The Annex as a new location has proven to be a wealth of provocations. So much so, that blogging has all but disappeared from my teaching routine.

So how do I balance all this “newness” and the extensive work that comes with expansion with sustaining a place (my blog) where learning and studio thinking can be visible and visibly shared?

Lilah H, 1st grade

Ava M. , 1st grade

And so on this blog post, (epic blog post) I shall embark on balancing making visible months of work,

with trying to understand this whole balance concept.

Construction cranes are viewed in every direction one looks in DC, and even from our schoolyard. Daily I pass a construction site where I watch a crane balance and move heavy metal objects as if in a ballet.

Archer, Kindergarten

This is where I wanted the kids to go. So this is where the Kindergarten students went. Both Ms. Burke’s and Ms. Ricks class each went on a fabulous walking trip to 2nd and L Streets NE.

“I didn’t think it would be all that interesting, but this was great!”  (overheard on the walk back from the site)


The images speak louder than any commentary I can provide.

Children who often made quick marks to represent were inspired to engage in sustained observation.

Michael, Kindergarten

Evie, Kindergarten

The crane, the gear, the sounds, the site manager engaged all the senses.

Bess, Kindergarten

Ella, Kindergarten

Tyler and Mikal,  Kindergarten  Representations of glass moving and the  specialized vehicle

After the trip I pondered what direction to consider going in after this experience.

Chart in Ms. Ricks classroom

It struck me that the concept of construction/deconstruction is rich in and of itself, and as I like to say, “has legs,”

or arms, as in this sketch by Gus showing action (I was hammering.)


I decided to reintroduce the idea of construction/deconstruction so I asked the children in the studio…what is it? What do people construct? Who does construction? Do children construct? What are tools? What are materials?

They were able to name a lot of materials tools, yet no one considered their hands a tool until I asked, what tools are you born with?


You can construct using boxes. Raigan

I can construct a paper airplane. Tayen

It’s when you are making a building and you attach something. Ava S.

A boat made of paper, it’s called origami. Conner

I built a robot out of recycled materials. Matto Z.

I construct with blocks. Mikal

I constructed a purse by sewing. Colleen

It’s like building a building that’s tall or short. You try and think about what it’s going to look like. Evie

When you build things you have to connect them with the other ones. You have to make it sturdy, so it doesn’t tip and fall.  Julia

Materials help you stack things on top of and under. Zakkary

Construction is when lots of people make things together. Lily

Image: Andy Goldsworthy


I then shared with each small group the beautiful iconic ancient yet still contemporary  art of balancing stones to make Stone Cairns or Scupltures.

I shared images of archeological wonders and the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

(Photo from my travels in Peru)

It started out like a game, each child one by one trying to add a stone without toppling the entire stack.

As they worked I made observations to support their success.

“Your body must be steady before you try to balance a rock.”


Children were now balancing their body in a squat, a kneeling position or on their elbows. No longer were they half twisted, but in a squared alignment.

“When you use two hands, and slowly move the rock, you begin to feel it’s shape and nooks, and when you do that, you begin to notice how it will balance.”

Soon children who barely sat still for 5 minutes were silent in concentration as they became connected with the rocks, their hands, their body, their breathing and their minds.

Daily, the construction of stone Cairns changed, morphed and became more and more nuanced and complex. The PreK and first grade children began to comment, as they were seeing moments of stone building as they passed the Atelier/Studio, as well as viewing sculptures left up.

PreK Evan and Harvey chose to construct with rocks during their free time, creating two homes with a river and fish which morphed into Dinosaur Land.

First grade students react after a precarious moment of Sylvie’s stone balancing.

Creating Stone Cairns and Scupltures  has now become a school-wide interest (and example of how the studio functions as a connector and why it is architecturally placed in a space where all intersect/interact.)

I love clay, and it was a natural material to bring into the concept of construction and deconstruction. For this project, I am teaching the Kindergarten classes how to do something challenging, and that is, create stones made out of clay, that will become Stone Cairn Inspired Sculptures.

It takes a lot of practice to balance stones and it takes a lot of practice to create clay stones. In the process there is a great deal of unintentional deconstruction. It is my hope that through this work the children intrinsically understand the idea of engaging and persisting.

The process for this work is to create two matched pinch pots for each stone with a lip of a quarter to half inch. Each lip must be scored (grooved) and then one side must be slipped (glued) before attempting to connect the two halves.

Hands as tools must be used to blend the two halves seamlessly without crushing the hollow piece. Then once again, hands must be used with intention and care to shape the stone to the desired look with out it collapsing.

Developing the habit of mind to persevere in this hard work can be highly frustrating or highly motivating. It is my role to facilitate the normalcy of things not working out, and the shear beauty of clays plasticity makes way for squashing the whole thing and starting over.

Unlike paper, there are no traces of mistakes left behind. It is in your mind where you make the adjustments. Your hands hold the memory and you try again.

These are the gifts of the studio. Multiple ways to make mistakes, take risks, reflect, make adaptations or discoveries and try again.


Sometimes the place-based learning is more nuanced then a construction site. For example, with my first grade groups I started with the neighborhood  around the school grounds provoked by an aerial or birds eye view of the neighborhood.

This was an exciting provocation for all, as with each group I facilitated a map child-centered exploration. Each exploration turned into an adventure and project of it’s own.

There was the group that ended up in the dead end of an alley with a stinky dumpster. Turns out reading a map is quite tricky!

Yet that same group encountered the fantastic mirror.

This is the map with the child made marking that led to the dead end.

There was the group that found a golden hydrant made in Italy, with an embossed heart.

There was a group that followed Ra’Kyia’s path to her bus stop leading us to all kinds of surprises, including a building entrance on the H Street Bridge that led us through winding hallways and several more elevators before finding ourselves exiting just a block from school below the bridge.

Children react to mirrored ceiling in the elevator.

This is another group exploring the passageways that lead through the buildings across from school that connect to the H St Bridge. As children began talking from class to class, I started getting requests to go in the elevators with the mirrors and up to the bridge.

There was the group that mapped and then located Kiran’s path

and then became fond of the fountain that they made a wish and threw a pretend penny into.

One group was led by Han’s decisiveness. “We are going to Union Station, Ms. McLean!”

While they located it themselves independently on the map,

directions, charting and marking their path proved to be challenging.

Adinath was able to navigate and had to convince his group by pointing out all the clues, like the street and landmark signs.

If you think about it, most children know only GPS mapping. This was truly a new and different language to decode.

While they made it to Union Station, this group became fascinated with a Seal on the way. They spent a lot of time discussing the symbols and what they observed.

There was a group that found a fascinating space filled with train tracks and trains and arches and wires and café’ tables. 

After each exploration I asked the children to look at the images from the trip and tell me what they remembered, or what was interesting or exciting to them.

I wrote their narrative on the images and posted it on the walls.

The following week when I read back the narrative, in each group certain themes surfaced, which determined the direction of the project.

Out of Ms. Scofield’s 1st grade class emerged a group creating wishing fountains out of clay

a group creating their own Seal/symbol for the neighborhood, the art studio or SWS

(Katie’s Studio Seal with easel, paint, painting, and the stuffed animal dog that is so often cuddled or dressed up.)

and a group creating story figures which will be used to tell their own fictional tale of the Golden Hydrant.

(This group first sketched out their story idea, and told it to me. I wrote down the initial stories, to be edited later,  and they used their sketches as a reference point for creating the story figures.)


In Mr. Tome’s class,  students found imaginary things lurking in the maps, that you might not have ever known existed before…

You may wonder how this class ended up in such a different direction.

Well, in between all the neighborhood explorations there was another project emerging.

Inspired by kindness day and Have You Filled Your Bucket? The class collaboratively constructed and glazed a clay bucket for their room.

The idea was made by Mr. Tome, who was using a glass vase that children were encouraged to write down acts of kindness they encountered during the day. They write these encounters on paper and drop them in the vase…filling the collective class bucket.

I was thrilled to facilitate his wonderful vision of a class made ceramic bucket.


In the first session of rolling out coils and developing the skills to make the vessel stand, I reminded them of what clay is and where it comes from. Desalegn, was so excited, he said he remembered when he was in his country after the rain, they dug up clay and formed tea cups.

What country is your country?

“Ethiopa!” He went on to tell us how the cups dried in the sun.

I shared different ways of firing clay, and soon everyone was abuzz with connections to the conversation. The children were all sharing their tea experiences. Oolong, black, green, herbal, when their throat hurts, when they are sick.

“Hey, can we make tea cups?”

In the above and below photos you can see how both Desalegn and Alden took initiative and care to demonstrate how to make a cup for a friend who needed some guidance.

Their teacher, Mr. Tome is often seen with a covered tea cup, and he shared his knowledge and his tea brewing methods.

At the same time this class was working on creating a functional tea cup,  Emma Clare, Katie, Maya, Sylvie  and Ava M. had a lemonaide sale over a weekend.

They made $25 dollars. Their moms told them they could keep the money or donate it, or do a split. They chose to give it ALL to the art studio.


I asked them to meet me in the studio and we could look together for something special to order. Consensus led to a pricey glaze. What I didn’t know, was the application of fancy glazes requires some extra steps and attention. Everyone rose to the occasion and the results were even more rewarding.

One of the roles of the Atelierista is to be a connector. Because I have the great privilege of working with all children, parents and teachers- I am often able to connect people and ideas.

In this instance the connection was one of the parents in Ms. Hannah’s PreK class owns a restaurant called Teaism. I approached her, and she generously jumped at the opportunity to help facilitate a tea ceremony with Mr. Tome’s first grade class.

Ms. Linda went above and beyond expectations. I brought from home a tablecloth, silver and oatmeal cookies. Ms. Linda arrived with loose teas, strainers, stainless steel teacups, a timer for proper steeping, glass tea pots, electric kettles and beautiful tea caddies and a wealth of knowledge.

The first group engaged in a total sensory experience last Tuesday (and even got to use their own ceramic tea cups for the first time!)

The children were able to sample Quiet Evening Mint and Chamomile and/or Berry Beauty. They learned how to prepare a loose tea cup.

Mr. Tome joined us and led the group in telling tea memories, and describing the sensations they were experiencing. We all closed are eyes as and then shared…

“Great like the sun” Makhi

“In the snow with mom” Dylan

“Spring break in West Virginia, I got to see my friends. We had a beautiful house by a river.” Fiona


“This is the best day of my life!” Deselegn exclaimed.

Ms. Linda sent each child home with a loose tea of their choice. I wrapped up their tea cup to take home. She will return the last week in November to lead the other half of the class, who are anticipating this day with great expectation.

When we at SWS speak of child-centered projects, this is a tremendous example. It also highlights the very important role of the adult to listen and guide the experience. Desalegn and his classmates were listened to, even though at that moment we were engaged in making a kindness bucket. This project has become a connecting thread for Mr. Tome and his classroom community and the families of the children.

Mahki’s mom stopped on the way home from school to pick up a tea strainer so that they could have tea at home. Charlie’s mom shared her Indian cultural connection to tea.

And to think, I could have said to Desalegn, “ok, let’s focus on the kindness bucket only right now, not tea.”

Dr. Lilian Katz is a researcher and educator (that I had the honor in co-leading a teacher conference with  in Lima, Peru two years ago) who has dedicated her life  to promoting project based learning.

“Curriculum,” Dr. Katz explained, “should help children make deeper and fuller understanding of their own experience.” Going outside the classroom – and observing what is right there – that is where meaningful learning happens.  From maple leaves to industrial parks, Dr. Katz gave examples of early childhood experiences that tapped into children’s natural capacity for interest, and provided opportunities for children to draw from observation – to look closely and represent on paper what is really there – as in the Reggio Emilia approach.

“Curriculum is not delivered. Milk is delivered.” Words of wisdom!

I wish you could have smelled the aroma and seen the engagement and heard the rich vocabulary and conversation happening.

Returning to the idea of construction, in relation to the tea project, I am struck by the importance of building community rituals that create balance and equilibrium.

At the other end, for my PreK classes it has been all about developing the habits of observation, reflection as well as stretching and exploring, and being exposed to a plethora of experiences.

Looking closely at the garden, the butterflies and experiencing the world through a newly focused lens presents provocations galore.

As pen and clay and recycled materials become vehicles for what they understand, the urge to make becomes increasingly meaningful.

Dylan’s representation below, and conversation with Tate, above about what he was seeing and drawing.

The Arboretum trip was filled with awesome wow moments and encounters that were brought back and revisited at school.

These are all the colors the PreK children invented and named. The same ones were used to go on a color scavenger hunt in the Arboretum, as well as paint observational paintings from the Arboretum trip.



The ongoing Butterfly experience was provoked first by the multiple births of Monarchs in all the classrooms, and then a field trip to the Smithsonian Butterfly Exhibit.

Photgraphs taken at the live exhibit were used to introduce children to making representations with “old fashioned” pen and ink. This media encourages children to slow down and be intentional, observant, and present.

The PreK children are beginning to internalize the value of being listened to in different forms.

At the same time, they are being invited to playfully explore, figuring out things along the way, and being asked to share what they discover.

After introducing and developing some clay craft skills, (coil, sphere, slab)

I invited small groups to experiment by building “up “ with the clay. “Share what you figure out with your friends and me”, I encouraged.

I modeled the studio habit of reflection by having everyone gather around each other’s work so they could explain the tricky parts, the fun parts, and what they made.

This practice not only supports recall, language, sequencing and remembered skill acquisition. It also promotes the importance and value of listening.

With one group I noticed some of the children talked aloud as they worked while two were so engrossed, they were silent.

I asked everyone to quiet down for a minute. I pointed out that some children talk aloud while they work, while others talk inside their own heads.

“Both ways are wonderful ways to work, however, I do need to check in with my silent workers to find out how they are doing and what they are thinking.”

Four year old Mira turned to me and said,

At home, my parents tell me what to do, so I just do it and think inside my head. But here, in school the teachers don’t tell you what to do, so I talk out loud so they know what I am doing.”

I couldn’t believe my ears, a four year old reflecting on meta cognition!

That’s Mira above at the Smithsonian, sharing another observations.

And so, herein lays my struggle with balancing living and facilitating these glorious moments. There is so much depth and richness and so little time to fully construct and reconstruct the traces of these experiences.

 How does anyone know of the rich existences if they are not recorded?


I am heartened by  Harvard Researcher and Educator Lois Hetland when she remarked on  the complex task of teachers engaging in making learning and understanding visible.

 “It is impossible work, and therefor, we must do it.”

It reminds me of a very observant comment Kindergarten student Emmett made to me in response to the question I asked,


“Who does construction work?”


He replied,

“ People who are crazy enough because it’s really tiring every day. And every day you have to work hard instead of just like running on a morning jog.”


I guess they do it because they love the work. And are a little crazy.

Makes complete sense to me.









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