Paths of light come in so many forms…

The 2012 new school year has been an exercise on how a community of people can truly make change. Personally, it has been both exhausting and extremely inspiring.

Using our new space, neighborhood and place based learning as a framework for planning curriculum this year, stretches me. So many concepts and questions have emerged.

(Ellie transforms the map of our school neighborhood)

While space, place and neighborhood are intertwined ideas,

for the PreK’s I am thinking and questioning how they observe and explore.

For my Kindergarten aged children, I am thinking and questioning around the idea of construction.

For the 1st graders, I am interested in how they become proficient in expressing and telling their stories and understandings through 100 Languages, provoked by the neighborhood we are inhabiting.


I noticed the children making gingerbread houses in Ms. Ricks class.

It’s the season of these magical constructions. Our very own Margi Finneran (assistant to Kindergarten teacher Margaret Ricks) is a White House Pastry Chef who creatively constructed the White House Gingerbread Garden! Take a look at this slideshow on Huffington Post! Margi will be sharing the experience with the Kindergarten classes who are expansively exploring the idea of construction this year.


I went with Sarah Burke’s class back to the construction site documented in the last post.So much had changed.


This time, each adult had a small group. After a period of silence each adult asked first, What do you see?


Amelia: There are no windows. The crane is inside the building


Fionn: A giant white crane waits for the cement truck to finish pouring cement and then the cement is dropped at the top.


Tessa: When the cement carrier, when it’s done, they bring it down.


Eva: The crane moves the big pot forward and backwards. Some are landing down and some are not.


Colleen: Cement is going down the white chute into a basket. It’s connected to a cement truck. I saw someone waving to us!


Mikal: The crane is moving the handle back and forth. And then it goes and stops and then it picks up another cement .

Mikal: I see a reflection of the crane in the mirror of that building.


Gus: They were fiddling around the bucket of cement.


Wesley: I see a little house.


Mira: I see one of the workers talking to another worker.


Then we asked, What do you think?


Mira: I think the workers are tired at the end of the day.


Zuri: I think the cement truck is going to empty out the cement.


Bella: I think those (beams) are for the building so they can build on the top.


Lane: I think they are thinking about safety. I think they are trying to be careful.


Mikal: I think when the crane moves, the bottom part goes back and forth.


And then each adult asked

What do you wonder?


Amelia: I wonder why they have all those poles.


Mikal: I wonder how they stop the cement. I wonder why the crane shows up in the window?


Eva: Are they going to have stairs? Or elevators? Or escalators?


Gus: What made the crane sway?


Bella: I wonder how they get the white posts through the next floor?


Michael: I wonder if the crane can hurt them (if they are wearing) with a hardhat.


Brian: I wonder if they are building a house or a school.


Remi: I wonder when the building will be done.


Mira: I wonder if the workers have to work a lot.


So why have many of the SWS teachers adopted this protocol for responding to visual artifacts or events?


From the Harvard Project Zero site, Making Learning Visible is this printed answer.


Purpose: What kind of thinking does this routine encourage?
This routine encourages students to make careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. It helps stimulate curiosity and sets the stage for inquiry.


Too often adults ask What  do you see? and then the conversation is over. Or what do you like? Or Yes/No questions like: Do you see the cement truck? In which case the child says “Yes.” And the conversation is over.


One of the most difficult parts of inquiry based learning is thinking about good questions to ask and developing thinking and listening routines based around questioning for the children to engage in with and even without adults.


A powerful statement and metaphor came from Eva during the construction site visit:

Some of the children were having a hard time when asked
What do you think” and “What do you wonder?”

I suggested that if they just look and concentrate silently for a while, ideas would start coming.


“Just like you have to concentrate on the stones when you balance them!” Eva offered.


These types of moments let me know that the transdisciplinary approach of learning is working. She was able to connect balancing rocks to construct Stone Cairns in the studio to concentrating on inquiry during a classroom fieldtrip to a construction site.


“Where transdisciplinary learning is different from traditionally themed or integrated units is that students not only have an opportunity to work in depth, through  a range of disciplines, but also recognize, through practice and reflection, the innate value and challenges in applying a range of disciplines to a topic. This quite naturally opens important questions about thinking, and provides a perfect opportunity for students to realize that disciplines are constructed, are continuously changing and can be questioned.” Complete article here by Darron Davies


A small anecdote to the adventure, one of the consruction workers, Mr Ricky came over to talk to the children. He explained he had a radio for the crane operator.

“Are they listening to music up there?” asked Amelia. He explained the radio was for communication.

You can ask the crane operator a question, he volunteered.

“Well, are there girls up in the crane ever?”

Yes, many women work in a crane.

Thoughtful looks from all the girls as they imagined.


Back to the Gingerbread houses… I started to think about Hansel and Gretel and the metaphor of leaving paths when you go into the woods.


In the context of my work at SWS, the children, myself and the community are constantly going “into the woods.” The woods being the unknown, the wild, the untamed.


With the PreK children I have been curious how they explore and observe in the context of a project. There is still so much magical thinking that happens combined with reality for our youngest students here.


When Jere, Hannah and I took both PreK classes to the IMAX Monarch Migration film at Smithsonian, they sat in the theatre and reached out their small hands into the 3d images, into the air trying to catch the butterflies. It was beautiful.


Is the “unexpected” a vital component of exploration and observation for young children? Is it the necessary thing that keeps one searching (at any age?)?

(Riley becomes a butterfly)


Kay Taub, an entomologist and educational specialist brought her insects, specimens and expertise to the SWS Atelier/Studio.

Handing out live insects to two groups of twenty 4 year olds was definitely an experience of “going into the woods.”


Here are some of the photos documenting this riveting experience.

(That is a Leaf Bug!)

(That’s a Stick Bug, so fantastic.)


It was breathtaking (and at times nerve wracking) watching as crickets jumped, children exclaimed, and a few screamed. One child managed to suck his thumb while supporting a worm perilously close to his mouth!


I am wondering if the richness of the unexpected moments from this provocation will lead to deeper inquiry and deeper imaginings.

(Dylan, PreK)

I quickly segued into Solstice Lantern Making without fully revisiting these moments with the children. Solstice was nearing and it was production time with a deadline.

(Augie, PreK holding up translucent wings to light.)

I am thinking all these interactions will connect as long as a pebble path is laid down as we go.


I wonder what constitutes a pebble path?

This blog?

Documentation at SWS?

Revisiting experiences with small groups and reflecting/remembering?

Using a myriad of languages (the 100 Languages) that trigger new and deep understandings?


I asked the children, “Why do you think this year we are making lanterns that are inspired by Butterflies this year?”


Samuel, PreK, “We saw the movie!” (Monarch Migration)


Noah, PreK “I think cause we painted them with water paint.”


Amira, First Grade “There’s the Honey Vine so the butterflies were here (in the SWS school yard).”

Isaiah, PreK, “There was one in here! (the Art studio)


Levi, PreK, “Well, our Monarch died.”


Matteo Z, Kindergarten, “Last year we had butterflies (at our Peabody location) and now we are HERE, and the butterflies are HERE. I wonder if that’s why?


I think these responses indicate small pebble paths are being laid. I wonder how to make sure they are not in fact, paths made of breadcrumbs that will disappear.


School expansion means 127 lanterns this year. At first I had to engage in deep breathing. It is not in my nature to have everyone make and complete the same object by a deadline.


The nature of light took away my fears. The plastic bottles crackled, and some of them when being painted made a wonderful percussive sound.

Using transparent and translucent materials mesmerized all grades.


Maddie, PreK, “Mine is glowing!”

Aksel, PreK, “I think mine is glowing because the paints are magic.”


Fiona, “Look, which side did I draw on?” (When holding up the translucent paper the image replicates on the back side.)


Tillie, “Look how it looks with the body and the wings together.”

Me, “Oh you really thought about making the drawing go with the painted body. It’s very coordinated, do you know what that means?”

Tillie, “No.”

Me, “It means it goes together really well, without being exactly the same or matching”

Ms. Scofield (who had walked into the studio and sat down), “Like peanut butter and jelly!”

Me, “Yeah, but not all people would agree.”

Ms. Scofield, “Like peanut butter and chocolate!”

Me, “Yes!”

Tillie, Kiran and Sylvie, big smiles.

(Mikal’s Ninja Butterfly Lantern)

(Emma A.’s Lantern)




Sometimes it is not so academic. Sometimes threads are just so very sweet, shooting the breeze, and sharing life together. Although I would say Ms. Scofield’s example of peanut butter and chocolate to illustrate the word coordinated was pretty brilliant.

I tell all the children that 1000’s of years ago, people who lived near where we live noticed how dark it bexame at dinnertime, how cold the weather felt, they said, ” Oh no, all the flowers have died!”, and they noticed the leaves fell off the trees and died. But then, they noticed one tree stayed green. And they thanked Mother Earth for leaving the Evergreen Tree to remind us that Spring will come. And they did this by singing, lighting candles and decorating with pine. They did things to make their own light and warmth.


Through this story comes a sharing of their traditions and celebrations they know about.

While many shared their Chanukah and Christmas traditions, Dominic shared a moment quite different.

Dominic (PreK) shared a story of light.

“When I go to my grandpa’s farm, we have these hats with lights on them. We go out into the dark and we see deer. And the deers eyes glow.”


I asked many of the children to create “Shiny Happy Things” in addition to lanterns to hang from our teapots and trees around school, since most of the plants died. You can see from these drying pieces the generous spirit and care that went into making gifts for the school.


And some more magic happened with the experimentation of materials.


And then came December 21st. Our very special Solstice Celebration. Preparation seems a littlr crazy, but then the day comes and yet another transformation happens.


The annual Moon Ceremonies in the art studio fill my heart.

Some of the children’s Solstice wishes they shared around the moon:


My parents and family are always healthy.

That all of us here are friends forever.

I wish for joy and happiness for everyone.

I wish I can live with my mommy and daddy forever.

I wish that everyone’s light shines.

Even when we’re far away, my love is everwhere.

I wish to play with all my friends always.


As Louise Chapman, said to me, it’s like these good thoughts become contagious.




The weeks before Winter Break and the build up to our school Winter Solstice Celebration always brings much reflection. Half the year has come and gone. Am I being intentional? Am I doing enough? Is the work rich and meaningful? Have I overlooked something or someone? Where do I go next, while still staying connected to what we have done? What can I do better?


And then surprisingly and magically, small little spontaneous moments were left in the studio. Many times.

Translation: Dinosaur Village. Do not touch. I’m serious. Patrick, Xavier





#2 a week later, built by Patrick, Xavier, Amira, Carrington


Many adults have walked by these small worlds, and exclaimed, laughed, or taken photos on their IPhones.


Dino Village has become viral, everchanging from grade to grade, group to group. After one of Ms. Scofield’s created a new Dino Village, some of Mr. Tome’s class stood in awe.

“Look what they did!”

“I wish we would have thought of that!”



It was a great opportunity to talk about how Patrick and Xavier started Dino Village, and it in turn inspired others, and then came back and inspired them!

It reminds me of the work of the artist, Slinkachu.  Slinkachu is a talented artist based in London (a former art director) who now creates tiny scenarios in public places, then photographs and abandons them – to be discovered by no-doubt bemused passers-by.

“The street-based side of my work plays with the notion of surprise and I aim to encourage city-dwellers to be more aware of their surroundings. The scenes I set up, more evident through the photography, and the titles I give these scenes aim to reflect the loneliness and melancholy of living in a big city, almost being lost and overwhelmed,” 


Human beings have left paths of connection and understanding throughout civilization. From architecture, literature, inventions, musical scores, recordings, films, rituals, remembrances, paintings, to sculptures and research. It is when we as humans are at our best, when we search for meaning and purpose in the woods.


It is impossible to not be affected by the Newton, CT tragedy. It is darkness that is possibly too dark. I can only continue to be dedicated through work to making the world a better place in small ways.


Perhaps Patrick and Xavier and friends are aware of “the woods” in their lives, and perhaps they have figured out how to leave pebble paths for the rest of us. Pebble paths that won’t disappear. Pebble paths to follow, to be inspired by, or even to just notice.


This is important and good and beautiful.

I’m serious.


Happy precious New Year!

May the light always outshine and overcome the darkness.

And may you notice the many small paths.





The Day the Kids Made God, and other urgent stories…

The end of the school year brings such urgency, for the children, the staff and myself.

For some children, some type of recall memory emerges. The project they started and forgot about long ago, sudennly, MUST be completed in the last week of school.  These  children don’t just want to complete the “forgotten” project quickly, no, suddenly there is great attention to detail and one more thing that must be added. While many I did not photograph, here are a few.

Cate’s favorite place that she loves is her livingroom. You are unable to see this, but she upholstered wood pieces and sewed all the cushions.

Then there was Emma’s (PreK) family on a picnic and Camille’s birthday cake.

Laura not only had to finish herself skating at the ice skating rink, but insisted there had to be seating.

Here is Christina dancing on the ballet bar.

In an urgency to get everyone in the studio and working, I did not get to photograph the epic Elephant Drum by Henry B. and the Dog House with Dog by Chiara. You can only imagine the detail and design that was put into these creations.

A week before Mrs. Ricks Kindergarten closing play, it was discovered that the zebra costume had disappeared. Somehow these three children worked furiously for 3 days to make a new one in time.

For me, there is much that is urgent at the end of the year. One is to tell those stories that never got told. Like the day Sara, Mani, Canon, and Chiara made God. Now I am not sure how this happened. I was watching them build together. Soon, they were excited and HAD to tell me what they had done. “This is God!”

“Really,”  I replied. “Explain it to me.”

Well this part (where the fabric hung) is God and the city and land is all around.

This is how God sees EVERYTHING, like infinity:

and this is God’s power:

Because they had built right outside Mr. Jere’s PreK  class, a few children came out to look. This was the first time the large building materials were in a shape not figurative. Airplanes, the titanic, and bridges had been built, but this was an amorphous shape.

“What is it?”  They asked.

“It’s God!”

“Oooooooh”, said Brooke.

“How?” asked Amira

Alexander said, “Well that is not God.”

I explained, “This is what is so wonderful about being an artist. You have the opportunity to show your ideas and make them. Alex, you would make God differently, and that is what is so wonderful about ideas. They can be different.”

A few minutes later , Sara, Mani, Canon and Chiara showed some of their Kindergarten friends what they made.

“WOW”, marveled Emma, “it REALLY DOES look like God.”

In that moment, my relationship with those large plastic connecting pieces took on new possibilities. It was through this small group that the use of those materials was expanded.

In the last few weeks of school I had another urgency, all those things I wanted to do, had not been done. I decided to go for it. There was a preK class that I felt I had not done enough facilitated collaborative projects and building with. Now was my chance. In small groups of 5 or 6, I told them that they had a ‘play project’. This ‘play project’ was to build a fort or house, using the big plastic pieces, fabric, clothespins. The trick to this project was for most of the tasks, you need to ask a friend for help. I tried to clothespin 2 pieces of fabric together, and showed them it just wouldn’t work. So what should I do?  I asked.

“I can help you!” Carrington said.

That’s it! But not just the fabric. It is super hard to get these big pieces to connect. Most everything you do today, you will need a friend to help.

I watched as they began. All separate.

“Ask for help”, I urged.

So they would shout out, “Can someone help me?” and no one would respond.

It was too generic. I realized they needed some modeling.

“Here’s how to get help. First call someone by their name, and then ask them to do something for you specific. Like this…”Luke, can you hold this fabric together so I can clip it together?'”

Stephen practiced, and realized he had to hold the fabric. “I’ll clip it” Luke offered.

I know this sounds elementary, but often we forget that one does not know how to help without specifics. Modeling this technique changed the dynamics of the interactions. And yes, I did have to walk through the modeling many times, but soon, I was released from this duty. Children who usually strayed from group play were drawn in. Kids who didn’t care to share, needed help. Soon amazing breakthroughs were happening.

Maya and Caroline worked  to build a swinging baby bed. However, Jasper realized that if they wanted  to leave the baby, then they needed to build something for a baby monitor. The level of play in their newly built house was inclusive and open to new ideas.

While one group built a telephone center, the next group was interested in building stairs, that then transformed into a kitchen:

Soon they decided they needed supplies. They pretended there was a delivery man. In another group, they all went to the store, but then, there was a rainstorm. They had to wrap “the baby” up and get him out of the rain:

Having neutral toys that do not tell children what to play, are necessary for creative and imaginative play. Too often corporate branding hijacks play. While I am not opposed to children’s movies as a whole, I do find TV and movie marketed toys as limiting to idea development and construction.

All this play was temporal. It was kept up for only a day in the common area. In that way, there was excitement of seeing something new developed as well as anticipation for when you got to build and create your idea.

Soon new interactive ways of playing collaboratively became explosive.

Here’s the DC High, DC Low Gym:

First you jump over the blue part like Eli. Then you go on the treadmill like Elise (and yes, she is play talking on a cell phone as she exercises!) and then you go low like Kiran:

and skate like R’Kyia

When they were all done, R’Kya said urgently ,”WAIT, we NEED a security system!!!”

“What’s that?” asked Kiran

“It’s something that goes off if someone breaks in and takes stuff.”

So, they went and got bells from the Art Studio.

While Eli put the security system in place, he turned and said. “We won’t have to use these very much.”

Another group returned to the bridge and water theme. But this time, Josie figured out how to make herself into a Mermaid. Soon many were becoming Mermaids. Josie came up to me and said in a quiet voice “Why is EVERYONE being a mermaid now?”

I smiled and said, “Josie, it’s because you came up with a really wonderful idea. Now others want to use your idea. Isn’t that great? Your ideas are spreading.” She broke out in a huge smile.

My last urgent story to share ( I do have a million more) is the wonderful engineering of the teletubby zipline brought to you by Dominic and Eli T. This invention brought lots of excitement and joy to the whole school. I am betting it will become a regular fixture of play.

With time zipping past, it was time to shut down the art studio for the year.

Urgent packing and meeting and reflecting. All we did not do, all we wanted to do, all we did, all we could have done better, the joys, the frustration and yes, before the year ends…urgent planning of intentions for next year. Plans that make your heart beat in the midst of the chaos of shutting down a school year.

Han, wandered in on one of the packing days and grabbed both my arms, he looked at me in the eyes and said,

“Ms. McLean, where are…where are…where are THE CHILDREN?”

“It’s time to pack up Han. Me and all the children will be back next year.”

PS click this link to find inspired and incredibly cool ideas!


Wow, this is the first time in my blogging history that I let so much time pass between the last post. This fact creates stress because so many meaningful, powerful and surprising things have occurred since my last post.

Where do I start?

Chronological? Thematic? Most recent?

I just went to hear Kathleen Kushman, author of Fires In The Mind speak about adolescents and motivation & mastery. It occurred to me, that  the same issues are relevant in Early Childhood. I would even go so far in saying that motivation and mastery in learning are born of and sustained by  provocation.

Provocations. This concept embedded in Reggio inspired environments is one of my favorite values.  Instead of handing children knowledge and asking them to regurgitate it, Reggio Inspired teachers plan, create questions, consider the environment, materials, groupings, trips, experiences and  guests for “how will this provoke learning?” And then “What do we see and hear that informs further exploration and learning”?

I have decided I will simply post some snapshots of provocations that were both planned and unplanned over the past 6 weeks. The stories will follow (soon!)  See if you can see and even hear these learning experiences through the images:



(Editing an idea into a symbol for a quilt square.)
Creating fixative for natural dye and natural dye collection contributions (as brainstormed by the kids.)

Laila is tracing her symbol. The tracing paper was cut to create a  dressmakers pattern. The pattern was pinned to the child selected recycled textiles and cut.  The symbol was pinned to the naturally dyed fabric and put in a hoop, and all the Kindergarten children are slowly sewing.

P.S.  The above project was provoked when I applied and received a Partner ship with the Textile Museum with the two Kindergarten classes which revolves around the ideas of recycled textiles and going green. All the pre-k’s are provoked by the textile frenzy and will also be sewing soon.

P.P.S. Wishing everyone a lovely Spring!

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