Practicing Gratitude

Gratitude, as William Arthur Ward once said, “can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”

Each year, Agnes Irwin’s whole student body, faculty and staff come together the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to reflect and give thanks. Read below to learn some of what our student speakers had to say.

Margot Smartt, Grade 4:
“To me, Thanksgiving is all about love, family, friends, and happiness. For Thanksgiving, I have my family and friends over to celebrate. I pray for the health of others and I help my mom cook all the yummy foods for everyone. My family has a Thanksgiving dinner with delicious turkey and pie. I will donate all the yummy food that is left over to a kind soup kitchen. I pray for a cure for cancer or any other disease. I want everyone to have a happy Thanksgiving, like me!

This Thanksgiving I hope that in the Agnes Irwin community, all of us will get along. We are not leaders if we cannot all get together and not argue. We must all be thankful for the things we have, including friends.”

Sarah Nelson, Grade 8:
“This Thanksgiving, I think of our own community. We are all unique and come from different backgrounds, families, and traditions. I am grateful that we can come together and celebrate our common ground, our humanity. I am grateful that our Agnes Irwin community teaches us to think, to speak, and to act for ourselves and for those who don’t have a voice. I am grateful that we can share our ideas in a way that helps all of us to succeed and grow. At Agnes Irwin, we can support and carry each other through the tough seasons and the easy ones. For this, I give thanks.”

Annie McConnon, Grade 12:
“I have with me here today a card that I gave my pop pop 12 years ago on Thanksgiving. At Waldron, where I went to grade school, the day we left for Thanksgiving break, the kindergarteners would have a breakfast with an adult in their life. … The inside of the card contains two handprints, my pop pop’s and mine, and the back reads this:

Come and join my world, come and take my hand,
Come and join my world, come and be my friend.
Gather round and see how special you are to me.
Come and join my world, thanks for sharing this day with me.
Love, Annie.

Although childish, this poem, to me, encompasses Thanksgiving in its simplest form: Being grateful for the people around you who have impacted your life either directly or indirectly. Everything we do is made possible by the people and things around us even if we’re unaware of it. Ralph Waldo Emerson touches on this, saying, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

Since the beginning of the year, many good things have happened, to all of us, that we should give thanks for. We also, however, have faced many challenges. From little things such as struggling to manage a workload, to bigger things, such as conflict over the results of the election, we are all striving to overcome something in our lives. And whatever that something may be, we must recognize and even be grateful for our struggles. For our struggles, our conflict with others, our deepest fears, things we may not think to be grateful for, shape who we are.

I’d like you all now to stand up and take the hand of the person next to you, and invite them into your world as I read again the poem that I gave to my grandfather 12 years ago. Come and join my world, come and take my hand, come and join my world, come and be my friend. Gather round and see, how special you are to me, come and join my world, thanks for sharing this day with me.

Whether you are best friends or not friends at all with the people you are sitting among, recognize that they touch your life in some way and for that you should thank them. Have a happy Thanksgiving.”

Summer Fun With Math

Ellena-BlogI hope everyone is having a wonderful and relaxing summer! The warmer months are a great time to lounge by the pool, travel or catch up on reading — but they also provide a great opportunity to incorporate some math into your summer fun.

Working our brains over the summer helps keep us sharp and ready to jump back into classes this fall. Think of your brain like a muscle — you want to give it plenty of exercise so it stays strong. Take a look at the suggestions below: these non-traditional activities will strengthen your mathematical reasoning skills and hone your creativity, while giving you (or your daughter) hours of summer fun!

Structure-Building Competition: Challenge a friend or sibling to see who can build the tallest/craziest/strongest structure with a designated set of materials. My personal favorites to use are toothpicks and mini-marshmallows, but you can also use building blocks like popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners.

Logic Puzzles: For your next long car trip, get a book of logic puzzles like Sudoku, KenKen, or magic triangles. You can even print them out from sites like this one.

Water Balloon Math: Water balloons are a great way to stay cool during the hot summer months. Why not also learn some math while you’re at it? In your yard, lay down a bunch of hula hoops and mark each one with a (preferably waterproof) number. (One easy option: tape construction paper to wooden skewers to serve as “flags” staked in the ground.) Prior to filling each balloon, choose a math fact to solve — like 6 x 7, or a more complex problem like 2(6 – 2) – 4(7 – 6). As you pick up each water balloon, solve the math problem and then throw the balloon at the appropriate hula hoop. For a more exciting experience, you can pin the numbers to each player’s shirt and then (lightly) toss the water balloons at each other!

Balloon Magic Trick: This suggestion is a bit more scientific than mathematical, but is sure to amaze. In a dish, mix together some salt and pepper. Then blow up a balloon and rub it in your hair until your hair starts sticking straight up. Next, carefully hold the balloon over the salt and pepper mixture. Pretty cool, right?

Make a Picture Using DesmosDesmos is a wonderful online graphing tool. It is easy to use and they even have a free app for math on the go. You can get creative and make some amazing pictures using math! Here are a few examples.

Elena Bertrand, Upper School Math Teacher

Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM

Mariandl 150It has been a little over a year since we hosted our first Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM conference, and we are busily preparing for a follow-up symposium, which promises to be as engaging as the one we hosted in 2015. I wish I could say that in this past year, as a society, we have made great strides toward our goal of “fixing the leaky pipeline,” an analogy that has become the predominant one for the advancement of girls and women in STEM.

We left last year’s conference excited and hopeful, many of us energized to do more. And we did, in our corners of the world.  A connection between our Agnes Irwin STEM Club and a group of girls at a local public school sprung up from our endeavors; many of our girls in the Lower and Middle Schools have benefited from the wonderful resources available through nearby Villanova University, and, of course, we are tremendously grateful for our partnership with the august Franklin Institute, where we are hosting this year’s conference.

We left last year’s conference excited and hopeful, many of us energized to do more. And we did, in our corners of the world.

But despite this and, I hope, many other wonderful connections made through the networking opportunities available at our event, there is still work to be done. And it is our hope that in a few weeks, we will make additional strides toward the outcome that we all seek: to attract and maintain robust numbers of women in STEM fields.

An in-depth survey of last year’s participants brought to the forefront the desire, on the part of the overwhelming majority, to grapple with the question of sustainable culture change. It is an unfortunate reality that in schools, in higher education and in the workforce, institutional cultures and society at large still push girls and women to the margins of STEM fields, resulting in a gender gap that is closing only very slowly.

Last year’s participants wanted to know how to create pervasive and lasting cultural change. Throughout the 2015 conference, we discussed three themes that we understood to make a significant positive difference in the advancement of girls and women in STEM: teacher training and curriculum design, role models and mentors, and partnerships. These themes still hold true today; what we are setting out to do in a few weeks is to bring these themes together to move closer to creating lasting change.

Last year’s participants wanted to know how to create pervasive and lasting cultural change.

This is the reason that at our upcoming conference, we will heed the call from last year’s participants and discuss sustainable culture change. Research has shown that there are many “islands of change” that have had positive effects in schools, but that these islands are not easily turned into “continents.” For true and sustainable cultural change to occur, we must move beyond what happens in a single classroom, department, school or corporation and scale the change so it becomes part of a new culture in which we close the STEM gender gap (Hargreaves &​ Goodson, 2006).

So let’s come together in a few weeks and do just that: let’s learn about the effective measures that have been implemented in K-12 schools, higher education, out-of-school programs, and the corporate world. Armed with this inspiration, let’s work together, across the silos of our professions, to change culture in sustainable ways. Let’s not just plug the pipeline that leaks girls and women out of STEM fields, let’s build a better one.

If you are up for the challenge, please do join us.

Mariandl Hufford, Assistant Head of School at Agnes Irwin & Director of the Center for the Advancement of Girls

See more posts from Mariandl at the CAG blog

Understanding the Middle Schooler Mindset and Fairness

Lynne 150“It’s not fair!” Have you heard these words uttered by your middle school daughter in recent months? We hear it at school from time to time, and frankly, we expect to!

Fairness is an important issue to early adolescents. Although middle school girls can be somewhat reactive at times just on general principle, it’s been my experience that the “it’s not fair” complaint typically stems from one of the following four perspectives:

1. Fairness is interpreted by many adolescent girls as “sameness” or “equality.” In fact, though, it is not fair to treat all siblings in the family the same, as if they were cookie cutters of one another, or to have equal expectations for 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds … that would be very unfair.

2. Some middle school girls have only recently discovered the fallibility of the adults in their lives. Some are disappointed by that discovery, some are empowered by it, but many go through at least a period of feeling they can be adults better than the adults themselves. This feeling can lead to a subsequent belief that they, the adolescents, are truly the ones qualified to make judgments, determine fairness, and “keep score.” Sometimes this is true; sometimes it is not.

3. Along with a middle school girl’s growing ability to think abstractly and make conjectures comes an ability to see the “grey areas” in many situations. Interestingly, those instances where she perceives the grey are often those where the adult is convinced it’s a clear-cut, black-and-white issue, or vice versa! This difference in perceptions can easily lead to questions of fairness.

4. Finally, for many adolescents, “That’s not fair!” translates as “You didn’t hear my side.” Girls who are wrestling with issues of right and wrong or fair and unfair wish to be heard. They may not end up any happier about the decision in question, but they are capable of a conversation that elicits understanding by all parties.

It can be frustrating to hear complaints of unfairness, and sometimes, of course, the only response available is, “You’re right. Sometimes things aren’t fair.” However, seeing “fairness” through the eyes of an adolescent may help you understand the source of the complaint and may, on occasion, help diminish the parental frustration just a bit. After all, that’s only fair.

This article was first published as a letter in the book Be the Line: Thoughts on Parenting an Adolescent Girl, a compilation of weekly missives written by Middle School Director Lynne Myavec during her decade-long tenure at The Agnes Irwin School. The book was published in 2015, by The Agnes Irwin School.

How To See Your Selfie: Developing Leadership Identities in Girls

Wendy HillDespite the fact that women are attending college at higher rates than men and comprise 57 percent of the workforce, we still live in an America where there are more CEOs named “John” than all the women leading major U.S. companies combined. Surprising? Perhaps. Disappointing? Absolutely.

Much has been written about the glass ceiling’s impact on female leadership, and with greater emphasis today on gender equity, one could argue that the dearth of women leaders is just a bias of older generations. Isn’t it only a matter of time before as many women leaders answer to Joanne as to John? Surely, younger generations express less gender bias about leadership.

Developing Leadership Identities

Alas, a recent report entitled Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, conducted by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University, shows that gender bias is commonplace among teenagers. Its research suggests “that teen girls both hold biases and suffer from biases that may corrode their relationships and sense of justice, sap their confidence in their leadership potential, and dampen their desire to seek leadership positions, especially in high-power fields.”

The Leaning Out report, based on surveys of nearly 20,000 teenage girls and boys, recommends that girls interact with strong female role models, solidify their self-confidence, and participate in leadership programs. One avenue to developing a powerful sense of self and strong confidence is through identity development, a critical process that takes place during child and adolescent development. Who are you? What are your values? Answers to such questions form the foundation from which a person’s ambitions are launched.

One avenue to developing a powerful sense of self and strong confidence is through identity development.

Helping girls incorporate “I am a leader” into their identities has been an important focus at Agnes Irwin and is in keeping with our mission “to empower girls to learn, to lead, and to live a legacy.”

Leading in Lower School

For example, we have developed a leadership program for girls in our Lower School, which was recently highlighted by the National Association of Independent Schools. Unlike many leadership development programs that focus on skills, the purpose of our program is to foster, refine, and elevate leadership identities in young girls. The reason we chose to focus on identity, rather than skills, is because it is important for girls to see themselves as leaders. Unlike a set of skills, leadership identity is more likely to carry into adulthood because it is ingrained into how a person defines herself.

“Know Thy Selfie”

A new Middle School program developed by our Center for the Advancement of Girls for fifth- and sixth-grade girls also targets leadership identity. Our first session, held in October, was titled “How Do You See Your Selfie?” The blogger Dominic Basulto asserts that “selfies” are in keeping with the self-knowledge and exploration that occurs during the painting of a self-portrait. He suggests that the selfie “is the modern-day, technological version of what the ancient Greek philosopher Plato referred to as ‘Know Thyself.’” In essence, Plato posited that understanding the world can only begin by understanding ourselves.

That process — of developing an internal understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, values and aspirations — is an important part of adolescence. Is that why taking selfies is such a rage among tweens and teens? What’s happening, Basulto argues, “is that smart phone technology is giving us unique insights into what makes us human by giving us the power to document every moment of our lives.”

At my school, we have used the digital analysis of a “selfie” as the foundation; through various interactive projects and engaging discussions, we help girls develop their leadership identities and the self-confidence to see their strengths through their digital self-portrait. We strive to help girls articulate who they are, what they believe, and how they can be effective leaders in their communities.

We strive to help girls articulate who they are, what they believe, and how they can be effective leaders in their communities.

The next session of our Middle School leadership program, entitled “What Do You Want on Your Pizza?” will take place on Saturday, Feb. 20. The title is based on a story that clinical psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair tells about asking girls of different ages what kind of pizza they want. According to Steiner-Adair, if you ask a 10-year-old girl, she will say enthusiastically “double cheese and pepperoni.” Ask a 13-year-old girl, and she will say, “I don’t know.” A 15-year-old will say, “whatever you want.” The decline in self-efficacy and confidence is apparent. Our program is designed to help girls maintain their assertiveness and agency as they mature.

Female leadership is intimately tied to developing strong identities and to empowering girls to find and use their own voices to advocate for themselves, others, and issues about which they feel passionate. Wouldn’t it be nice if your 15-year-old daughter took a striking selfie while she emphatically pronounced that she wants a pizza with everything on it? Now that’s a selfie worthy of posting.

Dr. Wendy L. Hill, Head of School

Project-Based Learning Begins In Preschool

Kathy Seaton 150Remember when school meant learning complicated mathematical equations or memorizing the periodic table? At some point, you discovered that a calculator can instantly provide the answer to equations, and that the Internet offers atomic weights with a click of the mouse.

Conversations about 21st century skills are encouraging educators and parents to reconsider how children will become successful learners, able to utilize technological advances in an ever-changing global environment. Our complex world requires less memorization and more development of critical and creative thinking, and our children must learn to recognize new challenges and find novel solutions outside the conventional paths of the past.

Unlike the emphasis on memorizing facts and concepts that historically has driven curriculum, schools now look for better ways to help students take initiative for their own learning and discover ways to integrate knowledge from several subject areas.

Our children must learn to recognize new challenges and find novel solutions outside the conventional paths of the past.

Educational research suggests that among the most effective methods for equipping students for this type of thinking is project-based learning. With this approach, students undertake an in-depth investigation of an area of the curriculum, either as individuals or as part of a group. Learners select questions to explore, engage in personal research, experiments and other hands-on experiences, and develop ways to document and share what they have discovered with others. Teachers serve as guides rather than directors.

It is easy to imagine an Upper School student designing a scientific project related to an ongoing interest in genetic testing, or a group of Middle School students joining together to examine life in medieval times.  For PreKindergarten teachers, the question we ask is: How are preschoolers able to begin developing and utilizing these skills in the early childhood classroom?

Unlike work with themes or units in which teachers present preplanned lessons and activities, project-based learning encourages children to identify their own interests, design their own learning experiences and choose their own methods of sharing information. This type of learning is both child initiated and directed. Children choose how much time to look for information, the direction of the project, and their own ways of integrating and presenting ideas. Some may copy words or phrases, make simple drawings or develop models with building or art materials.

This type of learning is both child initiated and directed.

Over the past few years, my PreK students have selected an animal to study for one of their first project-based learning experiences. The girls visit the Lower School library to examine picture books and beginning reader books about animal residents at the Philadelphia Zoo. Each student selects a mammal, bird or reptile. Initially, we developed questions for the girls to research, but now we encourage our students to raise their own questions about what to include in their projects. Using books, videos, toy animals and other resources, students work with teachers to discover and write down information specific to their project.

In the classroom, toys — including plastic animals, blocks and Duplo — permit the girls to build habitats and create dramatic scenes about their animals. At the writing center, stencils and word lists encourage book and poster making. Animal puzzles with 12 to 100 pieces help illustrate the variety of animals living in specific environments such as the African plains or the Arctic Circle. Songs, stories and movement games foster interest in animal characteristics.

Different art media enable the girls to paint, draw, or mold models of their animals. A field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo enables the girls and their families to see the actual animals they’ve chosen to research. It is satisfying to hear the excitement as they discover a friend’s animal. Little voices call out, “Quick, come here. It’s your giraffe!”

Back in the classroom, the girls produce a script about their animals. With teachers’ assistance, they use an iPad to record their oral animal reports along with the pictures they painted. Making this video available to classmates and parents on our webpage encourages the girls to expand their knowledge of not only their own animals, but their classmates’ animals as well.

Encouraging Project-Based Learning at Home

Parents are able to foster this type of learning at home by using some of the following techniques:

1. When your child asks questions about a topic or develops an interest in a new subject, take a trip to the local library and examine resources among the nonfiction books.

2. Read text aloud and encourage your child to examine pictures, to help stimulate her interest in making a list of further ideas or questions to be explored.

3. Use YouTube and other Internet sites to help your child examine all kinds of information related to the topic.

4. Offer materials for making models, posters or booklets about what your child has discovered.

5. Set aside a special time for your child to share the project with family members, friends, or neighbors. It need not be more than a few minutes, but include the opportunity for the child to field some questions about her learning. This offers a wonderful opportunity to practice speaking in front of a familiar audience and learn that there may be questions that require additional research and discovery.

Kathy Seaton, Agnes Irwin PreK teacher