Communication and Caring Communities
December 2013
In This Issue
Involving Parents
Uses of Theatre
Arts Make a Difference
IT for Students with Disabilities
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Featured Blogs
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"Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." So sayeth British playwright William Congreve  in opening Act 1 of the Mourning Bride. Long before any understanding of neuroplasticity, many poets and musicians were aware of the healing and learning properties of music-even in 1703....


for more information on heart centered communities, neuroscience, STEM, and rigor

Carolyn Lieberg

Dear Educator,


This December as we approach the holiday season we invite school leaders to examine your school community. Consider your communications with parents and the communication skills of your students, and reflect on how the messages and the dynamics are connected to heart centered teaching. Verbal communication is particularly key and theatre can help build skills, though caring must be the foundation. For students requiring assistive communication devices, the 21st century is bringing them a treasure trove of devices that are more compact: Devices such as iPads and MP3 players are universally accepted.


Students will build communication skills more easily when they are actively engaged in learning and want to communicate. The Arts open doors to communication as students are given tools to speak from their hearts. We also see strong communicators as one of the cornerstones of functional international communities. 


As you consider how your school is welcoming students from various cultures who may share diverse holiday traditions, reflect on the cohesiveness of your community. And consider the gifts you already have--interested parents, talented artists, and the budding Shakespeareans in your midst. In this season of giving, are there ways your school could expand the gifts of those in your community?


Note: Wow! Ed is a free monthly subscription newsletter that is circulated directly to over 5,000 subscribers. Wow! is a topical newsletter where we bring examples of innovations happening in schools to our readers. In December,  NAESP members who have shown a special interest in innovations may be receiving Wow! for the first time. For questions on your subscription, send an email to 

Working Together to Create an Engaging Academic Environment

By Carol Sorgen

The origins of the adage, "It takes a village to raise a child," are murky, but the message is clear, especially to the Baltimore, Maryland, neighborhood of Charles Village, where the entire community--from teachers to parents to local businesses, neighborhood associations, even the venerable Johns Hopkins University--has come together to provide the best possible educational environment in the two public elementary schools serving the community.

What began as informal chats between two Charles Village moms evolved into Village Parents, a neighborhood-wide listserv covering both Margaret Brent and Barclay Elementary/Middle Schools; the online group currently includes 300 families. According to board member Stephanie Sterling the group not only organizes social events and playgroups, but also hosts urban education discussion series.


For Stephanie Sterling, whose 6-year-old daughter Chase is a first-grader at Margaret Brent, the close family-school relationship is empowering and reassuring: "Everyone knows my child and what she needs," Sterling says. "She feels that everyone around her is a friendly face, and that makes for a successful educational experience."


As the Charles Village community has discovered, the benefits of family-school-community partnerships are many. The National Parent Teacher Association reports that such full involvement nurtures:

  •  Higher teacher morale,
  •  More parent involvement, and
  •  Greater student success.

The organization has even developed the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships Implementation Guide to foster these stronger relationships.


Examples from Virginia, Wisconsin, and Ohio


School Family Partnerships. At Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia, Assistant Head of School Kari Cafeo says there is much talk about the "triangular relationship" necessary among parents, teachers, and students to facilitate the best learning possible.


"It's really a partnership between the school and the families," Cafeo says, "and parents are truly a critical piece of the educational journey. Their involvement provides a sense of commitment and support, and the students feel that. When the parents are involved, the students reap quite a few benefits.


"For one thing," Cafeo continues, "they know that they have more than one adult they can turn to. When parents and teachers are working together effectively, it reinforces the messages that the student is hearing in the classroom, which enhances the learning process."


Families take an active role in the educational process at Burgundy, from working in the classrooms to volunteering in the library, assisting with the school's dramatic productions and curricular-culminating events, co-chairing committees, serving on the board, raising money, and helping to maintain the school's main campus  along with its Wildlife Center in West Virginia.


Describing how teachers keep parents updated so that parents can better support their children's education, Cafeo added,"We ask for the same level of communication from parents, so we can understand how we can support the student together."


For first grade teacher Ann Douglas, the cooperative enterprise that characterizes Burgundy Farm creates a "diverse and dynamic" partnership that benefits each child." Parents learn from teachers, teachers learn from parents, and the children are supported and nurtured by everyone around them," she says.


Close-Knit Communities. Veteran teacher Faye Miller, who taught at Roosevelt Elementary School in Plover, Wisconsin, for 29 years and now supervises student teachers at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, believes that creating a close-knit community among faculty, staff, students, and parents is essential, but it can also be challenging, given ever-changing demographics and family dynamics.


"In most families today, both parents are working, so we've had to come up with more ingenious ways to keep them involved," says Miller. To accommodate the parents' work schedules, Roosevelt began holding more of its PTO 

meetings in the evening. Teachers also email parents every day and produce regular newsletters. Parents are also welcome to email the teachers at any time with questions or concerns.


Online Communications. At Monroe Elementary School in Monroe, Ohio, second-grade teacher Barbara Phillips serves as ambassador and lead teacher for Wonderopolis, an online initiative of the National Center for Families Learning. A daily question and answer posted on the Wonderopolis website is discussed in class, but the kids are encouraged to get their parents involved as well.


"This is a wonderful way to build background knowledge," says Phillips, "and it engages the family with what their children are doing during the day." The school took the idea even further recently when it hosted Family Wonder Night, during which each second-grade science teacher chose a scientific "wonder" for families to work on together. "It was really neat to see them all learning together," says Phillips, adding, "The more involved the family, the better the child does."


Barbara Phillips with her WONDERing family,  

Dennis and their children Benjamin and Elizabeth


International Interconnected Communities of Caring
By Kristina Golmohammadi, Children's Theater Co., New York* and Lea Kuusilehto-Awale, Program Director at University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Internationalization and globalization in the past twenty years have shaped our education, enabling and forcing it to open beyond our own country and then beyond Europe to the other continents. Teaching international master's degree students, primarily from the so-called third world,                                     
Kristina Golmohammadi           Lea Kuusilehto-Awale 

has provided a huge lesson in perception. The dimensions of teaching are vast, and they mandate the practice of a caring leadership for educators of the now and future citizens of the world, not only of our country and continent.
Curriculum Igniting Passion to Learn. The recent passing of Nelson Mandela highlights the power of a leadership that cares. Our children and grandchildren live and will continue to live in a world connected through economics, ecology, environment, and social and cultural activities and beliefs. This global interconnectedness demands that we deliver, as early as today, a multilevel and multidimensional education in terms of caring. By this, we mean an education where the curriculum and its implementation:
  • Ignite a passion to learn and
  • Then a path to follow  

in order to know about and understand the globe-- including the varied histories, religions, cultures, societal systems, and economic and environmental contingencies that have shaped and keep shaping our lives and understandings.


Good Communicators are Better Collaborators and Problem Solvers. We know that to be a good communicator, collaborator and problem-solver, we need to be able to listen, take turns, verbalize thoughts and emotion, recognize those things in others, reflect, and be open and non-judgmental. We also need to be able to look at things from a perspective other than our own. Schools need to find ways to build skills in this area.


Theatre as the Communication Arena. We believe that "theatre" provides an excellent arena for students to practice communication skills that will lead to stronger communities.


Drama and theatre share one of the most important aspects of arts in general--their ability to isolate a factor of human experience. The particularization of an issue or an event is brought to our attention and we can explore it in depth. It also has the unique quality of arresting time.


In a dramatic situation you are freed from the burden of the future, the aspect of living out the actual physical consequences of choices and actions. This opens up avenues to explore and reflect on the implications of our thoughts and actions in a relatively "safe environment."


Groups settings are important. As human beings we need to be able to mirror ourselves in others, and in that communication we learn, develop and get to know ourselves better. A class is an excellent and natural group setting for this kind of work.


        Students at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts

To be continued. This article will be continued in January 2014 when Lea will describe more about her vision of international connectedness, and Kristina will provide a more in-depth look at the approach she takes with the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts.


* Kristina Golmohammadi, actress, is a Teaching Artist at the Children's Theater Company in New York City. Previously she was at Fryshuset School of Performing Arts in Stockholm. 


Some relevant literature:


Bauer, Joachim, Why I Feel What You Feel: Intuitive Communication and the Secret of Mirror Neurons, Amazon Crossing 2012

Noddings, Nel, The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wagner, Betty Jane, "Educational drama and the brain's right hemisphere" Educational Drama for Today's School, Ed. Baird Schuman, Metuchen: Scarecrow Press 1978

Winston, Joe, Drama, Narrative and Moral Education, London: Palmer Press 1998   



Non-cognitive/transversal Skills in Education:

To Reach Every Student
By Victoria Zelvin, CEI Intern

"We've got to find a way to reach all kids, every kid, no matter what," says John Ceschnini, former executive director of Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance. "And the arts do that. They give us ways to engage kids, to get them involved, to have them be part of what we want them to be part of, which is learning a curriculum."


Reaching Students through the Arts. Programs that specifically support teachers and their efforts using the arts--in class and after class, in all the varying creative mediums--repeatedly show strong and positive results in retention and informed learning. Not only can this integration improve test scores, but it can support character-learning that can help keep students interested, as well as combat educational fatigue and insecurity among students. Arts integration helps teach students that it's okay to fail, that you learn through failure, but that you must keep trying. It is designed around critical thinking skills, repetition, and engaging students. It is another way to reach students, especially where they are struggling. This can be accomplished in the classroom or after school, in a myriad of ways.


Academic Gains. The academic and test score improvements are already well documented. For example, according to a 2011 Mississippi State University research report, "Effective classroom arts integration can reduce or eliminate educational achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students." At time of writing, just over 5,000 students in Mississippi, representing eight public and four private elementary schools, participated in the Whole Schools Initiative (WSI), with fantastic results.   

"The percentage of students scoring 'proficient or above' on standardized tests was significantly higher at schools participating in the Mississippi Arts Commission's Whole Schools Initiative when compared to student performance statewide and when compared to student performance for the school district within which the WSI school was located," said Judith Phillips, research associate with the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development, who led the initiative.  


According to the Art Commission report, students who participate in the Arts are more engaged in their learning. This engagement with the curriculum means that students are also now able to express curiosities and questions through the Arts and through extracurricular activities, rather than keeping their questions hidden behind a vacant stare.


Arts Speak to the Heart. Other outcomes are also possible from this type of instruction. In October, I wrote about the North Carolina, Durham sixth-graders who were encouraged to think about the people behind the scenes or in the corners of the story, whose acts of courage might have been overlooked. This type of character education, in this case specifically about courage, is also at the heart of arts integration. By examining stories, sculptures, art, and by participating in dances or plays, students have a deeper understanding of the material. The learning and teaching then is centered on understanding and critical thinking, rather than rote memorization, and students are pulled into an active role in their learning, as it should be. The arts speak to the heart.


To be continued in January 2014. Victoria will review additional arts programs in the January issue of Wow!



Interview: Mark Coppin, IT Champion of Change
By Suzan Mullane, MS.Ed.

"For students with disabilities, I believe in simple truths. More than accessibility, I
believe in accessing ability and I do that by connecting kids with the right technology tools so they can pursue their education, their world and finally their dreams."
                               ~~ Mark Coppin    
Mark's vision for improving the lives of students has garnered him a lot of worldly attention. But his roots are in North Dakota, as the director for Assistive Technology at the Anne Carlsen Center.  

"Technology tools are becoming more and more affordable, so the tech landscape is expanding and that's good news for kids! Here at Anne Carlson, we strongly believe in students' right to self-determination and independence."

 Click for Video Clip

Universal Design. "iPads, iPhones, speech-to-text, or universal design tools really help with executive functioning skills, whether it's something simple like an alarm or video scheduling so students can see a task-analysis approach to perform a job."

"Many of our students have autism and some are nonverbal but they understand language. In the past they used to
have to lug around those big, heavy, communication boards. They weren't cool and they were stigmatizing--like you couldn't go to McDonald's and order a Big Mac because the old technology didn't have 'fringe vocabulary.' Now that they have the right tools the kids are much happier, with less behavior, because they can communicate their needs."        
         Click for Video Clip

Outreach. In commenting on his work at the Anne Carlsen Center, Mark said, "I'm lucky to have my wife Rachel to work in tandem with me. Rachel teaches me a lot about students
who have limited articulation skills. Not everyone can be an expert on everything, so we believe in outreach here in North Dakota. And if I'm not at Anne Carlsen, I might be in Prague, Singapore or Turkey. Usually not in the same month thankfully, although I have had some long days. For example, I recently flew back from Prague to make the White House Reception for the IT Champions of Change."

CEI believes such outreach is crucial to establishing inclusive international communities of caring. Bravo!
This holiday season we are blessed to be surrounded by interconnected communities of caring. We are thrilled to see the continuing advances that are being made on many fronts with many 21st Century Innovations and the way those innovations are creating inclusive opportunities for communicating, sharing, and caring.  

Our CEI team sends warm wishes to your communities of caring--may this truly be a season of blessings.
Christine Mason 
Executive Director, Center for Educational Improvement
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