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Making School Missions Real: How We Can Help Our Children Navigate Reality

By Jay Underwood, High Meadows Head of School


“We empower each [community member] to be compassionate, responsible, and active global citizens.” --excerpt from High Meadows School’s Mission Statement

It’s easy to read such words as platitude. They certainly sound noble. But how does an elementary school make these words really reach students? Aren’t the elementary years about teaching reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic? Or do we have a greater calling to use tragic events such as the recent terror in Charlottesville as touchstones to teach our children how to overcome hatred and injustice?


When I was a kid, school was lockstep-simple. I had no idea that the economy was tanking, that the Vietnam War had left an indelible scar on society, that the Cold War was simmering and creating fear all around me. That racial strife and social injustice were alive and well, despite how I was taught that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King had fixed all of that.


Things are different today. News is inescapable. It’s delivered in a flow that is constant, ugly, and sound-bitten, and in social media venues that didn’t exist in the late ‘70s. All but our youngest kids (hopefully) are exposed to the realities of the world. Our instinct is to protect them, just as we were protected, but we really can’t. And even if we could, would that be the right way to raise them today—in blissful ignorance?


The answer is yes…and no.


Five-year-olds are amazingly perceptive. They may not know about the world’s injustices, but they certainly feel them. Nine-year-olds are built to see life in a binary, right-and-wrong way. Thirteen-year-olds are savvy with at least cursory knowledge of and opinions about truths, half-truths, and alternative truths, but can’t naturally distinguish one from the other.


These days, we need to meet children where they are.


Kindergarten teachers and parents know that these children need nurturing above all else. They need reassurance and comfort and should be shielded from terrible facts they cannot possibly understand. They can learn to be compassionate, responsible, and active global citizens by creating and maintaining strong friendships. They can learn that there is a place called “the world,” where there are people just like them who are looking for the same things in life that they are. They can be empowered to be kind to everyone at all times, no matter what.


Third graders are entering the age of reason, and parents and teachers know that their children’s questions cannot be brushed aside. Though adults might not initiate a conversation about events such as the horrors in Charlottesville, they should be prepared to field a child’s questions honestly. They should invite children to reflect on why people hate and guide them to create ideas about how hate can be eliminated in this world. They should empower children to take action on those ideas with the promise that their action can really make a difference.


The adults in the lives of seventh graders should be truthful and direct with them. It’s reasonable to be open, even provocative. It is right to initiate a conversation about facts and morality. About what white supremacists believe, what they did in places like Charlottesville, and why they are wrong. To distinguish between empty rhetoric and words that inspire moral action. Most importantly, adults can help activate their innate propensity to be compassionate, responsible global citizens by encouraging them to take action to ensure that the evils of bigotry and hatred don’t take root in their own world.


Children of all ages today feel and know much more than we think, certainly more than we did in our day. We need to honor where they are developmentally and to take them seriously. Most importantly, we need to model for them—in our words and actions--what it means to be good and just.

Why Choose a Progressive School?

By Kate McElvaney, Director of Educational Advancement and Center for Progressive Learning


It’s admissions season in the independent school world. Schools are opening up their classrooms to visitors and hosting events that allow prospective families to make an informed decision regarding what kind of education they want for their child.


High Meadows School recently hosted an Evening to Inform during which we aimed to answer the question, “Why choose a progressive school?” Many of us experienced more traditional educational environments, so learning how progressive education differs from traditional education is a constructive framework to begin building understanding. While there are many differences between progressive and traditional education, the most compelling one is the view of the child. The progressive model believes in the dignity of our humanity in classrooms. This belief is demonstrated in the respect and trust of children. Every individual is unique and brings a variety of experiences and perspectives to the classroom. The teacher, the individual with more wisdom, can structure the learning environment to capitalize on those experiences and perspectives in a very intentional manner. Listening to children and providing learning through discourse allows them to develop a voice, a voice that can help them both understand and shape the world around them. Traditional education, in contrast, is founded on a factory-model approach that is less concerned with the individual’s dignity and growth and more focused on standardized delivery of knowledge. Progressive education revolves around relationships: the relationship between teacher and child, child and child, child and knowledge, knowledge and the world, and the child and the world.

How to Grow a Learner

By Margaret Jones, Associate Head of High Meadows School and Lower Years Principal


When we think about the early years of a child's formal education, we are often reminded of the 3 R's--reading, writing and 'rithmetic. These core academic areas are essential to children as they begin to master communicating through text and figuring with numbers, data, and space. And yet, young children are really only beginning their development into their mature selves as learners, and even as humans. Many aspects of a learning environment, in addition to reading, writing, and the number system, are essential to ensure that minds and bodies are grown into productive and successful learners.


Current brain research suggests that resources similar to those devoted to literacy and numerical skills be focused on young children's emotional, regulatory and social development. By allowing students time to play together and to explore their world in a family-oriented environment, students gain invaluable skills in negotiation, communication and conflict resolution. We as educators must support children's learning not only through direct instruction in problem solving and empathy, but also by valuing the skills and dispositions developed through these social interactions. Supported practice in "getting along" promotes healthy human relationships that build empathy and cooperation.


Another aspect of growing a learner centers on the development of an intrinsic desire to learn. Encouraging children to explore actively and to reflect on their world allows them to master their environment. By pursuing their own questions and making their own hypotheses about how something works or fits together, children's passion for learning and curiosity are nurtured. When given the opportunity to grow an idea and to pursue a question, children want to learn more. And, as with any exploration, children may experience places where their ideas are proven to be inaccurate, forcing a new iteration of their hypothesis or explanation. This "failure" may include how a number sentence is solved or why a pulley actually can lift a heavy load. Working through their own idea development helps grow learners who are persistent and resilient in their thinking, the foundation for innovation and future learning. And resilience grows confidence and interest in learning.


Progressive educators carefully attend to the developing child. We spend time and resources allowing children to focus on building strong relationships and becoming resilient learners who pursue their interests and passions. Of course we provide children with the necessary skills to succeed academically, but perhaps more importantly, we grow learners.

What Success Looks Like

By Kate McElvaney, Director of Educational Advancement and Center for Progressive Learning


How do we know if our child is "successful?" Is it excelling at a sport, winning trophies, or making the travel team? Is it earning all A's on a report card or scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests? Tangible accolades are certainly markers of achievement, but are they indicators of future success as adults? Are they how we want to measure our children's success?


One who has grappled with these questions is psychologist and author Dr. Madeline Levine, who will come High Meadows November 3rd as part of our Center for Progressive Learning Speaker Series. Levine contends that society's current view of success has become too narrowly focused on academic success and over-achievement to the detriment of the whole child. In her latest book Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or "Fat Envelopes," she issues a call to action: "We must embrace a healthier and radically different way of thinking about success."


Perhaps Levine's work resonates so strongly with progressive educators because her research and experience support the values and skills espoused in our classrooms. For example, Levine views children as a "work in progress" and identifies coping skills children must have, such as resilience, resourcefulness and creativity. Moreover, she believes we must teach our children to take action in their communities: "Authentic success is being 'the best me I can be' not simply in isolation, but as a part of a community, and it always includes a component of meaningful contribution and connection with others." This view of authentic success supports children's sense of social justice and encourages them to become active participants in their communities. Teaching our children to find solutions, rather than solve problems for them, and teaching our children to take action, rather than be bystanders, provides them with the skills, attitudes, and resilience required to be successful in today's world. Progressive educators provide daily opportunities to build these skills and attitudes as a part of a whole-child approach to development and learning.

The Many Gifts of Mindfulness

By Kate McElvaney, Director of Educational Advancement and Center for Progressive Learning


What is the primary goal of education? This question will yield you a plethora of responses depending on who you ask. Traditional teachers may say education should provide children with core subject knowledge. Business leaders may say education should provide students with the innovative skills to succeed in our modern world. Parents may say the goal of education is simply to learn.


Progressive educators recognize that education doesn’t exist in a vacuum; school must respond to the needs of society and prepare the whole child for active involvement in that society, which includes all of the goals stated above and attending to children’s emotional needs and intellects. Mindfulness is a great strategy to support the healthy emotional development of children. Take a moment to read what High Meadows Director of Support Services, Sue Amacker, has to say about mindfulness.


The Many Gifts of Mindfulness


"Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn't more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it." -- Sylvia Boorstein, teacher and author

Growing up, I had a friend whose mother used the word "mind" to refer to any number of current or upcoming situations: "Mind your manners." "Mind you don't bump your head." "Mind you're home by supper." For her, the word "mind" was a way of saying "pay attention" or "be aware." It was good advice then, and perhaps even more so today, as we are constantly bombarded from every direction. Children and adolescents are especially blitzed on every front with new data, emotions, and desires.


As teachers, our job has morphed from imparting information to the taking on the greater mission of giving students the tools to make their way in the world. The practice of mindfulness has become a widely accepted tool for improving physical, mental, and social health. When mindful, we pay attention to what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, without judgment. We are aware. We are in the present.


Scientific research provides evidence that practicing mindfulness at school has measurable benefits for students and teachers alike, including:


  • A decrease in behavior problems, negativity and aggression;
  • A reduction of unwanted distractions;
  • An increase in one's ability to focus;
  • An amplified awareness and compassion for others, as well as oneself;
  • The relief of stress, anxiety and depression;
  • The enhancement of healthy relationships.

Evidence even suggests that the practice of mindfulness can enhance vital parts of our "gray matter," the regions of the brain that control muscle movement and sensory perception.


Introducing our students to the simple yet powerful practice of mindfulness as a routine piece of their day is a priceless gift--not only for themselves, but for those around them and, in the end, all of us.

Supporting Participation in a Democracy

By Kate McElvaney, Director of Educational Advancement and Center for Progressive Learning


Today is the first day back to school at High Meadows. The energy and excitement in the hallways reminds us why we’re here. As educators, we get the unique opportunity to garner that energy and channel it into intentional learning experiences, allow it to blossom into friendships, and foster it to support discoveries. Capitalizing on this excitement to create opportunities for student voice and community building are essential objectives for teachers throughout the year, but especially in these early days when we are framing the experience of school for children.


Having been out of the classroom for a few years, I miss out on many of the classroom routines that connect children and give them a voice. However, I do get to experience an honored tradition at High Meadows, the naming of classes. At High Meadows, students and teachers in each classroom collaborate to name themselves. Through a balance of brainstorming, discussion, and decision-making processes, classrooms come to consensus. Today and in the days to come, all faculty begin receiving emails announcing the class names. This small act of naming and creating a shared identity is incredibly valuable in unforeseen ways. Primarily, the class as a whole becomes the focus, rather than the teachers. The Diving Hawks has an entirely different feel and message from Ms. Mayotte’s and Ms. Drage’s class. Ownership is moved from teachers to all classroom members.


As a progressive school, this is an important message. We are all significant. We are all responsible. We are all together. In this way, a simple start-of-school tradition builds a foundation for developing students’ sense of social justice and ability to participate in a democracy.

Center Featured in Neighbor Newspaper

By Kate McElvaney, Director of Educational Advancement and Center for Progressive Learning


The High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning was recently featured in an article, “High Meadows Program Shares How to Give Kids a Voice in the Classroom.” Teaching to the whole child and trusting children with their learning are at the core of progressive education, and what happens at High Meadows School. Here is an excerpt:

The High Meadows School community in Roswell makes sure each day is engaging, educational and anything but typical for students. High Meadows hopes to share its culture with others through its Center for Progressive Learning, a program that started this year.


“There can be joy and excitement in learning. A lot of that is just recognizing that kids are powerful human beings who can make decisions along with facilitators … We’re not saying that High Meadows knows the best way to do everything; come and see what we’re doing and learn with us why this progressive model is what kids need. ... What we do here is unique and wonderful but it’s not impossible to do in other places.” 
- Kate McElvaney


Read more: Neighbor Newspapers - High Meadows Program Shares How to Give Kids a Voice in the Classroom

High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning Launches to Educate and Activate Parents, Educators and the Community on Progressive Education Practices

A progressive, experiential education is foundational to strengthening our communities, increasing active citizenship and promoting a healthy economy. The idea of learning for life is at the core of everything at High Meadows School, from its curriculum and enrichment programs, to each member of the faculty and staff. It speaks to the school’s commitment to children long after they are students and stretches to the four corners of its 40-acre campus.

It is with this motivation that we are launching the High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning. An initiative that naturally aligns as an extension of the school, its mission and guiding principles. Progressive educators have always understood that relationships are fundamental – the bond between teacher and child, the socialization among children, the connection between school and family, the link between knowledge and understanding. The Center recognizes its opportunity to create relationships with other schools, educators and the larger Atlanta community around what makes High Meadows unique in its educational practices.

“Every school has its own culture and approaches to learning, however, we are all united by a similar goal of growing children and preparing them for the world,” says Kate McElvaney, director of the High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning. “We have much to learn from each other in order to move these efforts forward in meaningful ways and to develop a growth mindset around education today. The Center is the conduit through which we build community understanding and awareness of the most important ideas and models in education today.”

For more than 40 years, High Meadows has provided a learning environment for children that is grounded in progressive education principles. They are rich in theory and in practice, and include:

  • teaching the whole child, their intellectual, creative and emotional selves
  • teaching with student interests in mind through discovery, inquiry, and experience
  • developing a sense of social justice that allows students to become compassionate, responsible, and active global citizens
  • learning that is real-world, significant and integrated with all subject areas
  • learning that is a social endeavor of collaboration and conversation within a community

The Center aims to cultivate and promote a deeper understanding of these and other progressive practices for new audiences through first-hand experiences. It is focused on developing programming that offers authentic opportunities for parents and professionals to connect and learn. These include a speaker series featuring national experts on related topics, parent and teacher collaborative workshops, multi-day professional institutes and educator immersions, book studies and access to other professional resources.

“High Meadows strives to be a beacon for progressive education while advocating for children and setting them on the path to a joyful life filled with curiosity, connection and purpose,” says Jay Underwood, head of school. “Our goal for the Center is similar in that we endeavor to present the inner workings and benefits of a progressive education to both parents and professionals while activating the community to act with knowledge and purpose. Our early feedback from programs has confirmed we are on the right course.”

The Center’s first event of the school year hosted renowned speaker Kevin Carroll and provided an opportunity to emphasize the value of play in living and learning. More than 200 people attended from around the Atlanta area to hear Mr. Carroll speak about his own experience with progressive education and the value relationships have in propelling an individual to discover their passions and succeed. The Center will continue to bring dynamic speakers to spark conversations and inspire action.

This spring, the Center will introduce its first adult book study on the text, Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools. Written by the former head of Park Day School, Tom Little, the book demonstrates the values found in a progressive approach by weaving historical, philosophical and practical stories and examples of whole-child learning.

The High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning is the connecting point between the global shifts in education, how communities are advocating for better learning models for their children, and the sought-after learning experience High Meadows offers its diverse student body. We hope you will join us as we discuss, study and share ideas on these critical topics.

More information about the Center’s philosophies and upcoming events may be found by visiting the website.

The Vocabulary of Violence

By Jay Underwood, High Meadows Head of School


Monday marked the third anniversary of Sandy Hook, the worst school shooting in our recent history. We all remember the sadness and anger we shared with the nation. I also remember thinking that this would be the horrible catalyst for us to finally take action to prevent such violence. Sadly, and not too surprisingly, we continue to argue over how we can make the world a safer place for our children.

Beyond the politics, violence is everywhere--even in our daily speech. Our metaphorical vernacular, which can add clarity and meaning to verbal communication, is littered with the insidious vocabulary of violence.

We "shoot from the hip." We use "bullet points" in our writing. We are sometimes "dressed to kill." We "shoot off at the mouth" "on the front lines" while someone drops a "bombshell" and we "take a stab" at fixing it. Eventually, someone is responsible or "heads will roll." It's only through "boots on the ground" with people who are "straight shooters" "who are quick on the draw" that we can get ourselves "out of the cross hairs." It's time to come out with "guns a-blazing" and to "have each other's backs."

I invite you to name more; they are countless. And try to go just one day without using such metaphors. I've yet to be successful.

I don't know how such speech affects us. It's easy to dismiss metaphors as harmless words that are simply embedded in the way we communicate.

But our children listen to what we say--and how we say it--and it teaches them. If violence is normalized in daily speech, might they be learning that it is a simple, harmless fact of life? That the way we get ahead and achieve success is through might, militarism, and brash pronouncements of conquest?

As politicians continue to debate how to keep us all safe, maybe we can do our small part by measuring our words, by finding gentler metaphors to enliven our communications. However subtle the change might be, maybe our children will learn that it's possible to live in a world where words can create and not destroy.

Much has been written on this subject, and I encourage you to check out the classic book Metaphors We Live By and a recent article in the New York Times about the power of belligerent speech to incite violence.

School: No Place for Fear

By Jay Underwood, High Meadows Head of School


All hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.

--John Lennon


Earlier this week, the City of Houston voted down a standing city ordinance aimed at protecting the civil rights of many of its citizens, most notably transgender people. At the heart of the vote was what has become the undignified threshold question that trans people face: What bathroom do they use?


Houston, like many other big cities such as Dallas and San Antonio, once honored the extensive research about (and the American Medical Association's recognition of) the complex issue of gender identity--that some people have a legitimate mental and emotional disconnect from their biological sex, and identify more closely with the opposite gender. This recognition enabled trans people to legally use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.


But some Houstonians--fearful that such an ordinance would enable male predators to accost women in public restrooms--succeeded in repealing it, chiefly through a well-crafted television campaign that stoked terror and fear in the hearts of voters. [N.B. Neither Dallas nor San Antonio has reported incidents of such violence toward women in public restrooms.]


I cite this recent news not to promote a political "agenda"--I believe that respecting people for who they are is a simple matter of honoring human dignity and has no place in politics.

But there is one destructive reality that resides at the core of the example above: Fear is alive and well in our world.


Fear divides us. It perpetuates a simplistic, binary worldview--good/bad, black/white, liberal/conservative, us/them. Our schools should be focused squarely on the goal of eradicating such irrational fears, helping students to understand that the world is a place with endless possibilities and no limitations.


Fear is the enemy of innovation, of reasonable risk-taking. If I try and fail, then I'm no good.


Fear is what keeps us wed to educational practices that are valueless, like administering vapid, state-mandated standardized tests and training kids to crave the approval of others by giving letter grades. If I don't score well on the test or get good grades, I will not get into a good school. I won't live a good life.


Fear keeps us from truly getting to know other people and forming strong relationships. If I hang out with the brainiacs, then the cool kids won't like me.


We are lucky at High Meadows. Our teachers know that fear is what holds us back from being our best selves.


They lovingly push children beyond their comfort zone, whether it's sitting with someone new or climbing one branch higher on the chicken tree.


They actively address when kids make "mean mistakes"--name-calling, social exclusion--helping them to feel and express empathy and self-forgiveness.


Our teachers openly encourage students to try something new, from a preschooler pouring milk by herself to an eighth grader presenting a project in front of the entire school. And if that preschooler spills the milk or the eighth grader misspells a few words in his presentation, that's OK. Our teachers will guide them to clean up their own (minor) messes, coach them, and let them try again until they are successful. And the students learn that they don't need to be afraid of making mistakes.


We are the models for our children. They take their cues from us. If we act with fear, they learn to be fearful. As parents and educators who want our children to be their best selves--happy, well-adjusted, fearless people--let's set a higher bar. We can embrace the power of nurture, inquiry, forgiveness, and love. Our children will take notice. And they won't be afraid anymore