joy, and the learning we do stays with us. Yet, in schools, many of us still isolate subject areas and break learning down into arbitrary time blocks. To build the skills and understandings necessary for our scientists, mathematicians, technologists and artists, we choose to create full and big studies, framed by unanswerable prompts and provocations, and organized by iterating through problems and designs. To do this -- to truly live up to what the neuroscience tells us -- we need schedules that allow for time to go deep into material and discussion, specialists in the arts or sciences to work within the classroom study rather than as a pull out, and culminating projects that invite learners to dig in, to build up, to enter in multiple ways, and then to engage with authentic audiences.

Redefine technology

Since I became a school leader 10 years ago, I have been asked the following question almost once a week: "How do you integrate technology?" For me, this has always been the wrong question. Technology is a tool, like a pencil, a protractor or pad of paper, and it is also a method for organizing information. Imagine if someone were to ask how we integrate those tools! It is no longer a question that work will be performed online in the future, no longer a question that online collaboration makes for better communication. So, we want to more fully explore what technology enables us to do, and how it can help us explore the full potential of the human mind. If we accept that technology allows us to get most of the world's facts and information more quickly, we are freed up to use our time in school to do the work of understanding the nuances of the human condition, histories, transitions, dilemmas and to then use technologies -- indeed get the tools to build the technologies -- plus our human drive to do something about it.


This is the most challenging, but most essential, piece. The culture in which STEAM disciplines can be nurtured and strengthened require a culture that begins with leadership, teachers and families. If we want children to experiment, take risks, persevere in the face of disappointment or failure, become flexible and resilient, then we have to try it ourselves. We have to be willing to take the risk of jumping off of the 45 minute period schedule, ask teachers to reflect and take risks themselves, and to truly integrate curriculum. There are mistakes inherent and celebrated in this type of environment, and in this way, it can be a challenge to support a culture that supports risks. Families who can partner with schools and who can believe and see that this is what the brain science really says, know that what they had when they were young is simply not good enough for young people today.

Commitment to content and skill mastery

There is an important underlying assumption that must be said, though for some it goes without saying, which is the critical importance of identifying exactly what skills and understandings young people need to learn within these disciplines. Teachers need to be able to articulate and imbed the skills and content students need, even if timing or entry points change, and they must ensure that students master those skills. It is not enough to create a robot if one doesn't understand electronics. Skills, and skills practice, need to go hand in hand with these ideas. For a kindergartener, building a scaled down neighborhood out of cans is wonderful when the design has been planned, the number of needed cans in different colors, shapes and sizes has been calculated.

At Blue School, our building buzzes with makers, explorers, mathematicians, builders, and artists who are also voracious readers, writers, and worldly thinkers. This comes from the steady belief that children are capable of more than many want to give them credit for. The STEAM movement is popularizing this idea, and giving schools ways to think about language, time and space to make that idea real. In the end, however, the real challenge of implementing deep learning in the disciplines of arts, science, mathematics, technology and engineering, is asking bold questions about time, the integration of curriculum, and culture.

Posted on March 13, 2015 .