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This blog explores, from multiple perspectives, gifted education in general and The Avery Coonley School experience in particular. Welcome to the conversation!


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Why ACS?

Posted By Christopher Portman, Monday, January 30, 2017

Last week was National School Choice Week, and Student Council members, teachers, and staff – along with Freddy the Fighting Seahorse! – celebrated through dance!

Sue Gould, the parent of a recent graduate and a current student, also shared the reasons that she and her husband chose ACS for their children…

We made a choice 10 years ago to become a part of the Avery Coonley family.  My son started in Junior Kindergarten in December 2006, after we were disappointed in the educational experience he had in his previous preschool.  At the time we weren’t sure ACS was the right place for him long-term, but our decision was affirmed when he was admitted to Kindergarten, and it has been reaffirmed by our experiences year after year. 

The term “like-minded peers” is thrown around quite a bit, but it has true meaning in a place like ACS.  Both of my children (ACS Class of 2016 and Class of 2018) are surrounded by other kids who love to learn.  ACS is a place where it’s cool to be smart.  When gifted children are in the right environment, they realize pretty quickly that critical thinking is a lot more interesting than just memorizing facts and formulas, and ACS classmates learn from and push each other in the best possible ways.

And while it is important that my children are challenged academically, it is equally important that they remain with their social and emotional peers.  Gifted children are intellectually advanced, but that does not mean they are ready to deal with the same things older kids can handle. ACS understands and addresses all of the needs of our gifted children.

Having experienced ACS for so many years, I have witnessed hundreds of small differences along the way. At the at the end of their ACS journey, our graduates are a different kind of student compared to their peers at other schools.  But seeing it is not enough - I’m a big believer in external validation.  I knew that ACS was great, but then I discovered that the most selective boarding schools in the country actively recruit our students. No matter what school they choose after ACS, our students are prepared for the most rigorous academic programs available to them – and my son’s limited experience so far in high school has confirmed this.  Seeing and hearing about the amazing things our alumni go on to do provides additional confirmation – no doors are closed to them.

At the end of the day I believe that while both of my children would have done fine in another school, I truly feel that they are the best versions of themselves for having attended ACS – and for that I am grateful.  I know we made the right choice.

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Staff Spotlight: The Maintenance Department

Posted By Christopher Portman, Friday, January 13, 2017

Winter presents some additional challenges for the ACS Maintenance Department. Shoveling and plowing snow, keeping the walkways free of ice, regulating the temperature throughout the building and, knock on wood, making sure that no water pipes freeze and burst in the cold weather (like they did a few years ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day).

But these seasonal tasks, on top of their myriad other responsibilities, do not discourage this good-tempered crew. Ask any parent, teacher, or staff member – Calvin Hogan, Jordan Lloyd, Alex Wiltz, and Andrew McCormick (the director of the department) are always willing to help out with any task, and they do so with a pleasant greeting and a smile. We have all come to depend on them not only for their hard work, but also for the positive energy that they bring to the school.

The feeling is mutual. Asked what their favorite part of ACS is, all four agreed that it is the community atmosphere. “Everyone here,” Alex says, “is part of the family.” “The people here are so nice,” Jordan adds. “That’s not always true when you work at other places.”

For Calvin, the veteran of the crew – he has been at ACS since 1999 – the history and traditions also make the job special. He especially likes it when alumni come back to visit. “They bring back with them all of those experiences, and for those of us who have been here quite a while, it’s a treasure when they remember the traditions and when they remember us. It’s a great experience.” Current students and recent alumni will agree – Calvin’s annual holiday rendition of “Can Santa Be Black?” has been a favorite memory for a generation.

It may surprise some given the amount of work involved, but for Andrew the special events are also a major highlight of the job. “All the events are great,” he says. “I love seeing everyone come together to support the school and support each other.” The biggest of all, of course, is the annual auction. “You get that feeling the week before – the auction is coming. It’s magic!”

It’s not all work for the maintenance crew. Because the department is small and because they work so closely together, there is a strong camaraderie among the group, complete with plenty of inside jokes. For example, Alex is the one to keep the group on task – “when he wants to get something done, he is laser-focused,” Andrew says. But Calvin adds, “We have to watch over him, though, so he doesn’t come out bleeding.”

On behalf of the entire ACS community, thank you for all that you do to make ACS special!


      Andrew McCormick, Jordan Lloyd, Alex Wiltz, and Calvin Hogan

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Making the World a Little Better Every Day

Posted By Ibrahim Ahmed '17, Friday, December 9, 2016

“What are you grateful for?” “What did you do today to make the world a better place?” These are questions that, for as long as I can remember, have been discussed regularly when our family sits down for dinner at home. Avery Coonley’s supportive and encouraging environment are parts of my life that I will always be grateful for, and being at ACS has given me many chances to do my small part to make the world just a little bit better every day.

Whether it’s sleeping outside on a cold winter
night or using our own spending money for a donation, ACS always has
something going on to inspire its students to make a change in our community. While several amazing fundraisers and projects have made a lasting impact on ACS for several years, there are new opportunities rolling through for everyone to help make a difference, one being Bridge Communities’ Sleep Out Saturday. When we first heard about the program, my brother and I met with Mrs. Lenhardt to see if we could bring it to ACS. She worked to get the project approved by the administration, and the newest Avery Coonley tradition was underway! I look back at how empowered our early years at ACS must have been to give us the confidence to approach our Middle School Head – when we were 10 and 12 years old – to ask if we could take on such a huge project. We were amazed that so many adults on campus enthusiastically supported the idea and worked with us to make it a reality. We couldn’t believe that teachers, staff, and even Mr. D. signed up to sleep outside!  

 Three years later, we have just wrapped up the third annual Sleep Out. I can honestly say that the drive and enthusiasm shown by the whole ACS community has truly helped the event to thrive for the past three years. Teachers and staff have encouraged the cause and generously donated alongside the students in order to make the whole project a success. Younger students have volunteered to take on the job of organizing future sleep out events so that this new tradition stays alive once the original organizers graduate.

 Seeing the whole community come together in such away has been inspiring. But is not at all surprising from the school that values thinking about things bigger than ourselves. What I have seen in the success of Sleep Out Saturday is simply a continuation of what the students, parents, faculty, and staff do all the time. Each year, it takes the Student Council a whole day to sort and pack all of the Ronald McDonald House donations. The Thanksgiving Program – an 86-year-old tradition that is central to my ACS experience – helps to provide warm meals to those in need through the work of the Salvation Army. The Mitten Tree overflows with donations and shows no green through the countless coats, gloves, hats, and scarves, all given to help less fortunate children stay warm throughout a cold winter.

 Through these and so many more projects that are both inspiring and unifying, ACS establishes itself as a community of giving, caring, and empathetic people. While many of us come to the school for the academics, we all graduate enriched by the traditions, the sense of community and gratitude, and the ability to see the many opportunities that we have to make a positive difference.

 I hope that future Seahorses will always step onto this beautiful campus every morning and ask themselves, “What am I grateful for?” “What can I do today to make the world a better place?” I am confident that ACS, and all of us within this wonderful school community, will continue to support and encourage their answers to these critical questions.

~Ibrahim Ahmed, ACS Class of 2017

Tags:  Empathy  Gratitude  Service  Volunteerism 

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Marshmallows and (Much) More

Posted By Katie Portman '10, Friday, December 2, 2016

At The Avery Coonley School, traditions reign supreme. Every year – practically every month – these events pop up as tangible manifestations of the never-ending quest to make learning fun. And they work—many of my fondest memories as a student are of projects and programs that have been around longer than I have. From Fall Fest to Shakespeare Fest, each tradition is insightful and educational. Native American Fair made indigenous cultures cool; Science Fair transformed middle schoolers into mad scientists; Book Fair encouraged the obsessive reading habits of my peers. Even Spring Fair prompted lessons of teamwork and patience as we stomped and galloped in unison around the Reflection Pool, year after year.

But every winter, as carols are sung and halls are decked, ACS prepares for a tradition that seemingly serves no educational purpose whatsoever: Holiday House. There’s no discussion of diversity, no production of Greek plays, no syrup manufacture. Instead, kids are actually taken away from class to go shopping. Hours are spent tromping on that weird blue stuff that covers the gym floor; time wasted throwing money at toys, trinkets, and treats of all varieties. Charlie Brown would surely disapprove of such blatant materialization of the holiday spirit.

From this perspective, Holiday House is nothing short of anti-mission. So why has it stuck around? As I sat down to write this piece, it occurred to me that I only remember a handful of purchases I ever made at a full decade of Holiday Houses. Chief among these is a marshmallow shooter for my grandpa. The toy itself was unremarkable – nothing more than a couple of pieces of PVC piping glued together and painted in 15 seconds or less. But my grandpa loved the thing. He made us dig out three-year-old mini marshmallows and spent the rest of the day terrorizing us with sneak attacks. Every year after that, I couldn’t wait to see what goofy gift I could get for grandpa at Holiday House. I learned how fun it was to give presents as well as get them. I actually got excited about finding the perfect presents for my family and friends. I may not have found the “true meaning” of the holidays, but my understanding of gift-giving broadened – and I had fun in the process.

Like all good ACS traditions, this annual shopapalooza goes in the memory bank and helps to fuel the collective conscious. My classmates and I bonded over the seemingly endless rows of items, sniffing Smencils and laughing at marionettes. In true seahorse spirit, we systematically worked together to tick names off of our shopping lists. Holiday House may not have educated me on world history or the inner workings of theatre, but it taught me the values of generosity and community, bringing us all a little closer and demonstrating that it really is better to give than to receive.

Find those marshmallows…and Happy Holidays!

~ Katie Portman, ACS Class of 2010

Tags:  community  Holiday House  Traditions 

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The Pilgrim Age

Posted By Blake Glidden '87, Monday, November 21, 2016

When the leaves start to crunch on the ground and Christmas lights rise in the streets, then it must be late August and time to start thinking about Thanksgiving. It’s a time to get ready for the greatest Avery Coonley tradition of them all: the annual Flubbed Attempt to Describe the Super Weird Thanksgiving Program. As a student I walked in eight processionals but my memories feel unreliable, almost bewitched, like that storybook kid who falls asleep in the woods and dreams of being whisked to a banquet of elves but then wakes up alone, in a breeze that sounds faintly like music, half-wondering if it had just been a dream. The Thanksgiving Program is a group dream shared by everyone in the auditorium. I’m not a cultural anthropologist and I don’t know why some rituals have such oomph—solemnity and symbolism can push buttons, but those words feel so clinical and adult, while the Thanksgiving Program is a mirage that belongs to kids.

For us students, the processional had a beginning, middle, and end that were held in three separate ecosystems. The first was a sideroom that the parents never saw. I don’t want to give away any ancient seahorse secrets but the brains of the program were the adult staff in charge of this room. Nowadays we would call it a staging area, but really it was more of a livestock holding pen where students were tagged and stacked before entering the auditorium. Imagine two hundred anklebiters, lined up from youngest to moodiest, all whispering and giggling and shushing and caping each other. Not capping—caping; this was the only place post-Zorro where a cape was a verb. They swirled from our backs like gusts of leaves as we galloped through a maze of tables piled with food: red ripples of apples toppling from baskets, sleek eggplants, oranges, berries, greens, bundles of pale wheat leaning like brooms, a bonanza of squash, pumpkins, and gourds as if those are really three different foods, and next to each item, a notecard with the name of the student assigned to carry it. The card was a potential bummer for the younger classes because no one trusted their stumpy doll hands to carry anything; for two straight years they gave me a potato.

There was only one door separating this mess from the second ecosystem—the dark yonder where all the parents and adults were waiting. An eighth grader might have forty minutes to kill in the first room before it was his or her turn to join the ceremony, which sounds like a long time but you could never really relax, because you belonged to a hobbit chain gang whose youngest end was getting gulped down the esophagus of the door. Then it was your turn—year after year, always suddenly your turn—your instant to shuffle to the threshold, where the weather seemed to gather and a teacher goosed you through.

We walked in our socks. For a week we had practiced leading with our left, but many young geniuses would disgrace Jamestown by choking and leading with their other left. No one really cared because it was way too dark to see feet. Leaving behind the jumbled first room was like opening a capsule hatch and floating into the ink of galactic space—in my memory we were being absorbed by oblivion. Which I think raises some legit questions about my memory, because really, oblivion? It was the gym. And not a big gym—big for a badminton court, indulgent for a garage, but a dark yonder? Sounds fishy, but such is the power of Thanksgiving.

And such is the weakness of eyewitness testimony. Over the years, I’ve accepted that the Rock Pond was never actually the sixth Great Lake, but I still believe our Thanksgiving Program was held in a proud and brave gymnasium that rose to the occasion every time. Each student walked deliberately down the aisle—we ferried that food like a kingdom of ants who had finally hit the jackpot. We walked past all the adults, who sat serenely in the dark because they loved us, and because they hadn’t brought their cellphones, since walking around with a vintage cellphone was like carrying a futon. The darkness consumed us. A hush rippled down like glitter in a snow globe. I don’t know if you could have heard a pin drop but I was gripping my potato tighter than a holy yam. It wouldn’t have mattered, there was only one sound in the room that anyone remembers: a curve of music that was unspooling itself from the farther corner of the gym. Pachelbel’s Canon, performed live by the music department. A perfect fit that always sounded fresh, because these were the days before the wedding industry had rebranded Pachelbel’s Canon into the chicken dance of classical music, back when every kid only knew the title and never questioned the odd image it evoked of Pachelbel, on a hill, raining thunder and doom from his world famous death cannon.

Halfway down the aisle we started to feel tractor-beamed towards our destination, a glowing shape at the front of the room. This was the Thanksgiving Display. And I realize that display is a pretty flimsy word, but good luck finding a better one because whatever that thing was, it glides through language like a ghost through a net. In my eyes it was more lovely than strange, but when you look at pictures, strange makes a strong comeback. We decorated the display during the processional itself: Each student walked the length of the gym and then up a few stairs to the stage, where for a few charmed seconds we stepped into the swaddled world of a Cezanne still life, before placing our food on a prearranged ledge and scramming stage left for the next student. This went on for an hour. It sounds simple but the result was not from our planet—it was from a groovier planet, a planet that cared deeply about drapery and wicker. Each year the adults watched in amazement as their children built a nine-dimensional salad bar out of mood lighting and the fall collection from Fruit of the Loom. It was weird but it worked: Yeats once wrote a poem about the Cloths of Heaven, but here were the cloths of earth, furled in the colors of harvest, a crescendo of fabric and food that crumpled and hived into a neo-Plymouth Rock. It was Picasso’s Farmers’ Market and Liberace’s Yard Sale. It was half elegant, half figment, and all ours: the Annual Incommunicable Seahorse Thanksgiving Noun.

And that was that. We left our food as an offering to the vegetable ziggurat. We nodded silently at each other in our brown capes, a secret society of pilgrim superheroes. The oldest girls hung the enchanted citrus frisbee somewhere near the cranberry harpoon, and we all sang to the adults. The music changed year to year but always included For the Beauty of the Earth, which had become kind of a theme song and swelled through the room like a hymn should. Each year the music teacher Ms. Martin tried to get us to sing the words flower and hour using only one syllable, so each year we sang our heads off praising flarr and arr like thankful pirates. When the ceremony ended, adults and kids together spilled out the front doors, squinting in the white sun.

Or at least I hope we did, I really hope that’s what happened. And I hope Mrs. Lenhardt isn’t reading this right now, glancing around a room and saying to no one in particular, “Well, I see a lot of words here, but not too many that describe any Thanksgiving Program can remember. But what do I know? I’ve only been running the thing thirty years. Now what’s this about a tiny room where we crammed all the students and food? For an imaginary room, that sounds like quite a fire hazard!”

She’d be right, so I can only shrug. As kids we couldn’t process half of what happened. We couldn’t appreciate how the Thanksgiving Program wasn’t merely beautiful, but that it tied a string around our fingers that would eventually help tether our idea of beauty to specific mature virtues. Gratitude and empathy. Fellowship. Love of nature. The food was donated to the needy. The capes were ejected from society—one day perhaps we will burn them for fuel. The Golden Rule will be our guide. 

But as kids, what we lacked in nuance we might have gained in grace. Everyone knows what it’s like to walk around a big city in the middle of the day and then to slip inside an old museum or cathedral. It’s a different realm, your footsteps clack, the world feels removed. When it’s time to leave and you step back outside, at first the sounds of the city seem muted and it takes a few minutes for your brain to catch up. You might be stuck at McDonald’s but your mind’s eye lags behind, still levitating through the cathedral like a balloon. Of course it deflates in a hurry—even for a monk it’s an impossible awareness to sustain. But for the adults and students of the Avery Coonley School, remembering the Thanksgiving Program offers a handy, permanent glimpse backwards into wonder. The details might be up for debate but the faraway feeling it revives is yours in your pocket. This morning I found some pictures of past programs, and what strikes me is how much the generations look alike. The lunatics of the 1930s are following the same recipe that the modern students used last November, same clothes and props, same body language, their faces could be my classmates or my sister. Soon it will be a hundred years. A long long line of curious great kids in that first room, peeking around their friends’ shoulders, waiting their turn.

~ Blake Glidden, ACS Class of 1987


Tags:  Thanksgiving 

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The Spice of Life Show

Posted By Jeff Westbrook, Sunday, November 13, 2016

Everyone has heard the old proverb: “Variety is the spice of life.”  New and exciting experiences make life more interesting and joyful.  Variety opens the door to new insights and creative imagining and it makes us more thoughtful and receptive people.

In 1996, my first year at ACS, the art department decided to create something new.  As we were thinking about how to shape a new production, we quickly focused on a few key ideas:  we wanted it to very kid-centric, we wanted it to be fun for performers and audiences alike, we wanted it to be relatively free of the pressure that so often comes with public performances, we wanted it to be very inclusive, and we wanted to encourage students to think and play outside the box.

We also knew some things we didn’t want:  we didn’t want it to be a typical talent show where students feature only polished skills and abilities that have been developed over many years, we didn’t want it to have the formality of our Gatherings that feature students performing mostly classical music (though those events are naturally wonderful in a different way), we didn’t want it to require students to give up other activities and sports to participate, and we didn’t want to discourage kids who haven’t performed in public before or don’t see themselves as “theater people.”

One of the first decisions we made was that we would have a theme to bring all of the acts together and (hopefully) inspire students to explore and create something new.  The first theme was “We, the People,” a show about voting, politics and democracy produced on election night 1996, when incumbent Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole to retain the presidency.  We’ve had themes about places (Chicago, New York, France, Hollywood, the United States, the American west, the entire world), times (world history, Halloween, holidays, the 60s, the 80s), and “genres” (rock ‘n roll, romance, vaudeville, fairy tales, science fiction, mysteries, sports and movies).  What has united them all together over these twenty years has been seeing students develop a concept that will tie their interests and abilities to a specific thematic focus.

A few of the hundreds of performers and crew members from past variety shows are actually pursuing careers in the performing arts – in music, theater, and film – but a vast majority are getting an education or are working jobs in other areas: law, medicine, science, business, engineering, education, and so on.  I like thinking about doctors and lawyers and such who may never perform publicly again, but one time (or eight times) many years ago they sang and played and danced and acted like the performers they are.  For a little while, they were able to focus not on the rigorous academics of ACS and the various duties and pressures of daily life,  but on being a star on the stage in the spotlight.  In the process, they also gave family members, friends, and other students the thrill of seeing a burgeoning artist in action. 

The arts cannot be a full meal for most people, but they can be the salt and pepper, making everything else taste better.  I am deeply honored to have shepherded so many students along their creative journeys as they have discovered that variety truly is the spice of life.

~ Jeff Westbrook, Drama Teacher

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Posted By Paul Druzinsky, Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Updated: Wednesday, November 9, 2016

When I woke up this morning, I saw the sun rising through beautiful fall leaves, I heard dogs barking in the backyards, and I was greeted by my favorite smell—the aroma of strong coffee. What does this mean? To me, it means what it always does—each day is a new one, filled with the most powerful force in human nature…hope.  Our country was founded on hope and the promise that working together will make each of us, and our country, stronger and better. This has not changed.

We have a new president, a president of the people, by the people, for the people.  Elected fair and square. Our election was not rigged. Wherever our passions lie, whatever our feelings are, we have an obligation and duty to do everything possible to support the transition of power to the next president of the United States. This is what Americans do, this is what people give their lives to protect. Every president must be granted the opportunity to govern.

I have been inundated with questions about “what do we tell our children” and how do we move forward? Well—millions of people would be saying the same thing to their children if the results had been different, and millions of people would be sharing their anger and disappointment. What do we tell our children?  We tell them our system of government remains the best in the world, that we have checks and balances in our branches of government, and until proven otherwise (and despite however one interprets one’s past record) our next leader has yet to make a single decision as President of the United States. Every president who follows the laws of the land in office and upholds the Constitution has the right, given to him by the people, to govern.  We tell our children, and each other, that we are stronger when we act together. We model the behaviors and conduct ourselves in the same manner that we expect and hope from others.

To those who supported the losing candidate, I say do not behave like some of those who opposed our current President have done for the last eight years. Do not allow negativity and obstructionism to guide your actions. To those who supported our next President, I say remember the president is the president of all the people, not simply those who share a certain ideology, and that your duty is stronger than ever to reach out across the political spectrum.

What do we tell our children?  We tell them that history shows us that we have had smart, principled presidents who have governed poorly, and presidents of questionable character who have proven to govern highly successfully. As parents, teachers, and ultimately as Americans, we model grace and compassion in victory and defeat. We emphasize that the “winners” of the election are all of us, the American people who once again showed that the peaceful transition of the world’s most powerful position is one of our greatest gifts to people of good will everywhere.

What do we tell our children? As I wrote last winter, I close by stating that the physical and emotional safety of our children comes first and foremost. Our values and our mission remain committed to recognizing and supporting the heightened sensitivities and intensities of our population. Today those sensitivities are raised. Our job is to provide an environment for our children to express and channel those feelings in a positive, safe manner; let us remember that all of the adults are here for each and every child. We are one community dedicated to one ideal. We move forward in partnership with our parents and believe that hope will always carry the day. The Avery Coonley School is first and foremost an educational institution. And education provides hope for all!

Paul Druzinsky, Head of School

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Fostering Empathy

Posted By Paul Druzinsky, Friday, November 4, 2016
Updated: Friday, November 4, 2016

Twenty-first century educational thinking has identified and brought to the forefront the value of fostering empathy in our children. One of the important ways that we demonstrate and accomplish this at Avery Coonley is through our participation in National Sleep-Out Saturday, an event designed to educate students about the struggles of the homeless in our country.

On the first Saturday in November, students across the country spend the night outdoors, with limited clothing and bedding and none of the creature comforts of home. The experience is designed to simulate, for a night, what homeless people experience every day.  Typically, students also participate in educational discussions and raise money for local shelters as well. All together, these activities raise awareness for the plight of the homeless is a very personal way.

This Saturday, fifteen of our Middle School students, along with several adults, will sleep outside in the ACS Cloister. I have participated for the past two years and believe this event is one of the most powerful experiences we offer our students. While the short-term benefits are critical – raising money for the homeless – the long-term lessons will impact our students for their lifetimes.

At ACS, this event is also representative of the best of our school mission. The night is planned, organized and executed completely by students—not adults. It is hands-on, experiential learning---not constrained or contained in a classroom setting. And it speaks in a very real way to the heightened sensitivities to the world and care and concern for others—traits that are often very pronounced in the gifted population. For all these reasons, I now look forward to the first weekend in November, as I know I will be a witness to a profound experience in the life of our students.

~ Paul Druzinsky, Head of School

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Memories of Halloween at ACS

Posted By Matt Cook '05, Friday, October 28, 2016

All the moms wanted to know: who was that girl in Eighth Group with such nice legs?

It was not one of my seventeen female classmates, but rather my best friend Philip whose gams had so impressed the Avery Coonley parents. As Phil proudly took the PAC stage in his mother’s disco-era pumps, a silence fell over the crowd. Despite my best attempt to outdo him with pink Ugg boots and a sequined shirt, we both knew it was his Nicole Richie outfit and not my Paris Hilton get-up that had earned our duo the award for “Scariest Costume” in that year’s Halloween Parade.

He made a career of one-upping me at ACS Halloweens from an early age. I quickly graduated from a kindergarten turtle - a costume my mother painstakingly sewed by hand but that, alas, was too conventional to earn a spot in school lore - to Mario in ‘96, the year Nintendo 64 made every kid’s Christmas list. Phil naturally upstaged me in style as a tiny Elvis, replete with guitar and mutton chops.

Not every costume was a success. Though today I’d contend that my ghost of Leo DiCaprio in Titanic, with hypothermic blue lipstick and icicles dangling from my hat, was a sleeper hit, the joke my parents concocted was largely lost on me and my classmates since we were not yet allowed to watch the movie. The same year, Phil dressed as a ninja, which, while not his most original effort, was at least more age-appropriate than my costume. Lesson learned: know your audience.

Over the years, our costumes became increasingly attuned to the American zeitgeist: “Weakest Link” host Anne Robinson; Kelly Clarkson and Simon Cowell after the first season of “American Idol”; Siegfried and a bloodied Roy following the infamous mauling (our friend Burke wore a tiger mask with an arm dangling from his mouth - classy). The Paris-and-Nicole combo was a crowning achievement. But no matter what role we chose, our Avery Coonley Halloweens always provided annual opportunities to think outside the box, to make our friends and teachers laugh, and to learn a little more about the world and its happenings.

Each autumn, Phil and I rehash these fond memories (emergency wig shopping, flubbing the Monster Mash during the Student Council dance, etc.) forged by Halloween at Avery Coonley. But this reminiscing also gives us an excuse to consider more important lessons learned in costume.

Halloween at Avery Coonley is a time for expansive imagining. Though crafting a costume is an ungraded exercise, the holiday tests each student to reach for his or her creative maximum. Whether store-bought or homemade, our class always celebrated the zaniest outfits our friends could dream up. In this sense, Halloween was an equalizing holiday at Avery Coonley. Though it may be hard to believe, hierarchies among children exist even at ACS. But decades later, it’s tough to recall who was considered the king or queen of a particular class in a given year. Instead, everyone remembers the hilarious Blue Man Group costume or the great Crayola crayon outfit - no matter who wore it.

At ACS, we were asked by our teachers not just to dress up, but to really embody the characters we portrayed and to learn about their context. Selecting a costume with a historical bent prompted an examination of a time period and a culture; outfits with a nod to current events catalyzed frank discussions between students and teachers about the role of the media or the politics of the day.

While Halloween at ACS always inspired new learning, the process of assuming a role and playing a part fostered a quality even more important than academic engagement: empathy. Learning to exercise empathy is a foundational aspect of an Avery Coonley education, and rarely were we afforded a more immediate opportunity to drop into someone else’s shoes than on Halloween. When I was an ACS student, I misjudged the impact that this cultivation of empathy would have down the road, but many years on, it has proven to be one of the most valuable parts of my time at Avery Coonley. Dressing up each Halloween to see the world through new eyes was instrumental in developing our ability to understand the actions and experiences of others.

Though our peers’ interest in dressing up for the holiday has waned, Phil and I still return to the costume box each year for another crack at Halloween. We do this not as some desperate attempt to cling to our fast-fading youth, but because it allows us to engage our creative sides and to get outside of ourselves, just as we used to do at Avery Coonley. With each wig, high heel, or cloak, we know there’s always something new to be learned.

Happy Halloween to the ACS community! May your tricks be fun and your treats be sweet!

~ Matt Cook (ACS Class of 2005)

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Celebrating Poetry in the Pacific Northwest

Posted By Michelle Schaub, Friday, October 21, 2016

What do you call a group of 38 children’s poets gathered together from around the country?  A collection of poets? A stanza of poets? A plethora of poets?  I call it a priceless opportunity, and one in which I was thrilled to participate.  Over the weekend of September 30th, I flew to Seattle to take place in the first annual Poetry Camp, sponsored by Western Washington University’s Poetry CHaT (Poetry for Children and Teens), and coordinated by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong, the editors of The Poetry Friday Anthology series.

The Poetry Friday Anthology series is a collection of books comprised of original poems by award-winning and up-and-coming children’s poets. Each book includes a poem a week for an entire school year, all linked to key Common Core skills. The anthologies are designed to inspire teachers to share, teach, and celebrate poetry with their students. 

Last spring, Sylvia and Janet invited any poets who had contributed to one of their anthologies to share their penchant for poetry with teachers, librarians, and parents at the Poetry Camp conference.  Since I had published two poems in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations, I was one of the lucky invitees.   A chance to rub shoulders with some of the most preeminent children’s poets in the county and visit the breathtaking Pacific Northwest? I jumped at the chance.

Some poets crafted presentations on specific poetic devices, such as using metaphor or alliteration. Others focused on how to perform poetry.  Another group zoomed in on ways to connect poetry to school curriculum.  Since I regularly use poetry in grammar lessons with my Seventh and Eighth Group students at Avery Coonley, I decided to connect these two concepts.  The title of my presentation:  Grumbling about Grammar? Revive Your Approach through Poetry. 

I built my presentation around my classroom-tested practice of teaching functional grammar.  Functional grammar, as explained by grammar and curriculum guru, Constance Weaver, focuses on how language works in context.  The end goal of functional grammar instruction is to enhance students’ ability to use the language to communicate effectively and eloquently.  To this end, functional grammar maximizes the use of mentor text and encourages students to explore grammar concepts in their own writing.  And poetry, because it is concise yet rich, provides great mentor text and writing opportunities.

While I can talk in front of middle school students all day long, presenting similar content to a group of adults was a bit intimidating.  I shared the lesson I had just launched with my Seventh Group students earlier that week: “What makes a sentence?” After exploring the concepts of subject-predicate, abstract versus concrete nouns, and subject-verb agreement, the audience broke off in pair to create their own terse verse poems.  They were challenged to create a poem of at least ten lines, each line comprised of a two-word sentence.  At first the audience was stoically concentrating, then they were smiling, and finally, freely talking and laughing as they played with words on the page.  The results were impressive, but not as impressive as the poems my own students had crafted for the same lesson. 

My weekend presenting and learning at Poetry Camp was enriching and inspiriting, both as a poet and a teacher.  I believe in the power of poetry and think it should be integrated into the curriculum whenever possible. Poetry helps students digest content, gives them permission to play with language, and invites them to explore new ways to express themselves. And who knows, the poems my students create for today’s grammar lessons might just make it into a future Poetry Friday Anthology.

~ Michelle Schaub, ACS 7th & 8th Group Literacy Teacher

Examples of students’ “terse verse” poems:


The Little Things

War whispers,
Pain stings,
the little things.

Life is hard,
We know,
But it's harder,
Without your glow.

Be happy,
Make others smile,
Make a sad world,
Bright for a while.

Hunger bites,
Disease tears,
Show them,
Someone cares.


Sun shines
Sand heats
Rain splatters
Leaves appear
Pumpkins grow
Ground glistens
White with snow
A pop of colorful flowers
 create quite a show
Each season
Its own beautiful






Tags:  grammar  poetry  poetry friday anthology 

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