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The Importance of Field Trips

As I write this post, I am in a bus on Interstate 95 on the way to Washington with our eighth graders. (And it’s snowing, but that’s another story!) Overnight trips are always among the highlights of a school year, not only for the students but for the teachers and parents who accompany them. Even for those of us who have been on these journeys many times, school trips provide lasting memories.

High-quality trips don’t just involve the days that students are away from school. To make the most of a trip, teachers should provide the students well in advance with the background knowledge about what they are going to see and do. It is always gratifying to be in the marsh or woods or at a historic site with a student group and to hear an instructor or docent compliment our students about how well-prepared they are. I know that when we arrive in Washington, our students will have a thorough understanding of the three branches of government when we tour the United States Capitol; will know the significance of the dates, battles, and wars that are memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery; and will be able to apply what they have learned about the “ladder of prejudice” to the powerful sights and sounds of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The lessons learned in history, science, and language arts classes come to life on our overnight trips.

At a school the size of Mason Prep, students and adults are always able to make very special connections with each other, and our trips are perfect opportunities for this to happen. Our teachers and students get to see different sides of each other that they don’t always see at school. Relationships are strengthened while walking through the Vietnam War Memorial, beside a waterfall at Dupont State Forest, at a dinner table at Camp Saint Christopher, or on a bus on the way home from Florida. Teachers learn what makes students tick, and students see an even more personal side of teachers than they see in the classroom. The sights and activities of our trips lead to thoughtful conversations, and connections grow even stronger.

School trips also present countless opportunities for student growth. For some of our fourth graders, a night at Camp Leopold is their first time out of town without their parents. Students and parents derive comfort from the fact that children are known and loved at our school, and those in need of extra reassurance will get it. A wonderful benefit of school trips is the chance for each student to get to know better others who are not in his or her immediate circle of friends. Our teachers love to hear students say, “I didn’t know how funny she is” or “He turned out to be really nice!” Of course, the primary purpose of school trips is education, and our students learn so much when they see, hear, and feel things first-hand.

For me, the best part of a school trip is to see how much each of our students has grown since beginning at Mason Prep. I am a regular attendee on our Washington trip each spring, just a few weeks before our eighth graders will graduate. I remember many of these young students from their time in first grade, when they were missing their front teeth and learning how to read. They are now knowledgeable, confident, eloquent young people who are ready to make their marks on the world. A good deal of that progress can be credited to the time that our students spent exploring together on their class trips.

Appreciating Our Teachers

I know that Teacher Appreciation Week is a few months away, but this article in the Washington Post really struck a chord with me. It is a blessing and a privilege for teachers, administrators, and other school staff to be able to spend time with our nation’s most valuable resource: our children. They make us smile, they make us laugh, at times they make us pull our hair, and they make us proud. But not just anyone can spend all day every day working with children – it takes a very special person to do that. For someone who doesn’t work in education, it is hard to imagine everything that goes on inside of a classroom or a school – there are so many moving pieces! It’s important to remember that each of those moving pieces is a child with his own gifts, interests, hopes, and dreams. It’s also important to appreciate those who can tap those gifts, understand those interests, foster those hopes, and inspire those dreams – our teachers. Please take a few minutes to read the article and, when you have a minute to spare, take a few minutes to let your child’s teachers know how much you appreciate them. 

The Importance of Social and Emotional Learning

When some people think about school and about learning, the “three R’s” often come to mind. For others, the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math are at the forefront of education. However, it is increasingly important to remember that academics do not exist in a vacuum and that learning is a very complex process. In recent years, a great deal of research has shown the benefits of social and emotional learning (SEL) on students’ performance in school. Social and emotional learning has five key competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. More information about these competencies can be found on the website of CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

A recent article by KJ Dell’Antonia from the New York Times highlights the concept of “emotional agility” and its importance in the development of our children. In order for children to be resilient, they must be able to navigate emotional obstacles. At times, it can be difficult to watch our children experience negative emotions, but experiencing those emotions helps children to learn to help themselves. Allowing children to feel and identify negative emotions is part of the self-awareness competency of social and emotional learning.

Focusing on the education of the whole child, not just the child’s core academic subjects, is critical toward the development into a healthy, productive adult. At Mason Prep, our guidance director Jamie Tuttle works with our students in classroom lessons that tie into the five core competencies of social and emotional learning. At our Head’s Coffee on January 19, Mr. Tuttle will speak to parents about the lessons and programs he has put in place at Mason Prep this year and will field questions about parenting and other concerns.

How to Make the Most of Your Open House Visit

In November, admissions season is moving into high gear at independent schools like Mason Prep.  Many schools offer Open Houses, where families can visit and learn more about the schools in which they are interested. As a school, we enjoy this opportunity to meet parents and to learn more about their children.

As a parent visiting a school for an Open House, what should you look for? What questions should you ask? Here are some recommendations from our Director of Admissions, Lynn Kornya (DOWNLOAD THE LIST HERE):
•    What is the curriculum like? Open Houses are an opportunity to discover more about the academics and special area classes that a school has to offer.
•    What is the typical class size?
•    Are there breaks in the school day? What is the availability of recess and other chances for students to get some fresh air?
•    How much time do students spend on homework each night?
•    What role does technology play at the school? Is there a 1:1 program of laptops, iPads, or other tablets?
•    What are the lunch options? Is lunch provided by the school or delivered by vendors? Can students bring their own lunches?
•    What can students do after school? Is there a program of optional after-school activities? Is extended care available, and for how long?
•    What team sports are sponsored by the school and at what grade levels?
•    What support systems are in place should a child begin to struggle at school, either academically or socially?
•    Where do most students attend school at the next level? (High school or college, depending on the grade range of the school)
•    Is financial assistance available for families who may need help with the costs of attendance? What is the application process like for financial assistance?
•    For students entering in upper elementary or middle grades, what skills are important that may not have been emphasized at their previous school?

In addition to asking the questions that are important to you, use an Open House as a chance to experience the climate or “feel” of a school. Open Houses can give you insight into intangible aspects of a school, such as:
•    Is there a welcoming feel to the school? How are parents and children received there?
•    What are the interactions like between students? Between adults?
•    Does the school seem to be student-centered or adult-centered?
•    What is important to the school?
A great deal can be learned at any school’s Open House – be sure to ask the questions that matter to you and your family!

Mason Prep has two upcoming Open Houses. We hope you will join us to explore our school and learn more about what we have to offer.

Jessica Lahey Follow-Up

Governor Haley’s announcement of impending evacuations from Hurricane Matthew could not stop many hardy Mason Prep parents from experiencing Jessica Lahey’s presentation about “Raising Resilient, Intellectually Brave Kids” at Porter-Gaud on October 4. For those of you who planned to attend but were unable to make it through the traffic nightmares caused by gas station lines, here is a summary of Lahey’s presentation:

• Lahey spoke about two kinds of motivating factors and their effect on learning. Extrinsic motivators include rewards for good grades and threats regarding bad grades; Lahey reported that research shows that extrinsic motivators decrease a child’s motivation to learn. She said, “If you want your child to not learn math, pay him for his math grade.” She categorized surveillance, including overuse of parent portals and online grade books, as an extrinsic motivator.

• Instead of using extrinsic motivation, parents and teachers should strive to develop intrinsic motivation in children – the desire to succeed for its own sake.

• Lahey recommended Daniel Pink’s TED Talk about motivation (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en) and his book Drive (https://www.amazon.com/Drive-Surprising-Truth-About-Motivates/dp/1594484805/)

• To stimulate intrinsic motivation, three things are needed: autonomy (which is not the same as independence), competence (which is not the same as confidence), and connection.

• Lahey contrasted “autonomy-supportive” parents with “directive” or “controlling” parents. According to her, children of autonomy-supportive parents can get frustrated but push through, while children of directive parents tend to give up when they become frustrated.

• Lahey said that “the self-esteem movement was an abject failure.” When we praise children for efforts or results that are not really praiseworthy, what we are saying doesn’t match reality and leads children to not trust our judgment.

• According to Lahey, competence is more desirable than confidence; competence is “confidence based on actual experience.”

• Lahey presented the concept of “desirable difficulty” from the book Make It Stick (https://www.amazon.com/Make-Stick-Science-Successful-Learning/dp/0674729013/). She called “desirable difficulty” one of the most important tools in a teacher’s toolbox. When a student tries to absorb material that’s slightly more challenging, it is more likely to take root in long-term memory. This encoding can be enhanced through the use of flash cards, which Lahey recommends (she does not recommend the use of highlighters.)

• Research focuses more than ever before on the importance of connections in learning; this includes connections with what is being learned and connections between students, parents, and teachers.

• Lahey advocates praising students not for the end product (especially grades), but the process that leads up to it. She quoted children as saying, “I don’t think my parents love me as much when I earn low grades” and “I want to talk with my parents, but not so much about school.”

• Parents can help students become more engaged with what they are learning by making connections to what happens in the real world. She suggests taking children to museums, libraries, and maker spaces.

• Lahey spoke about today’s technology-connected children learn so much through online videos. She recommended YouTube channels such as Michael Stevens’s Vsauce1 (https://www.youtube.com/user/Vsauce), Emily Graslie’s Brain Scoop (https://www.youtube.com/user/thebrainscoop), Veritasium (https://www.youtube.com/user/1veritasium), and Vi Hart’s math videos (https://www.youtube.com/user/Vihart).

• Many teachable moments occur in middle school, which Lahey calls the “lab for organization.” When a student realizes that his organizational habits or study skills hinder his success, it presents an opportunity to ask “How can I do better next time?”

• Lahey advocates the use of checklists as a way for students to ensure that all steps of a task are completed. She recommends allowing or encouraging a child to create his own checklist; “maybe my checklist isn’t as important now and his checklist needs to take center stage.”

• Lahey talked about the “light bulb” moment that occurred when she did not bring her son homework that he had forgotten. She weathered her friends’ comments on social media about her parenting, especially since she does not have a problem with bringing forgotten items to her husband. Lahey said, “I am not raising my husband, but I am raising my nine-year-old.”

• By focusing on the long term, we can navigate the ups and downs of childrearing more successfully. Lahey said that a child’s growth and development does not produce a “nice linear graph – it’s more like the stock market.”

• Ultimately, “the job of parents is to put ourselves out of a job.” If we don’t do that, our children will need us forever (and that’s not a good thing.)

We would like to bring Jessica Lahey back to Charleston again. Hopefully next time around, Mother Nature will be more cooperative!

Parenting Articles by Jessica Lahey

As we prepare for the 2016 Bringing Schools Together conference on October 4 and 5 at Porter-Gaud School, it has been encouraging to hear from parents who not only have read the work of guest speaker Jessica Lahey but also have put her suggestions into practice. Lahey’s message of giving children the autonomy necessary for development into responsible and successful adults has resonated with many parents and teachers at our school.

In addition to writing her book The Gift of Failure: Why Parents Need to Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, Lahey has contributed many articles to other publications, such as The New York Times. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Parenting, Not for the Moment, but for the Long Haul”
The title of this article captures the main idea of Lahey’s work: parents and teachers must focus on what’s best for children in the long term rather than what’s best (or easiest) right now. Lahey writes, “Children don’t take a direct path to adulthood; they wander. They are less concerned with our elaborate timelines and checklists than the fairy houses and climbing trees they spot along the side of the road.” Our children deserve for us to allow them to explore those fairy houses and trees.

“How Can You Make a Student Care Enough to Work Harder?”
Lahey shares the thoughts of several trusted colleagues when answering the question in the title of this article. As in much of her work, she recommends focusing on effort rather than results and advocates intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivators. In other words, parents and teachers should encourage pride in a job well done and the development of autonomy rather than emphasizing the importance of grades.

“Helping Kids Take Criticism Constructively (Even When It Isn’t Constructive)” 
Lahey writes, “Receiving feedback is a skill, and like most skills, it requires practice, and a willingness to change and improve. Most children get plenty of practice. Ironically, adults need to help them make that practice count — by giving them feedback on how they handle criticism.” Lahey shares suggestions that adults can use to present feedback to children in a way that can help them to become more resilient.

“When Children Say ‘I Can’t,’ but They Can, and Adults Know It”
In this article, Lahey examines the phenomenon of learned incompetence, in which people “know from experience that if they stall, delay or refuse to do something they don’t want to do, someone will eventually do it for them.” There is not one simple solution, but Lahey provides great advice for parents and teachers, especially about how to interpret what may be behind this behavior.

“When a Child’s Project Shows a Parental Hand at Work”
In this article, Lahey tells the amusing story of her third grade son’s wax museum project. When she toured the “wax museum”, Lahey saw that “some posters were neater than others, but nearly all were the adorable, misshapen, appropriately flawed products of third-grade hands.” Importantly, she recommends not only that parents allow their children to create their own school projects, but also that teachers assess projects based on grade- and age-appropriate standards.

“For a Child With Learning Differences, Making Home a Safe Harbor”
Many of Lahey’s articles refer to the incredible work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, especially her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck’s research shows that having a “growth” mindset, in which an individual believes that effort can lead to increased intelligence, skill, or abilities, leads to more positive results than a “fixed” mindset, in which an individual believes that he or she is born with fixed abilities or talents. Lahey writes that the family of a child with learning difficulties needs to “shift its focus away from her failings and toward her potential. Her differences are viewed all too often as negative, something that threatens her normalcy, but she likely possesses unique strengths as a result of those cognitive differences.”

“Give Late Blooming Children the Time They Need”
When my children were much younger, I often read Jose Aruego’s book Leo the Late Bloomer with them. This wonderful book reinforces the concept that each child develops at his or her own pace. In Lahey’s words, “We all watch our children as they grow, for signs that all is well. We crave evidence, both of their healthy development and of our own competence as parents, and lacking any other source of information, we scan the playground for comparisons. That boy can count to 100 in Spanish while my son can barely speak his native tongue. That child can traverse the play structure with the athleticism of a spider monkey, while mine needs help climbing up the slide. That girl can eat her healthful snack with chopsticks, while my child eats his boogers.” In the end, though, all children bloom in their own ways on their own schedules.

Don’t forget that Mason Prep will host a Head’s Coffee at 8:15 am on Thursday, October 13, to discuss Jessica Lahey’s presentation and The Gift of Failure. I hope to see many of our parents there!

The Gift of Failure

The Gift of Failure

The speaker at this year's Bringing Schools Together conference (October 4 – 5) is Jessica Lahey. Jessica writes the New York Times column, "The Parent-Teacher Conference," is a correspondent at The Atlantic and a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio, and formerly taught middle and high school English and Latin. She has appeared as a parenting and education expert on The Today Show, Fox and Friends, MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, and many others.

Her book, The Gift of Failure: Why Parents Need to Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, is full of profoundly valuable advice for parents and for educators. In her introduction to the book, Lahey writes, "Out of love and desire to protect our children's self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children's way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of the world." This message fits closely with Mason Prep's mission, especially as we strive to develop our students' self-discipline, responsibility, and accountability and to help them to become productive citizens of a global community. Although we work very hard at Mason Prep to help our students succeed, we also believe it is very important to help them deal with situations in which they are not successful.

As educators, we know how important it is for students to stretch themselves and to learn from their mistakes. Most of our Mason Prep teachers are also parents of children at many different stages of life, so we understand what a challenge it can be to let your child make those mistakes. While a challenge, this presents a wonderful opportunity for parents and teachers to work together to raise confident and capable learners. Here are some ways parents can help in this effort:

  • Think about the long term. Lahey advocates “parenting for what is right and good in the final tally, not for what feels right and good in the moment. Parenting for tomorrow, not just for today.”
  • Rely less on rewards and other external motivators and more on the pride of a job well done. According to Lahey, “the less we push our kids toward educational success, the more they will learn. The less we use external, or extrinsic, rewards on our children, the more they will engage in their education for the sake and love of learning.”
  • Help your child to develop competence through experience. Allow your child to have responsibilities that you would ordinarily do for him or her. Even if your child doesn’t perform this responsibility up to your usual standard, there is room to grow. In The Gift of Failure, Lahey does a thorough job of explaining the difference between “controlling parents” and “autonomy-supportive parents.”
  • Praise your child for his efforts rather than his talents. By praising children for being “smart”, we encourage an aversion to failure; if a “smart” child makes a mistake, he will come to believe that he is not “smart.” To avoid this, children will often take the easy way out and not challenge themselves to grow as learners. Lahey gives an example: “Instead of ‘Great job on that test! You are so smart!’ try ‘Great job on that test! What did you do this time in your preparation that worked so well?’”
  • Realize that “rescuing” your child is counter-productive. Many parents feel that their children’s successes and failures are reflections of their parenting skills and even of their worth as individuals. Because of that, they are reluctant to allow their children to make mistakes. Lahey also discusses the role of “rescuing” as parents observe their children’s interactions with other children. According to Lahey, when children grow up “under the wing of parents who continue to rescue – from playground dust-ups, to tween misunderstandings, and the inevitable volatility of adolescent friendships – that child becomes an adult with no clue about how to negotiate, placate, reason with, and stand up to other adults.”
  • Make sure your child understands that mistakes and failures do not impact the love you have for him or her.

The wisdom found in The Gift of Failure is too profound to be distilled into one blog post. I encourage all parents to read this book and to follow Jessica Lahey on social media (Twitter/Facebook). We all have the same desire: to raise children who will become successful, responsible adults. Lahey’s writings provide great guideposts along the way.

Confidence Building: Speaking to Adults

We are back at school, which means back to reading, writing, math, science, etc. And at Mason Prep, it also means back to building character. Our first-day assembly was a chance to give all of our students a reminder about showing character and citizenship by speaking confidently to adults.

Here are some things students can practice each day as they encounter adults – at practices, at a restaurant, at the doctor’s office – opportunities are everywhere!

  • saying "thank you" whenever it's appropriate to do so;
  • speaking when they are spoken to;
  • looking at or turning toward the speaker before responding;
  • proactively greeting other children and adults when walking by;
  • using "sir" and "ma'am" when speaking to adults.

With younger students, parents can help their child feel confident in speaking for themselves. How? When an adult speaks to your child or asks your child a question, give your child the chance to reply. If your child doesn't answer as you had hoped or doesn't reply at all, it's OK - talk about it later and have your child practice an appropriate response.

The confidence that develops in children when their parents encourage them to speak for themselves is an incredibly valuable gift.

Mason Preparatory School
56 Halsey Blvd Charleston, SC 29401
(843) 723-0664 (843) 723-1104