Sue's News & Articles

Sue’s News – January 29, 2020

A blog from the Head of School
Vol. 2, No. 10 – January 29, 2020
Recent News

New Furniture – You know when you finish a home improvement project and the first thing you think about – just nanoseconds after the task is complete – is, what’s next? Well, that’s the thought that went through my mind last Wednesday once all of the new classroom furniture was in place. It looks fantastic, by the way, and I encourage you to take a peek, and next on the improvement list is the classroom walls, which will hopefully get painted during February break. So, it never ends . . . and thanks, as always, for your continued support of our efforts to beautify the school.

Field Trips – One of the things that warms my heart is when teachers return from chaperoning a field trip and report that the logistical challenges were all worthwhile. I was really pleased, therefore, to hear rave reviews from all of the teachers on Thursday, after the school had scattered to various destinations on Wednesday to explore, learn, bond, and have fun. One of the benefits of being a small school is that we can easily take advantage of the myriad opportunities that exist all around us in the Bay Area, and last week we did.

Coming Around the Corner

Parent Support Group – I am excited to report that the details of our newly forming Parent Support Group are coming into focus. Jocelyne Gardner, LCSW and mother of Ethan, ‘21, will host and facilitate, and Jocelyne will be present at next week’s OAPG meeting to discuss details. I hope you will consider taking part in this wonderful opportunity. The purpose of the group, as its name suggests, is to provide a place where OA parents can gather, share challenges, and provide fellowship for each other. The group will meet weekly throughout the spring. We plan to rent a space in the office building next door, up the hill at 21 Altarinda Road, and there will be a nominal fee to cover rental of the space. Please be on the lookout for info about dates and times, and please join Jocelyne and your fellow parents for what I’m sure will be a wonderful, supportive experience.

Accreditation – OA is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, otherwise known as WASC. The accreditation cycle is six years, and this year OA is scheduled for its mid-cycle “check-in.” The WASC accrediting process is thorough, to say the least, and in March we will welcome two members of a WASC visiting committee to campus for a full day visit to take a look under the school’s proverbial hood. In preparation, teachers, administrators, and Board members have been compiling and reviewing data on everything from campus improvements to our new Honors designation for UC approved classes to student achievement to the school’s long term plans. Laura Turnbull, our Director of Academics, has been charged with compiling and writing the mid-cycle report, which stands at 120+ pages to date. 

The accreditation process is vital, as it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our mission, purpose, operations, and future with unbiased outsiders, whose role it is to help us better understand ourselves. I look forward to sharing the results of our self-reflection process, and the WASC committee’s response to their visit, later in the spring. If you have any questions or would like details about the accreditation process, please let me know.

Sue’s Muse

I was going to title this Sue’s Muse It’s Not Adolescence Until Everyone’s Angry, but then I thought better of it. Not because the sentiment isn’t true, but because I’m trying to channel my inner Buddha (which isn’t going too well, by the way).My mind has been fixated lately on teenage angst because almost every conversation I’ve had with parents recently has involved a detour into the terrain of how teenagers behave at home (not so well, by many accounts), and how dealing with the teenage emotional rollercoaster is exhausting, dispiriting, and lonely. Ugh.

Here are some takeaways from these conversations, and from working with teenagers all day, every day:Parents should never judge the effectiveness of their parenting based on how their teenager feels.I spoke with one mother recently who is at her wit’s end because her child is constantly surly with her. If she asks him a question, he is surly. If she leaves him alone, he is surly. When she drives him to school, cooks his meals, says hello, and even breathes, he is surly. Suffice to say, she doesn’t feel good about these interactions, and I could sense from our conversation that she is questioning everything about her parenting choices.

Imagine her surprise when I reported that, at school, her son is polite, pleasant, engaged, and touchingly self-reflective. In fact, this very same surly teen recently wrote a reflection piece in English (shared with me by his teacher) about how much he loves his parents, appreciates what they do for him, and wants to work hard because he owes them for all their sacrifices. Who knew? Well, obviously not his mom.

Parents should never judge the effectiveness of their parenting based on how their teen feels because negative emotions don’t necessarily mean something is wrong.Teenagers feel bad for all kinds of reasons, and most of them will pass in short order, and frankly, most of them have nothing to do with parents. Teens are hungry, or tired, or bored, or overstimulated, or confused, or overwhelmed, or in love, or in hate, or . . . or  . . . you name it.

The point is teenagers haven’t learned how to recognize many of their emotions, let alone manage them, and so they tend to be moody and self-absorbed as a result. And because they have to put up a good front for their peers during the day, at school, they tend to let everything hang out when they are at home with parents. Teens are keenly aware of how they are judged by other teens, and so they focus much of their energy on being their best selves at school. But this is exhausting, given that many of their feelings, especially in their intensity, are new to them. So, how do teens cope? They come home and dump on you. And you take it, which means . . . You are a much better parent than you think you are.Look on the bright side. Most days your teen goes to school. Most days they do most of their homework. Most days you don’t get a call from the school. Most days they eat some vegetables. Most days they put their shoes on the right feet.

And on some days, out of the blue, you hear that your child wrote an English essay saying how much they appreciate you, and that it’s all worthwhile. And if you haven’t heard that yet, take it from me: YOU ARE DOING A GREAT JOB! Your child is headed in the right direction. They are learning, from their teachers and from each other, and especially from you. They are figuring things out, even when it’s really, really hard, which sometimes it is. And it’s all because of you.Yep, your child is grumpy and surly and at times ungrateful, and despite all of their angst, you are doing a really great job!

Sue’s News 10/10/19

A blog from the Head of School

Vol. 2, No. 4 – October 10, 2019

  • The All School Retreat was a resounding success. Epic weather, great leadership (thanks especially to Sara Hall-Kennedy for shepherding her first retreat as Dean of Students in fine fashion), and a willingness on everyone’s part to step out of their comfort zones made this annual adventure a memorable one.
  • OA is in the power outage zone and school is closed. We will be in touch with updates, but at this point, we hope and expect school to be open for business on Tuesday, October 15. Our Virtual Day (Wednesday), Professional Development Day (Friday), and Indigenous People’s Day (Monday) mean that we are missing only one instructional day. I hope you and your family remain safe for the duration if your power is off.

Coming Around the Corner – Help OA Thrive!

  • This year’s Annual Fund, OA 2020 Vision, kicks off this week (due to the school closure, you may not receive your fund letter in the mail until late next week). 2020 Vision is about imagining OA’s future and making our dreams a reality. Our goal is to raise $100,000, which will go to enhance our science labs and outdoor spaces. Tuition does not cover the cost of an OA education. The school relies on the generosity of current and alumni parents, grandparents, alumni, and friends to bridge the gap. Please consider what OA means to you and your child and join us In envisioning a bright future for the school.
  • Our first Open House for prospective families is scheduled for Sunday, October 20, from 1-3 p.m. If you would like to participate on a parent panel or help with check-in, please contact Janet at Admissions season is an important time for the school, as we communicate who we are and why we’re unique to the broader community. Please take a moment in the next few weeks to tell your OA story to a friend or colleague who has a child in middle school and encourage them to come to an OA Open House (the second one is December 7).

Sue’s Muse

I start off most school retreats feeling the same way many students do: apprehensive, a little negative, looking for things to go wrong. But then, a few hours in, something in me shifts and I’m able to understand the purpose of the whole endeavor. By hour three, I feel liberated from my phone and get interested in the natural world again, and this frees me up to enjoy myself.

During this retreat, at about hour four, we hiked down to the beach. Sara Hall-Kennedy and I picked up the rear with two students and had a most enjoyable conversation. It started off with me not knowing which path to take (both led to our destination, but one more directly), then the students giving me a hard time because I didn’t know where I was going, then me defending myself, albeit not very convincingly, that I very much did know where I was going, then the students predicting what animals would come and eat us because their Head of School didn’t know where she was going, then me saying they were being way too dramatic for a simple walk to the beach, then the students pointing out that there were coyotes all over the place, then me saying we’d probably get eaten by raccoons instead, and that this wouldn’t make a very good story.

The banter continued all the way to the beach, and we took it from there.

For the next few hours I witnessed the following: students racing each other on the hardened sand; students pushing the “only up to your knees” policy in the surf; footballs and volleyballs being thrown between teams; students sitting on the rocky shore taking pictures and chatting; a lively and oddly competitive “name that tune” game. Students actually frolicked, if you can believe it. It was a great sight.

These days it takes a lot of planning to create “spontaneous” fun, but it’s worth it, and it’s why OA does this retreat every year. For most of the retreat, no one was on a phone, kids were talking to each other, and they were playing. That’s right, playing! Sure, there were some grumpy teenage moments but, whatever, that’s to be expected. But we were all in it together for 24 hours straight, and this is what facilitates and deepens community.

When I think about why I’m at OA I think of experiences like the one I had walking to the beach on the retreat. Not particularly noteworthy, to be sure, but important nevertheless. The truth is those students didn’t really want to go on the excursion—each was apprehensive for various reasons—but they stuck with it. They embarked upon an unknown path, had moments of doubt, managed their anxiety, and made it to their destination in one piece. And we did it side by side, supporting one another along the way.

This is the value of the OA experience. We are all in it together—we’ve got each other’s backs—and hopefully, at least sometimes, we make each other laugh.

Sue’s News 9/25/19

A blog from the Head of School
Vol. 2, No. 3 – September 25, 2019

  • Dean of Students, Sara Hall-Kennedy, hosted OA’s first ever Open Mic Night last Friday. I watched students preparing on Friday afternoon, practicing on ukuleles and crafting headgear with which to raid Area 51 (I can’t claim to understand this one). Based on the success of this inaugural event, Sara is already making plans for the next one.
  • Many OA students joined youth across the world to participate in the Global Climate Strike on Friday. If your child participated, I encourage you to have a conversation with them about their experience, and to discuss why this issue matters to them.
  • New furniture for the Lounge arrived last Friday and is receiving rave reviews from students. 

Coming Around the Corner

  • Back to School Night is tomorrow, Thursday, September 26. Please arrive by 6 p.m. and park either on the street or at the Masonic Lodge down the hill from OA, at 9 Altarinda Road. 
  • On Friday, September 27, the entire OA community will take a field trip to Cal Shakes, the California Shakespeare Theater, where we will watch Macbeth.

Sue’s Muse

Risk-taking has been on my mind this week. The good kind of risk-taking, that is. Risk-taking often gets a bad rap when it comes to teens, and yet the brain doesn’t learn without stretching itself in ways that sometimes feel risky.

Take, for starters, the Open Mic night we held last week. I watched several students prepare to get up in front of their peers and perform something of their own making. One of them was literally pacing around the campus at the end of the school day, getting herself ready for her performance, chanting, “I’m so nervous! I’m so nervous!”

Given that public speaking is the #1 fear in America, her anxiety was understandable, and most of us can relate to it. We, too, would be pacing and sweating, and possibly panicking at the thought of performing in front of a crowd. But this student was still taking the risk. And it was a beautiful sight to see.

This is as positive an example of risk-taking as I have ever seen, and whether she knew it or not, it was all in the service of growth. Regardless of how her performance went, this student stretched herself by taking the risk, and it prepared her for taking even bigger, and equally positive risks in the future.

This is what learning is all about.

The second example of risk-taking I witnessed this week involved the students who participated in the Global Climate Strike. This was a different kind of risk than Open Mic – it obviously didn’t involve public speaking, at least not for our students – but it did involve doing something different, and therefore having to plan and take responsibility, doing a cost-benefit analysis of taking the action, and then following through with a plan. I heard students beforehand check in with each other about contingency plans, and arrange ways to keep each other safe. They understood that they were taking a risk by joining a big crowd in the city, and yet they did it anyway.

Finally, in Psychology class this week, I saw another example of positive risk-taking that sort of blew me away. I asked students how many of them were planning to attend the Global Climate Strike (and therefore be absent from class the following day). Every student but one raised their hand. The lone holdout was peppered with questions by her peers about why she wasn’t going to attend. “Because I don’t like being in crowds,” she explained. And with that answer, she took an enormous risk.

Besides public speaking, one of the most anxiety-provoking things for teenagers is to face social rejection, so when this student spoke her truth, she was really putting herself on the line. And yet she did it. It would have been easy for her to fudge a response and half-heartedly raise her hand, or to divert attention from herself in some other way. But she decided to take the risk by telling the truth. Her peers understood immediately what she had done when she provided her answer. All of them immediately backed down and accepted her statement.

Now that I am in my second year at OA, I am starting to realize that examples such as these are not anomalous. It’s what OA is all about, and it’s what makes it a unique and exceptional place. Students can take these sorts of risks all day long, and therefore stretch and grow and learn because they are supported. This doesn’t mean they don’t feel anxious about taking risks – we all do, feeling anxiety is what makes something risky – but OA students are able to take positive risks because they know they have a safety net in the community of adults and peers cheering them from the sidelines. They will not be shunned for speaking their truth or performing in front of each other, or in doing something new. It’s what we expect of them, and it’s what they are beginning to expect of themselves.

Sue’s News 9/11/19

A blog from the Head of School
Vol. 2, No. 2 – September 11, 2019

OA Website and Mascot – Last Spring the community chose the Blue Jay as the new school mascot, replacing the eagle as the symbol for OA. We spent the summer working with a design team to create a new logo, and we are close to rolling it out on the website and signage around school. Last week we invited students to vote on a design for a school t-shirt, and soon all students will be able to wear the new design with pride. We are also working to create a school “store” where all manner of OA Blue Jay swag will be available.

In addition to the new logo, we are in the process of making some significant enhancements to the OA website that will provide an easier, more user-friendly experience. Once the new format is live, I will be asking for your feedback. Stay tuned!

Sue’s Muse

This fall I am teaching a Psychology elective, and it is an exciting and exhausting endeavor. I love teaching, but it is incredibly hard work. So hard, in fact, that after teaching for two years in my mid-20’s, I decided to return to graduate school to get a degree in clinical social work. I figured dealing with people with chronic mental health issues would be much easier than managing teenagers every day. And I was right.

Teaching at a school like OA involves much more than just mastering content. It means understanding adolescent development, neurological diversity, different learning styles, and the pedagogical techniques that can best reach a broad bandwidth of students. It means having patience, curiosity, and – most of all – humility. 

I like to joke that high school teachers never need psychoanalysis because teenagers will give them feedback every single day about how they’re doing; teenagers let teachers know with a roll of an eye if they’re off the mark. In this way, teaching adolescents is a lot like parenting them. But, as you parents know, being around teenagers is also incredibly rewarding. Their minds are on fire, and watching them make connections and learn new things about themselves and the world around them is one of the most gratifying experiences there is.

Here is something I am learning about OA students in Psychology class that sets them apart from all of my former students: OA students are incredibly self-reflective, often because they’ve had to be in order to manage challenging social and academic situations. They know themselves in a way that the average teenager simply doesn’t, and they are accepting of each other in a way I have never experienced before. Last week in class we explored attachment styles (baby to parents), and the important skill of self-soothing. I asked students to recall the transitional objects they used as kids (such as teddy bears, pacifiers, etc.), and to share with each other how they soothed themselves then and now. The students spoke freely about their blankets, stuffed animals, and even imaginary friends. They also spoke openly of experiences of separation anxiety when they were young (one student followed an ice cream truck down the street and got lost for hours). It was the most poignant, honest, and authentic conversation among teens I have ever witnessed, and the fact that it came in the second week of school is nothing short of miraculous.

And here’s the other thing. While the students were able to self-disclose freely, the class didn’t devolve into group therapy, which is what can happen in these situations. In my experience, often when students self-disclose other students will jump in to rescue their peers from feeling exposed and vulnerable and thus inadvertently introduce an uncomfortable power dynamic, or worse, they will mock the disclosure. But the thing about the OA classroom is that the students don’t feel overly exposed and vulnerable because they are all at very similar levels of self-awareness.

And it gets even better. The following day, after our conversation about transitional objects, several students bought in pictures of their teddy bears or blankets, or they brought in the objects themselves. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see a student hold up a blanket (that he called Moo Moo) and have the rest of the class accept it as though it were no big deal. But in fact it was a big deal. It was a huge deal. And this is what sets OA students apart.

So, teaching is the hardest job in the world, but it’s also the most gratifying.

Feeling Bad as a Parent?

Feeling Bad as a Parent?

Article by Sue Porter featured in the Piedmont Post on Wednesday, August 28, 2019

 Almost every parent I know feels bad about their parenting. If you’re anything like them, these are some of the things you feel bad about: 

You feel bad because you don’t spend enough time with your kids. You feel bad because … Read More…

The Gift of Boredom

The Gift of Boredom

Article by Sue Porter featured in the Piedmont Post on Wednesday, June 26, 2019

 Before you schedule every minute of your child’s summer, consider carving out some time for them to do nothing. In fact, carve out enough time for them to do nothing that they get bored. That’s right, Bored. 

Boredom is a vital emotional state that most of today’s overscheduled children never get to experience.  READ MORE…



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Our bright and creative students thrive in our nurturing, small class environment. Through a combination of academic support, executive functioning skill development, and social/emotional balance, every student reaches their full potential.

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