Lower School

Lower School Principal's Blogs

Blogs from the Lower School Principal,
Betsy Kelly

Betsy Kelly, Bullis School

April 9, 2014

Actions Are Worth a Million Words

At the recent NAIS conference in Orlando, Florida, the audience was asked to work together and create a statistically measurable sign of a great school. Our answer: Compare the rate children enter school in the morning with the rate they leave in the afternoon. In great schools, students enter much faster than they leave.

If this is a valid measurement tool, Bullis is indeed a great school! Take the afternoon before spring break as one example. The entire school gathered in the gymnasium at 2:00pm to watch the seniors play basketball against the teachers. The game went into overtime, the crowd was deafening, and no one wanted to leave. Afterward, students in grades 2-12 sauntered back to North and South Halls in large clumps, recapping the game. As I walked behind one cluster of girls laughing together I thought, Hey! Spring Break just started, why aren't these kids rushing to leave?

As a carpool veteran, I love seeing our second graders skip into South Hall, and I laugh when I overhear 8th graders begging their parent to “come back at 5:15.” Please visit our campus to see our students. Actions really are worth a million words!

October 24: "Why Wait?"

I often hear parents say, “We plan to send our children to private school when they’re older.” I understand their reasoning. Independent schools are expensive, and an exemplary private school, like Bullis, is an investment that can press young families to identify and prioritize their values and beliefs. Most elementary school programs, both public and private, focus on the basics: reading, writing, math and science, so what difference does waiting really make?

As an educator and a parent, I believe it is critically important, in both tangible and intangible ways, to invest early in a child’s education. Here are a few of the specific reasons why parents choose the Bullis Lower School:

  1. Bullis students wake up looking forward to school. Our teachers focus closely on our students’ daily experiences. As a small division of 80 children, we get to know each child individually. We know that children learn best when routines are predictable, when supportive friends wait to greet them each morning, and when caring adults take time to notice and listen—and that is the case at Bullis. In our student enrichment block from 3:00-3:30 p.m. each day, children in grades 2-5 participate in reading advisory, mathLabs, group music lessons and clubs: chess, community service, newspaper, board games and puzzles, science lab, student government and more. We take frequent field trips and are fortunate to consider Washington, D.C., and the surrounding Chesapeake Bay as an extension of our classrooms. 
  2. Bullis students learn from exemplary teachers. At a recent meeting, our Head of School, Dr. Gerald Boarman, clearly outlined his expectation: “our students must have warm, supportive teachers who run dynamic classrooms each and every day.” Across the board, the Bullis Lower School teachers are smart, innovative and curious. They individualize instruction and incorporate new techniques in teaching and learning that support our core academic values: creativity, communication, resourcefulness, critical thinking and collaboration. For example our approach to the teaching of reading is multi-faceted: we know each child’s reading level, what they like to read and what their friends are reading. We even know how many words our students are reading each week. Bullis kids choose the books they truly want to read and they are expected—and encouraged—to read at least an hour per day.  
  3. Bullis students learn in small classes. Much has been written about the importance of limiting class size. Here at Bullis we cap at 12 to16 students, depending on grade (compare that to 23-25 at area public schools). It’s true that children receive more direct instruction and individualized attention when classes are small, especially when teachers group children appropriately.  
  4. Bullis students have unique opportunities in a 21st century curriculum. Fifth graders work with our entrepreneurship coordinator to create small businesses that are highlighted in an annual Entrepreneurship Fair. All students have many opportunities to lead and speak publicly and are encouraged to identify and advocate for what they believe.Student ambassadors greet and welcome visitors, and each child is explicitly taught the social skills and manners they need to navigate the world of peers and adults through the Responsive Classroom pedagogy. 
  5. Bullis students lead a balanced school life on our verdant 102-acre campus. In addition to academics, our Lower School children can enjoy private music lessons as well as band classes, acting and performing, and other arts experiences. They have recess twice per day and physical education four times per week. Walking across campus, visitors see children visiting the fishpond on the way to the library, eating outdoors at café tables when the weather is nice, and planting and harvesting vegetables in our community garden. They see small and transformative events—like 4th graders, after reading A Long Walk to Water, carrying gallon jugs of water along a mile of the rolling hills of our campus so they can closely identify with the daily experiences of children in Sudan. 

The reasons to enroll your child in independent school at an early age, and Bullis in particular are numerous. I encourage you to visit our Lower School and learn more!  

July 11: "Lifetime Readers"

I hope you and your children are enjoying the summer. I just returned from a bike trip through France, cycling through parts of Brittany, Bordeaux and Provence. I love exploring different cultures, and I have a theory that the way children are treated is a barometer for the overall health of a community. I admire the way French children are raised with an abundance of freedom and trust. On city streets, kids zoom down sidewalks on scooters, groups of teenagers ride small motorcycles and Vespas together, and they fill cafés with talk and laughter with little or no reliance on cellphones. Mothers and daughters stroll arm in arm, and grown men play boules for hours in town squares and parks.

Last week we saw all the riders on the Tour de France whip through the center of Aix-en-Provence, and youngsters on bicycles and tricycles scurried behind, ready to join the Tour in a decade or more! In each town, I made sure to visit local bookstores and noticed large spaces devoted to children’s literature, without seeing an electronic reader on display, even once.

Later this month, I’ll attend a conference in Boston devoted to educational technology, and I’ll approach all the new apps, resources, and gadgets through this “French” lens: What can we use that will strengthen our community, promote sustained attention, and increase our children’s sense of wonder and curiosity? Rest assured that our new one-to-one iPad program is being thoughtfully developed for the coming year. Bullis teachers craft lessons with careful consideration of each child’s developmental need and stage.

I’m really looking forward to meeting with parents on the first day of school to talk about our book club text: The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (7th edition). I am encouraging parents to read it, mark it up, and come ready to discuss ways we can partner to promote reading both at school and at home. As Trelease states:

“We must take care that children’s early encounters with reading are painless enough so they will cheerfully return to the experience now and forever. But if it’s repeatedly painful, we will end up creating a school-time reader instead of a lifetime reader.”

I’m so happy to see that our students are meeting our summer goal of 45 minutes of independent reading each day. The AR reports show that most students are reading voraciously. I cherish the partnership we have with parents to establish a foundation and belief that reading is fun and fulfilling.

April 30: "Summer Reading 2013"

Summer provides many opportunities for reading, and the wonderful characters waiting to be discovered in your child’s books will do far more than entertain. They will shepherd your children through small rehearsals for life and show them ways to act as their best or worst selves. They will deepen your children’s empathy, kindle their curiosity and build awareness of the world far outside the Bullis community.

Research by Richard Allington and others highlights correlations between reading and academic success, while research from the National Endowment for the Humanities links reading with high degrees of civic and cultural engagement. People who read frequently perform better than average in school, attend plays and sporting events more often and even vote and volunteer more frequently than non-readers!

The habit of reading for entertainment, like learning how to ride  bike, requires patience and practice, and it only becomes pleasurable once all the separate skills become fluent and integrated. Please approach your child’s literacy as a form of entertainment that needs plenty of enjoyable practice. Consider too, all the enrichment opportunities available: read aloud at breakfast or after dinner, rent or purchase a Nook or a Kindle and load it with books, show your child how to load audiobooks from the public library or on a cell phone, attend plays, listen to books while traveling, or read together as members of a local book club.

Many parents find that book conversations open a fascinating window into a child’s emotional development. Parents discover what frightens or worries their children, and they get a chance to hear the big questions children ponder, such as: How do you know when someone is a true friend? Why do adults act the way they do? How is conflict resolved? They also discover what brings their children joy and what makes them laugh!

As a busy parent, let yourself off the hook by realizing you don’t need to read the books your child reads, just be poised to ask a few basic questions such as: What is happening in your book? What seems really unfair? Which character is most like you?

We would like every child to read between 45 minutes and an hour each day this summer. Bullis families will receive individualized summer reading lists from the Lower School team and we encourage all families to join in the wonder of reading!

January 28: "Responsive Classroom"

When I meet Lower School visitors and proudly say, “we are a Responsive Classroom school,” the faces of teachers and administrators usually light up, but prospective parents sometimes look a bit bewildered. What is Responsive Classroom?

Responsive Classroom is more than a curriculum; it’s a blueprint for community, based on the belief that a school’s social curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum. We know that children can’t learn if they don’t feel comfortable and safe, so we overtly teach the social skills they need to navigate peer relationships.

When you walk through the cozy Lower School hallway and into our bright classrooms, you’ll see colorful rugs, whiteboards on easels, chimes, and class charts. Each of these is a signal that our teachers use Responsive Classroom.

Let’s stay in the hallway for a moment. When Lower School teachers transition from one activity to the next, they quietly ring a chime; this music, heard up and down the hallway, is the heartbeat of our program. Here at Bullis, you will never hear a teacher raise a voice at a classroom full of children. Ever. When the chime rings, students stop talking and turn their attention to the teacher.

When every teacher uses the same, predictable strategy, students feel safe and secure. This most basic element of schooling—the need to quickly and momentarily focus on the teacher—becomes ingrained. At this point in the year, teachers often simply pick up the chime and students quiet down! Our students are well behaved and respectful simply because they are treated that way.

Now let’s move into the classroom. Each day, the teacher posts a Morning Message on the whiteboard and personally greets every child. Students unpack their belongings, then gather in a knot around the easel. They might read and respond to a poem, add data to a bar graph, complete a riddle, or cast a vote about an important issue.

Then at 8:05, the teacher gathers the class in a circle on the rug for Morning Meeting.It begins with a “Greeting.” A peek into one classroom might find Meghan turning to Devin, looking him in the eye and saying, “Good Morning Devin,” then Devin responds, “Good Morning Meghan,” turns to his left with an outstretched hand and, says “Good Morning, Brendon.” This continues until the circle is complete. Teachers act as facilitators and remind students of the importance of eye contact and firm handshakes.

The Meeting continues with “Share,” a time when one or two children briefly tell a bit of personal news, then ask for “questions” or “comments” from classmates. These bits of news are frequently funny, but can sometimes be personal and poignant; children know to be “active listeners” and to respond in ways that maintain focus on the classmate, not the self. A typical share might go like this:
Brian: “My dog got out last night and we spent an hour looking for her.”
Dave: “My dog got out too!”
Teacher: “Dave, can you reframe your comment and keep the focus on Brian?”
Dave: “You must have been worried.”

Children ask questions in the same way: “How did you find her?” or, “Was your dog happy when she got home?” The essential social skills we teach during Morning Meeting, like the ability to move from egocentrism to empathy, are too critical and important to learn by chance. Finally, each Morning Meeting ends with a group game—students love this most of all—which sets a positive tone for the day.

In September, each student creates a set of “Hopes and Dreams” for the year. In order to become a reality, these are brought to the group and are generalized into a “Class Contract.” Teachers refer to the Contract frequently during the year, and they help the students design strategies to adhere to it. Our teachers help students grow into their best selves, and they teach them how to encourage others to do likewise.

In addition, students are assigned “Class Jobs,” daily responsibilities that keep the class running smoothly. Substitutes who cover our Lower School often marvel at the independence of our students. Responsive Classroom teaches both autonomy and cooperation.

Conflict, which occurs in all groups, is often brought back to the classroom rug, and teachers facilitate meetings that allow each child a voice. Students learn how to be assertive, not aggressive, and they call out injustice when they see or experience it. Disagreements are aired openly, and children learn that bullying occurs only in cultures of silence and repression.

Responsive Classroom is an integral part of the Lower School experience. I invite you to visit a Morning Meeting and observe the magic.

December 18: "Results and Rewards"

The Lower School students worked hard this trimester. According to Accelerated Reader, they read over 1,500 books since September. They participated in schoolwide community service efforts during the Thanksgiving and holiday seasons, and they singlehandedly raised close to $800 for UNICEF and over $400 for The American School in Tunisia and the American Red Cross. This is a group of children who embody our core institutional values: integrity, respect, diversity, responsibility and service.

To celebrate, the LS students and teachers will go to the Natural History Museum before our winter break to view the 3D IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies. The movie, captivating and appropriate for Lower School audiences, weaves together two simple narratives: the story of three generations of a butterfly family which migrates aremarkable 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico, and the scientist who devoted his life’s work to tracking this journey. The movie’s technology is spectacular. Extremely high resolution cameras were mounted on tiny remote control drones that flew alongside the butterflies—you can see the scales on their wings and even the air rushing through their “punk hair.” The filmakers also used special time-lapsed MRI technology and captured the metamorphososis of caterpillar to butterfly inside the chrysalis. I saw the movie over Thanksgiving Break with my own children, and we agreed it was something everyone should see.

The cost for our outing—the movie tickets and our special post-movie lunch—is generously covered by the Bullis Parents Association, which always is so supportive of our school.

Along with our annual building of gingerbread houses, we will have the perfect wrap-up before we leave for winter break!

November 8: "The Leveled Book Fair"

What are the ingredients for a happy and successful life? The Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal study of 268 Harvard men from the classes of 1939, 1940 and 1941 provides the succinct answer: love during childhood. Love gave these men, now in their early 90’s, the tools to put their trust in life and flourish, even when ravaged by WWII. Men who remember their childhood as warm and intimate are four times more likely to be married for more than 10 years, to have close relationships with their children, to have friends, to maintain pleasant contact with their families of origin, to belong to social organizations and to play games. I highly recommend you read all the findings from the Harvard Grant Study, detailed in the book, Triumphs of Experience. It’s wonderfully written and filled with wisdom.

Those of us who work with children everyday get bogged down in the details of daily life, and this study reminds us to approach every interaction with a youngster through love. The Lower School reading program is founded upon the desire to treat children with generosity, respect and love. We assess their reading level because we want to meet them where they are and scaffold their growth. We’ve created the Leveled Book Fair to answer your question, How do I find books to match my child’s reading level? We hope you find it useful. We want to make sure the books arrive in time for Winter Break, so it ends quickly – on November 14th.

Thank you for the gift of your children. They will be successful because of the love you provide them each and every day.

October 31: "What Bullis is Learning"

For over a year, the Lower School teachers have focused their efforts on improving students’ reading comprehension levels, and we’ve had great success. This year, we’re examining ways to improve our writing instruction because we know that the ability to communicate in writing is the most important skill taught in grades K-12. We also know that the strongest writers are often graduates of small independent schools like Bullis. Our small class sizes, the strong relationships we build with students, and the ways we target instruction to meet each child’s individual needs are the tools we use to nurture the growth of our young writers.

We recently hired Katherine Bomer, a nationally recognized expert on the teaching of writing, to work with Lower and Middle School teachers. Katherine currently teaches at the University of Texas, Austin and is closely affiliated with the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She’s the author of three books on writing, and her newest, Hidden Gems, is used in teacher education programs across the United States. Katherine recently completed a four day visit to Bullis, helping teachers examine our students’ writing skills and demonstrating new ways to motivate and engage young writers engagement and target instruction to meet the needs of each and every child.

While the teachers were working with Katherine, I attended the iNacol Conference with Dr. Boarman and other members of the administration. While there, we examined ways to incorporate technology, specifically blended learning, into our school. This is a hot topic in education, and we are taking it seriously. Most of the teachers have completed either a 4-week or 12-week blended learning course. We are learning new ways to assess students quickly and efficiently, new methods of imparting basic information, new ways to practice basic skills, and new tools to keep students organized. It’s an exciting time to be in education and an exciting time to be at Bullis.

September 24: Lower School Academic Goals 2012-2013

Lower School Academic Goals: 2012-2013

At Bullis we value a balanced approach to education, and we take great pride in meeting students where they are.  This month’s blog focuses on our academic goals for 2012-2013, but first, I need to tell you something important. I’m proud to report that last year, 98% of the Lower School students substantially increased their reading comprehension scores by at least one grade level. This is due to the combined hard work of students, parents and teachers who made sure kids were reading, reading, reading! Our emphasis on volume of reading paid off. Thank you!

2012-2013 Academic Goals
1. Continue to increase reading comprehension levels by increasing the volume of reading:  Research by Richard Allington and others shows that students’ volume of independent reading is a leading indicator of academic success. Quite simply, kids who read a lot do well in school.  For example, a 1988 study of fifth graders’ reading volume by Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding showed this varied level of achievement on standardized tests of reading comprehension:

Achievement Percentile

Minutes of Reading per Day

Words per Year










This data reveals the importance of measuring volume of reading by time, not by book. Books at the lower levels take less time to read, so asking all the students to read let’s say, three books, sets the bar way too low. Instead, we emphasize reading “as much as possible” each evening and certainly not less than half an hour. We also know that kids won’t enjoy reading books that are too difficult, so we need to give children plenty of choice among books at the appropriate level and then and we need to teach them how to determine for themselves whether a book is “just right.” We also need to increase our students’ exposure to wonderful literature and increase parent support for independent reading at home.  

2. Demonstrate an Increase in Reading Achievement:  Because reading is an invisible process, we’ve put systems in place, like Accelerated Reader, that give us valuable information about our students’ reading volume and reading comprehension. We want and need to increase the progress we made last year. In addition to Accelerated Reader, we formally assess each student 3 times per year in order to document their reading achievement and design strong programs.

3. Make sure each student is reading at or above grade level by the time they move into Middle School. Our data proves that reading comprehension increases when kids read voraciously, so we need to ensure that each student reads on grade level before moving to Middle School. Parents and teachers of teenagers know that adolescents resist reading remediation much more emphatically than preteens. We need to intervene early – in grades 3 through 5 – and there’s no time to waste. That means some students may miss instruction in other subject areas like Spanish or social studies in order to work with one of our reading specialists.

4. Implement a new format to the Lower School conferences: We received tremendously positive feedback last year after the 5th grade students led their parent-teacher conferences, so we’ve decided to expand this new format to all grades. When students lead conferences, they tighten the communication between school and home, and they take more ownership of their academic work. During a conference, students outline their goals and review work from their portfolio.

5. Track increases in math achievement: This year students will be assessed three times in mathematics using a computer adaptive test called StarMath. The StarMath reports provide a snapshot of student understanding in the following mathematical domains: numbers and operations, algebra, geometry and measurement, data analysis, statistics and probability. This data enhances our current instruction by providing teachers with the data they need to design individual instruction and practice for our students. We use IXL, a subscription based program, to design this extra practice.

6. Improve the science curriculum by integrating more math and engineering: This year we are using curriculum designed at the University of California Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science (Full Option Science System), the Boston Museum of Science (Engineering is Elementary), and Ergopedia (LabAids). These vendors were chosen because each provides students with hands-on experiences based on relevant applications in real-world scenarios.

If you are a current parent, thank you for helping us meet these goals. If you are thinking about joining the Bullis Family, you’ve found a gem.  




August 22: "Why I Love Bullis"

I spent many hours on my bicycle this summer and used that time to reflect on my first year at Bullis. One hot day, on a long ride through Provence, I developed a list of reasons why I love this school:

Bullis students: Bullis kids are caring, joyful, brave, confident and curious. Perhaps due to the small class sizes, or the fact that teachers eat lunch with them everyday, our youngsters converse comfortably with adults. I remember a lunch table conversation at the end of last year, when my fourth grade tablemates asked me what kind of kid I was at their age. Did I ever get into trouble? What kind of games did I play? Did I like school? I was amazed at the empathy and curiosity of these ten year olds.

Bullis families: Each morning, I love to watch cars pull up to the curb and explode with entire families! Big brothers help little sisters drag backpacks from trunks, and then head off to Middle or Upper School, while some families quickly finish the breakfast picnic in the backseat. Many have dogs who happily jump into the front when the kids get out. Sometimes kids bicker, and I like that, too. It shows they’re comfortable. For many families, our school is an extension of home.

Bullis teachers and the instructional core: The instructional core, a term developed by Harvard professor Richard Elmore, is the relation between teacher, student and content. It’s the nexus of teaching and learning. Our teachers form lasting bonds with students, and they bring the latest improvements in education into their classrooms. This summer, many Bullis teachers took a course in blended learning, while others studied at Harvard’s Project Zero or Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project. This fall, Katherine Bomer, a nationally recognized expert on the teaching of writing, will work side by side with our teachers and students. Our instructional core is strong, and it’s an exciting time to be part of the Bullis team.

Bullis leadership: Dr. Boarman opened a recent meeting by sharing his leadership philosophy: treat everyone with respect; demand excellence; cultivate a sense of urgency; maintain the highest standards of honesty and integrity; build group cohesiveness and pride; and finally, be available. The construction video posted on our homepage provides a good glimpse of Dr. Boarman’s active leadership. He knows each Lower School student by name, and he eats lunch with them every day.

My list of favorites also includes the panoply of student talents showcased in our weekly All-school Assemblies and our magnificent arts program, but I’m most proud of the way we make decisions. We simply ask: what’s in the best interest of students?

I look forward to seeing you September 4th! If you would like to see a video of my biking vacation, please view my teacher page!


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