The Igloo and the Walking Stick
January 7, 2022
A Holiday Remembrance
December 15, 2021
I believe that one of the reasons I became Head of a school that serves elementary school-aged children is the vividness of memories I hold from those years. Brad Bell is one kid I still remember and think about, particularly at this time of year. Small and rail thin, Brad had a permanently raspy voice. He always seemed to squint at the world, and he always seemed to be more disheveled than the rest of us. If a teacher wasn’t looking, he would hit you hard in the arm as he walked past.
Brad’s differences didn’t end there. He lived tucked next to the new interstate that transformed our small town into a suburb of Boston. When the highway’s new cloverleaf entrance was excavated, Brad's house became cut off from any others, and his yard became increasingly overgrown before they moved.
Besides for giving us arm slugs, Brad rarely mixed with the rest of us. He wasn’t a part of our recess games, and I can’t remember even seeing him outside at our school. Yet, I often saw him all over town riding a barebones bike with a scraggly hound beside him. We kids knew that Brad’s dad had died when he was little and that his family struggled, something pretty much unheard of amongst the student body at Henry B. Sanborn School.
During those years one of the ways my parents kept my sense of privilege in check was by keeping our holiday gifts modest. My sister and I usually got one special toy (Mr. Kelly’s Carwash was my favorite). Then it was all practicalities: new boots, socks, and, to our groans, underwear. We also were expected to do regular purges of outgrown clothes and toys, and several times a year my father and I would load up our station wagon with our former treasures and head to the “sharing shed” at the town dump. There you could leave items in decent shape that you no longer wanted, and you could take items you thought you could use. It was there that I had found two pairs of old suede boxing gloves that, besides for missing laces and their dampness, were virtually pristine. The day I triumphantly brought the gloves home, my father started teaching me to box. I imagined boxing might prove useful if Brad Bell ever acted up.
One cold Saturday morning weeks after I had discovered the gloves, my father and I brought some large bags of used clothing to the sharing shed. Mr. Miller, our school’s custodian, had a weekend job overseeing and sorting the items brought in to share. Those he deemed worthy would be set out, almost lovingly, on some shelves inside the shed; others were put into huge burlap sacks through which one was welcome to rummage. Before our dump run that day, I remember weighing if I should surrender a favorite flannel shirt that had a rip in one elbow. “I’ll sew it up and then toss it in,” said my mother. “The sleeves are getting too short for you anyway. Someone else will treasure it, like you have. Just like you’ve loved those boxing gloves.” I reluctantly surrendered my shirt.
Shortly after our winter break, I noticed Brad Bell wearing a shirt just like the one I had given away. I remember at first being flustered but then saw the telltale repair. I wondered if Brad had found it himself in the sharing shed. Even though I felt new emboldened by my boxing moves, I knew not to ask him about it.
. At dinner that night I shared my confusion. As I was running through whether or not the shirt had been mine and how it would have come to Brad, my father stopped me. “Might be your shirt. Might not. You did the right thing in not mentioning it. Let him have his dignity. Imagine if that were your Christmas gift.”
I think of Brad Bell and that shirt most years as the late fall and early winter holidays of light approach. I think of my mother sewing the ripped sleeve and of my father telling me to put myself in Brad’s shoes. I think of Brad’s scrawny dog, his rickety bike, and mostly his family’s plight. I think of his characteristic squint and his preemptive arm punches. And I think how grateful I am for the lessons he unwittingly taught me.
I hope that your winter break is full of hope and light and the making of long-lasting memories.
Modeling Gratitude Beyond the Thanksgiving Table
November 18, 2021
Neil Mufson, Head of School
Being Little Matters
November 10, 2021
Neil Mufson, Head of School
The Power of Presence
October 28, 2021
The Critical Nature of Early Learning
October 14, 2021
Back to School Night Remarks - 9.23.21
September 30, 2021
Parent Night Remarks – 9.23.21
Neil Mufson, Head of School
Thanks so much for Zooming in tonight to gain a deeper sense of where and with whom your children spend such a significant piece of their day and to hear about the program, key goals, and procedures you’ll want to know so they will be ensured a great year.
I feel confident that you’ll come away from the evening feeling that your children are in exceptional hands, and that you’ve made the right investment to ensure that they have the benefit of the best possible education and foundation for these most important years.
I also hope, as a result of tonight, that you’ll be more likely to reach out to your child’s teacher when you have a concern or question, because that open communication, that engagement as parents in the educational process has consistently been found in the research to boost a child’s performance in school.
Tonight I wanted to share some thoughts with you on two topics. First, some of what I have noticed in my first weeks at PDS; and second, some small things I have found over the years that can have an outsized impact on the kind of student and person your child becomes.
But before I launch into that, I wanted to express my gratitude to you, most importantly for entrusting your children to us here at Primary Day. I take that trust as a sacred commitment we have to your child and to your family.
I also so appreciate all of your cooperation, understanding, and patience during these
extraordinarily challenging times. We are absolutely devoted to doing our best to ensure your child’s safety and that of our faculty and staff. Even when a vaccine is available for our children, we will remain vigilant, cautious, nimble, and prepared for the next twists and turns that the pandemic will bring. So thank you for all you are doing to comply with our protocols and for realizing that our children’s and our staff’s safety depends on all those little mindful decisions and observations you make along the way.
Thank you, too, for your patience as we work out our drop off and pick up procedures which are also based first on safety. Our fine-tuning of the afternoon pick up line has led to some real improvements, and we will soon be rolling out an app that will help further smooth things out in the morning.
As the faculty, staff, and I have welcomed your children Back to School, I have been struck by several things. First has been the absolute dedication and expertise of our faculty and staff. I see their deep developmental commitment at work every day. They lend amazing warmth and “kid knowledge” to their classrooms and routines, and their way with our students is so masterful that joy and purposefulness radiate from every learning space. Our teachers are real experts at the ages they teach, so be sure to make use of that expertise when you have questions or concerns about something your child is or is not doing. They know what’s normal, what works, what doesn’t work, what’s age appropriate, and they can offer a wealth of information, guidance, and reassurance.
I have also noticed that PDS children are exceptionally engaged, attuned, and eager. Their curiosity and energy seem boundless, and that kind of attitude toward school and learning is both infectious and palpable throughout the school. There’s an ebullient and happy hum that permeates this place, an underlying eagerness and motivation on the part of the children that prompts all to exercise their curiosity and to stretch themselves.
Community and kindness are also evident here. I have been so impressed by the care and respect your children show for one another.
Part of what makes Primary Day unique is that your child is part of a peer group that is uniformly attuned to the value of education, to doing their best, and to giving their all. I see and sense that every day. Of course as children get older, their peer group exerts an even stronger influence on them. But I very clearly see that PDS creates and capture this enormously positive side of peer influence that helps establish the right attitudes towards school.
When your children are surrounded by other children who have active and eager minds, when they’re happily engaged in a classroom where their teacher is a developmental, instructional, and child relationship expert who knows them so well, and when they come from homes which clearly prioritize education, they are bound to soar. That is what I see happening each day, even this early in the year.
I also would like to mention some seemingly small and perhaps obvious practices that you can put in place at home to enhance your child’s growing independence, sense of responsibility, and positive approach to learning and to life. I’d like to focus tonight on 3 simple things that eventually pay very powerful returns.
First, make sure you increasingly allow your children to do things on their own. Whether it’s cleaning up their toys after playing (like they do here), putting toothpaste on their toothbrush, or gathering their things to be ready to hop out of the car at morning drop off, consider giving them regular responsibilities or simple chores around the house. For instance, have them take on straightening their bed in the morning, helping with choosing or packing their lunch, making sure that their backpack is properly loaded and in the right place so it can just be grabbed in the morning, or sharing or reading stories with younger siblings. Take a look at how your household works, and find some authentic tasks they can regularly undertake that are truly helpful and that they can do consistently. Gradually add steps or complexity to these tasks as time goes on.
Of course it often is easier and more efficient to just do these things yourself, but look for what your children might be able to do more independently or how they can help. Model what you expect
and then let them do it consistently. Then build from these smaller pieces to more complete tasks. Young children like having responsibility, they are proud of showing you what they are capable of,
and it builds their independence, feelings of mastery, and sense of agency, which is their sense that they can influence their environment.
Obviously, developmental appropriateness is the key. You wouldn’t ask a PK child to load the dishwasher after dinner every evening. But you might ask him or her to do the basic setting of the table (at least of non-breakable or non-sharp things), or you might ask them to put their dirty clothes in the hamper, or to place their shoes in the right place so they can be found easily the next day.
A book written over a decade ago by Los Angeles psychologist Wendy Mogel called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee has emerged as a classic on making sure we are leading our children to become responsible, resilient, and independent. Mogel points out that if we don’t require our children to do things for themselves, if we don’t hold them accountable, if we don’t ask them to help out with reasonable, age-appropriate chores at home, we inadvertently risk disabling them for the future.
Similarly she points out if we consistently make things too easy for our children, if we regularly pamper, indulge, or overprotect them, if we too quickly jump in to “rescue” them, or assign blame elsewhere, their development into healthy, independent young people will become compromised. As she wrote, too many parents of our demographic, “in their eagerness to do right by their children, overindulge them materially, spoil them emotionally, [and] inadvertently inhibit their development of responsibility.” So we have to find those small steps when they are young, when they are at the ages of Primary Day students.
Another small but a very powerful routine – one that admittedly may be difficult to ensure is in place -- is to have dinner together as a family as many times a week as you possibly can. Not too long ago, I heard a podcast from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education that interviewed a family therapist named Anne Fishel, who directs an entity called The Family Dinner Project. We all know that there are tons of reasons families don’t or can’t have dinner together. But the salubrious impacts of regularly having family dinners are nothing less than astounding. Fishel reported, “There have been more than 20 years of dozens of studies that document that family dinners are great for the body, physical health, the brain, academic performance, and mental health.” In addition to the nutritional benefits, “Kids who grow up having family dinners, later, when they're on their own, tend to eat more healthily and to have lower rates of obesity.” And then she goes on to say this: “The mental health benefits are just incredible. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of [childhood and adolescent] depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, tobacco use, early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience” and feelings of self worth. All this just by making sure your family eats together regularly.
There are other simple, regular practices that also have huge pays off that I recommend and that I’ll talk about in the months and years ahead, things like developing a habit of regularly expressing gratitude; establishing an organized and consistent approach to doing homework; being on time; building intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation whenever possible; having a discipline system at home that is based on natural consequences, much like the one we have in place here at school; modeling and expecting empathy; and being certain to provide your child with predictable, consistent, age-appropriate routines.
One last seemingly small thing that leads to outsized benefits that I want to mention tonight is something you are probably already doing but that you should aim to continue for many years into the future: having a regular reading or story time with your child or whole family. This is relatively easy to put in place as part of a regular bed time routine, but it is something you should hold onto even when your child is an independent and sophisticated reader, maybe in the form of a family reading time.
The national statistics are damning. Studies find that 33% of American high school graduates never read another whole book the rest of their lives; 42% of American college graduates never read another book; and 80% of American families do not read, borrow, or purchase a book in a typical year.
When I was a kid, just about every night my father would tell me a bedtime story. For me, he created a fictional universe around Cubby Bear, a character I think he remembered from childhood bedtime stories and books. For my sister he created another character named Longnose Hufflefinger (which are evidently a type of tropical fish) but in this version was a person. For his granddaughters he created stories about a character named Pocket. Every night my father wasn’t traveling for work, I was told the latest adventure of Cubby Bear and his best friend Montmorency Percival Clarence Gopher, who when introduced was always met with the line, “My word, your name is longer than you are.”
The stories were simple and I believe were improvised. I am sure my father had no idea of the numerous and powerful benefits of these stories.Yes, they bonded us.Yes, they made me and my sister feel special, valued, and loved. And yes, it was a considerable investment of my father’s time. But now research shows that listening to stories or regular reading improves brain connectivity; increases vocabulary, comprehension, and memory; empowers the ability to empathize with other people; aids in sleep readiness; reduces stress; lowers blood pressure and heart rate; fights depression symptoms throughout life; and eventually prevents cognitive decline. All that from the reading habit!
Think about the impact of pairing that with the power of family dinners and giving your children meaningful responsibilities around home. In these times when there is so much uncertainty, it is reassuring as parents to know that inserting some simple practices into our routines can allow us to seize some control over some very important outcomes. Confidence and competence are indeed built through small steps, steps that have been modeled and practiced.
I am very much looking forward to meeting you in person at one of our upcoming parent coffees, but I would also welcome having an outdoor visit or a Zoom chat. Be sure to contact me if there ever is anything with which I can help you. In the meantime, know that I am looking forward to meeting you somewhere other than in the drop off or pick up line.Thank you again for joining us this evening.
The Role of Responsive Classroom at Primary Day
September 23, 2021
The Role of Responsive Classroom at Primary Day
Neil Mufson, Head of School
You probably know that Primary Day uses the research-based Responsive Classroom approach as the backbone of all we do at school. You may wonder, though, what Responsive Classroom is and why we use it as the foundation undergirding all the learning that goes on at PDS.
In a nutshell, Responsive Classroom pulls together from numerous research studies those practices that create the most successful, positive classroom and school culture. These practices build structure and predictability for our young learners, and this leads to positive learning attitudes and habits as well as the strongest student experience and achievement.
Responsive Classroom asks teachers to very mindfully construct a supportive, nurturing, and developmentally appropriate classroom environment in which all routines and activities are carefully modeled, implemented, and reinforced. Everything from morning meeting to recess, from group work to closing circle is intentionally facilitated in order to build a collaborative classroom in which our young learners develop confidence, competence, kindness, and voice. Students become reflective learners who gravitate to “just right” learning -- that which builds on skills and knowledge they have developed and challenges them to reach for the next level.
Responsive Classroom theory guides teachers in the creation of inviting, engaging, but not overly cluttered classrooms. Teachers use language that is also mindful, positive, calm, and warm. They break the day up into developmentally appropriate periods of time and activity that alternate between energizing and calming. A positive social and emotional climate is also modeled, reinforced, and fostered. There is a great emphasis on effort, practice, stretching, and growth. A positive, natural, and consistent discipline environment relies on modeling and age-appropriate natural consequences.
In the past few months, as I have visited the schools to which Primary Day sends its students, I have uniformly heard about how well prepared our children are for their next school experiences. Other schools frequently remark that they can “tell a PDS student” from their attitude towards learning and others, as well as their level of achievement and community-mindedness. This notable success is attributable to many factors, but chief amongst them are the exceptional talent and dedication of our faculty, the consistency with which they implement developmentally attuned practices such as those of Responsive Classroom, and the extraordinary partnership between home and school that is a hallmark of the Primary Day experience.
September 9, 2021
Neil Mufson, Head of School
I often wonder if I were destined to be in schools for so much of my life because I carry such strong memories of my own early schooling. I can still picture walking into the classroom on my own first day of Kindergarten. Mrs. Beaulieu was at the door to greet us and seamlessly separate us from our parents. She then directed us to play on the huge locomotive and train cars that occupied half of our very large room and that she had fashioned out of very large boxes and construction paper. Soon we were playing, forming nascent friendships, and taking the first steps towards independence from our parents. It was an exhilarating new beginning, at least for most of us.
In schools we are so fortunate to have abundant new beginnings. There is the start of the new school year, the start of the new calendar year, and the start of Spring with its resplendent signs of new life. Summer also brings its own start of consolidating gains, adjusting to a less structured routine, and making the most of plentiful opportunities for fun, fresh air, and new activities, places, and people.
With young learners especially, actually every day brings the promise of a new journey. This is part of what I love about working with these ages. There are constantly new connections, new learning, new questions, new discoveries, and new skills introduced and mastered. One factor that drew me to PDS for my own new beginning is the way the school embraces all the possibility and joy of this stage of life while remaining grounded by the deepest expertise in what our young learners most need.
Your children’s days at Primary Day this school year, like the 76 prior years at PDS, will nourish their bounding intellects, their expanding sense of what it means to be a community member, and their growing practice of what it means to be a lifelong, fully engaged learner. Their days will be full, their minds engaged, their joyful spirits nurtured. Of course academics will be important, but where we will also excel will be in partnering with you to help develop good people.
I often think of that seemingly larger-than-life cardboard train of my own first day of “real” school and the journey that was ahead. At PDS we are beginning, supporting, and boosting your children’s lifetime voyage of schooling, with all its promise, all its excitement, and all its beginnings. The faculty, staff, and I are here to guide your children and you with all the twists and turns ahead. Please be sure to call on us when you have a question, concern, or idea. We will do the same. In the meantime, know that I am so grateful that you and your family are “all aboard.”