PMFS is in the news for our handwriting curriculum

January 16th, 2019
Category: News
By M. English For Digital First Media

Educators at Plymouth Meeting Friends School say they believe strong handwriting skills help students “become better readers, writers and thinkers.” To that end, early grade teachers at PMFS encourage pre-kindergartners to eat their morning snack with chopsticks, which, they explain, utilize the same hand muscles used for writing. Submitted photo — Plymouth Meeting Friends School

PLYMOUTH — Jan. 23 is National Handwriting Day. It’s also the birthday of John Hancock — the Colonial American statesman whose iconic endorsement topped this country’s Declaration of Independence and whose very name has become synonymous with “signature.”

Penmanship had its golden age — approximately the late 19th to early 20th centuries — and was once a regular part of most education programs. These days, the annual Philadelphia Pen Show (and others like it) attracts fans of fine manual writing instruments … as do groups like the Fountain Pen Network and Well-Appointed Desk and luxury purveyors like Franklin-Christoph, Appelboom and Fontoplumo. But instruction in the connected cursive letters once taught routinely isn’t what it used to be, and many contemporary kids learn to print and keyboard with nary a nod to the loops and lines of longhand.

Students at area Catholic schools are not among them.

For instance, the girls and boys at Holy Rosary Regional Catholic School in Plymouth Meeting learn to print in kindergarten and first grade and are taught cursive writing in second grade.

“We see it as a necessary skill,” says Principal Mary Ann Gilman.

Maura Sutherland, a learning specialist at neighboring Plymouth Meeting Friends School, agrees.

PMFS spokesmen say they believe cursive instruction maximizes students’ communication options.

“We … prepare our youngest students — 3-year-olds — for handwriting by exercising their fine motor skills and handwriting muscles in many ways,” Sutherland explains. “Using chopsticks at snack time is one example. Beginning in kindergarten, our students start getting focused practice with printing.

“Cursive instruction begins in earnest in third grade and is reinforced through sixth grade. By fifth grade, keyboarding is added to the mix, giving children all the tools they’ll need for success in the modern world. We have been heartened that growing neuroscientific evidence supports what we see — for many students, handwriting enhances creativity and memory and simply produces better results. We are a school that nurtures writers, so this is especially important to us.

“An added benefit to teaching cursive is that our students can read cursive and, therefore, can connect intergenerationally with historical primary source documents or, simply, with notes from grandma that students without cursive instruction can no longer decipher.”

Neither educator gets any argument from Colmar resident Susan Sobel, who takes her respect for “beautiful handwriting” to an even higher level as an accomplished calligrapher.

Sobel draws on her facility with pen, brush and ink to embellish invitations, place cards, table names and numbers, seating charts and menu cards. She requests an average donation of $100 for 100 invitations, all of which goes to her church, Mary Mother of the Redeemer in North Wales.

A former nurse, Sobel doesn’t do any marketing or advertising — except for entries in the Mary Mother of the Redeemer bulletin — and her “clients” typically find her by word of mouth.

She learned calligraphy in an adult evening class at North Penn High School “about 20 years ago” and downplays her philanthropy.

“It’s just relaxing,” says Sobel, who served as chief nursing officer at the former North Penn Hospital. “I enjoy doing it. Why calligraphy? My last class in grad school was biostatistics, and that was so rough I told myself, ‘If I survive this, I’m going to do something fun for myself.’ I tried beginners’ watercolor, and that was a bust, but I really enjoyed calligraphy.

“I’ve always been fascinated by beautiful handwriting. On a trip to England, I probably spent hours looking at beautiful, old handwritten documents.”

Of course, as a nurse, Sobel has spent even more time trying to translate doctors’ notoriously sloppy notes.

“I can’t tell you the amount of time I spent trying to decipher physician handwriting,” she says. “Interpretation was critical, and every effort was made to avoid errors. But they happened. Today, all physician orders are typed into a computer so time is saved and accuracy is preserved. I can see how progress has improved life, but I think beautiful handwriting is still appropriate for certain occasions.”

And in Sobel’s case, those occasions have been diverse and far flung — from the decorative poem she penned for a woman who telephoned from Denver to the wedding invitations for a couple whose marriage ceremony took place in the bride’s native India and another set of invites for retired football defensive end (and two-time Super Bowl winner) Justin Tuck whose then-future mother-in-law worked in Lansdale.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Sobel says. “I just sit in my kitchen, and, somehow, these people find their way to me.”

Additional information is available by emailing

National Handwriting Day is sponsored by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association trade group. Additional information, including tips for improving manual dexterity, is available at

Interview with Brenda published in the Times Herald

January 9th, 2019
Category: News

PLYMOUTH — Students of the 1950s and 1960s huddled under their desks during routine air raid drills and worried about Russian nuclear attacks. The big global conflicts continue. But these days, American kids are also surrounded by the free-floating anger and negativity that pervades contemporary politics — currently, troubling news about presidential “tantrums,” government shutdowns, people without paychecks and a careening stock market.

The list goes on. And thanks to extensive traditional and social media, the headlines are everywhere. How does that affect a 5-year-old? A 7-year-old? A 9-year-old? Do they worry about these issues? Can parents and teachers shield them from the ugliness? Should they?

An ongoing balancing act, says Brenda Crawley, newly appointed head of school at historic Plymouth Meeting Friends School in Plymouth Township.

“I look back three decades to my early days of teaching and see the ‘age of innocence,’” adds Crawley, scheduled to assume her PMFS post this July. “At that time, the influence of media, technology and popular culture had little to no impact on classroom instruction. Today, educators have to understand that students bring all of these factors to school with them each day. The influence of the media permeates their academic, social, emotional and behavioral development. Significantly, children gain a sense of what is correct, acceptable and exceptional from what they see and hear on the radio and television.”

The challenge for educators “lies in helping students to find a balance between utilizing the media and technology as tools and knowing when to set these tools aside to engage in face-to-face conversations with others.” Ideally, families and educators work together to achieve that end.

“Helping children to process the conflicting messages that are part of our social and political climate can be a daunting endeavor,” continues Crawley, who heads the lower school at Maryland’s Sandy Spring Friends School and was previously head of the lower school at the McLean School of Maryland. “Most parents and teachers want to offer children all of the answers. We find ourselves hoping to provide comfort and solutions to our young ones.

“When children try to process information, they tend to ask myriad questions, and adults feel like we need to have those answers. More important than having the answers is actually listening to the questions and providing just enough developmentally appropriate information for the child. It is fine to offer up bite-sized pieces. Less information is less overwhelming.”

And — sometimes — admitting you don’t know the answer is the best option, Crawley says.

“This is not a failure, and the child learns that some queries require more time, deeper thought and research,” she explains. “Experiment with being vulnerable, especially with the hard questions. Encourage [children] to wonder and voice their curiosity. Instead of attempting to explain the rationale behind war to a young child, recognize their concern and ask a focused question: ‘It sounds like you’re wondering why they are fighting. Can you think of another way they could work on their problems?’”

In short, “the most difficult task is to avoid filling in the blanks as we try to make sense of matters that young children cannot fully comprehend.”

“Engaging children in conversations about difference is critical to their healthy social, emotional and behavioral development,” says Crawley, who earned a bachelor of music at Manhattanville College in New York and a master’s degree in organizational development at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School in Baltimore. “Children notice difference at about the same time they are developing early vocabulary. As adults, we have a responsibility to seize these early opportunities to have the chats that might feel ‘raggedy’ and accept that children will ask difficult questions and challenge our responses.”

Know, too, that “to a child, fairness is a critical issue,” Crawley notes.

“Discussing the treatment of others through the lens of fairness offers a child the opportunity for perspective-taking,” she says. “They can readily understand inequity, imbalance and discrimination as they consider what fair looks like, and they will likely have strong suggestions for ways to solve the problems. Children also recognize the positive impact of kindness. When families and educators find themselves seeking the ‘right’ answers to those tough questions, using fairness and kindness as guideposts will certainly help children as they try to process the conflicting messages in our social ‘atmosphere.’”

Crawley speaks as an educator and mother. She and wife Ellen have two sons, Jonathan and William, and she’s the first to admit “raising two sons has completely shifted my sense of reality.”

“Even as a seasoned educator, I have found parenting a continuous learning process,” she says. “Early on, I learned that none of the parenting books truly had all of the answers and a storm always followed the calm. Having a sense of humor and reminding myself to stretch and be flexible remain my survival tactics. It took a while for me to realize that each of my sons has his own journey and I could not chart the course of those journeys.

“At some point, a parent has to stop preparing the path and focus more on preparing the child. That is, by far, one of the most important things that I have learned as a parent, and it has helped me to guide and advise numerous families who are parenting young children. It has also given me ‘permission’ to allow my children to realize that they can survive failure, correct course and move on.”

Crawley’s experience as a parent has also affected her approach as an educator.

“As a mom, I’ve learned that I have to relinquish some control in order to prepare my sons to be strong young men,” she says. “I have high expectations for each of them, and yet it is their own personal expectations that guide them. I am less concerned about grades than I am about their excitement for learning. I am more concerned about their genuine happiness and their sense of self.

“I remain focused on the fact that I am raising two men of color. I want them to be strong, safe and secure. I always want them to seek joy and to stay curious. I want them to laugh, love and respect others … to see, hear and affirm others. I want my sons to remain ever hopeful and to recognize that they can change the world. This parenting thing has built a fire inside of me. I find that as my own children grow, my desire to ‘raise’ my students in a similar way has become a lifelong passion.”

Annual Giving

December 18th, 2018
Category: News

December 2018

Dear PMFS Community Member,

I’ve been asked to write this year’s letter to kick-off our Annual Giving campaign and I could not be happier to do so.  I feel blessed for the opportunity to be part of the exceptional learning community at PMFS. The strengths of our school are many.  One of our greatest attributes is the willingness to pitch in and help, to give what we are able to allow our school to shine.

I have seen this same spirit of giving in other parts of the world: Last May, my wife, Karen, and I were invited to a ceremony in Bududa, Uganda in which they introduced a newborn child to her community.  Karen and I were fortunate to attend the celebration and to be accepted as community members. During the ceremony, baskets were placed on a table at the front of the room. People then moved to the baskets and placed gifts of money, food, or clothing to support the newborn child and family.  As many people living in this region earn about one to two dollars a day, the gifts were quite humble, but as is the custom, all attendees gave something. The impressions of the ceremony and the community spirit we shared that day will never leave me.

It is now my honor to be part of a tradition of giving at PMFS.  In recent years, our PMFS community has been very generous. Last year, PMFS received nearly $115,000 in gifts to the Annual Giving Campaign, setting an all-time record.  This year, we hope total giving again makes us all proud and meets the real needs of our school. Equally important is our goal of 100% participation in this effort from all in our community: staff, faculty, School Committee members, families, alumni and friends of the school.  A school like ours deserves to say that we have a strong culture of giving and 100% participation.

I have felt so welcomed by everyone connected to PMFS.  I can’t thank you enough for this. I ask you now to “walk up to the table” and send in your Annual Giving gift, in the amount you feel most comfortable giving.  Our students and our school will receive your gift and witness once again the spirit that is PMFS.  

Thank you and all the best,

David Kern, Interim Head of PMFS  

Click here to make your tax-deductible gift to the Annual Giving fund

Announcing Our New Head of School!

November 1st, 2018
Category: News

Dear Friends,

The PMFS School Committee is pleased to announce the appointment of Brenda C. Crawley to be Head of School starting July 1, 2019. The Search Committee enthusiastically recommended Brenda, observing that she is a highly engaging and committed educator with over 30 years of independent elementary school experience as a teacher and administrator. Equal in importance for the Search Committee is that she is a person of infectious energy and a true lover of life.

The School Committee feels our community is blessed to have such a talented and experienced leader join us as Head of School.

Brenda came into our search process with an impressive resumé. She is a Cum Laude graduate of Manhattanville College with a Bachelor of Music, and a Summa Cum Laude graduate of the Johns Hopkins University – Carey Business School with an MS in Organizational Development. She has served in her current position as Head of Lower School at Sandy Spring Friends School since 2011. She was previously Head of the Lower School at the McLean School of Maryland where she began her career as a Music Teacher. She is a regular presenter on a variety of subjects relating to early childhood education, as well as race, inclusion and diversity. Brenda currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her wife Ellen and their two sons, Jonathan and William.

Brenda also impressed members of our community during her two visits to PMFS. Here are some representative comments which were shared with the Search Committee:

“Brenda is a proven leader with clear convictions, a terrific personal style that is welcoming and filled with humor, and solid experience in Friends education.”

“She showed an ability to gather groups, communicate effectively, think critically, and show such a positive (and funny) spirit.”

“I loved hearing her thoughts on where a child is developmentally. She knows where a child should be at different stages of their elementary years, but also knows that some students need more help than others.”

In addition to finding Brenda compelling and knowledgeable, the School Committee members were impressed by her ability to identify and articulate areas where PMFS is strong, as well as places where there are opportunities for growth. Equally impressive was her ability to engage with the many different parts of our community in meaningful conversation around these topics.

Of course, there is more to a candidate than first impressions.  The Search Committee also invested significant effort in talking with Brenda’s references and visiting Sandy Spring Friends School to see Brenda in action, and to talk with people who work with her every day. Comments from Brenda’s current school community show they are just as impressed with her as we are:

“She is the best administrator I have ever worked with.”

“Brenda rebuilt trust at our school. She calls people to do their best and holds them to growth.”

“She is brilliant with parents — clear, direct, loving and kind. ”

“Incredibly hard working, collaborative.”

In light of her many gifts and skills, the impact she has had on her current school community, and the impression she made in her short time at PMFS, the School Committee embraced the Search Committee’s recommendation to appoint Brenda as our next Head of School with enthusiastic, united approval.

In accepting our offer, Brenda said “With open arms, an open mind and an open heart, I joyously accept the honor of leading the Plymouth Meeting Friends School community.”  In that same spirit of openness and joy, we invite all of you to join us in welcoming Brenda to our school community as the next Head of School.


Tom Hoopes, Clerk of School Committee

John Gilliland, Clerk of Search Committee

Plymouth Meeting Friends School: A History of Social Justice

July 3rd, 2018
Category: Alumni News, News

Did you know a PMFS alum led the effort to recognize women physicians?

Dr. Hiram Corson (1804-1896) attended PMFS as a boy. He became a practicing physician and a tireless advocate for women in medicine. He also founded the Montgomery County Anti-Slavery Society, and his house was part of the Underground Railroad. You can actually search digital copies of the diaries he kept starting in 1827!

Dr. Corson writes about medicine, abolition, temperance, the unrest leading up to the Civil War, and the war itself. Page through three full volumes at

Here is an excerpt from January 1890 in which Dr. Corson celebrates a success for women in medicine, when the first woman doctor was hired at a hospital in Staunton, VA:

Excerpt from the diaries of Dr. Hiram Corson, January 1890.

Excerpt from the diaries of Dr. Hiram Corson, January 1890.

In July of 1874, he wrote of the funeral of a childhood friend he knew from school at Plymouth Meeting:

Excerpt from the diaries of of Dr. Hiram Corson, July 1874.

Excerpt from the diaries of of Dr. Hiram Corson, July 1874.

It’s wonderful to know the place that we know as PMFS was a central part of work for peace and social justice a century and a half ago.

1912 PMFS teachers past and present

Experiential Early Childhood Open House June 1

May 29th, 2018
Category: News
Friday June 1, 8:30 – 10:00am 
in the Butterfly Pre-K Classroom

Bring your little ones (children ages 2-5) and come play with the Butterflies, our Pre-K 4-5 year olds. We would love to share some of the creative, playful adventures we are up to here at PMFS in our Early Childhood Program.

From 8:30 to 10:00,  partake in some of the guided free play, art projects, and outdoor explorations our children get to experience every day. Meet our inspiring Pre-K teachers, learn more about our program, and experience for yourself how we inspire in our little ones a lifelong love of learning.

RSVP here. Contact Lael with any questions.