Flying Teapots and the Wonder of Transformation

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.

Another change to this ritual is all the children were read the book Have you filled a bucket today?

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.

Yes it is.

but change is also Flying Teapots

and  the





Some of the Ordinary Things

Last summer at this time, I was in Peru. This summer, I am home. What I decided to do was to name this summer “The Make Sacred the Ordinary Summer.”


So let me tell you about some of the ordinary things:


I attended a wedding in Boston and danced with my husband, daughter and friends until my feet hurt.

I read.

I walked and played with my dog more.

I visited museums.

(Chihuly Exhibit, MFA Boston)

I took a course. It was an intensive Photoshop Lab, every day for a week. The first day the teacher spoke for 41/2 hours while he did photoshop and we watched. Did I mention he was also gulping Red Bull, going off on tangents of the personal nature? He was annoyed with and quite frankly mean to anyone who questioned him. There was not a minute of the class when he was not talking.

By day two, the class went from thirteen to eight (“I am not going to pay to be abused”, the photo editor sitting next to me said, she did not return.)

I walked in on the second day and said to the teacher  “___________, let me share how I learn with you. Yesterday, watching you do photoshop for 4 ½ hours did not work for me. In fact, I retained very little. Today, I brought my laptop and will be using it while you talk.”

I continued to advocate for myself and do what I needed to do to be successful.  I also asked my son and sister to explain a few concepts so I could better understand the process. Here are some of my creations from the week.

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows, 2011”


(“Ojos de Dios”, 2011)

While I was successful, the class was not comfortable or conducive to learning. If I was not an adult, in an adult class, I would not had the power to direct my own learning. This experience reinforced my belief in hands on learning, facilitating learning and creating the space for both exploration and silence while learning.

This summer I also returned to my childhood hometown of Rochester NY for my 30th High School reunion. My family left in the 1980’s, so it had been a long time since I had been there. Besides the joy of reconnecting with old friends, I was interested in what memories came back. My best friend’s home, where her Dad still lives made me cry.

The kitchen, especially that blue green color of the counters, the smell of coffee, remembering her cat, and songs, and tiny nooks and crannies, a painting, the African violets, the swinging chair on the porch…so very rich.








(That’s my dear friend Tina in front of her  childhood home, and with her sister Dee in the wonderful kitchen of some of my fondest memories.)

A sense of place holds so many fragments of sound, smell, touch, sight. These sensory fragments or memories make up the stories of life.

In my studio/atelier at SWS, kids often return as teenagers and college students. They also remember the small things that make a space more than a room. It is the reason that the Reggio belief exists that the environment is the third teacher. I was reminded of the importance of small touches.


I spent a lot of time with my college age son.

Yes, some of it was guiding him through the (often) frustrating necessities of organizing and functioning as an adult, but it also was filled with baking at 10pm because we craved something sweet.

Or sometimes it was watching old sitcoms off the computer on the sofa until I fell asleep. It wasn’t exciting, but I recognize that there’s a good chance we won’t have a whole summer of hanging out in nothingness again. I think for the first time in a long time, there really was a feeling of being present. And it felt good.

(small place in my garden)

As I return to the frenzy of school, I hope I am able to sustain great moments of being in the present, as a gift to my students and myself.


I returned to a center for incarcerated youth, to teach two more art workshops. What did I learn? Notice? Feel?

Children will go to great lengths to be seen and be heard, even if it is in horrible ways. Undiagnosed and ignored silent disabilities and family crisis create failure. Survival is a complex thing. In a group of 12, the boys had a pack mentality that was both predictable and sad. The girl’s group of seven showed amazing compassion for each other in between the stories of bravado (often  inappropriate and tragic) born out of despair and bad choices.

Surprises…there was some beauty created out of clay. Whenever I offered help or some extra attention with the project, it was welcomed and appreciated. While language and topic was often out of control, I was always spoken to with politeness and care.

Facilities are a desperate and depressing environment for adolescents. It is essential to recognize children and families in crisis when they are very young, and support interventions and adaptations as much as possible so places like this do not have a population to fill it up. I can only hope that some of these youth find a way out of the path they are on.

The boy who would not touch the clay, but asked for pictures of wings to keep (a few weeks ago), ended up in my first group. He immediately came up to me and said, “Thank you for those drawings you gave me last time.”


Sometimes all you have is a wing and a prayer.

(detail, Wing and a Prayer, 2010)

I still have a few more weeks of ordinary. An Uncle’s 80th birthday party in NY, a cousin’s 30th. Lunch and shopping with my Mom. Full days creating in my own studio,

(in process, Blue Bottle Saints-Syncretism, 2011)

and moving my two children to two different cities. Marching in a rally to Save Our Schools. Keeping the flowers from dying on 100 degree days

and clocking in 7 or 8 hours of sleep every night.

(“Exit Peru”, 2011)


It might not be Machu Pichu, but it sure feels sacred.

(my home)

Truth found


Last Wednesday morning, I was walking my dog. It was 6:30 am, and it was garbage day in my neighborhood. As I went up the street, lo and behold, someone had thrown out an enormous mirrored disco ball. I went over to it, heart pounding and examined it. A few mirrors missing and a small dent. But it was too big to carry and walk my dog. So my poor dog was dragged through his walk, so I could get home and drive to the mirrored sphere and put it in my trunk.alone

When I got to work, I decided to place it on the floor of the studio and turn on one of the overhead projectors to shine on it.

This was to be a pure provocation.

No announcements of it’s arrival or declaration as to what one could do with it. I sat back and watched.

I watched joy and discovery, quiet flickers of  solo encounters

malin mirror teijaup

and group interactions that danced, shouted and whispered.


I watched mystery and suspense.


I watched poetry.

A moment.



Many moments. fairies

And still, I watch.ruby

It is fascinating and engaging for both the children and myself.

So as we ponder what is educational, what is creative, what is important, what is hands on, what is intuitive, what is learned, what is science, what is thinking, what is collaborative and what is reflective…let us remember the possibilities of this encounter.

“Light is the symbol of truth.”
James Russell Lowell



The space between “learning”


It’s funny how culture and ritual can define a place. In my studio, I have always had an old phonograph player. Children know, in their free time, if they choose, they can make a whirly plate. whirl1For 13 years, it has become a daily act, again and again. Sometimes children add a string or streamers to the plate. Sometimes they glue jewels. For some reason, it is very important. For some reason, it is an obsession for some kids. For some reason, it never grows old.

Last week, Mark, a Kindergartener was waiting his turn. Instead of crowding around the machine, he began to draw bears in a circle, directly onto the plate. whirlbearWhen the machine opened up, he casually said, ” I’m going to add  lines now to my drawing.” He placed the plate on the machine and carefully let his hand go gently up and down creating waves. He came and showed me.

“It’s like a movie!” I exclaimed, you should show your friends. Through play, Mark had discovered how to animate his drawing.(Clip takes a minute to load) markwhirl

The next day, Charlotte, a Kindergarten student from a different class was waiting for the whirly plate machine. “Hey, Charlotte. Yesterday, Mark from room 9,  drew bears in a circle, and then he placed it on the machine and added lines, and it made it look like a movie. If you want, you could try while you are waiting too.”halloweenwhirl

Charlotte drew all types of Halloween characters  holding hands. She  added the word “Boo” several times in the  circle as well. For her, the results were enchanting. I ran and got Mark to show him how his idea inspired Charlotte to make a different movie. A small group gathered round to view this 2nd animation. (Clip takes a minute to load) New Project CC

Today, Casey gave it a try, inspired by the images on my computer of Mark and Charlotte’s animation. “First it’s people. When it’s fast, it’s a snake.” I showed him how to control the settings on the machine. As he went from slow to faster he exclaimed, “They’re going down the stairs now.”New Project 1

Will, on the other hand, created an almost wheel like structure out of 2 plates and put it on his finger. When it kept falling off, I gave him a dowel to experiment with. He found many ways of creating movement and sound with the dowel and plates. “Hey, are you ready to film mine?” (Clip takes a minute to load) willplatesmall

This happened in between painting and building dream houses, talking about color, and taking care of brushes after using acrylic paint. In  free time, in  choices, in play, in rich studio environments is the space for a 5 year old to invent and discover animation. And if an adult is watching, therein lays the opportunity for such a discovery to grow so that it touches another child. And when the next child takes the idea and adds their experimentation? This is   creativity at it’s best. An act of curiosity, that becomes a theory, that becomes a shared value. This is Constuctivist Theory in action. And to think I was wondering if the childrens addiction to making whirly plates was healthy!

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