The Hedgehog on River Road
April 5, 2019
“try to do one thing uncommonly well….” Nearly twenty years ago, this was the advice given her sons by civil rights attorney and author Marian Wright Edelman as they were preparing to leave home for university. The focus of the hedgehog.
The fable of the hedgehog and the fox is well-known and was operationalized in Jim Collins’ leadership text, Good to Great (Harper, 2001). The fox, armed with clear thinking, an understanding of the landscape and adapted reasoning skills appeared ready to outwit his prey, yet he was often bested. The hedgehog does one thing uncommonly well – he rolls into a ball and offers a spiny mouthful to his foe.
Collins’ explanation of the ‘hedgehog concept’ is inspired by three questions overlapping in a figure not unlike the one in the blog post The Venn of Teaching (1/17/2019). Imagine those questions in real time at Primary Day.
#1 – What are you deeply passionate about?
Together as trustees, faculty, staff and families, we share one clear goal – success for all. From the start, our mission was clear – a zealous commitment to take each learner as far as each could go and to prepare our graduates for lives of purpose. The legacy of the founders is ours today. If the fall and winter terms were distinguished by consistent, collective successes, then in the final weeks of the year we redouble our efforts to challenge and support our young learners in every way. This is our shared passion. This is what brings the team to campus each day to serve as we do. This is who we are.
#2 – What are you the best at?
“simply the best, better than all the rest…” – Tina Turner, wasn’t it? What we do, we do with great clarity and we do it exceedingly well. We are a school like no other and as we consider the future through the lens of both the anniversary celebrations and the strategic planning process, our path is clear. The future is defined by a nimble traditionalism that is ours alone and has characterized the ethos of the school throughout our history. Unequivocally, Primary Day is the school where the most important years of a child’s schooling are actualized to the fullest extent possible. The parents of our second graders know this as their children have realized many options for their next school experience, our current parents know and enjoy a full immersion in school life and the excitement of our newly enrolled families is demonstrable. How lucky we are.
#3 – What drives our economic engine?
Our extant success is a consequence of the stalwart stewardship of our mission and resources by generations of trustees, faculty, parents and alumni. Seventy-five years on, we are the grateful beneficiaries of their tactical thinking. Indeed, it is their example that makes me stand up when I want to sit down, try one more time when I want to stop and head out the door each morning when I want to stay home and sleep in. My colleagues and our children keep me grounded and I am grateful for their support.
The soon-to-be released strategic plan will help us live our vision in ‘real time’ but without a robust enrollment and consistent, achievable fundraising initiatives; our goals may not be realized. With the laser focus of the hedgehog, our ‘economic engine’ will be well-fueled, but our future success is a collective enterprise – each of us must contribute to the next 75 years. We must never waver as we “do one thing uncommonly well…”
-and alums, never forget the courage and resilience of Hopey, the Hedgehog in Kindergarten Phonovisual!
February 28, 2019
for Best Picture: Green Book
for Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Roma
for Best Actress: Olivia Colman – the Favourite
The truth is, in spite of having thoroughly enjoyed both Roma and the Favourite, I was still championing the cause of fellow New Englander, Glenn Close, in her bid to win for her role in The Wife, a film I have yet to see. Curious? No, just paradoxical decision-making at its finest!
Indeed, this is the season of decisions, of questions and of reflective thinking. In spite of the late winter wind, the sun is shining and I am thinking of our children. As Head of School, my commitment to our community and to the education of your children is clarified, and perhaps rendered less paradoxical, by the hard thinking and the intentional self-questioning that real reflection affords. How lucky I am to have thought partners like colleagues, committed parents and our imaginative, hopeful young learners!
Why Primary Day? One of the most important decisions we undertake each winter is the selection of new children and families to join our community. Primary Day enjoys an enviable position in greater Washington and we have multiple applicants to consider for openings at each grade level. In my conversations with visiting families, I always pose the question Why Primary Day? and in a variety of ways, they ask a similar question of me, “Why is PDS the ‘best’ place for my child”? As I describe the unique aspects of our curriculum, I listen with passion and I hope they hear mine. I listen for joy and I hope they hear my joy. Together, we work to ascertain fit. Be assured that our enrollment decisions are grounded in both a deep understanding of our mission and a generosity of spirit. Our current families understand deeply why they selected Primary Day and why the fit was, and continues to be, right for them. Later this week, we will offer admission to a number of qualified candidates and our school family will expand in exponential ways!
Similarly, our second grade families are imagining life outside Primary Day. For those who have made application to independent schools, admission offers will be extended by week’s end. Whatever options our families have available, and whatever their selection, their children are well-prepared, highly regarded applicants and their success is assured.
Next-School Placement is a year-long, collaborative process at Primary Day. Beginning with conversations in the spring of grade one and concluding this month, with each of our families making definitive grade three enrollment decisions, this important process is an integral part of our commitment to families as they join our community – this is enrollment management in action!
In every way, this is a season for decisions. In every way, we labor to arrive at the ‘right’ one. In every category, our children are winners.
Our Mascot IS our Mission
February 7, 2019
Over the course of nearly forty years as an educator, I have encountered school mascots of every sort. As a rallying point for athletic competitions, student council elections and community celebrations, a mascot is an unmistakable symbol of a school’s identity. At Primary Day, Beako is that and more.
The power of Beako has kept us grounded as we educated generations of children and guides us still as we plan for an exciting future. Each time I watch Beako distribute magic powder I wonder, how would I answer his question “what can you do better this year?”
What would your answer be?
Beako is more than a symbol of our life lived – he represents our mission in real time! While renderings of our mascot appear throughout the school building, it is the beautiful mosaic dominating our assembly space, the Beako Room, which captures both the elegance and spirit of our dear friend. His yellow ribbon is prominently displayed and reminds us of Beako’s Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Posted in every classroom and office, Beako’s Code of Conduct renders the Golden Rule a set of practices that govern our collective life at Primary Day.
The origin of Beako has been the subject of speculation in recent years, but as we delved deeply into the archives in this anniversary year, we discovered the truth revealed in a 2004 issue of the school newsletter, The Beakon.
“Beako was the creation of Mrs. Marie Buckley, a co-founder and first [Head] of The Primary Day School. Mrs. Buckley is remembered as a master teacher who had a magical quality about her. She first introduced Beako to her Primary Day students at an assembly in 1944. For his debut, he proudly wore a yellow ribbon around his neck inscribed with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Teaching the Golden Rule was as important to Beako and Mrs. Buckley as the teaching of Phonovisual. The daily practice of respect for others was to become the hallmark of good citizenship at The Primary Day School.”
The tangible source of Beako’s power is the unfolding joy of your children at work. In Beako, our mission has been manifested from the very start. May it always be so.
The Venn of Teaching
January 17, 2019
The Venn of Teaching
Winter has arrived with an irrefutable earnestness! Nevertheless, I am determined that we resist the commotion caused by unavoidable inclement weather and focus on our work with your children which is, by every measure, important work.
Great teaching, the heart and soul of a great school, has long been a hallmark of a Primary Day education. It is how our mission is realized every day. As teachers and co-learners, we are committed to both the academic and social growth of our children as they experience, first-hand, the uniqueness that is schooling on River Road. Our teachers are among the most capable, the most competent and the most compassionate of any team with whom I have ever served. Their dedication to their students is second to none. Teaching at Primary Day is a multi-faceted enterprise. Our faculty are actively engaged in planning and implementing a comprehensive program, inspired by growth and manifest the courage to teach. But what of this profession? How do educators live out their passion to be the best? What sustains them in their work?
Nearly a century ago, the preeminent educator, John Dewey, styled teaching as neither an art nor a science, but rather a fluid combination of the two – in essence, a craft. Visually speaking, this characterization could be illustrated by a Venn diagram with the professional craft of teaching symbolized as the intersection of the art and the science. As the child-centered spirit empowered by best practices and solid pedagogical knowledge, this is who we are. This rubric has been debated for decades amongst our colleagues and in the professional literature. How can it be that we are nothing more than respectable craftsmen? Undeniably, in cultures throughout our world, the master craftsman is held in the highest esteem, above all other professions, and opportunities for apprenticeships are highly prized. Our craft is our passion.
Why write of the Venn of Teaching on this grey winter morning? For the simple reason that in the days ahead I will enjoy the pleasure of reviewing the report cards that our teachers have prepared for every learner documenting their growth during fall term. I will come to know the progress of your children in new and different ways and I will be inspired again and again by the love and devotion the faculty have for the students in their care. I know, that when you read of your child’s accomplishments, you will see what I see and you will know of our craftsmanship.
Let it snow!
Recess: A Required Course
December 13, 2018
Outdoor play is a critical part of schooling at Primary Day. In fact, it is an essential component of our thoughtfully designed, developmentally appropriate curriculum. Consistent with our commitment to educate the whole child, we believe that the social curriculum is as important as the academic one. Likewise, it is our firm belief that the worlds of academic achievement and that of peer relations are interrelated. Typically if children do well in one area, they tend to do well in the other.
Recess is a well-rehearsed venue for children’s social development – a problem-solving crucible, a place of negotiation where children learn and practice the skills necessary to interact in the larger social world. Albeit with distant adult-supervision, recess is a time for children to interact among themselves. This is as it should be. Engaging in cooperative interactions at play require age-appropriate cognitive skills and, with peers as play partners, young children are provided with the social and emotional support necessary to negotiate academics with greater success. Our youngest learners delight in fantasy, dramatic or equipment-based play while their older schoolmates participate in organized games, which are governed by rules and thus are characterized by operational intelligence at more sophisticated levels. Whatever the case, the research is clear: children are significantly more attentive after a recess than before!
Whether a scheduled or an unscheduled “sneaky” recess, we go outside in all kinds of weather, unless it is raining or the temperature is dangerously cold. Thanks for helping your children remember that hats, mittens, gloves and a warm coat are essential for winter learning out-of-doors here on River Road.
Pensamiento, Pensée, 思考
November 29, 2018
Among the most frequent questions asked by both prospective and newly enrolled families are those about our World Language program. Why do students learn three languages simultaneously? Wouldn’t it be better to teach one language more frequently and more in depth? My child is bilingual and speaks French fluently, how will he be challenged? Don’t the children become confused?
The answers to these important questions lie, quite simply, in the research. By every measure, language study at an early age creates a firm foundation for children to become lifelong language learners. While introducing them to other languages and cultures, it encourages open-mindedness by promoting curiosity about the world and other ways of life. Early exposure to other languages empowers children to become both confident risk-takers and critical thinkers. Most importantly however, early study of multiple languages assures the brain FLEXibility necessary for young children to succeed in related academic pursuits. As twentieth-first century educators, we recognize the importance of action research and from neuroscience we know that the brain is elastic, not fixed. Early language learning programs akin to our approach use the brain’s natural inclination to seek out, recognize and create patterns – every day and with startling frequency.
At PDS, our FLEX (Foreign Language Exploratory) program emphasizes receptive language, with students expected to do more listening than speaking, as they are in the input phase of learning. The idea is to replicate, as practicably as possibly, the way one’s native language is acquired. Pedagogically, the program is delivered in short classes over the course of an academic year or years. Neither oral nor written fluency of the target languages is expected. Taught in multi-modal contexts where both the visual and the textual reinforce conceptual content, the modalities of the brain work together, in a FLEXible manner, not in isolation. A tangential goal is to give students a foundation for future language study, introduce basic phrases in a number of languages in order to sharpen listening skills and familiarize students with the notion that ideas can be expressed in a language other than English.
FLEX programs could be described as ‘language potpourri’ or ‘sampler courses’ which allocate a limited number of classes to each of several languages. Not so here on River Road. We are not a smorgasbord lot – we sample nothing, but embrace our work with gusto, strive to remain FLEXible in our approach and joyous in our lives lived with your children.
Gratitude Requires Courage
November 15, 2018
gratitude. n.: the state of being grateful: thankfulness.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (6th edition). (1999). Springfield: Merriam-Webster.
Gratitude, authentically achieved, can be life changing but it is a high bar, one that demands a good deal of courageous reflection. The algorithm is straightforward, but hardly simple. It requires ongoing, systematic scrutiny to heed the multiple opportunities for gratefulness that are granted us each day.
The best-selling author, Saran Ban Breathnach, set forth the challenge more precisely. “abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend….we [can] choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but [be] grateful for the abundance that’s present”.
I must admit, my struggle to attend to all that is wondrous in my life is underscored each year by the advent of the Thanksgiving holiday. But thankfulness is not an event and an annual inventory of personal abundance is not enough. If I do not want my work to achieve gratitude to go the way of the un-realized New Year’s resolutions, then I need to be unyeilding in my search for gratefulness. I must be more courageous. I need to operationalize my reflections, to plumb both daily and life-changing events for opportunities to be thankful and to record them in earnest. This I know.
But what of life at Primary Day? How can we realize our abundance and demonstrate gratefulness? I think the answer lies in the collective commitment to children and their well-being that we live every day. For us, the question is not which garden to tend, but how to celebrate opportunities to be thankful and turnkey those into genuine gratitude. We must be resolute and courageous, as we school each other in the importance of ‘year-round’ gratefulness.
Be assured of my gratitude for your support and confidence in our shared mission.
Throwing Something Back
October 25, 2018
“We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.”
An essential part of a Primary Day education is a commitment to teaching our children to care – for themselves, for their classmates, for their families and for those in need. The importance of social action grounded in selfless giving cannot be overstated. While our community service programs offer opportunities for all of us to engage and contribute, it is in our conversations, and yours at home, that our children learn about their responsibility to care for others and for our collective future together.
As we work to shape the service thinking and future practices of our children, we must emphasize that philanthropy is a critical part of a democratic society. Broadly defined, philanthropy represents a collective responsibility for humankind as it is through our giving that we can provide opportunities for growth and change. Yes, our lives are made richer by our giving and we must do all that we can to cultivate this truism for our children’s sake.
What is also true is that philanthropy represents giving and sharing on many levels. Volunteerism is, at its core, a philanthropic enterprise and represents a contribution of the purest sort. With that said, generous financial support for charities, programs and schools represent another, equally impactful, type of giving.
At Primary Day, we look to every member of our school family to support our philanthropic efforts to the most ambitious extent possible. While contributions to The Primary Circle: The Annual Fund for PDS impact our small community in ‘real time’ it is this, and other, philanthropic endeavors that we need to consistently model for our children. If we make a point each and every day to throw something back our community will grow together in exponential ways – and together we’ll nurture the next generation of a philanthropic society.
“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”
- Maya Angelou
Our DNA is Yours – PDS @ 75!
October 11, 2018
Have you ever thought about what makes the Primary Day legacy so compelling 75 years on? What breathes life into this unique school year after year? Of course, we have a distinct brand; a mission statement; a vision, brochures, posters, and a website. They all help get the message out, but they aren’t enough. Not even close. There’s one ingredient that’s greater and more important than all of those combined. It’s you…our parents.
Parents sustain our legacy through their passionate commitment to this unique school. Today’s Primary Day exists through the vociferous, enthusiastic participation and contribution of generations of parents whose active commitment and pronounced support sustains the heritage we share from one generation to the next. Our DNA is yours!
The enrollment team orchestrates and leads our annual enrollment charge. That said, we depend on parents to participate in an orchestral performance that can be heard throughout greater Washington. Through your community connections, you turnkey both your personal experience and your heartfelt emotions in order to energize the next class of parents. The result: nearly 85% of new families come to PDS through parent referrals. That’s powerful in itself, but even more so when you learn that most schools aspire to 75%!
As PDS embarks on another great year, the enrollment team – and now you know that team includes you – will be assembling the next class of PDS families whose community and educational values mirror your own. That’s what makes the Primary Day legacy so powerful, so sustaining. Thank you.
The Power of Agile Thinking
September 27, 2018
The most successful schools recognize the generational value of families and students—from the first inquiry to the planned gift of a proud alumnus. As families traverse the route of admission to enrollment and next-school placement and as their children emerge as alumni who will refer others to the School and engage with the community for a lifetime, the power of a Primary Day education is affirmed.
As an independent school, we have always enjoyed the freedom to explore innovative advancement approaches, respond to community needs with precision and design flexible learning environments to respond to changing demographics. We work hard to keep the thinking nimble and the focus sharp.
Our mission is distinct and our vision for the future, impassioned. To insure a forward trajectory, we have spent considerable time in recent months researching best practices relative to a new concept in independent schools, that of Mission Integration. Enabled by the professional gifts and talents of existing staff and inspired by the true collaboration that characterizes our work together, we have reconfigured both our Advancement and Enrollment teams to sustain our strong culture and brand supported by shared decision making. Traditional job descriptions have been replaced with a more strategic leadership of mission-based initiatives. We have fashioned a Mission Integration team at Primary Day.
In collaboration with the Board of Trustees and the faculty, the team will employ a cohesive approach to advancing the School’s mission. By implementing best practices and, in anticipation of a board-adopted Strategic Plan, the stage will be set for our vibrant future. Members of the Mission Integration team include the following colleagues: the Assistant to the Head of School, the Assistant Director of Enrollment Management, the Business Manager, the Director of Advancement and the Director of Enrollment Management. Agile thinkers all!
As always, I welcome your thoughts and your questions about our thinking.
Magna-Tiles and Rubber Ducks
September 17, 2018
Managed institutional growth is born of community engagement. The power of candid conversations, collaborative planning, and passionate involvement cannot be overstated. Taken together with an unwavering dedication to a clear mission, the very best of schools thrive and serve generations of students. This is who we are.
Primary Day was not your typical ‘start-up.’ Washington, the beleaguered capital city of a nation at war, was an inauspicious environment to inaugurate a new institution. Our tenacious, passionate, and committed founders were not deterred. In the years before the doors opened in the fall of 1944, three courageous women invested much of their time in developing the Phonovisual method, and they were convinced of its efficacy. They had engaged in challenging discussions, collaborated with university-level educational experts and were headstrong in their planning for what would become The Primary Day School. This is the heritage that is ours today.
However, the school’s future wasn’t assured by its founders alone, but by the faculty and the parents of the children taught in those early classrooms. Candid conversations, active listening, strong partnerships, and mutual trust enabled institutional growth in very real ways. Our move to River Road was made possible by a group of intrepid parents and benefactors who demonstrated an unwavering confidence in a school that had produced successful young learners from the very start.
Our enduring success is a product of that same reliance upon and trust in our relationships, and by collaborations that ignite a synergy of ideas, opportunities, and actions. For decades, my predecessors have collaborated with this community, sustaining its changing needs and drawing from its evolving capacity to contribute to its future. With traditions as touchstones, and as steadfast caretakers of a remarkable legacy, they fortified an already firm foundation. I am privileged to follow their lead.
As we prepare to celebrate our seventy-fifth year and chart our future, active listening, sincere engagement, and forthright dialogue will be essential elements for success. The PDS legacy was forged in a turbulent era and today we are challenged to envision our future in likewise unsettled times. Together, our collective resilience will prevail.
So, what of Magna-Tiles and rubber ducks? My challenge to each member of our community is to be as courageous as our founders, as unabashedly philanthropic as those first parents, and as committed as our earliest colleagues. Help us “get our ducks in a row” for the future! If you have a great idea — or a suggestion for growth, improvement, or change — grab a duck from the bowl in the front office, bring it to me with your thinking and together we’ll add your idea to the growing flush of ducks we’ve already collected. Interested in an authentic, engaging conversation about our future? My door is always open, the latchkey is out, and there is a pile of Magna-Tiles on the table to help us assemble a vision for PDS. Together.