How it started. How it’s going.

In March of 2020, I hastily grabbed books and the turtle for what I thought would be a few weeks of remote teaching. That didn’t go like that. In June of 2020, I had a few days to pack up years of collecting, archiving, materials, tools, paints, a little hoarding, thrift store finds, treasured objects, kids art, and lots of started kid projects (this part makes me so sad, because they had to go in the trash) into boxes because our 920 F Street building was to be gutted and transformed in the next 18 months. I had to do this during covid restrictions so all the volunteers who help me massively with staying focused and organized were barred. Somehow, most of the Art Studio was somehow packed up. I didn’t see any of it for 14 months. After 18 months of teaching live virtually from home, I entered the SWS @ Springarn, (off of 26th Street, NE) “swing” space, and my temporary Atelier for the year. I gasped. I groaned. I took long epsom salt baths, and used many bandaids. 4 days later, the Atelier began to emerge.

The environment is the Third Teacher (Parents and Teachers being the other two), and while most folx recognize nature and outdoor spaces as a great teacher, the indoor spaces are often not seen this way. There’s a lot of “classroom” aesthetic that is sold and promoted that has no soul or even beauty. It doesn’t tell the story of the past, the present, and leave space for the children and adults to co-create the culture of the space as it emerges and informs the future. When I walk into your space (home, office, classroom, studio) what does it say? What values does it speak. What are the children hearing the space say as they enter?

Welcome to Ms. McLean’s Atelier for children in PreK3 through First Grade.

I am so sad that no family and friends are allowed to wander in, volunteer, or hang out due to covid restrictions. I so value the spontaneous and planned infusions of perspectives, ideas, emotions, and just plain old getting to know each other that happens when the doors are wide open and family enters. I hope that through this blog, you can at least be a fly on the wall or even be moved to leave a comment or question.

How we enter the Atelier. We usually gallup on imaginary horses, although Kindergarten and First Grade seem to ride cheetahs, dragons, unicorns, and all kinds of hybrid creatures. This is intentional. Moving your body is directly connected to activating the brain and raising serotonin to elevate well being and joy.

We stop outside the doorway. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 jumps and to the rug.

And then we read the visual schedule. Because just like the kids, I like to know what’s coming.

Project Meeting. Children arrive in small groups of 5-11 children. No matter the age we start with the Project Meeting. In these 10 minutes a provocation is presented, materials may be modeled, a book may be read, a video clip or image might be shared, we might dance to music that is connected through genre, culture, or lyrics. We often do a Harvard Project Zero Thinking Routine. There is always a conceptual thread that connects and interconnects with the home, school, classroom, and the bigger world.
Relationship, connection, and kindness is where we started. What does kindness look like and feel like at home, school, and the world? Why does it matter? How do we fix our mistakes when we are unkind? How can we practice kindness?

Create. On the schedule, this “Create” time refers to responding to the project thread/idea/provocation. It might be learning a new media, or it might be “visible speaking” or sharing your thinking through making, it might be an individual response, or it might be a collaboration. It may be starting, returning, or finishing something from the previous week. It might be experimenting or planning an idea.

Create time in relation to project work is rigorous in a beautiful expansive way. And along the way, I am listening, observing, and taking notes of aha moments, strengths, mistakes, challenges, and explorations. I am noticing dispositions and small moments of understanding and connection.

Free Time. Free time is like gold. Children are often surprised that they can feely decide to create something to take home (project work usually lives on in the Atelier, to inform curriculum and conversation)

“I want to make a camera.” Remi

Play is foundational to social emotional well being, exploring, practicing the imagination, creating stories, games, rules, and small worlds, trying something new, processing complex feelings, even traumas, negotiating, finding some alone time or making friends, and creating new worlds. After extended periods of being apart, this togetherness of a new family of friends and adults can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Throughout Free Time I am able to observe and support interactions that are sometimes divine and other times difficult and complex. Trust is developed. The learning and growth is never to be underestimated.

Using the visual symbol makes giving the signal of flicking the lights off for clean up time a known thing. Children have been helpful, and even when they get distracted, their generosity in helping a friend or myself clean up is a common occurrence.

Reflection and Sing Goodbye.

We typically begin reflection with a quick guided routine to think about project work. Usually guided by prompts, What do you remember talking about first, What materials did we use? What was tricky about this? What was interesting or fun? What might we do next week in connection to the project? What do we need to work on as a group? How did we get along? What do we need to practice? Where did you prefer working? Sometimes we look at a collaboration together and share connections and appreciation. Sometimes we each share one thing we did during Free Time that was special. I usually reply “Yes, when you made that game up, you were an author, creating stories and characters.” Or “Yes, you were an engineer, designing a structure.”

We always sing Skinamarinky dinky dink I love you to end class. One is never too old too sing in unison a love song with funny words. To make a ritual of sweetness that can be dependably found at the end of every Atelier/Art Studio.

To that matter, we are never too old for making time to practice and find space to grow capacities of expression, compassion, imagination, transformation, and perspective taking. In this time, in this space- this is how it’s going.

Please leave comments and questions on the blog post. I’d love to be in conversation despite being separated.

“Light is more than watts and foot candles”

Just a few weeks to winter break, and more than anything it is the change in light that seems so important. Light and dark literally change life in Washington DC in December. Street lights are on by 6:00pm, and the playground is deserted. Dinnertime is dark and evening and morning are pretty darn cold. Routines change.

One ritual at SWS is our annual Solstice celebration. It is time to make the one project that is done every year, Lantern Creating. Of course, it is never the same lantern. That means this year the kids are creating the 15th different style lantern in the history of the school. Just because it is a product project, does not mean that depth is eliminated. So I take you on a journey of  this process.

It starts with a self portrait. The kids did not have a formal chance in the studio to revisit looking at themselves yet and finding something new within their faces. This is always rich, just having individual mirrors creates experimentation and discovery! For many, there was a lot of conversations how to draw a nose. I had them use their hands and feel their nose bridge. This was the first time for many to touch and look and feel the wonders of something they don’t look much at, their own face.

This is Kenneth’s first time doing this type of work. He just stated at SWS a few weeks ago, and look at his concentration.

In each small group there was conversation about light and dark, day and night. I asked them what symbols they thought represented these opposites. I then asked children to choose to be “Kenneth Day” or “Kenneth Night” and suround their self portraits with these symbolic marks.

Archer chose to be light. This is him adding bees and insects. Because this is an all school project, it is thrilling to observe the pre-K’s intent as they do this very challenging symbolic thinking. At the same time, it is also thrilling to watch Kindergarten students who have had an extra year and a half in the studio (and life!) to tackle the same challenge.

The following part of this project is to think about which colors are day or night, light or dark. I asked the children to sort crayons into two categories which led to rich debate and thoughtful dialog.

“Yellow is a day color! It’s the sun!”

“No, yellow is the stars glowing!”

“White is a day color it’s clouds.”

“The moon is white it’s a night color.”

“In the day there is a blue sky, and the ocean in the summer is blue.”

“Blue is the night sky.”

It was discovered that perhaps it is all how you think about color that makes it what it “is.”

This conversation repeated with each small group.

I usually attend to color provocations on a separate day then line or drawing provocations. This is because I want the children to have the opportunity to dedicate each type of thinking without rush or stress. The richness in thought and choice is able to emerge when you have the luxury of time to ponder one at a time..

Since I assured children that this was no longer an observational self portrait but an artist becoming day or night, they were able to explore the feeling of color. Joseph, Kindergarten (above) makes his face a rich blue. A tree stands to the left, with no green leaves. To the right planets and stars and a firefly glow.

Jasper, Kindergarten (below) thinks about the light at night as richly colored and multi hued. As he chose colors he elaborated about planets , spaceships, and that the sun is still present in the solar system even when it is night.

Maya, Kindergarten (below) imagined fireworks, something you view at night.

Those who chose to “be” day  also were thoughtful.

Zander, PreK (below) used the same bright green color to show leaves and his face. He added a bumble bee, something that is now a thing of the past season.

Matteo Z, PreK (below) uses color and line that shows the energy of the sun in his face.

While Claire, Kindergarten (below) also is day light, she adds some symbolic imagery like the green heart which looks very similar to a summer leaf.

Moving from an observational self portrait, to graphic representation of an idea (day  or night) to the symbolic use of color offered intentional ways of thinking with media.

The next part, I always call the magic part. I asked the children to flip over their finished work and see how much of the drawing they could see through the paper. I asked them to hold it up to the light and asked how much light could get through. Since their drawing was to be turned into a lantern, it was time to transform the paper into translucent paper. Lanterns must have some way to let light shine through.

By brushing vegetable oil on the back side of the paper, an exciting thing happens. Katie is thrilled as she sees her “self” magically appear.

Below, Natalie, Brigid and Maya experiment to see if the picture can be seen on both sides at the same time.

The next part of the project is the adult part, hot gluing the transformed paper into a cylannder and onto a round piece of cardboard. Thank you to all my parent volunteers who took home cardboard to cut into circles or came in and tag teamed the construction.

The very last step is more social. Children sit around talking and socializing while stringing a beaded handle and gluing strips of plastic recycled newspaper bags as a tassel or wind catcher. A funny story: I asked one group “Does anyone know what beading is?’ One child replied and said : “Yes!” and stood up and play acted hitting or beating his own behind. I had a good laugh and assured him that we were doing a different type of beading!

Kiran as Day, Kindergarten and Jack as Night, Prek (above)

Kindergarten students as Night (above) used different approaches to color. Anja on the left chose deep, mostly cool tones to represent night, while Adinath on the right used warm colors to show the glow of things in the night.

There were some really overcast and dark days last week. So I used the opportunity to slip a small LED votive light into Gus’s, PreK lantern. The reaction was so gleeful from classmates Zuri and Eva that their jumping up and down  created a photo blur (I think I joined them). I still posted it because  you can see/feel the joy and energy that occurred. That small little flicker glowing in the child made lantern on a dark dreary day filled all of us with smiles, laughter and warmth.

Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry, “More light.”  Sunlight.  Torchlight.  Candlelight.  Neon, incandescent lights that banish the darkness from our caves to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerators.  Big floods for the night games at Soldier’s Field.  Little tiny flashlights for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep.  Light is more than watts and foot candles.  Light is metaphor.  Light is knowledge, light is life, light is light.  ~Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider

What makes me smile? What is important to me?


The Kindergarten Children with a community of support, finished their textile quilt at the end of May. It will be displayed for the month of June at The Textile Museum in Washington, DC. From there, it will be a gift to the school from the Kindergarten classes of 2010-2011. While I am in awe of this beautiful labor of love, I am struck by the quiet meaning of each square. The essence of being 5 and 6 resonates like a hymn in the voices of the children.

“Let me look upward

Into the branches of the towering oak

And know that it grew great and strong

Because it grew slowly and well”

(Wilferd Peterson)




PS  Thank you to the multitude of parents, grandparents, SWS staff, Textile Museum docents, and friends who helped to make this textile quilt not only a beautiful piece of art, but a testimony to connection, caring and kindness.

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” -Vincent Van Gogh


The Solstice Moon Ritual

in the Art Studio was

Singing This Little Light of Mine

Dancing in the Moonlight

Listening to The Moon poem

Placing shooting stars around our necks

Holding hands and making wishes

Under the moon

Listening to sweet music

Illuminated by friends, family, teachers, and light

All around and within










“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it”  -Edith Wharton

Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.” -Walt Whitman

Happy Solstice and Happy New year!

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