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?
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.
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.
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)
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.
Wow, it has been a looooong time since I last blogged.
I will start from today though, from now, November 12th, 2020.
And right now, I can share that it is not only possible to connect and create virtually with 3-6 year old humans in the Atelier, it is meaningful, compassionate, and inspiring.
There is still opening and closing rituals, music, stories, provocations, and just like being in person, there is sustained time where there is a flow of constructing, experimenting, and expressing (with music flowing and me, not talking.) And there is still Reggio Inspired Projects and the possibilities of expressing understandings in 100 Languages.
We began the school year with the provocation of Monarch butterflies and as they emerged and began their migration to Michoacán, Mexico, we moved from local to global. We moved from the simplicity that all living things migrate to the complexities of human migration.
Here is some documentation to connect you to the rigor, depth, and joy of our weekly one hour Atelier LIVE with Ms McLean.
To end this post, I leave you with a link and a quote.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is an extraordinary Mexican artist who uses technologies to create art about human connection. In 2019, I took both PreK classes to his interactive exhibit that connected human heartbeats and fingerprints to beautiful pulsing lights and waves. It was transformative.
He recently creating mind blowing art interactions at the US/Mexican border.
If you have 17 minutes to spare, watching this video by Art 21, Rafael Lozano Hemmer “Borderlands” will surely move you. I hope it will also give you perspective on the importance of the thinking and doing that children manifest in the Atelier. Children, in fact, imagined, like Hemmer, ways to connect people, despite the complexities of pandemics or borders.
What Hemmer has imagined and created is not so different than Delilah or Aliya, both in PreK4
“There is art on the ground on both sides of the wall, and people can talk about it through the tunnel.” Delilah
“”I made a big chair in the Middle of the wall so the kids from both countries can sit together to talk or read books. Kids holding hands together and dancing I also draw a tree house with a balloon and a big bear.” Aliya B., PreK4
“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.” — James Baldwin
I hope you will engage through leaving comments, wonderings, or connections below. In gratitude.
How does the 100 Languages of Children facilitate deeper and more meaningful expression and responses?
Why does it matter?
What can we learn?
As we embrace a new school year, the most important thing to feel, see, and create is engagement.
Children and adults whose faces light up when they interact,
An environment filled with provocations that delight, intrigue, and expand possibilities,
Values made visible in words, images, and actions that proclaim that all are welcome here
Tools and practice in spreading kindness and compassion, even when it is difficult
Rich opportunities for delving deep and expressing ideas, concepts, and understandings.
We have a ritual, a tradition at SWS called Kindness Day.
On September 11th, we experienced 9/11 as a school community.
Since then, we created and celebrate Kindness Day.
Our active enduring question is, “How can we spread Kindness?”
This year, the Monarch butterflies, who routinely lay their eggs on our school Milkweed did not arrive. I’ve heard it was due to some cold summer weeks in the Northeast. While it turns out, it did not negatively affect the migration, it did affect my start of the school year. My Atelier curriculum for the Fall was based on the Monarch rescue, transformation, and migration, starting right after Kindness Day and leading up to Solstice! So, I threw myself into Kindness Day hoping the Monarchs still might arrive.
Here is a link to explain the origins of this beautiful and pivotal SWS experience.
On the day of 9/11 every child walks under the arch of teachers holding hands and singing. This year it was, Put a Little Love in your Heart. Together as an entire school, we reflect and share , sing, and then go out to exchange the small hand made gifts.
Be it the story of the Phoenix, 9/11, or the myriad of injustices and pain that surrounds and often includes us, there is within the human capacity, the audacity to develop, teach, and grow the lens to see, honor, celebrate, and practice kindness.
Kindness Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
The butterflies did not appear despite every day combing the Milkweed leaves. Kindness day was beautiful. However, I had to quickly recreate curriculum as expansive and exhilarating as metamorphosis!
My intuitive sense led me to start with developing deep connection. Engagement means feeling safe to be brave, vulnerable, and connected.
If we are to share personal stories, we need to do it in a space we feel cared for, not judged. We need to be loved for who we are.
There are Atelier Rituals you might not be aware of. The first thing children do before they even enter the Studio is they are invited to take up to 10 jumps on the trampoline and meet on the rug. Once all are on the rug, my hands make a beat on my legs and I look every child in the eye and sing, I’m so glad you’re here today, I’m so glad you’re here. I’m glad ___________ is here, I’m glad ____________ is here, I’m glad______________ is here, until all have been seen and sung to.
Even if someone is having an off or sad day, these small and intentional actions allow a child to switch, to activate (or deactivate) and enter into a the space with their body, mind, and heart open.
To facilitate an intimacy of sharing and making, the book “My Heart Fills with Happiness?” was read in the Atelier with small groups as a provocation for using wonderful new art materials and expression.
“International speaker and award-winning author Monique Gray Smith wrote My Heart Fills with Happiness to support the wellness of Indigenous children and families, and to encourage young children to reflect on what makes them happy.”
My eyes often filled with tears as children shared these small glorious moments that give joy to their lives. Our conversations of smells that fill our heart with happiness included Soba noodles, banana bread, syrup, hash browns, bacon, cookies, apple pie, soup, pizza, birthday cake, and even broccoli!
Home is such a visceral and grounding place. These conversations celebrated and made visible how breaking bread truly creates a sense of togetherness and stability.
“Time spent” was a common thread, be it at the beach, playing, or taking a walk. Not one child said their heart filled with happiness when they were bought something. Each and every recollection was about the preciousness of just being together. This included friends, grandparents, pets, siblings, and parents.
Just seeing the face of their loved one, being held, hugged, kissed, and just showing up. Our children are speaking to us. Are we meeting their eyes with our own during these moments? As the children spoke, their eyes were bright, and their faces glowed as they spoke. They painted with passion, intensity, and a sense purpose.
Sharing these moments became like little blessings. As one child shared, the others (and me!) would join in or add to the conversation. We might all be living in different homes in different types of families, but the enduring beliefs of what filled their hearts with happiness was the same.
As children painted and used materials, they became closer to reliving that moment.
When you feel like you haven’t given your child (or any child you have a relationship with) enough, just take a breath and read these responses, and remember, they innately know what matters.
Our next journey (Prek and Kgn) was inspired by the book All are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman. This picture book has a call and response cadence and rhyming verses that allowed the children to “sing” the book with me.
The vocabulary is rich, so for 3 studio sessions we returned to a single page and I would ask just one question from the book. Through Kindness Day we had determined and set the intention of our Community as a Kindness School. We moved on to wondering
What is diversity?
The next project was proposed.
I recently attended a DCPS Professional Development for Visual Arts and Music Teachers. It was centered on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
I attended a dynamic session with Living Cities entitled On the Pulse of Morning, Looking at Structural racism that Exists in Education.
History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, Need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon The day breaking for you. Give birth again To the dream. Women, children, men, Take it into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into The image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts. Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness. The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out upon me, The rock, the river, the tree, your country. No less to Midas than the mendicant. No less to you now than the mastodon then. Here on the pulse of this new day You may have the grace to look up and out And into your sister’s eyes, Into your brother’s face, your country And say simply Very simply With hope Good morning.
Talking about Racism, Race, and Black Lives is not limited to February, however there is a wealth of great resources and workshops that pop up every February that enriches and expands perspectives.
Black families live with the daily conversation of race and racism. White families struggle with talking about race or don’t. (Throughout this post are some wonderful resources.) The article below is really well written for families.
For the past two years I have been urging teachers to look at the picture books in their rooms. I ask, What if the majority of your picture books that are out in your classroom have protagonists that are majority of color?
How could this small act to
your environment change the paradigm of race for your children?
Children of color would have
the opportunity to be the characters in books that everyone loves and see
White children would fall in love with brown and black characters.
I started seeing glimpses of this when Black Panther came out last year. Seeing white children pretend to be Black Panther and love Wakanda alongside their enthusiastic black and brown friends was a first for me. Usually it was the Black children dressing up as White Super Heroes and entering into popular culture dress ups that were not inclusive of them.
Attending this session of
Race through Early Childhood Picture Books really broadened and motivated my
studio project which encompasses Social Emotional Learning, History,
Anti-Racist Education, Arts Education, History, Social Studies, Science
(projection), and Regional Arts, and Making.
The next phase of this project went something like this:
“We’ve been thinking about love and what it looks like or does.
One of my heroes is Martin Luther King, Jr. He is so important we get a Holiday off to honor him. He is a Black American Hero.”
“Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a
Do you know what an enemy is?
“A super hero has to have an enemy, so he can destroy him
and save the world.” Kaleb
“An enemy is the bad guy.”
I clarified: An enemy is a person who is always against and
mean to someone or something.
What do you think this means?
Would it be hard or easy to be nice to someone who was acting like an enemy?
How do you turn an enemy into a friend?
“I’m thinking about my
family. You can hug people and talk to them when they are mean. It would be
hard, but I’ll try.” Orly, age 4
“Laugh, and they will laugh
back. And then they will be friends with you.” Aviv, age 4
“Be nice to them. Say I want
you to be my friend. I want to play with you. I actually want to. And not
fight.” Thulani, age 5
“You can be my best friend.
You don’t have to be mean.” Owen, age 5
“It would be hard not to be
mean back.” Aiden M.
“You could say, Can you have
a play date with me?” Minami, age 5
I began reading a few pages at a time of the book Martin’s Big Words. It is beautifully illustrated. The children were amazed to see Martin Luther King as a boy.
“He was a kid?” they often
shouted out, when seeing the images of him walking by a whites only sign.
I stopped on one page and explained that a long time ago, the white people did not want to share any of the power with the brown and black people. In fact, only white men could make the rules. They didn’t share the parks, the schools, and the restaurants with the black and brown families. In fact, it was against the law. It was against the law to have all the children go to school together or even live together. Was that fair?
After each conversation or
reading a few pages in the book at a time, we would draw, showing our thoughts
on a photocopied picture of martin Luther King. I wanted his face to stay
present as they explored their own thought through art making.
Children understand this idea
of sharing power. After introducing this concept, when two children had a
conflict, I would ask, are you two sharing the power? What can you do instead?
Each session in the
Atelier/Art studio was layered. Reflecting back to the last conversation yet
I added the quote, “Hate doesn’t take away hate. Only love can do that.”
For the children to ponder, I equated it to if someone is kicking you and being mean, and you kick back at them, then you have joined the meanness and made more kicking. What can you do instead? What if you see someone kicking a friend?
We ventured into what
Standing up means.
Both historically, like Rosa
Parks, but also within our school.
Another form of standing up and showing that Black Lives matter is through Art.
I introduced Mural Arts as “Art for All the People.”
If I make a painting and hang
it in my house, who gets to see it?
If I make a painting, and
hang it a museum, when can people see it?
If there is a mural on the
wall of big building, who gets to see it? When do people get to see it?
We watched video clips of DC Murals, time lapse of the process, and some clips about local mural artists like Aniekan Udofi.
“Hey, Ms. McLean, he’s black!” Christian, age 5, exclaimed with a huge smile.
More than 75% of artists in US Museum collections are white males. The NGA is even less diverse. (Article here). Similarly to exposing children to literature with pictures of black and brown characters, children must see the same robust diversity within the arts.
I proposed that each grade
level would make a mural of the message of Dr Martin Luther King. Children
could use projections and or trace their drawings or MLK’s portrait. Just like
Aniekan, we would lay down the black lines first.
Before each mural painting session, we revisited some ideas.
What is martin Luther King’s message that you want to share?
Even though the times are
better, there are still white people who do not want to share power. What can
you do? When is a time you did or didn’t stand up for someone?
What murals have you seen? Do
they have a message? We read more books, we looked at more murals, we talked
about love and bad guys, and we talked about Martin Luther King fighting the
white people who would not share power without ever using his fists or weapons.
I shared that I too would
like to be more like Martin Luther King, but sometimes I make mistakes.
This led children to really open
up and think about their actions.
“Even when we make a mistake, we can go back and try to make it better or fix the situation. And we also learn from these mistakes.”
We must plant these seeds of
love and knowledge of injustice now.
I’ve been accused of being an optimist. Honestly, I know that my power lays within art making and art education/teaching. I do believe that intentional holistic anti-bias and anti-racist education does make a difference. Standing up and speaking out through the 100 Languages.
“In this project, we explore not only the idea of optimism but its representation. The literal visibility of the proverbial bright side. To me, that is the job of art. To meet us where we are and to invite us in—to think, to feel, to wonder, to dream, to debate, to laugh, to resist, to roam, to imagine. Art is worthy of our interrogation and is in fact an antidote for our times. For the vital moment comes when we each must understand that the social, political and historical connectedness born of traumatic experiences can and should transform to true, elongated engagement with one another.” Ava DuVernay
By exploring white supremacy culture through reading, discussing, and widening perspective, we all become stronger.
Three year old Lucy, made a connection when we were questioning if an enemy can change.
“It’s like the Grinch. He took all the presents and then he heard all the singing, and his heart grew. He gave all the presents back. He changed.” (My heart grew 10 times in hearing this metaphor she was able to construct and share, at age 3!)
I have so much hope.
And then Beck, age 4 asked,
“But Ms. McLean, When is he coming back?”
“He’s not coming back Beck. Martin Luther King died. But his message lives on through all of us.”
“Well, we should send all our pictures and words to his family then. They would like that”
And despite being on this planet for quite a while, and teaching in public school for 20 years, there is still a newness, a joy, a surprise, great gratitude, and hope that comes with each day.
This Solstice, (a very special SWS yearly tradition), we wanted to go deeper. We wanted to immerse the children and ourselves into the exploration of darkness as beauty.
We intentionally sought to change the paradigm. The season of the darkest days as delight. A time of coziness, discovery, joy, and reflection as opposed to complaining that it is cold, wet, and dark .
And so I share with you the transdisciplinary, polysensorial, and magical moments of these darkest days. May you find this documentation of children and the darkness symbolic and relevant.
Simultaneously, while exploring the dark, children were creating lanterns. This year, they made Fairy Lanterns.
The lanterns were not a one time make it take it. We read stories of how Fairies are caretakers of the earth. We learned that fairies are part of one of the 4 elements: air, water, fire, or earth. We learned that fairies live all around us, yet, in a magical world that is separated from us by an invisible door.
Using painter tape, allowed children to make the “invisible door”, which they removed to reveal their lantern’s fairy and light.
The multi-step artistic thinking, paired with exploring the dark in the studio and classroom, books of solstice history, fairy tales, and fiction with characters who encounter the dark, led to children developing their own relationships with darkness.
Popular culture inundates children with images, movies, books, advertising, and shows that exalt light as good and beautiful, and dark as evil and unattractive. How do these small daily doses of messaging affect one’s perspective over a lifetime? How does it affect a community and society over time?
“Inside everyone is a great shout of joy waiting to be born” (Quote from The Winter of Listening by David Whyte)
The Winter of Listening by David Whyte
No one but me by the fire, my hands burning red in the palms while the night wind carries everything away outside.
All this petty worry while the great cloak of the sky grows dark and intense round every living thing.
What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.
What we strive for in perfection is not what turns us into the lit angel we desire,
what disturbs and then nourishes has everything we need.
What we hate in ourselves is what we cannot know in ourselves but what is true to the pattern does not need to be explained.
Inside everyone is a great shout of joy waiting to be born.
Even with the summer so far off I feel it grown in me now and ready to arrive in the world.
All those years listening to those who had nothing to say.
All those years forgetting how everything has its own voice to make itself heard.
All those years forgetting how easily you can belong to everything simply by listening.
And the slow difficulty of remembering how everything is born from an opposite and miraculous otherness.
Silence and winter has led me to that otherness.
So let this winter of listening be enough for the new life I must call my own.
We must take the time to linger in the beauty of darkness.
Through conceptual constructs such as darkness, children are given space to create culture as a community.
We are intentional in developing a culture that nurtures, questions, morphs, interconnects, and gives value to curiosity, inclusion, and expression.
Exploring meaning in life, searching for beauty, experiencing wonder, developing perspective, practicing kindness, expressing through 100 languages, and slowing down and listening are all tenets of our rigorous curriculum.
Nothing without joy.
Everything with gratitude.
As we enter into 2019 with our beloved community, we are reminded that no matter the difficulties in life, we are planting seeds in dark fertile ground together
And as Aviv says:
Happy New Year. It is a joy and privilege to share the journey with all of you.