Thursday, June 16, 2016

Graduation 2016

Every year at Graduation time, it has been my honor and pleasure to sit quietly for a while and think about the students who have worked with us over the years and who are now ready to move on to high school. At this time I traditionally have written a poem for each of them to read at the Graduation ceremony. I also write a joint poem for the 4th graders as they move up to 5th - middle school for us at Summers-Knoll.

This year we bid a proud and fond farewell to Ada, Kaeli, Lee, Margaret, Matt, Nik, and Karenna. The ceremony was delightful as always, with our wonderful graduates talking eloquently, movingly, and hilariously about their classmates, teachers, and school experience. Karl discussed each one of them in the context of the Seven Virtues of the Samurai, and our 7th graders (now rising 8th graders) supported them beautifully. Thank you to Josh for the wonderful music.

So go well, dear students. Please know that you are loved. Come back and visit often. Here are your poems. They are all sonnets in honor of the farewell sonnet that you wrote for me. (The poem for the 4th graders is at the end.)

There’s a river that runs deep beneath the ground
Flowing cold and silken, soft and dark.
Watery thoughts and dreams, fluid, profound,
Run liquid through that river’s secret arc.
Seeping between the rocks, those thoughts make cracks
And fractured pathways for ideas to spread,
And craft mysterious patterns like a wild thing’s tracks
Or the complex trail of Ariadne’s thread.
Time passing sees that magic liquid leave
Bright crystals growing in the fissured stone
Filling the tiny cracks that interweave
With glittering gems, of hope and wisdom grown.
So Ada’s thoughts run far, and carve out ways
To fill with light her heart’s deep waterways.


When a heart is bigger than the deep blue sea,
And smiles are wider than a lotus flower,
And eyes are kinder than a giving tree,
And hands more helpful than a fresh spring shower;
When ideas fly like butterflies and bees
And feelings flow like sunlit mountain streams
And questions grow like great sequoia trees,
Enthusiasm like mid day sunbeams;
When people smile because you’re in the room,
And children jump up high to hear your name,
And animals are safe because of you,
And dragons flock about you like a flame;
Why, then, dear Kaeli, know that all you are
Gives joy to others like a shining star.


If you're looking for a certain kind of humor,
If you're tickled by a sense of irony,
If it's worse to be unfunny than a tumor,
The best person to talk to would be Lee.
If a host of pink flamingos are your soul mates,
If your pals are Tweedledum and Tweedledee,
If Socrates is on your list of greats,
You might want to spend some friendly time with Lee.
If a wall that talks strikes you as super-funny,
And a talking moon sets all your laughter free,
If a joke is sweeter far to you than honey,
Then the guy you want to hang out with is Lee.
On a stage of dry and witty repartee,
There's no finer man to tread the boards than Lee.


Margaret knows to look behind the clouds.
She is aware of space outside the room.
She knows that things are said, just not aloud,
And hangs out on the dark side of the moon.
Margaret exists in ordinary space
But in her heart she sees a magic world
Where people have a different kind of face
And thoughts, like flags, flow on the wind, unfurled.
She knows that there is mystery in words,
She knows that there's enchantment in the arts,
Ideas surround her like a flock of birds,
With all the grace and beauty that imparts.
Margaret lives life half in Faeryland,
And each day takes an elf friend by the hand.


Matthew O is quiet till he isn’t.
Matthew O is still until he’s not.
Matthew did the thing (unless he didn’t),
Matthew crossed the t and i-ed the dot.
Matthew breathes in words and breathes out music,
He makes a magic world upon a stage,
His wit can cause his classmates all to lose it
Though he has the grave demeanor of a mage.
Matthew has his own sweet way of being,
He marches to the beat of his own drum.
He sometimes lets us see what he is seeing,
But only he has done what he has done.
What he will do, and where the future takes things,
My crystal ball has told me will be great things.


If Nik went on a trip to Mount Olympus,
To hang out with the ancient Gods of yore,
He’d spend his time in high jinks and in rumpus,
And the trickster God, winged Hermes, would be sore.
Why Nik, he’d say, you’re taking all my mischief,
My fun, my wiles, my frolics and my gags,
You run so fast I think you are a speed thief,
I’m the one who is quicksilver (not to brag).
Nik would respond with charm and grace and laughter,
Saying, Come on, brother Hermes, we are twins!
Together - now there’s no before or after,
When we make shenanigans we can both win!
So Nik and the great Trickster of the Gods
Would set the whole world laughingly at odds.


Karenna’s heart is somewhat like a compass.
It points true north and does not lose its way
She has a sense of self, a sense of oneness
That means that she will never go astray.
Karenna’s heart is somewhat like a window,
She has clarity and truth, sincerity,
And when you see her riding in a limo
You’ll know she came by it with honesty.
Karenna’s heart’s a little like a fortress
In that her friends know they can count on her
She’s steady, strong, her loyalty is faultless,
When friends are happy she begins to purr.
Karenna has the kind of strength you see

When the Pole Star shines out so constantly.

4th Grade Graduates

Fourth Grade Friends! Your time to move has come,
Fifth Grade awaits! What will it bring for you?
Will Mark invent a racecar to the moon?
Will Addy write a novel or a play?
Rebecca win a mathematics prize?
Danny may clean the country’s water,
Lilith paint new and wondrous creatures that will fly
Around the school and come to be our pets.
Olivia could make cakes that save the world.
Will Juliana earn an Oscar yet,
Her first of many, youngest girl to win?
Will Niccolo outrun the speed of sound?
Will Andrew plant a forest, lush and green?
Can Evie do a handspring so athletic
It carries her across Lake Michigan?
Will Sana become president, or queen?
Will Lucas tell a story that comes true?
Will Folu become the world’s official artist
And Joey read each book the world contains?
Whatever you all do, you’re sure to constantly
Be your amazing selves, that no one else can be.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Gratitude and Goodbyes

It's become a commonplace in motivational (and educational) speech these days to point out that an ability to experience gratitude fully is one of the key components of happy, fulfilled life. That being the case, I am all set up for bliss right now.

This is my last blog as Head of Summers-Knoll School, and I am overwhelmed with the warmth and kindness shown to me by parents, staff, and students alike. There has been an outpouring of love and appreciation that completely humbles me. In turn I want to share my appreciation here.

This has been an unquantifiable journey for me. I have learned more than I would ever have dreamed, and grown in ways I could not have anticipated before I took on this work. I have been helped along the way by a changing but always dedicated board, led and manned by extraordinary people. The teachers and staff I have been privileged to work with are brilliant, deep, thoughtful, sensitive, funny, skillful and intensely creative. The families who have shared their children with the school have been diverse, involved, insightful, adventurous, helpful, and wonderful partners in support of their children's growth. The students themselves have grown and continue to grow into confident, independent, thinking, questioning, feeling, engaged, passionate, communicative people who all have my heart now and forever. Thank you all for your part in making this school the home it has been for me throughout these amazing years.

Thank you to all who organized and attended my farewell party. Thank you to all the students and staff who contributed to my lovely book, Dragon Breath and Unicorn Magic, and to all of you who wrote farewell messages in my notebook. Many, many thanks to everyone who contributed to the Library Fundraiser; the idea that any room in the school will still be known as "Joanna's..." warms my heart, but the library especially brings me so much joy. Thank you, thank you.

Many of you have asked about where my life is leading me next. I had originally planned to move back to England completely, but as time has gone on I have realized that I am not willing to put myself in the position of missing my friends here as much as I now miss my family in England. So I am planning a flexible lifestyle, freelancing as a writer, and as a consultant for progressive education. My goal is to be able to make my own schedule, and spend significant stretches of time in England as well as keeping my life here in Ann Arbor intact. I will be doing a lot of theatre, beginning with a production of one of my own plays at the Yellow Barn opening at the end of July.  Many of you know that theatre was a huge part of my life before I became Head of School; it is all set to become that way again.  I am excited at the possibilities the future holds, not least because I will be able to stay in touch with everyone here who matters so much to me.

Thank you again for being part of this community, for sharing your children with the school and with me, and for all the enriching experiences we have shared. In the words I offer our graduates as they leave each year: You're my favorite.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Science of Character

Here's eight minutes worth of a wonderful tool to help guide thinking about your child's development, and how you talk with your children about their life, their day, setbacks, struggles, conflicts. Parents of older children might want to watch it with their child. Whatever you take away from it, it's definitely worth a look. You can find the video here.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Group Work

Group work and student collaboration are lynchpins of our work at Summers-Knoll, for reasons that range from the social development of our students (negotiation, adaptability, empathy, listening skills, and a whole host of other benefits) to academics (looking at a question from different perspectives, critical thinking, the deepened thinking that comes from having to explain yourself and argue) by way of increased resilience and opportunities to be active, take initiative, and more. It can also be a messy, unpredictable way to work, at least if it is done properly. 

The article linked here is a long read, and very much from a teacher's perspective, but for those of you who are interested it may shed a unusual light on the frustrations and the glories of this kind of work. Please don't take the title at face value. 


Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Importance of the Arts

Watching the work that Josh has been doing with the children all year continues to inspire my (and the whole team's) thinking about developing deep learning and ownership in our children. Here's a link to his blog, where in any given post you can get a sense of the autonomy and purpose that our kids develop in music. It's not just Josh, by any means - all the teachers incorporate the arts meaningfully and intentionally. Josh, as the music teacher, as well as Tracy and Monica, has a program that exemplifies the benefits of integrating the arts into education.

Immersion in the arts - visual arts, theatre, music, creative writing - is an crucial element of a well-rounded education. It gives our children a means to figure out who they are, by developing creativity and learning how to express their ideas. But it doesn't stop there. Engaging in the arts is also a processing tool. It allows people to take on new ideas and think about them in multiple ways. It is a way to grapple with difficult concepts and thorny issues, partly (in my view) because it enables each individual to internalize an idea in a way that makes sense to them. Involvement in music, theatre, and all forms of art is linked to advances in academic areas such as math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill as well as social and emotional areas such as motivation and confidence. At Summers-Knoll, art is seen as essential. It is not an “extra". It is not an afterthought to reading and math. Every child in the school has dedicated music and art scheduled twice a week, and it is integrated into the homeroom and specialist classrooms in multiple ways.

If you are the parent of a 5th or 6th grader and were able to catch the Latin play (Imogen's post here), you'll have seen the calm, conversational ease with which they rolled off their lines. I'm sure you're acutely aware of the value theatre can have in developing confidence and deep understanding of foreign language, for example. Many of you saw the whole school play earlier this year, where Karl and Josh engaged every class in a production of A Sort of Complete History of America (Abridged), and witnessed the joy in which students participated. I had multiple notes from parents as well as hallway chats letting me know how inspired their child was to learn more about history during and after that experience. The Place Out Of Time project, in which Summers-Knoll has had a shaping and participatory role for the past twelve years, and in which every middle school student participates, is different kind of example of how dramatic approaches lead to heightened awareness, engagement, and processing of ideas for our kids. History, science, equity and justice, writing, research and debate skills are all developed through role-playing in this project. (Here are some photos of the culminating event on Jason's blog.)

It's not just theatre, it's not just music. It's not just the amazing artwork that decorates the school. It's classroom teachers giving our students ways both small and large to connect the dots through creative endeavors. Here's Elaine linking numbers, innovation, and the poetic forms with her 1st and 2nd graders. Sam French, the Academy Award nominated filmmaker, came into school and talked with our middle school kids about making his documentary "The Buzkashi Boys", connecting with the filmmaking work that the 5th and 6th graders (and also Jason's documentary EB) are doing and forging associations with culture and geography at the same time. Here's Lisa, working with students in science to develop their understanding of adaptation in animals through an imaginative assignment.

The benefits of this approach are many. Our students maintain and build on their creative natures in all subjects, rather than learning by experience that the arts are valued only as recreation. After years of engaging in integrated arts education, our students leave as creators who have experience giving expression to their ideas through multiple artistic forms, and with enhanced academic skills, including an ability to think creatively about whatever subject matter they encounter and whatever problems they are asked to solve.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Elections, democracy, and respect

America is in a state of fever right now. Everywhere you go, news, advertisements, casual chat and intense discussions are centered on the build-up to the election.

This is a huge opportunity to model thoughtful, respectful discourse with your children. They are sensitive to everything going on around them. They hear what you say, even when it is not directed at them. They absorb your reasoned approaches and your respectful weighing of perspectives. They also absorb any anger, vitriol, fear, sarcasm or hyperbole that you may share in their presence.

Children are interested in what's going on. Their world is dominated by the election because it is everywhere and they hear about it constantly. They have thoughts and opinions, often (though not always) modeled on their parents. Encouraging your children to discuss their thoughts, and modeling reason and respect in doing so, helps to set a foundation for their effective engagement in the democratic process.

Children are also intensely literal. They don't necessarily know the difference between hyperbole and fact, or a sarcastic joke and actual truth. Anxiety can run rampant, opinions can be adhered to as incontrovertible, and divisiveness between children and their friends can become a significant issue. They may be afraid that they will have to move to another country. They may be terrified that they or a friend may be deported. They may even find that it makes them feel powerful to threaten their classmates with this fate.

Talking to them about the democratic process, about your thoughts regarding who you support and why, and keeping the conversation positive and respectful goes a long way towards both supporting their development as active citizens in a democracy and towards negating the anxiety produced by the constant rush of fever-pitch emotions that we are all exposed to around this subject.

Please help your children and your children's classmates by being aware of the way you represent political candidates and your opinions to them. It's important to your child's emotional wellbeing and to our whole community of children, all of whom are important whether they share political beliefs or not.

Here's an article that may help guide your thoughts (from four years ago, but still relevant). Here's another.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Homework Then and Now

At Summers-Knoll we believe that young children should be free of homework, and that even as they grow older it should be limited. Children have many needs and develop in complex ways. It's not our view that relentless, constant academic study leads to healthy, happy, confident and independent young adults. People often ask us about our homework philosophy, simultaneously anxious that their child will not be adequately trained, and grateful for the possibility of their child having time to learn in other ways and live without the stress that they see other families endure. So when I came upon this quote from an article in an October 1860 issue of Scientific American, I immediately wanted to share it with you. This isn't a new struggle - it's been going on for centuries.

“A child who has been boxed up six hours in school might spend the next four hours in study, but it is impossible to develop the child's intellect in this way. The laws of nature are inexorable. By dint of great and painful labor, the child may succeed in repeating a lot of words, like a parrot, but, with the power of its brain all exhausted, it is out of the question for it to really master and comprehend its lessons. The effect of the system is to enfeeble the intellect even more than the body. We never see a little girl staggering home under a load of books, or knitting her brow over them at eight o'clock in the evening, without wondering that our citizens do not arm themselves at once with carving knives, pokers, clubs, paving stones or any weapons at hand, and chase out the managers of our common schools, as they would wild beasts that were devouring their children.”