In August, most of our school met for a retreat. At one point, we were asked to go around the table and share our intention for the school year. When it was my turn, I took a big risk, and I said, “This year, my intention and goal is to teach, learn, and encounter all the ups and downs with love. Not just the hippy part, but the hard, gritty, difficult part.”
For 20 years I’ve been researching young children, creativity, and wonder.
Businesses want creative curious people. Think tanks want creative curious people. Scientists need creative curious people. Look at this article link here!
Alas, policy only slides deeper into forcing children younger and younger to spend their formative years in a fixed mindset being coerced to decode and read long before they have had the experience to comprehend ideas, problems, relationships, and the world around them.
This is not a flaky word.
Love is extremely difficult. It takes practice, passion, commitment, and grit when applied to any instance…sharing, mistake making, idea forming, friend making, conflict resolving, exploration, imagination, conversation.
Without the source of love, there is no reason to keep on trying, to create something, solve something, learn something, get up after a fall.
Often in life we are required to love a person (our children, our spouse, our sibling, our students, a neighbor), so in need of support that they act unloveable. Where does one build the capacity?
And what does this have to do with the Atelier, School Within School, with children, with collaboration, with wonder, with the 100 Languages?
I would say everything.
In the studio “can’t” is a bad word. A disabling word. What can you say instead? I need help, this is tricky, what do you think, how can I, what is not working here, can someone lend a hand, any ideas how to solve this?
What else is a bad word: Good Job! The children are living life, not performing. What does one say instead?
You worked really hard, how do you feel? Tell me about this? How? Why? When? What?
What part was frustrating? How did you figure out how to solve the problem? What do other people think? What makes you say that? What are you thinking of next? What do you need to practice? You must feel really good, you stuck with it, even when it got hard!
What else is a bad word?
Scribble scrabble. There is no such thing.
Easy peasy. No such thing. If it is that easy then you are not growing.
I know that, I know everything, I’m an expert. (said the 5 year old)
No person knows everything. Life and school would be so boring if you knew everything. We are all researchers here learning together. Different people have different areas that they are very strong in. Together, we learn from each other and strengthen each other. Some grown ups spend many years researching things, we invite them to share with us so we can learn from them. We also learn from our friends who are children.
This is love.
Recognizing mistakes. Leaning in to the unknown. Asking questions because it is rewarding and awe inspiring as opposed to answering the question correctly. Listening, observing, watching, admiring, and loving those around us in our learning groups.
Sometimes this is painful. Sometimes this is joyful.
Let us be a witness to these moments instead of being a fixer.
Let us facilitate the language, the environment, the hands, the mind, the body, and the heart to develop equilibrium in this spinning complex world.
When a child is afraid to make a mark on a paper because they are afraid of making a mistake, this is the opposite of love. When a child is afraid to answer the query, What do you think?, because they are not sure what the “right “ answer is, this is the opposite of love. When a child doesn’t try something new, because it’s different, that is not love. This is fear.
The studio is a place where children practice, express, and communicate in 100 ways. Conversation in the Atelier with 3 year old Sebastian: Sebastian: “Ms. McLean, you need to let those butterflies out of the glass, so they can fly home to their families.” Ms. McLean: “They are called specimens. A scientist found them dead, and instead of letting them just stay on the ground, they carefully put them in glass so we can look closely at them.” Sebastian: “Well then they need to go to a Dr. so they can get better. So they can go fly out the window to their family” Ms. McLean: “They are dead Sebastian” Sebastian: “When will they be done being dead?” Ms. McLean: “They already died honey.” Sebastian: “Why?” Ms. McLean: “I don’t know, they probably lived their whole life, and then got old and died.”
And they they do this hard; with me facilitating, in an environment that provokes curiosity, awe, tenderness, rigor, and satisfaction.
Let’s give our children the gift of failing, of asking for help, of finding delight in the surprise of life and making.
Let’s give our children the time to experiment, practice, and make visible their wonder of the world around them.
Let’s nurture this type of love that does not need an external reward to feel fulfilled,
for the fulfillment is in the experience,
in the doing, in the thinking, in the imagining, in the making.
Vygotsky called learning in this context Zone of Proximal development, and Howard Gardner talks about Multiple Intelligences.
Loris Mallaguzzi, Reggio Emilia Visionary and founder, writes, “We need to define the role of the adult, not as a transmitter but as a creator of relationships — relationships not only between people but also between things, between thoughts, with the environment.” To which Milo M. responded, “I’m a vegetarian.”
Let us give our children these opportunities so they can be justice seeking, wonder filled, problem solving, curious, creative, compassionate, and risk taking humans.
The Prek 3 Classes have emabarked on a project. The children started talking about “statues” a few months ago when I had them working on a collaborative wire sculpture in the studio. Their excitement about seeing sculptures and statues in Washington, DC got the classroom teachers and I planning a trip to the National Sculpture Garden. They already “owned” the sculptures in their neighborhoods and parks, we were curious on how they would own sculptures in a formal DC space. This documentation sheds some light and reflection on the ongoing experiences.
In the Spring of 2012, when I realized that our school was really leaving our historical Peabody building for a barracks type temporary building , I had to summon all reserve positivity.
OK, I said, we will transform our new school space into the extraordinary. I shouted this from the rooftops until I became a believer. The first inspiration came from the site STREET ART UTOPIA We declare the world as our canvas. Teapots filled with plants and buildings covered in flowers.
I sent out a call “…collect teapots this summer, scour garage sales, your basement and thrift stores.”
This image and call to action became the metaphor that became a mantra, especially during the challenges, We are growing a school!
The action gave us something to do when there was nothing else we could do as we waited for our new space to be ready for occupancy.
Now I will back tread showing you a quick visual of the reality of this move:
First the furious packing in June. It was hard to pack the moon.
This is July 20th, when I thought maybe I could come in and set up in the new space:
It was August 20th when we were allowed to move in, but oops, none of our furniture and boxes were there.
The district called in some movers, but it was the SWS staff and volunteers who literally made the move happen. One of the most heard questions was, “Does anyone have any ibuprofen?” We were some sore staff and volunteers. More importantly we were some visionary staff and volunteers eager to make an empty space home.
Here’s August 28th:
When the children finally entered, it all became a beautiful dream:
Thanks to Adrian (Bella’s father in Ms. Burke’s room) the original counter and hideaway space, that was made in 1994 by parent Mike Ryan was uninstalled, stored and then retro fitted to the new space. He also did the same with the studio curio shelf made 3 years ago by parent Charlie Territo and his brother. In addition to retro fitting, I asked him to raise it up so the coveted hideaway space could also accomodate our 1st graders without them banging their heads!
The spirit of the studio has come alive, with experimentation, conversation, creation, inquiry and new friends.
While most of the things that make the studio home could come to the new space (Racecar the turtle, the snowglobe collection, the moon, the materials, the hideaway space and soft stuffed dog, the piano, light table and overhead projector, many of the natural collections, most of the furniture,) I did have to forgo the beloved playhouse. Not a day goes by when a small friend asks me, “Ms. McLean, where’s the playhouse?”
The small bits of disappointment make way for great opportunities to transform. By embracing change as a thing of wonder, a climate of empowerment takes over. The sky is the limit.
Which takes me back to the teapot story.
My faith is humanity was overwhelmingly overflowing on beautification day. It was the weekend before school started (and the grounds were just an empty mess.)
The tasks I led were getting rocks from a quarry and the teapot project. J.T. (Carly’s dad in Ms. Burke’s room) and I met bleary eyed in the morning at Irwin Stone in Rockville and had a blast choosing and hauling rocks. Special thanks to his father-in-law for the truck loan. Whatever wacky idea I came up with, Nicole Mogul (1st grade mom to Sylvie) somehow made it happen.
After hauling the rocks (JT went back a 2nd time!) it was time for the teapot planting and hanging!
It was a cacophony of lids and kids and pots, flowers and rooted vines, toddlers to grandparents scooping pebbles and dirt. It was what makes a heart beat with great joy and gratitude.
Such a joyful entry.
With the project came a provocation…what should be done with the teapot lids?
I proposed to small groups, that they should think of ways to transform the lid into something else. And that their ideas could be turned eventually into a mosaic sign or piece of art for our new school.
In this group I asked each child one at a time, to select a lid and then tell the group what they wanted to change it into.
They then were asked to pretend their finger was a pen and draw the lines that would transform the lid. Sometimes other children made suggestions or added lines. They all were able to envision what was not there, First in their minds as the artist and also they were able to see the imaginary lines their friends had drawn.
One of the 8 Studio Thinking Frameworks/Habits of Mind (From the book Studio Thinking, from the Harvard School of Education/Project Zero) is Envision, Learning to picture mentally what cannot be directly observed and imagine possible next steps in making a piece. If you know me or have followed my blog, I intentionally teach/facilitate through this body of work and research.
In the image above, Tayen chose a lid that looked like a roof. He drew the walls. I prompted, what else could you add? Soon windows, and a door were drawn by his finger. I asked his small group if there was anything else. They imagined chimneys and a garden and front steps.
Building on the habit to Envision, one is able to develop the capacity to solve problems, think out of the box, invent, and discover new possibilities. This is not just an artist’s tool, but a tool for humanity.
The next step for the children was to select a lid and take it to the table. This time they would use black line marker and first draw the lid as it really exists.
They then were to change or transform it by adding lines. Color pencils were added as their ideas progressed.
The initial step of observing the lid and representing it, with it’s detail, shape and color was challenging since they also were envisioning the change simultaneously.
Emma (first grade) transformed her lid into an insect. She noticed the handle looked like a leaf, which she represented clearly, plus it looked like a nose for her insect.
Observe, Learning to attend to visual contexts more closely than ordinary “looking” requires, and thereby to see things that otherwise might not be seen.
This is another Studio Habit of Mind that is intentionally developed through projects and which requires persistance and practice. Once again it is a habit of mind that offers not only great possibilities but limitless joy. A child who is observant is a child who is curious and never bored.
When everyone was finished we met on the floor to share the work. The practice of looking at work is intentional. It is never good or bad, or I like it or it’s pretty. In this instance I utilized another technique from Project Zero/Harvard School of Education.
I See I Think I Wonder is a tool for talking about art and other interesting things that develops the habits of inquiry, curiosity and observation.
First children are asked what do you see? They are encouraged to start their observation with the words, I see.
Above, responses to Adinath’s lid transformation were “I see flowers on the cheeks.” “I see a rectangle body.”
Then I think. “I think it’s a person.” “I think it’s a flower person.”
Then finally I wonder. “I wonder who that person is” “I wonder if it’s a boy.” “I wonder if the person is a kid.”
While his image was clearly a person, it is interesting when a drawing is more ambiguos.
In one case, the image was thought to be a pullman rail car, a caterpillar, and a bench. This was a tremendous opportunity to talk about how often the artist has an intent but the viewer sees something completely different. I exclaim how intersting this makes the world, facilitating a culture of questioning and risk taking.
This approach alters the dynamic of “getting it right” to “thinking and looking deeply.”
I learned another lesson from these first groups in the new studio.
The architectural open-ness, while visually and symbolically designed to be inviting and a part of the whole school, also is not conducive to small group discussions. There was so many distractions at one point Patrick (1st grade) said, “I don’t know who to be paying attention to. Them?” (he pointed to 2 staff in the kitchen) “Them?” (He pointed to the bathroom, echoing with sounds of children and teachers. “Or her?” (A 1st grader walked by shouting out greetings)
“You should have put a door in.” Said Emma.
I told them thank you and that they were absolutely right.
I rigged up some curtain panels. While not soundproof, they are a sign to the folks in the hall area that there is a conversation happening. It also psychologically offers a more intimate and calm space.
Together we are growing this school.
And together we will continue old traditions while transforming or changing them in ways that are meaningful. On September 11th SWS celebrates Kindness Day. Please reference this past post to understand the history “Kindness Day.”
In past years, all new incoming children to SWS received handmade gifts from the returning students. This year, since we all are in fact “new”, I initiated that each child would make a gift for another child, the fun part being, they won’t know who until kindness day.
It was recommended to me by my mother in law, and it has been a great provocation for actions, conversations and thought.
The premise is, that all people walk around with an invisible bucket. When you do something thoughtful or nice to or for another person, you are a bucket filler. When you are insensitive or mean, you are a bucket dipper. When you bucket dip, your bucket does not get filled. Bucket dippers are usually unhappy and in need of their bucket filled.
This simple analogy offers a way to reflect on how you are in the world.
This year, each child is making a necklace/sun catcher/overhead projector image as a gift.
Elilie, who is a new incoming 1st grader to SWS proclaimed. “Kindness Day is when you fill a lot of buckets!”
Each project that happens however small or large, is layered with potential for learning experiences.
In this case, the kindness gifts not only are a way to be bucket fillers, but an opportunity to explore and experiment with light, transparency, color and translucence. This idea of light as a method for communicating understandings and expression is one of the Reggio principles of 100 Languages.
Olivia’s unicorn gift
As I reflect on the past weeks of furious change and transformation of the Logan Annex Barrack into the School-Within-School at Logan Annex I am humbled by this tremendous community. At times this work can feel overwhelming, but you wake up each day with great optimism and walk through the flying teapots just to enter our school. It is just a big rainbow of hope to me. We’re growing a school!
As I observed the children creating their kindness day gifts, I realized there was a kind of glow happening with each group.
This intense glow happened after they created their drawing on artist acetate and then brought it to the overhead projector.
There were private moments of seeing their tiny drawing take up a whole wall, there was the experimenting of layering images on top of images. Oh and then there was moving the images and distorting them, adding other objects, looking at the shadows of the hands.
But what was most powerful to observe was being able to see their very “being” embodying the wonder of encountering a transformation.
It is the expression of an epiphany, of learning, of joy, of relationship.
It is to me a challenge to catch this moment in my hands and then return it to each child when the work feels hard and the wonder feels far away for them.
We’ve heard it all: Change is good. Change is hard. The only constant is change.
Last month I had the pleasure of attending a workshop panel and presentations with an international group of researchers called Speak Out: Art and Eco Activism. This was at the National Art Education Association Conference in NYC. I was thrilled to gain not only connections and new relationships with colleagues who share similar values and do tremendous work, but a new lexicon of phraseology.
My first and favorite of this new vocabulary has been singing in my ear causing new delight in my work with children at SWS.
“To understand what it means to live on earth in a meaningful way is to create immediate, sensory, feelingful, and embodied connections with one’s changing environments. Aiming at awakening the senses or experienc-ing radical amazement (O’Reilly, 1998) mean that one engages in diverse and personal meaningful ways to observe, experience, feel, and connect with the environment. In short, this is a challenge to pause, note, and experience the extraordinary in the everyday and ordinary.”
My goal is to enact, provoke, kindle, evoke and incite radical amazement. Celebrating our very local and fleeting cherry blossoms with ritual and joy across the street in Stanton Park is an important ritual.
One of my favorite moments of our Cherry Blossom Celebration was looking over to see a group of boys playing very intense game of soccer with crowns of flowers upon their heads.
That’s “Our Ladies of the Cherry Blossoms” (Rachel Cross, Cynthia Copeland, myself, Cecilia Monahan) who facilitated musical parades and movement, bubble blowing land and cherry blossom crowns. These are the memories that connect us to “place” or to the rhythm of our geographic and cultural location. Children are inundated to consume popular culture and place in non-stop media bombardment, even on the public transport and food packaging. It limits the ability to connect. A pre packaged culture does not allow one to add to the creation of where they are right now. And while popular culture and media saturation is here to stay, Radical Amazement empowers all of us to engage in joyful, creative, new and meaningful ways.
Last Friday, as part of the Kindergarten Anacostia River Project, we visited a new river park called the Bladensburg Waterfront River Park. It was a full day outside interacting with this body of water. Though still toxic from decades of neglect and dumping, it supports a plethora of wildlife. Chris from the Anacostia Watershed Society guided us all on a boat tour filled with wonder, silence and the sad realities of it’s current state and what we can do.
The fact that anything from the Peabody playground (from food to trash to balls) ends up in the Anacostia River made the connection very real. Our actions directly affect the river. On the first trip to Anacostia River Park in DC, Mr. Jere’s class (among other stuff) found a ball and brought it back as an artifact. The children were amazed to realize this connection. As we looked at the river, more balls were spotted.
Despite the trash, the Anacostia River the children and teachers experienced last Friday had both a beautiful tranquility and an energy teeming with life.
Brooke was worried about the boat ride and asked if I would sit near her. Her fear evaporated as she began experiencing the river from within.
The day continued with the provocation of how to measure the river (and yes, both classes in small groups armed with yarn did some creative measuring that is to be continued with Mr. Jere and Ms. Scofield) singing and music with Ms. Rachel, observation, games and making memory lockets of the day from recycled caps with me.
(aerial view of the boat on the river)
(turtle and bird as seen from the boat)
Both the Cherry Blossom Celebration and the River Project support another important principal that I adopted from the workshop I attended.
“Developing caring, attentive, fulfilled, and protective relationships with one’s environment and its habitants requires a place-based orientation and epistemology, which acknowledges the environment as central to understanding one’s place in the world. Attending to the specificity of place supports a sense of kinship, emotional bonding, empathy, and revitalized perception (Jokela, 2007).”
While I have sought intuitively for this type of connected learning throughout my teaching career, adopting the lexicon gives gravity and intentionality.
An amazing and powerful personification of this priniciple is Kindergarten student Jasper. On our first trip to the Anacostia river as a community, all of us were dismayed at the huge amount of trash in and on the shores. This sparked great conversation, poetry and representations. I printed this poem in my last post, but I am reprinting since as you can see, Jasper was in this group of poets.
IN THE WATER By Luke, Jasper, Stephen, Maya, Ra’kyia
There was a lot of trash in the water
There was even a skittle wrapper in the water
Maybe they didn’t know they dropped it
Maybe their parents didn’t teach them
Not long after the trips and poetry and collections of artifacts from the river, Jasper’s Dad, Adam sent out an email.
“Hi all–At Jasper’s urging, we’ve found out that there’s an Anacostia river cleanup on Sat. 4/21 for Earth Day. It might be fun to have a bunch of us go together. The cleanup is in the morning, and there’s some kind of fair afterwards which we could turn into a class social/potluck. Anyway, we can figure it all out after spring break but I wanted to suggest it and invite everyone to put it on their calendar.”
Yesterday, I was honored to join the SWS contingent in cleaning up the river, as urged by Jasper. My sister Gale (co author and photographer of the book Craft Activism) was in from Connecticut and joined me. As we got out of the car, I told her the story of the project, the workshop I attended, and Jasper. As we walked along the river in search of the SWS kids, the first thing I saw was a dilapidated tv pulled from the river, and who should be examining it?
.Jasper! What a great start to the morning. It turned out that parts of that TV were pretty darn interesting, so thanks to Maya’s Dad, Eric, (and his mother-in-law’s van parked nearby) there will be some TV innards to transform into something this week in the studio.The clean up was both sad and joyful. So so so much trash.
and so so so much discovery.
There also was some excellent multi-tasking as the kids in addition to removing trash, collected natural materials to make Fairy Houses later this Spring.
Yet another concept or phrase that struck me is
Relational Learning – Recontextualizing Self as Interbeing
In February I decided to do some worm composting in the Art Studio. The classrooms had already started, and so I asked Margi Finneran (Assistant teacher in Room 11) who is a wonderful garden and composting expert (among many other things!) if some of her trained PreK children could help me set up mine.
So Piper, Carter, Emmett, and Electra became my experts.
Piper: They live in dirt but sleep in paper.
First step was ripping up the paper. But what a surprise when our music teacher Rachel Cross ended up in our worm bin!
Emmett: The worms will eat her up and poop her out. (Lots of laughter)
and then? She will help grow the flowers!
The experts had a lot of physical labor. And while drilling had a conversation.
Carter: They eat paper.
Emmett: Rotten stuff
Carter: The worms think it’s delicious, but we think it’s gross.
It was time to add the worms. I was touched by the simple kindness of the act.
Emmett: Don’t be scared little buddy
Carter: I’m giving you a home.
Piper: Don’t worry worm.
Emmett to Ms. Finneran “Can you talk to my mom to see if the worms can come to my house for a play date?
Electra: I’m glad we got a chance to dig in the worms.
Me: Well I’m glad and thankful that you came to help me do this. I didn’t know what to do at all.
Carter: We teach you and you teach us!
Each week I open up the bin to feed the worms. I do this during free time or in the common area. It never fails that I immediately have helpers to feed, turn and maintain and observe the worms. Radical Amazement. Recontextualizing self as interbeing.
“Humans gain a sense of purpose, belonging, and fulfillment through developing loving, caring, respectful, non-manipulative, non-acquisitive relationships with each other. But beyond human affairs, similar expanded relations with the environment are necessary to Earth Education. Beyond the obvious need to respect our environment, people who are committed to nature preservation and deep ecology arguably enjoy life more, have deeper relationships through a shared sense of belonging, and more emotional capacity to bond and to attend to experiences, such as fear and mourning in the face of social and natural events (Milton, 2002). Implicit in the notion of interbeing is the understanding that self-realization cannot be attained through heightened attention to the individual ego, but must be achieved in relationship with other people, species, living organisms, and even with water, rocks, wind, and earth. We suggest that, in seeking to achieve interbeing, people engage in collaborative and relational processes/projects with other artists and nonartists, particularly in the context of the natural world (Boldon, 2008; Bourriaud, 2002; The Green Museum, 2011; Jokela, 2008).”
One might wonder how worm composting is connected to art making. I felt no need to have the kids sketch the worms.
Experiences (such as the worms) activate the senses, understanding, and connections. Because of the richness of the interactions these experiences become memory. Here’s why it is important to the creative process. Invention is often an act of recombination.
The inventor , George de Mestral went on a walk with his dog and returned to find his pet covered with burrs. As he pulled them off, he became interested and put one under a microscope. He noted the way the fiber was like a hook and latch. He soon invented velcro by putting nylon under infrared light.
By creating a transdisciplinary studio environment, filled with meaningful and memory laden experiences, children are building a reservoir of concepts and understanding. These reservoirs of experiences combined with poetic languages, materials, inquiry, construction, representation, community, ingenuity, trial and error, experimentation, practice, and observation develops the mind set of creativity.
One morning I was working with a group of PreK students, when Lena from Ms. Scofield’s Kindergarten came in. She waited until I had a minute and said, “I was cleaning off the stuff we collected from the Anacostia, and I found something living. I think it’s a caterpillar, look!”
“Hmmm,” I responded, “it doesn’t look like any caterpillar I’ve ever seen. Let’s do a little research at the computer.” First I brought up images of caterpillars, and she agreed that it did not look like any of the photos. We tried worms, snakes and finally moved on to larvae. Low and behold, she found a match. It was a beetle larvae. We went on to see what type of beetle it would turn into. It was thrilling. And she went running back to her class.
I cringe when parents choose computer learning over hands on interaction, thinking it will give their child advancement in learning. I do believe in computer literacy, however computer literacy without real life sensory interactions does not create intellect, it creates data entry ability.
While outside sketching, something surprising is discovered on the old logs.
Augie found a whole world of brightly iridescent insects.
Sometimes the shared experiences become challenge. For the Kindergarteners I asked, “How does an artists create water in their art? ” What does water really look like?” “How can you create water on paper?” I challenged them to experiment with materials that can be manipulated in experimental ways-oil pastel, paper towel, brushes and baby oil. I urged them to try a new way and another and yet another. To shout out when they figured out something interesting.
“Animating Art Knowledge as a Model for Understanding Nature- To develop a sense of interbeing with one’s immediate and larger environment simulates the process often experienced by artists engaging with the development of their art. This relationship is an animistic process, during which the artist and his or her work renegotiate their connection, and the meaning of existence in relation to one another. We suggest a similar organic and animistic relationship to be the goal between an individual, their communities, and environments. Altering one’s self to relationality and availability utilizing artistic, embodied, and emotional bonding allows all components to develop in meaningful relationality.”
It is hard to tell from this blog that we are a school located in the heart of a city.
Another phrase I heard again and again at the National Art Educators Association was “Embodying:
Once again including the entire body and sensory system with experience, interaction and in this case, play. At SWS the nature play space is transformed hundreds of times every day. One afternoon I documented how children interacted freely with the environment. The choreography from contemplative to raucous, imaginary to reflective illustrates the importance of these open ended natural spaces, especially in a city school. Once again, children are creating their culture and play-not just consuming it pre-made.
I will end this post with some inspiring words from Peter London, who was one of the speakers at the conference I attended. I hope on this eARTday it speaks and resonates within you too.
“But suppose we are Nature. Suppose we are one more interesting crop of
a universe whose nature is fecundity and whose manifestations are infinite. Suppose there is no divorce.
And that drawing closer to nature is not so much an outer journey to some distant exotica but a journey in
the exact opposite direction, inward to an awakening of what is already contained within. What we so
fervently desire to join is joined, just veiled.
And the artistic/creative processes
lift the veil.”