The Director's Corner on Critical Thinking

If you have spent any time in any of our classrooms, you have no doubt heard: “Where should you be?” You may, however, also have heard: “[child name]? You need to be right here!” The ultimate purpose is the same: the child ends up where he or she is supposed to be. So are those phrases used interchangeably depending on the teacher’s mood? Or is there a good reason to choose one over the other? We will assume the teacher is not stressed and is pronouncing the second phrase assertively but not in a snappy way. Teachers choose assertive commands when, for whatever reason, a child is a bit out of sorts. Assertive commands remove the need for the child to think or choose, activities that are taxing when his or her nervous system is already stressed. So, typically, assertive (firm, not mean) commands are calming. What, you will ask, if the child is totally out of sorts? In such case, it is certainly not time to teach, not time for assertive commands either (although a simple assertive statement such as “You may not do this” may be in order). It is time to chill, keep the child safe, model calm and work on restoring calm in the child. If, or once, a child is calm and feels safe, it is time to teach.

Using an indirect question such as “Where should you be?” engages the child into looking around, making a deduction from what he or she observes, and making a decision, all the components of critical thinking. Critical thinking (analyzing information and making informed decisions) is a very important skill to develop, and there are lots of opportunities to foster it throughout the day, whether at school or at home.

We need to be patient (if we want a child to think, give him or her time to do so!); justify our answers to the child’s questions; think aloud; make connections using prior knowledge or analogies (“It reminds me of …”); take advantage of a child’s interest to ask open-ended questions (“I notice… What if…?”); we also need to let the child make mistakes and learn from them (“Does your answer make sense?”).

We encourage you to be on the lookout for opportunities to develop your child’s critical thinking skills at home, so as to multiply the opportunities teachers seize throughout the school day. Just remember it is not always as simple as it sounds: unless the topic is fun or very motivating to a particular student, he or she may very well make statements such as “Just give me the answer; I do not want to think”, in which case insisting may backfire.

Ref. Visible Thinking, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero.

Director's Corner: On Family Camping

Family Camping is all about sharing an experience with other Magnolia families, overcoming together the challenge of planning, packing, cooking, setting up, braving the lesser comfort of sleeping away from home, and reaping the benefits of seeing the kids busy, happy, excited by the different environment, tired at night, and of enjoying the company of various groups around campfires at night, all a powerful way to make lasting memories and build community. A sure sign that building community works was the presence, as always, of several “old” families, families whose children do not attend Magnolia anymore but still wish to join the school of these camping trips. Nineteen families were represented, for a total of 46 people, 26 children including three former Magnolia students and baby Dominic, and four teachers, a nice turnout!

To those of you who missed the trip altogether, consider joining us next time, will you? One of the campfire conversations had to do with how different this camping trip was from the last one at Reed Bingham State Park in March 2012. Instead of 4 inches of rain, violent thunderstorms and even tornado alerts a short distance to the south last time, we enjoyed this time gorgeous weather, if a bit on the cool side at night. Bicycles and scooters were in almost constant use, there was no flood, no overturned tent, and no need to huddle in a closed shelter on potluck night. But, believe it or not, even these more challenging memories are sweet and caused lots of giggles!

Another topic that came up were the dramatic events in Paris. Being safely together with all kinds of different people, experiencing sympathy and fraternity was the best therapy!

The Director's Corner: On Civility

A lot can be read lately about the need for more civility, whether in the political arena, the everyday workplace or even family life. And interestingly, the recent literature justifies the need not only by the benefits civility brings to the people at the receiving end of it, but also, increasingly, by the benefits it brings to the person practicing it. The reasoning is that perceived rudeness triggers the cascade of neurochemicals leading to a stress response in both parties, and that repeated engagement in stress response negatively impacts the cardiovascular and the immune systems of all involved. Whereas attitudes such as being polite, displaying good manners, and handling others respectfully decrease the probability of triggering a stress response in either party, leading to better relationships, better physical and mental health, and thus a better quality of life for all.

As educators, we are also concerned with civility. We want our students to acquire the social skills that will help them develop the secure relationships and strong support system that will make them successful in adult life.

That is our motivation for having a social-emotional component to our curriculum and for adopting approaches that promote self-regulation, empathy and assertiveness. One of the most successful ways to promote these skills is to model them, which is why the Conscious Discipline model we have adopted aims at teaching these skills to the teachers first, to their students next. Do teachers slip and exhibit less than optimum composure at times? You bet! But all of us try hard to maintain composure because all of us have experienced first hand that calm, patience and empathy help keep or restore calm, whereas irritation, impatience and hurried judgments compound whatever problem arose.

For our children and students to recognize, practice and benefit from civility, all of us in the Magnolia community, teachers and parents alike, need to maintain composure, demonstrate courteous relationships, and handle disagreements respectfully, whether on school grounds, in our cars or in the community in general. Modeling is the key, and it takes a village to raise a child. So let us all commit to making our village as civil as can be. And long live the civil Magnolia community!

Director's Corner: 30th Anniversary party

The second part of 2015 may go down in the books as the sweetest period since the founding of the school, even though the first part may stand as the most painful, so much so that, for a while, a celebration hardly felt timely. The brave 30th Anniversary Party committee, however, received the right encouragement at the right time, made the right decision and plowed through, so a party did take place at the Miccosukee Land Coop on Saturday and it was…the sweetest! It was a wonderful day, and not just because the weather was gorgeous, the music great, the food scrumptious, and the kids busy having fun on the playground or with the cakewalk. Some people were dearly missed, but there were plenty of old-timers and current students alike to remind us all of the school’s 30 years of accomplishments.

Seeing the friendly faces in attendance and feeling their support was healing and re-invigorating. I (Sophie) was particularly pleased to meet Judy Renwick, The Magnolia School’s very first teacher, whom Susan introduced as the person without whom the school would not have started!

The party could as well have been dubbed “Saturday at the Park with Susan and Irwin” because of the setting on the peaceful lawn of the Coop Community Center, because of the outdoor stage, and because the party was also an opportunity to celebrate them both.

Susan was surrounded not just by friends, including two members of her Threshold Choir with whom she sang a couple of songs; but also by her husband and both her children, Magnolia alumni, who were present.

And our dear Irwin, whose health lately has prevented him from coming to school to sing to the children, had three of his former students, now fairly accomplished musicians, play bluegrass and provide an accompaniment for the songs he sang himself. Susan and Irwin went home each with the signature of all participants on a card or a T-shirt, and with an appreciation basket full of carefully selected goodies.

Susan has declared she had a wonderful time. Please join me in thanking Jodi Wilkof for chairing the planning committee of the event, and all the other committee members for making the event happen. Nicole McDermott and alumna Melanie Leitman supervised the food, Jan Davis the setup, Sue Ray the cleanup, Paige the entertainment, alumna Zoe Linafelt the PR, Lerena Fleck the fundraising, Jenn Branham and Joe Wooley the parking, and Betsy Voorhies the first aid. Kelly helped Jan set up a “historical table,” gathering historical materials that Paige and helpers put together; Sue Ray created a slide show of pictures past and present; and Denise Wooley took tons of photos.

Thank you also to all the people who contributed to the potluck and the cakewalk and to all the volunteers who helped set up and clean up.

Director's Corner: The Magnolia Path

Our Parents Education Night took place August 25. Before splitting into the different classrooms, the whole group gathered into the back room for an introduction to some aspects of the Magnolia educational philosophy, following a purposefully silly icebreaker. The purpose of that activity, as of many similarly silly activities we use every day with our students, is to share enjoyment, share eye contact and share a gentle touch so as to decrease tension, increase comfort and everyone’s sense of safety, and start the day or the next activity on a positive note. We then introduced The Magnolia School colors, which were voted on during The Vote theme in 2012. The winning color was Rainbow, for which the students came up with the following description:

"Rainbows allow each color to shine and be an individual while still beautifully working together.”

We greatly appreciated how well that illustrates our commitment to honor individuality while promoting team effort.

The Magnolia Path

We proceeded to use the statements from the Magnolia Path to illustrate key aspects of our educational philosophy. These statements are presently: Show Respect, Do Your Best, Work Together, and Keep trying.

Students vote on these statements every three or four years. In the past, they have been variously called the Magnolia Way or the Magnolia Agreements. Our next will take place next year, as we will have a new theme on voting on the occasion of the presidential election.

“Show Respect” is a direct link to our efforts to build The Magnolia School family and promote self-control. Once students feel connected and safe within the group, respect follows.

“Work Together” reflects our emphasis on cooperation versus competition. People worry that “the world out there” is competitive and that students better be competitive throughout their education. We argue, along with a number of other educators, that most jobs in “the world out there” involve team work and that knowing how to work with others, even people we are not drawn to, is a much more valued skill than acting competitive.

“Do Your Best” is a difficult commitment to keep day after day, but it definitely reflects our expectations and is especially important in a multi-grade environment. Asking students to do their best allows us to praise the effort of a younger or struggling student, showing appreciation and helping the student with pride and confidence. It also allows us to ask an older or otherwise abler student for a second, more researched or better thought-through piece of work. “Do Your Best” also supports our policy not to give grades. Grades only make struggling students feel worse and encourage stronger students to content themselves with good enough. Not giving grades also eliminates the option of “Can I just take an F?” “Do Your Best” is definitely a higher expectation on the students, because it makes it their responsibility to show effort.

"Keep Trying" is an especially important commitment involving resilience. Keep trying implies not being discouraged by a mistake or a setback. It is linked with the building of the school family, because it takes a strong sense of safety to admit a mistake and be willing to make up or give it another try. It is also linked with our efforts to teach emotional regulation and self-control in the context of Conscious Discipline. We strive to always assume competence, and to privilege process over product. This allows many opportunities to celebrate small steps toward a larger goal, building confidence and resilience along the way.

Finally we reminded everyone that we encourage reading and thus encourage checking books out of our elementary or middle school libraries. All it takes is filling the card that has your child’s name with the name and author of the book, as well as the date the book is borrowed. When the book is returned, just cross out the whole entry. Cards are located in card boxes located on top of the picture books shelf (east wall) in the elementary school and next to the non-fiction bookshelves (east wall) in the middle school.

Director's Corner: Much accomplished during busy summer

We wish to devote this Director's Corner column of the 2015–16 school year to the huge amount of work that took place on the Magnolia School campus over the summer. Thank you to everyone involved!

Our two summer camps, Center Stage and Magnolia-Con, were very successful. Thank you to camp directors Paige Brey, Juniper Bambach, and Lerena Fleck, as well as to all the camp staff and the many volunteer counselors, including Jodi Wilkof, a large number of FSU graduate students, and Magnolia alumni Lily Kates, Zola Ray, and Jérémie Speer.

While camps were in session, the Recruiting Committee was putting in many hours reviewing applications for our two job openings and interviewing candidates, resulting, by mid-July, in the hiring of Jimmie Hall as administrative director, and Casey Gooding as middle school teacher. Thank you to all members of the committee, and a special thank you to (again!) Jodi Wilkof for all the phone calls, facilitating, and scheduling.

The Board of Directors also kept busy during the summer, as it is the body in charge of hiring directors and of overseeing the finances of the school. New members joined the board and chose the committees they will be working with over the year. Thank you very much to all old and new members. As directors, we could not hope for a more supportive group of hard-working individuals.

Especially heartfelt thanks go to Susan Smith for the enormous amount of work she put into the school over the span of four months. It is thanks to her instant decision to step in and assume the role of interim administrative director that the school could continue operating smoothly through the end of the school year and into summer camp season until Jimmie’s hiring. We love you, Susan, and can never repay you for this!

More happened in July, once Jimmie was in place. Our teachers gathered on the week of July 13 to prepare the themes for this year and had an amazing amount of excellent work to share during our August planning week. Thank you for your efforts and dedication to our theme model!

The middle school kitchen was totally emptied and cleaned, to the point of being unrecognizable. Thank you so much to devoted parents Jenn Branham, Thadra Stanton, and Sarah Wilson! And our Summer Work Day on August 1st had a very good turnout. Our thanks to the following hard workers:

  • Kemira Barlow: cleaned windows and art room
  • Bridget Welch and Matelea: weeded garden, organized art room
  • Jennifer Carver: cleaned fridge & dishes
  • Steve Brodka: painted bathroom shelves, Elementary School deck, and safe place closet
  • Jatavious: dealt with trash, picked up sticks, and contributed to other important projects
  • Liz Hammock: dusted, wiped shelves and swept
  • Mike Hammock: repaired Middle School door knob, and demolished fence in front of Middle School and chicken coop
  • Andy Cumper: cleaned and organized the Art room
  • Sally and Dotty: weeded garden
  • Emily: cleaned table tops, chairs, and windows in the middle school
  • Sarah Ward: cleaned and organized the art room
  • Bill and Max Brey: installed the middle school lockers
  • Sue Wiley: dismantled and beautified the Middle School deck
  • Pam and Ondrea: removed more of the chicken coop
  • Joe Wooley: replaced the man closet door and mowed the elementary front yard
  • Sue Ray: weeded the Middle School garden
  • Bridget: provided water hose parts
  • Stacey McConnell: reorganized teacher resource room
  • Paige Brey: reorganized and cleaned Middle School
  • Ben Grenat: hauled numerous loads of trash
  • Casey: sanded and painted lockers, as well as middle school kitchen door and Sophie’s window
  • Sampson: helped with lockers (on his day off), cleaned gutter, repaired the water hose and did lots of yard work
  • BJ: moved shed and trash, mowed middle school yard, and did numerous other things

Another great big thanks to these and all of the Magnolia Family. We are off to a great year!

The Director's Corner: On Family Involvement

At The Magnolia School, we do expect a lot of family involvement. And it is not just economic involvement, in the sense that our budget does rely on tuition and on parents' help for maintenance jobs and projects. We will never be able to thank enough those dedicated families who generously donate their time, talents and resources to maintain and beautify the campus. Even more importantly, we are talking about educational involvement. As stated often in this column, we strive to be a Community of Learners that includes students and teachers, of course, but also parents. There is no stronger motivator, especially for our younger students, than a parent truly involved in their education; and early involvement helps older students accept, if not welcome, continued involvement. Family involvement covers being aware of what is going on at school, by attending our Educational Night and Community Meeting at the beginning of the year, by checking posted signs, classroom bulletin boards, parent pockets, emails, and the newsletter in digital or paper form, and, if still in doubt, contacting teachers or directors; we do devote a lot of efforts communicating with families, but are aware that not all modes of communication fit individual situations and are always willing to try new avenues.

The more aware you are of what is going on at school, the better you can offer supporting activities to your child outside of school, be it a trip to a museum or to the library, or a choice of documentary on the weekend, and the better you can support your child with homework too; we do not assign much, but learning to keep track and complete homework is very important to develop executive skills such as organization and prioritization, as well as to develop a sense of responsibility; be aware that children are not born with mature executive skills and that teachers at school and parents at home need to lend the child their own executive skills until the child's skills are mature enough.

Involvement also covers making oneself available for student/parents/teacher conferences. These only come around three times a year and constitute our way to directly communicate with families about student progress, possible concerns and suggested plans of action. We have recently implemented a more unified system of conference forms to provide families with written feedback, but please understand that these are meant to support, not replace, the live conferences. Hearing your and your student's feedback and suggestions at conferences is irreplaceable.

Family involvement also covers participating as much as possible in school events such as theme dinners or fairs (where students work is often showcased), and family camping trips. Volunteering in the classrooms is another way to contribute to your child's education: even if you help or make a presentation in a classroom other than your child's, your child knows you are around and care about the school.

And PTO meetings, of course, are another venue to be part of the school community year round. Families are also encouraged to participate in or make suggestions related to guilds and themes and/or to submit an article for publication in this Magnolia School Community newsletter.

Are we asking too much? Actually, apart from suggesting family participation in camping trips and welcoming family members inside the classroom at any time, we are not asking anything different from other schools, whether private or public. Every teacher in the country is hoping for parent involvement. Every study points to the importance of family involvement in education. And everyone is aware how busy parents are. We are just trying to spell out and facilitate what family involvement is.

As you read our Theme News and discover we are expecting students to complete a "family project" in the course of our new Transportation theme, please do not panic. Due date is seven weeks away, a list of suggested projects will be coming your way soon, and of course you and your child can come up with your own project. This is going to be a great opportunity for you to sit in front of a calendar with your child and make a plan: choosing a topic by such date, getting materials by such other date, building a prototype, if applicable, by still another date and completing the project by a date ahead of the due date (just in case). This is supposed to be exciting and fun. Organizing and planning will help both you and your child feel in control and have fun together. If you are panicking nevertheless, please contact one of us, we will figure out how to support your family through the process.

Director's Corner: Collaboration and Peppermints

For the last newsletter of 2014, we are excited to showcase two exemplary instances of successful collaboration from the Magnolia community. Many of you, beyond middle school parents, have heard of the middle school drama unit, during which the students mounted the play Salvator Dali on the Beach, the short musical act Coffee Break, and multiple individual acts under Paige's expert direction. These were all locally performed to much applause at the Mickey Faust Club before Thanksgiving. This weekend, the Thespian troupe came back with many accolades from a competitive festival in Sanford. Each of our students received  at least one excellent or superior rating, which qualified the entire troupe for participation in the state  festival in February. Congratulations!

The reason to showcase the middle school drama unit is that this is such a good example of the kind of collaborative project in which we like to engage our students. It offers an opportunity for all to try, to shine, and to be appreciated, thus promoting powerful bonding between the students. Alongside excitement and laughter, all kinds of side drama occurs, fueled by lack of confidence (or sometimes overconfidence!), discouragement, stress and fatigue, providing multiple opportunities for individual, small group and large group problem-solving. In the end though, the support of the group prevails, resilience builds up, the deed gets done, and everyone is proud of the individual and group accomplishments.

The other instance of successful collaboration that we wish to showcase involved Magnolia parents as well as students and staff.  It occurred on Saturday morning for the decoration of our bus prior to its appearance in the Tallahassee Nighttime Holiday Parade. The theme of the Winter Festival was Peppermints, Penguins and Poinsettias. The PTO picked Peppermints, and Sunshine spent the three Mondays of the last 2014 guild guiding multi-age students in creating four large circular structures (4 ft in diameter for the largest!) that looked very much like oversized peppermint candy, using chicken wire and red and white paper napkins. Her guild also created smaller "candies" out of paper plates that the students decorated.

On Saturday morning, the decorations were ready, the challenge was to figure out how to hang the structures on the bus (without scraping it) using pieces of PVC, cable ties and ratchet straps. Arrived Sophie; Kelly with Kimmy; Diana with Savannah; Jennifer with Thomas and brother Kenneth; Sarah with Maddie May, Quinn, Hazel and Jasper; and finally Thadra. The kids helped pick and carry PVC pipes, were busy decorating more plates for a while and, thanks to Sarah, spent some quality time on the playground.

Meanwhile the rest of the adult team (all ladies, did you notice?) pondered, measured, and laid out straps; figured out which hooks fit which pipes and how to best utilize the ratchets; built square frames with pipes and rope; tied the "peppermints" to the frames with cable ties; and wrapped whatever stuck out with red tape. Tom (a.k.a. Kimmy's dad) showed up in time to help hold the structures while we hooked them on, and to help attach the lights. In parallel, red and white paper lanterns were built and attached, and the paper plates were stuck on the inside of the bus windows.

So the point is, ladies, we did figure it out! And there was a palpable sense of satisfaction in the air building up through the morning (admittedly mixed with some fatigue since we were there from 9 a.m. to past 1 p.m.). Also, let's admit it, there was some discomfort at the beginning when Sophie explained how much figuring out remained to be done. But no one protested out loud, everyone rolled up their sleeves and remained positive, and some great bonding occurred, e.g. as we discovered Jennifer, one of our most recent Magnolia parents, and her critical yet always constructive eye that simplified our evolving design. In short, our team experienced first-hand what our students experience on a regular basis in our active learning environment: When faced with a challenge, a set of initial materials or ideas, and some encouragement, we can overcome confusion and frustration and rise to the occasion. And it all leads to hard-won satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

Before closing, we need to acknowledge other recent and current collaborative efforts: the bagging of the peppermint seeds to be distributed during the parade (who knew these seeds were so minute!); the ongoing Focus on Science theme, with collaborative experiments galore; and the collaborative work the middle schoolers are doing for their upcoming participation in the Tallahassee Southern Model United Nations conference (these kids are going to deserve their winter break!).

The Director's Corner: On the year's highlights

A lot has happened during the 2013-14 school year. Our classrooms, the Jaguars, the Landsquidz and Bread on Bread, were exposed to four themes, Books, Human Body, India, Paleontology or Springs, and are still working on their fifth and last, Florida History. Many visitors came: Julia Dehoff, Adrian Fogelin, Jim Ed Martin, a speaker from the American Lung Association, Dr. Sethuraman Paramasivan, Sara Black Brown, Dustin Frost, Sean McGlynn, Jay Kamke, Lisa Homann, Sage Wiard, Dana McMillan, Andrew and Kelly from Wells Fargo and Nicole Mercer.

The students went on a number of field trips, to the Tallahassee Democrat, the Public Library, the Facility for Arts Research, Wakulla Springs, Saturday at the Sea, the Nutcracker, the Thespians District and State festivals, the Museum of Florida History, the Tallahassee Regional Model United Nations (TSMUN) conference, Natural Bridge Battlefield Historical State Park, Mission San Luis, the Courthouse, and they will still go to the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, San Luis City Park and Pas De Vie.

Enrichment activities included multiple guilds, gardening, the Botany Club, after-school music, the Thespian Club, TSMUN, the middle school Springs project and the Classroom to Courtroom program. There were also two Family Camping Trips: to O’Leno State Park in the Fall and to Torreya State Park in the Spring, as well as two middle school camping trips: to St. George Island in the Fall and to Rivercane Rendezvous in the Spring.

Outreach events included participation in the Winter Parade, Children's Day at the Museum of Florida History, the Mag Lab Open House and the Summer Camp Splash.

Fundraising events spearheaded by the PTO included: the American Legion Fall event, Skate Nights, First Friday Bake Sales, share events, pecans sale, Box Tops, the Magnolia Yard Sale and the Magnolia School Local Restaurants Coupons Books. In addition, the Board continued to raise funds through its Magnolia School Capital Campaign, the school held another Original Works fundraiser, and the Middle School continued its own fundraising through its Parents’ Night Outs and Cans collecting.

A lot of maintenance and beautifying projects were realized with the help of the whole Magnolia School community: new carpet, new computer set-up and other improvements in the back-room, new air-conditioning unit in the middle school, new roof on the elementary school building, new sand-box, swings and basketball goal as well as re-painted structures on the playground, removal of pine trees to improve parking at the elementary school. Other improvements included a website facelift, a new math continuum for the elementary school, and new conference forms.

We are especially pleased with the results of our more rigorous implementation of Conscious Discipline.

We were treated to special performances, one by the elementary school (“The Cat Came Back”) and another by the middle school (Macbeth, It’s a Pig, and other small group and individual acts).

We also enjoyed some warm convivial moments at our Halloween Party, our Thanksgiving Feast, our Indian Dinner, our fall and spring camping trips, and the March PTO Party.

Finally, this year was graced by the birth of Joanne Rayne, a.k.a. Sharon’s granddaughter, and Elijah Miguel, a.k.a. Julius’s brother. It was also saddened by the passing of Mrs. Benedict, a.k.a. Sharla’s mom.

Thank you all for a wonderful year. We are looking forward to celebrating our students’ growth in our upcoming yearbook and at graduation in a few weeks.

Director's Corner on The End of the School Year, Already?

Five weeks (!) is how many weeks of school are left of the 2013-14 school year. Families are planning for summer break; teachers are preparing for the May conferences while pondering, not without trepidation, over how much more they want to cover before the end of May; our Florida History theme is in full swing; and middle schoolers are leaving for Earthskills Rendezvous. Expect home conference material and assessment forms in your parents folder soon and be on the look out for conferences sign-up sheets. Please leave room on your agenda for these conferences on Monday, May 5th or Tuesday, May 6th, for the Walkabout Reception on the evening of Wednesday, May 14th, and for Graduation Day at Silver Lake on Wednesday, May 28th. This is a busy joyful time to reflect on and celebrate what was learned so far, keep on learning until the last day of school, and plan for more learning to come.

Those of us with a child in public school know that students at The Magnolia School are fortunate. This could be the time to stop all instruction and concentrate on the FCAT and/or End-of-Course exams. Some public school teachers  complain that as much as 1/3 of school days are devoted to test-related activities instead of instruction, a proportion we hope to be an exaggeration. We continue to think that the individualized assessments we provide are more meaningful than the results of a standardized test, and that training for a standardized test is a waste of instructional time. We are far from being alone in this opinion. Here are a couple of links you may find interesting:

15 Reasons Why Standardized Tests are Worthless

Private schools' FCAT fears mirror frustrations of Florida parents