From the Head's Corner

Each week, Head of School Mr. Stuart sends thought-provoking messages to the entire Caedmon community. Discussing a range of topics from Montessori practices, the latest research on childhood education, to sharing his world travels, the weekly missives are cherished by parents and staff alike for their insight, thoughtfulness, and warmth.

Reflecting on a very special Spring Break

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

~Gustav Flaubert

Dear Caedmon Community,
As many of you know, I had the incredible opportunity of traveling to Finland during Spring Break. This was so exciting, as I traveled with a cohort of NY educators from across the state – teachers from all grades, and administrators. We visited a number of schools, in the cities of Joensuu and Helsinki, and the teacher training school at the University of Eastern Finland. As you may know, Finland has been cited as one of the top (meaning most effective) education programs in the world.
Interestingly enough, the recognition for the Finnish approach to education first came in 2001, following their students’ incredible success on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), which is a standardized test. Educators from Finland will tell you that the international educational world was surprised by this, but Finnish students continued to be top-scorers on the test in 2003, and again in 2006 (the test is given every three years). Cleary the approach to learning and the training of their teachers had been established as a model from which to learn. Perhaps the biggest reason for the surprise, and the greatest irony, comes from the fact that the approach to learning is not unduly focused on achieving high standardized test results. In fact, one could argue that their focus, especially in the younger years, is antithetical to achieving test results. And so, educators from around the world are now traveling to Finland to find out how they are training their teachers and delivering their curriculum with such impressive outcomes. Not to mention, for the second year in a row, the United Nations has named Finland the “happiest country in the world,” based on “income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support, and generosity.”
I am not going to try and capture my entire trip into one Inside Caedmon article. (“Phew,” I can hear you saying!) I hope you will indulge me over the next several months to return to the topic, though. The trip was extraordinary, in that it was both humbling, gratifying (there were many comparisons to our approaches here at Caedmon), and had a share of disappointments as well. You should probably anticipate that when you read that someplace is the “Oz” of education, and then arrive to find it great in some ways and quite ordinary in others, it should come as no surprise. And, there is no way to make an apples-to-apples comparison. The entire country of Finland is about the size of half of Manhattan. They really don’t have private schools there (with the exception of a few religious schools and the American School of Helsinki for American ex-pat children). So we were a group of 30 private school educators observing a national public school system. But the independence offered to the principals, even with the clarity of national standards and expectations, and the unified approach to teacher training (compared to the incredible bureaucracy of the state-sponsored public school programs here in the US), resulted in wonderful, happy, innovative schools, teachers, and children.
Pasi Sahlberg is a name you might recognize. He is currently a professor at Harvard, originally from Finland, and is the “go-to” voice and author on all things Finland education. As he explains, there are five “critical elements” that experts reference. As Pasi himself reports though, “explaining why something happens in complex social systems always includes a reasonable amount of speculation, and can never be 100% certain.”
With that in mind, here are the five elements that we set off to observe and learn about (from the book, Teach Like Finland by Timothy Walker):
  1. One comprehensive school system, where children start school when they are 7 years old. (There is an extensive pre-primary educational program for children as young as 3 or 4, but it is strongly play-based.) There is a priority on a child’s well-being, health, and happiness, and all subjects are treated evenly, so that “children can cultivate multiple aspects of their personalities.” Schools had space equally devoted to academic classrooms, music studios, and to “crafts”- extensive wood-working machines, looms, and ovens for cooking – a bit MAKER and a bit good old shop and home ec. There is an enormous emphasis on equity. Since there are no private schools or school-to-school competition, ALL schools are expected to be good schools. The quality and consistency of the system provides each child the chance to succeed, and to find their individualized path.
  2. Great schools need highly-trained, passionate, and respected teachers. All teachers complete a research-based masters degree, at a teacher training university. The emphasis on training and professionalism has increased the trust and respect for teachers in Finland, and so the status of the teaching profession has been heightened. University is also free of charge (due to an extensive tax structure).
  3. The “children’s health and well-being” is not only a priority, but systems of support and accountability have been put in place to ensure success for each child. Both health care and learning issues seek to be identified as early as possible, and schools have extensive resources to address them (and health care is also heavily subsidized by the tax system). Schools have “Student Welfare Teams” and universities graduate almost as many special education teachers as they do classroom teachers. There is no stigma. They want all children to succeed.
  4. Leadership must be “in the hands of experienced and qualified educators.” That being said, there was a strong emphasis on shared or democratic leadership. Sahlberg says, “In Finnish Schools, leaders are teachers and teachers are pedagogical leaders.”
  5. Out-of-school experiences play a significant role in the success of children’s learning. The country has powerful child and youth policies, as well as an extended “network of associations, clubs, and organizations.” Children actually attend school from about 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., with fifteen minutes of every hour devoted to outdoor recess and play – so less “in-school” time, but not less attention to learning and connecting to one’s interests and passions.
Happy, healthy, passionate children, with the opportunity to pursue, often in cooperative, hands-on group projects, those topics that make them curious. Sounds like the best of Maria Montessori’s philosophy of learning, no? It is probably no surprise that something similar happened to Maria Montessori in the 1890s in Italy. Suddenly her students were achieving much greater success with the standardized testing than children in the more formalized Italian education system (in fact, she was accused of cheating on the tests).
More to come in future editions of Inside Caedmon. But for now, I felt most gratified on this trip to see how many of our basic values at Caedmon are the basis of the success of the Finnish program.
Best,
Matthew

The Magic of the Mini-mester

“Life’s supposed to be an adventure, a surprise! “

~Anton du Beke

Dear Caedmon Community,

The month of February is certainly an adventurous one for our Fifth grade. They have received their middle school choices (many receive at least three, or sometimes a combination of acceptance and a wait list). In the exmission process, it is February that the real decision making begins- it is exciting, patience-testing, and has ultimately proven to be a major accomplishment. With just a few weeks left before spring break, you can imagine the potential for a bit of an emotional letdown. Three years ago, the Fifth grade faculty landed on a brilliant idea. They came up with week-long “mini-mester” adventures for the Fifth grade, and have since initiated them each year, in these last two weeks of the winter term.
The concept behind a mini-mester is to create a lively, thought-provoking experience outside of the everyday curriculum, and to reflect the passions and interests of the students AND the teachers in that year’s Fifth grade. The teachers (and it has often included one or two additional faculty) then plot out five days of learning experiences. It may include some research, some travel throughout the city, deliberate reflection and journaling, and concludes with a presentation. This year, we will share them at Friday’s all-school student assembly, hopefully whetting the appetite of the Third and Fourth grade students.
As noted, the projects capture the interests of the teachers and of the small groups of students who participate in each one. This year, there were five groups. Take a look at the variety, richness, and fun of their learning:
  • Mr. Storti, one of the Fifth grade homeroom teachers, and his students studied “Food and Social Consciousness.” Beyond his excellent Fifth grade teaching, Bryan Storti is known to many of us as the host of delightful and unique NYC food tours. During the week, the group looked at what various people in NYC are doing to bring food to those who are food insecure. They visited organizations that are using cooking and baking to bring about social change.  At the end of each day, the group met in the Caedmon kitchen and cooked or baked (including an absolutely rich and delicious parmesan sated risotto for Tuesday’s faculty meeting, which came from a recipe used to feed the townspeople and save the extra stock of fine parmesan cheese in an Italian town, post earthquake).
  • Ms. Quintero, the Director of Student Learning and Support, introduced her students to “New York State and City Politics.” They met with people from the office of City Council member Ben Kallos. They visited Caedmon parent, Nicolle Wallace, at the MSNBC studios, to learn about the news and government reporting. On Tuesday, they took a “road trip” to Albany, where they met with our state senator, Liz Kruger, and NY State Assemblyman, Robert J. Rodriguez.
  • Ms. Howell, the other Fifth grade homeroom teacher, led a study of “Animals, Art, and Advocacy in New York City.” Through a combination of in-class discussions, art making, outdoor exploration, and field trips, they explored the intersection of art, nature and advocacy in NYC. Some essential questions and topics included: How can we foster a love of nature as city dwellers? What must we attune ourselves to in order to be advocates for the natural world in NYC? Where do we find nature in an urban setting? How can we use art to help advocate and learn/teach about animals?  The group visited museums and took several bird-watching trips in Central Park.
  • Mr. Jennings, the Director of Curriculum Design and Innovation, and his students studied “Genres of Modern Music that have Flourished in New York City,” such as jazz, hip-hop, and rock and roll. They looked at the role of social movements and immigration in bringing musical experimentation to the city, bringing genres from other parts of the country and world, and in bringing genres into contact with one another. His group visited musical venues (the Village Vanguard!) and museums around the city, and also read about and listened to lots and lots of music together.
  • Ms Frankel, who is a Third grade teacher and the director of the Fifth grade musical, explored “Healthy Living in NYC,” asking how do people stay physically and mentally healthy while living in a bustling city like New York? The experiences were broken down into three categories: Escaping Through Art, Mindfulness, and Physical Health & Wellness. Students went on art-filled excursions, to places such as the Museum of the Moving Image, The Drama Bookstore, and the Broadway musical, The Band’s Visit. They explored mindfulness through NYC meditation classes, and engaged in physical health and wellness activities such as ice-skating and a trip to a local NYC farmers market!
I ask you, did you happen to do anything like even one of these adventures when you were ten years old and in Fifth grade? I certainly did not. Now, I wasn’t raised in New York City. Even so, the glee with which the Fifth grade came and went from Caedmon this past week was inspiring. Our goal is always that a student from Caedmon live life and learn in ways to make them courageous, creative, and highly capable. And I can’t imagine more splendid and valuable opportunities to do so.
I hope that your time during spring break is equally courageous, creative, and allows you to relish time with your highly capable and absolutely delightful children.
Best,
Matthew

Parting Words of Wisdom, Reminders, & Celebrations

This morning we collected in the sanctuary of St. Monica’s Church on East 79th, to celebrate the graduation of the Caedmon Class of 2017. If you didn’t know, our schoolhouse was originally the home of St. Monica’s parochial school (we still rent this building from the NYC Catholic archdiocese). So there is something connected and special about celebrating our commencement in the beauty of the church building.

For those who haven’t been, a Caedmon graduation is much like the rest of Caedmon – it is simple, authentic, heartfelt, and unpretentious; it celebrates the children; and the highlight is when each Kindergarten Book Buddy give their Fifth-grade partner some advice (announced by Ms. Howard or Ms. Quintero), a gift, and a big hug.

I relish the opportunity to welcome parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and friends to the ceremony, and to say a few words that I hope will capture the spirit of the graduating class. I was asked to share my thoughts, which I’ve done below. This class was in Kindergarten the year I accepted the position of Head of School at Caedmon. I will admit that a tear or two fell, as I shook their hands. In the realm of perfect jobs, I can only say that I am one lucky human being.

Enjoy your summer – come visit if you like.

Graduation Comments – Caedmon, Class of 2017
Good morning and welcome!

Next to me are 25 quite wonderful individuals. They are dramatic actors and exquisite artists, intelligent writers and captivating story-tellers, they are scientists (potential anthropologists, archeologists, and veterinarians!), and they are quick-on-their-feet mathematicians. They are board game and computer coding experts, and they are empathetic future psychologists. They are the best combination of wise, innovative, thoughtful, and kind.

But, you are also the inimitable “Class of 2017!” You see, when you put together all of that talent into one group, the possibilities are electric and explosive. Let’s be clear – that is not always the case. With this many chefs in the kitchen, we could be looking at one hot mess of a kitchen – a lot of individuals and no team.

But, Caedmon Class of 2017, as you have taught us for all the years that you have been here – whether you’ve been a student at Caedmon for 9 years or for just Fifth grade – there is no “I” in the word team. The mere fact that you are such a bonded unit, even with new members joining your class throughout your time here, speaks volumes about the spirit and soul of Class of 2017!

The school’s Mission states: “Our graduates are creative, highly capable, and courageous – ready to make their place in the world!” I would have to say that your ability to absolutely actualize that statement to is yet another of your unique phenomenon. Parents, family members, and guests – in fact, I’m giving the whole world fair warning: we who spend every day with you – your teachers and fellow classmates at Caedmon – know that no solution is too creative and that only one answer to a challenge is never enough. You will be graduating from high school in 2024, and from college, if it still exists in 2028 – you are our inspiration for a world which frankly we really have no idea what to expect. Thank you for that!

And, finally, in a short while, you will hear wisdom from your Kindergarten Book Buddies, who will join you down here in front – they are so excited to give you a hug and share their wisdom with you. Here, too, the Class of 2017 has created a very special bond of caring with their Caedmon Book Buddies. Now, Mr. Kagan reached out to the Caedmon alums who were YOUR Fifth grade book buddies, when you were in Kindergarten. Maybe, we have found at least one of the sources of your very extraordinary qualities. So, I close my comments to you with some of their wise counsel:

“Congratulations on graduating from Caedmon. That is a very big accomplishment. Personally, I think Caedmon taught me life lessons and developed me into the person I am today. Moving on to middle school, I would just stick with the core values that Caedmon has taught you, and continue working hard to achieve what you want in life.”

“The one thing that I have always kept from Caedmon over the last 5 years was kindness. Kindness and being a good person in general will take you farther than any education. No school I have been in since Caedmon has put such an emphasis on being a good person. Be nice to people at your new school and try to build new friendships. If you are struggling with that, turn to friends at Caedmon. My sister is still in touch with most kids from her grade at Caedmon and those are some of her best friends.”

“Even though you’re going to a new middle school and will undoubtedly make a ton of new friends always remember that a Caedmon friendship lasts a lifetime.”

Congratulations and thank you, Caedmon Class of 2017.

Before we move on, let’s take a moment to recognize and make official the “graduation” of your peers.

  • Kindergarten – you are bright stars and you are now in the Lower Level/First grade!
  • First graders – you are now the leaders in Lower Level; take care of your new classmates.
  • Lower Level/Second grade – next year you will climb one more flight of stairs! You are ready for both the physical challenge and the academic one!
  • Middle Level/Third grade – your creativity, scholarly curiosity and acting talents display a complete readiness for the Fourth grade, the immigration play, and so much more.
  • And, Class of 2018, I welcome you to the place of leadership that is the Upper Level!

Congratulations to all of you.

Congratulating & Celebrating

Writing the penultimate missive for Inside Caedmon is always challenging. Next week, in our final piece, we will celebrate our spectacular graduating Class of 2017 and their graduation. This week, however, how do you capture the excitement, the fulfillment of your goals, and the many items that still need attention next year? So, today, it seemed to be a good idea to celebrate some of the incredible milestones we have achieved at Caedmon this year.
First, I want to congratulate and celebrate Jennifer Tarpley’s first year as our Director of Admissions, as well as thank Lynne Burke, the Assistant Director of Admissions (and Caedmon mom of TWO sets of twin graduates!). Thanks to Jennifer and Lynne’s dedication, welcoming nature, and hard work, we have met our admissions goal for enrolled students for the coming year. In addition, we are adding a 2’s program to Caedmon’s offerings for the 2017-18 school year! We remain the only elementary-focused independent school on the Upper East Side, providing the most engaging, exciting, and truly appropriate education for young children, ages 2-11. Research tells us these are the “Golden Years.” During this time, children build a life-long love of learning and self confidence in risk taking. We take that challenge (opportunity?) very seriously.
We are thrilled to welcome our new CFA (Caedmon Family Association) Presidents, Becky Hartswell and Sonja Castle. Their enthusiastic leadership will no doubt create even more community get-togethers and make sure our family community continues to be a source of friendship, camaraderie, important information, and support to all of you. I met with a new Beginner’s family today, and they shared their appreciation of our “Open Door” policy for our parents.
I am so excited for our Fifth-grade graduates and the result of Caedmon’s middle school placement this year. I hope you’ve had a chance to look over the list of schools hanging in the lobby that display the range of schools accepting Caedmon Fifth graders, as well as the schools to which they have enrolled. The list includes every “field” school in the Bronx (Horace Mann, Fieldston, and Riverdale) all the way to the “field” school in Brooklyn (Poly Prep), and every school in between! Caedmon graduates enjoy a highly respected reputation with ongoing schools.
I also want to express gratitude and recognize the philanthropic commitment of our Caedmon families. Right now, 70% of our families have made a contribution to the Caedmon Fund, and I know we can achieve 100% participation. Our Trustees secured a 100% commitment very early in the school year. I hope and encourage ALL Caedmon parents to consider a contribution to this Fund – it keeps us a healthy and successful not-for profit institution. Last week, I also accepted a generous check from the CFA fundraising efforts, which will allow us to broaden our in-house professional development programs. This helps to ensure that all of our teachers remain aware of the best of new educational training!
Finally, I want to recognize the success and dedication of the Caedmon faculty, under the leadership of Lisa Oberstein, Maria Howard, and Andria Quintero — and next year the creativity and intelligence of Tyler Jennings and Saniya Mehdi. I can honestly assure you that your children are experiencing the most dedicated, cutting-edge, passionate, and very personalized teaching happening in New York City right now! We are ruthless in our dedication to know each child intimately at The Caedmon School, and we are devoted to their progress and accomplishments.
Every morning, I come to Caedmon excited for the opportunities and devoted to your children’s fulfillment and realization. It is a very fortunate and satisfying way to live one’s life. Thank you for the honor of equating your children and making sure the future of the world is secure if led by Caedmon graduates!

Intention & Impact

Hanging in the Caedmon Lobby, directly below the school’s Mission Statement is Our Commitment to Community and Equity. It is a significant statement because it embodies our promise to anyone (our families, our teachers and staff, our visitors) that Caedmon is a place that holds all people, regardless of difference, as sacred. The closing sentence is:

 

“We cultivate a caring, respectful, and safe environment, in which bonds are forged across potential barriers of human difference, advancing compassionate, responsible, courageous citizens.” 

 

Last Sunday, I spent the day in meetings for a board on which I am honored to serve, for a group called Border Crossers. The organization is devoted to eradicating racism in educational institutions by offering excellent training for educators and parents. The work, as you can imagine, is both very challenging and very rewarding.

 

As we started the day, we were asked to create a list of agreed-upon actions to make the day and meetings go smoothly. A number of good ground rules were set, including one of my favorites, which is to “always assume good intentions on the part of the participants.”
In all of the many meetings, seminars, conferences, etc. in which I’ve participated, no matter how angry or frustrated someone has been, if I take a breath and think about things from their perspective, I’ve usually been able to come to an understanding of their viewpoint and often see the positive thing they are hoping for.
One of the leaders of our meeting added a caveat, though, which I thought was profound and appreciated. They said – “yes, assume good intentions…but also be willing to honor the IMPACT that your actions and/or words have created. If you’ve hurt you or offended another person in the room, even if you did not mean to, you need to honor that and take responsibility.”
So often in my interactions, especially difficult ones, either one or the other of the above dynamics don’t seem to be completely acknowledged. And that is often where things fall apart in sticky situations. We all spend a lot of time saying “but I didn’t mean that” or “you’re just being sensitive.” Yet, if I look for the good intention driving your words, I am more empathetic, and if I take responsibility for when I’ve said or done something that causes pain, even if I didn’t mean to, it fully acknowledges you and respects your experience.
It seems like such an important dynamic to teach to our children and to remember with each other. Intention and impact – a balance (and challenge) worth striving for!