Happiness being taught

Show some emotion.

If you work with young children, you know there are many opportunities to experience emotions.

Last month I was working on a project with some 1st graders. The provocation was to plan a story without writing the details  or the the ending.

Why? Well, I noticed the 1st graders had figured out how to draw and make graphic representations well enough, to respond quickly to pretty much any  prompt or observation. However, their ideas and drawing were somewhat static. The figures (even though well done) seemed to be a stuck at the same level and their story development was not stretching them.

I wanted to know what would happen if each page, a part of the plan was tackled slowly and thoughtfully through a new process.

First, I asked them to look at their story plan and only draw the setting part. “If you said it was winter what needs to be remembered? If you have a location of Washington DC, how do I know it from the picture? If it is night time, show it.”

I was surprised that I had to teach them to “read” or evaluate what they had drawn, to see if it made sense. Having the plan to refer to , made this facilitation quickly become an independent process. Instead of saying, “I’m done!” and me asking “how do you know?” and them responding “Because I did it,” the responses became more intentional, such as “They all have mittens and coats, and there’s snow and a sidewalk, and rowhouses.”

The next time in the art studio the focus was on facial expressions.

Emma Clare, “It’s when you show how you feel on your face.”

Using mirrors and books as resources and really practicing and noticing, the children checked their plan to see if they needed to represent an expression that was happy, sad, surprising…




Carrington for several tries drew a U shaped bottom lip and a parralel line for the top lip. Hmmmm, I would say, I’m not seeing an expression of happiness or laughter. I am seeing the same smile you always draw. I want you to push yourself and solve this. I kept prompting, look closely at your top lip in the mirror. What shape is it making? She became extremely agitated, “I don’t know what to do!”. After several attempts and nearing frustration, she realized the top lip is (unbelievably) shaped like a traditional frown line! Once she figured this out, she was elated. She also began helping her peers to see the same thing.

Xavier, surprise

Xavier developed a technique of puposeful smudging, after he accidently dripped some ink on his page. This became a great resource for all the kids once shared.

Alden, surprise

Charlie, surprise

“Huuuh!?” Patrick

Maya concentrated looking in the mirror longer than many of her peers. All of a sudden she looked up at me, with tears streaming down her face-but smiling!

“Look Ms. McLean, I practiced being sad so hard, tears came out!”

Another time in the art studio, I asked them to pull out their story idea or plan and tell me, where they go to in their story.

I then asked them to try to walk, run, skip to their imagined place based on the 1st drawing figures in the setting page. It was hilarious acting out walking with both arms straight out and legs locked straight as well. Thus became the exploration of joints, viewpoint, and action. How does the body work? What do arms do when one walks? How often are both feet on the ground when one is moving? How does one look when being viewed sideways?





This process was extremely difficult.While the intention was to help children think about movement, expression and observation, it became about perseverence.

I heard Christine Carter, Phd. speak at the Creativity and Neuroscience conference I attended.

She believes there are some simple steps to boost creativity:

Teach kids how to be happy.

While this might be simple, it is far more complex. Happiness is a set of skills that must be learned. She asks, “How’s that problem solving going when you are angry?”

The first place to start is LETTING KIDS FAIL.  Children must be taught the skills, thinking and coping for when things don;t go as planned.

When children do not learn these skills, they hide mistakes, feel shame, expect others (parents/teachers) to “fix” things for them, and in teen years self-medicate through alcohal and drugs.

“No one is entitled to a life free from pain. ” says Christine Carter.

It is necessary to develop grit and persistance. Mistakes are opportunity.

Before one of the studio sessions, I had a conference with Alysia Scofield (one of the 1st grade teachers.) She expressed that many of her kids were quick to crumple up or dispose of any work  when they experience any mistake, instead of working through the hard parts and transforming mistakes or trying to solve the problem. For this reason, I started the class by saying that if you make a mistake, you would not be able to grab another piece of paper today. Instead, you would need to figure out how to make a mistake into something wonderful.

I gave some examples of accidently dropping a big puddle of ink on my drawing. What could I turn this into? Silence.

What about a flower? A hole? A tree? A rug? In fact, the image became more interesting with the transformed mistake.Soon kids were making innovative suggestions.
“Ask each other for ideas! Artists always do that!”

Shortly after, Maya made some type of “mistake” and asked for another paper. I reminded her that this was the challenge, to turn the mistake into something else.  She was not happy. She proceeded to ask, then beg for another piece of paper. I encouraged her to ask friends for suggestions. I told her she could ask me for suggestions if she wanted some. Friends began to chime in with innovative solutions. No.

In that moment, she became so angry, she began to cry, and ask and then return to begging for another piece of paper.

These are moments when you have to make a split second decision. I took a risk, “Maya, I know you can solve this problem. Everyone here is willing to make suggestions. I am so sorry you are feeling frustrated, however, I will not be giving you another piece of paper today. You are welcome to go get a drink of water or take a break if that helps too.”

Katie went over to give her a hug as she returned to drawing silently. She skipped free time and continued drawing, for a long time. Then she looked up at me. “I’m done.”

“Can I see?”

I looked.

“What do you think?” I asked

“It’s the best drawing I have ever done.” replied Maya, with a huge grin.

“I am really proud of you, you didn’t give up, you worked through the hard part, and now you feel really good.”

Big smile.

“It’s my best drawing ever.”

Hard. But not hard for hard-sake.

Another step in teaching kids these skills of developing the abilty to persevere is: Reducing Stress through Compassion.

Instead of focusing on the child/self (What did you do? Did you do your best? Were you line leader? Did you know the answer? Let me see yours) broaden kids capacity and vocabulary for compassion or the “other” with simple daily rituals.

Here’s two questions to ask your children everynight at the dinner table (and the rest of your family members and self too!)

“What’s one thing you did for someone today?”

“What’s one kind thing someone did for you today?”

The brain has a funny way of returning to neural passages ways again and again and again in times of stress or failure. This determines response. When kids (and adults) default to the ways in which they are supported and helped on a constant basis, they are able to frame or perceive problems differently.

Instead of  defaulting to “Well he did it first!, or I couldn’t do it because the teacher wouldn’t give me more paper”, the child defaults to “Oh, I made a mistake, how can I fix it or make it better, who can help me solve this?”

Last week, I made a mistake. Somehow I completely skipped a studio group in Mr. Jere’s room the previous week. When I saw the skipped group, I said, “Ms. McLean made a horrible mistake. I had to change some groups around last week, and I completely skipped you! I feel terrible, because now you have double the work to do. In the future, please say something to me if you think you were skipped. I feel really bad. Grown-ups make mistakes too. I am so sorry.”

“That’s ok Ms. McLean.” replied Harvey, “Now you know what to do!”

The PreK’s have been working on the very long process of creating Soundsuits, inspired by artists Nick Cave.

Watch this video to experience the inspiration for this project: http://video.pbs.org/video/2226846036/ (your children can too, even if they are not in PreK they are aware of this project)

Once again, this is a project that takes tremendous perseverance.

Because I noticed the lure of the tools in the studio, the project started with an ankle piece.

I use real tools with students, and they needed to flatten the bottle caps and then use an awl to put a hole in it.

Dominc: “This is hard work. I’m gonna sweat!”

While some children were energized by the heavy work, others were fatigued. The amount of sensory inout and output varies from child to child. It is my job to notice who is awakened by this work, and remember to use this as an adaptation. At the same time, for those who fatigue early with heavy work, I notate who needs support  to develop their core strength.

When Samuel found his name on a bottlecap he was thrilled. Suddenly, everyone was looking closely at what was printed on the bottlecaps. Soon anchors, elephants and “this is almost my name ” were seen. This act encouraged not only literacy and observation skills, but an understanding and acknowledgment of the extraordinary found in the ordinary.

The work on this project vacillated between focused heavy big work and small focused actions.

Attaching the bottle caps and beads so they create percussion, was once again difficult.

While this  proved frustrating to many, Lucinda seemed to respond to the sequencing and constant twisting and connecting. Her Sound Suit ankle was overflowing with sound. She also was able to help others. Everyone in each group has a strength. Everyone has many challenges. By remembering that Lucinda can help peers in this part of the project, she is also able to receive help at other times. This is the culture  that must be nurtured and taught in order for kids to be able to handle mistakes.

In every part of this project, every time someone completed a part, and tested it out- the perseverance quotient heightened.

Next it was time to revisit the artist Nick Cave’s work.

I started by asking “What is a suit?”

First I got blank stares and silence. Then slowly ideas emerged. This is the power of a group. It promotes formulating  remembering, and responding in a social and conversational construct. It gives each participant a wider breath of looking at topics.,

“A bathing suit! ” Tate

“Superman wears a suit!” Liam

“A costume is like a suit.” Dylan

“My Dad wears a suit!” Audrey and Maddie expressed this in separate groups

“A coat you wear. Something you put on your whole body so people will notice you.” Gabriel (In Jere’s class)

Next, I showed them some videos of Nick Cave’s creations in action and still.

When I stated, “It will take a long time to make your own sound suit.”

Levi shouted out, “Its like the fish!”

He was able to connect the persistance needed to complete the wire project to the ideas of this new project. Hard. But not hard for hard-sake.

This is Eric using his Sound Suit idea plan to figure out what color he needs to select. He is shown using the tape on the table to measure the strips.

The concept that designing an object means more then one view is one leap these learners must learn or “read.” When I first proposed the template for designing the Sound Suits with a two-figure graphic, Mira was the first to figure it out. “Is that the front and the back of the shirt?”

This new way of thinking about a two-sided design using a one-sided paper was also hard.

Aksel was thrilled by the opportunity to alter the design. “Mine will have wings, look!” And he drew the colors so they looped like wings. So many adults do not realize that young children have strong ideas. It is when they have the time, facilitation and the culture to create original ideas that they come to fruition and visibility.

Next, the fabricating of the Sound Suits.

I broke down this part of the project into small bits. First, just weaving the flagging tape through the front and back collar. (Myself and a cadre of parent volunteers snipped two parallel snips for each strip to go through.)

Once again, this was difficult. many kids put the strips in backwards, or had trouble using two hands to manipulate threading the strips through the front and back of the shirt.

Using intentional language and uploading,

When I heard, “This is hard, I can’t do it!”

I said,

“Can’t is a bad word in the art studio-it stops you. What can you say instead?”


“This will be difficult. That’s ok. You can take a skipping break down the hall and return, you can stand, you can sit, you can shake your hands, you can jump. Everytime you come it will get a little less hard. The practice will make it easier for you to do. And when you do something hard, and complete it, you feel soooo good because your brain has grown, and you know you can do the hard parts.”


“I’m not very good at this.”

I replied, “That’s because you’ve never done it before. Stick with it, you’ll see, it will start making sense.”

“What are some things you can do when you are stuck?” (Ask for suggestions from other kids and adults, express that it is tricky and I need help, express it is frustrating because you are not alone, it is for hard for someone else in the group too.)

After two to three studio times of adding the collar and sleeves, I told the kids they could try the Sound Suits on.

When the first group tried to attach the flagging tape to the mid section of the shirt, it was too hard. The oversized shirts become just a mess of fabric when trying to find the inside. In this case, hard was just too hard. At this point I came up with a solution that I had a hunch might work.

Embroidery hoops! You can see this allowed for many opportunities to try techniques, and allowed the children to maneuver the strips through successfully.

I am intentionally changing the culture, wheras asking for suggestions is applauded as opposed to a sign of weakness. Wheras it is exciting when someone figures out a way that works for them, and it is shared as a resource for all.

Gabriel (in Ms. Hannah’s class) was having a hard time persevering. He complained and procrastinated. Maybe this felt too big or overwhelming so I helped him break it down further.

“Gabriel, why don’t you put  four strips through the sound suit and then take skip all the way down the hall and back. You can do this each time.”

This helped. Then he started slowing down again.

“Hey Gabriel, how about you count out the strips you are using before you start, just four!”

“I’m gonna do a pattern!”

He returned to the work with energy.

All of a sudden I noticed he was talking as he worked, “In the lava, out the lava, in the water, out the water …”

His flagging tape became a metaphor and a mantra, and he worked to completion.

In the lava out the lava, in the water out the water. Hard, but not hard for hard-sake.

Working in collaboration with Movement Teacher, Shannon Dunne the kids are developing a new conversation with movement and patterns, their selves not as their selves but these “rainbow beings.”

(A flash mob in Eastern Market is being planned in a few weeks, an opportunity to bring these rainbow beings into the unsuspecting daily lives of the public.)

Here’s a peek at Shannon with Mr. Jere’s class taking turns watching two classmates have a conversation using their body and ankle Sound Suit piece  “Remember and think about how one person talks while one person listens, and then you respond and say something. In this conversation you are doing the same thing, but you are using your body and no words to talk.”

See how attentive the rest of the class is.

This idea of choreography surfaced in the studio.

“Look Ms. McLean! ” said Aurora, “Look how to move.

Full Moon

and Half Moon!”


Now that so much progress is being made, they can’t wait to try out the Sound Suits in progress for anyone who will look, teachers, kids in the halls, and especially their classroom teachers and their peers.


Hard isn’t good for hard-sake. But hard is good within the context of a project that encourages not only personal growth but the development of a culture of shared community struggle and JOY!

The Sound Suits are not so interesting on their own, it is within the group that the emotions and purpose soar. It is the development of a community  creating an identity as a group of rainbow beings that make this powerful.

It is hard. But not hard for hard-sakes.

It is fraught with mistakes. But what do you see?

I see happiness being taught.



Marking time in the territory they are in

“I have found that my (art) work tells me what I’m interested in. It tells me what I’m doing in the territory I’ve landed in.”

Carrie Mae  Weems speaking at The Corcoran in conjunction with the 30 Americans exhibit, November 12, 2011.

These words really resonated with me. As I revisited my personal work in my grown up studio this weekend, I could see that my work informed me of my thinking during diverse periods in my life.

Artist as mark maker. As a mark maker in the specific moment they are creating. Artist as archiver. It is why artists are so dangerous to repressive regimes. Artists mark time in powerful symbolic ways, reacting, speaking expressing.

This idea makes me think of the listening I do every day.

Visual listening.

With 4, 5 and 6 year olds.

Are they not  also marking time in the territory they are in right now?

The following is the path behind, through and around  one of  the current PreK projects. As long and wordy as this documentation is (and I apologize for this), there is so much more to consider. I hope you will join in “listening” to what is often invisible.

I am posting a sampling of the transcribed work. There was not one that was better than another. Each piece marks the territory where each individual child has landed, right now. It is deepened by the context of being in a small studio group, where ideas are experimented, disseminated, constructed, shared and exclaimed over.

I was thrilled with Gaia’s verbal description for getting bigger or getting fat as “make more big.” Gaia’s first languages are Spanish and Italian. Her taking a risk and telling me a story in English in which she came up with verbal strategies to be heard is quite remarkable!



Hearing Artist Carrie Mae Weems speak after I wrote this, I would like to add another question:

Why is this work/research so very important? At this moment? In this territory? Right now? With young children?

Objects can tell stories, if you learn to read them.

(Warrior by Fredric R.)

On 2/23 and 2/25 I led each Kindergarten class, with their teachers and parent volunteers to see The Terra Cotta Warriors at the National Geographic Exhibit Hall.

On the metro bus back to school, teacher Hannah Birney asked me, “What made you choose this as a fieldtrip?”TCbusride

Objects can tell stories, if you learn to read them.

The thread of “storytelling” has become strong and evident in a multitude of forms this year. However, there is more than one way to read a story.

Developing both observational and comprehension skills is not limited to text.

Over 2000 years ago, over 7000 sculptures were  buried in China. They were found just 30 years ago. While a written record of the tomb of the Emperor was discovered, the life size figures were a mystery, because the only clues left were the sculptures themselves.

Before we embarked, we spent a lot of time handling clay.

I told the story of the Emperor who believed that when he died, he would have another life, and did not want to be just anybody in this next life. He wanted to maintain his status as the strongest and most powerful. And so he had artisans create replicas of officials, warriors, chariots and more to be buried with him.

Thus far, only male figures have been discovered. This part of the story, plus ideas of power within the empire created a dynamic “boy tale”. One of the many negative consequences of NCLB and drill and kill assessments within our national school system is the increasing incidence of boys failing in our schools.

Play, outdoor time, drama, music, art, and a dynamic that supports socialization skills are being deleted in early childhood programs. Fostering boys social emotional development is vital to school success, more so than IQ. ( Raising and Educating Healthy Boys)

One of the many wonderful classroom strategies to support boys is having a wide variety of books and experiences that show a range of emotions with boys as protagonists. While this fieldtrip and experience lends itself to boys, it is also such a wonderful mystery and thing of beauty, that all children were wide eyed. The connection of “story” also encompassed all.

I showed examples from the companion book, Terra Cotta Warriors, Guardians of China’s First Emperor by Jane Portal.

I moved my body and showed how gesture and stance also told the story by asking, what am I? How do you know this?

Headwear, (Elaborate hats and hair styles show importance , as Ellie has drawn)

garments, (Casey shows folds of fabric as well as scarf bows around the neck. “He’s an official.”)

footwear, (Miles went back and put shoes on his Warrior, while Frederick P. showed below-right, the elf-like shoes which describes an elite official.)


mark hairstyle & armor  are all a part of this story without words.

(left)Mark drew the armor on the chest and shoulders. Children noticed that armor was on different parts of the body for different types of individuals. Teija noticed and verbalized what she called “puffs” (a type of hair knot or bun swept on top of the head) as the hairstyle for some of the warriors. You can see it in Mark’s drawing.

jonas1(left)Musician and dancing crane. Jonas depicted the simple clothing and position of figure and hands that told the story of this entertainer, since their was no instrument on display.

Estelle depicted the gesture of a warrior that shows  “he’s an archer”estelle archer

I told the children for this trip, they would be investigators and artists. Their job was to sketch figures, and most importantly, draw the symbols that told the story of who they were. From our retreat with Patsy Cooper (which specifically addressed literacy and the use of stories and storytelling in curriculum), we learned that a key component in literacy that many children lack is comprehension. I was asking children to extract

factual information from the sculptures. This skill is the same as extracting information from text. It is different from making a personal connection (i.e. I saw Mulan! It’s in China.)

While crowds of teenagers hurried by, the Kindergarten students sat staring intently at the figures, discovering the stories. “Hey, look at these little kids” “Wow! They draw better than me!” exclaimed many of the teens.  (Maggie’s Warrior and Horse, right)P1050783

The docents were right on hand to answer questions. Estelle wanted to know where the body of the Emperor is. Ms. Lawrence, a docent, explained that they have not yet opened the tomb, but might one day.

Eventually the Kindergarten students will plan to make themselves out of Terra Cotta. Moving from comprehension of the exhibit/story, back to the idea of reading symbols to tell a story.

My question to them will be, “What is the story you want people to know about you?

How will you show your story within this sculpture?



The parts without words


The children have finished their Dream Houses. I am in awe of each child. Utterly amazed at the brilliance evident in each piece. Here are a few  to see:Slide7




but the project continues…

The K classrooms’ continuous common thread has been story and the narrative. Inspired by the work of Patsy Cooper (who came to our school for a talk and will be doing a full day retreat with us next month!) and Vivien Paley as well as working with local storyteller Ariana Ross (who will be in residence in the spring with the K classes) through folk and cultural storytelling techniques, and the childrens’ stories that they bring everyday, incredible fluency and ideas have been blossoming.

With this in mind, I decided I would ask each child to create a story that included themselves and their dream house.

Funny thing, I had no idea how to support this “change” of language, from the visual sculptural representations to the oral tradition of storytelling, then to back to a visual form, representing on paper as a book.

How do ideas do this, change form? How are they born?

I know the environment must be conducive to risks, mistakes and possibility. I know that there must be trust in the process for it to happen. But these are things that don’t have verbal instructions. These things are a combination of inner and outer. (A metaphor fitting for the new Hideaway Space in the studio.)


So, I was honest, and I told the children,”I don’t know how you each come up with ideas best, so, I have placed your dream house in front of you if that helps, I have also brought out pens and your sketchbook. Some folks like to make lists, some draw ideas or something that will happen, some write words, and some people like to just think in their heads. I will put on some music, and for at least 5 minutes, I would like you to work on your story ideas. When you are ready to tell me, just let me know.”

I was struck by the seriousness and commitment each group showed after hearing my uncertain words.

Some began drawing or writing with gusto.2boys

Some gazed into the air and then began drawing.

Some looked down at their paper, like Milo,  and then looked up and said I’m ready! Despite a blank page, his story was lush and full.


Ruby created gestural lines, perhaps this act helped her focus, as I must doodle in order to take in a lecture or a meeting.


Finn created drawings with arrows in between, an actual storyboard.finndraw

How fascinating to observe the small moment where something “becomes”.

I will post some of the stories at a later date.

For now, I am savoring magical parts, the parts without words that are also part of the story. The parts that somehow must be nourished for creativity to flourish and the whole story to be told.


Small World

(detail from Khalisa’s Dream House)

January began with two new spaces. The Winter Garden and the Hideaway Space.


The Winter Garden is a small square tactile table that is now filled with corse sand. Cat tails, shells, feathers, rocks, seed pods, small tree stumps and some plastic dinosaurs. My only rule was to “leave something interesting for the next group of children.”

boysOne group of children had a long narrative play. The land was Dino world, and there were bombs (chestnuts dropping) and a thunderstorm (sand dropping) that led to destruction and the creation of a song by Jonas, which Milo and John joined in singing “Dino world its a big big big big world. We’re cleaning up Dino world Dino World it’s a big big big big world. ” Shelters were made, dinosaurs were rescued, and even a dino toilet existed. There was disaster, clean up, peace, disaster clean up peace, and song and discussion.

When Renzo and Henry chose to play in the Winter Garden, Henry made a discovery. By hitting the cattails, white fluffy snow emerged. I struggled with the awe and visual beauty of this new natural material and at the same time, the material management challenges that came with this, the flyaway seeds were copious and covering everything!  I stayed with the awe, especially after teacher Margaret Ricks came to me and said, “Did you see that the winter garden really has turned into a winter garden?” winter

The winter garden idea emerged from conversations with teacher Sarah Burke, who was struck with the natural glass enclosed atriums that we saw in the Reggio schools where children created with natural materials. She was trying to find a way to adapt the quality of these beautiful spaces on our 3rd floor space. At the same time, I had just written a grant to create an outdoor creative nature play space in a corner of our public school playground. Currently the playground  offerings of a cluster of play equipment and asphalt and bikes.offers gross motor play, but not open ended possibilities for engaging in dramatic creative play in conjunction with natural elements. I did get the grant, (Thank You Capitol Hill Community Foundation!) however the space will start up in March/April, and I too was eager to offer the children something now. The new Winter Garden in the common area, and Sarah’s larger version for her class offer opportunities for adults as well. The narrative  stories of these small worlds change with each group of children. I am looking forward to learning more.

The other new space, the Hideaway Space leela lilahcame out of a conversation with lead teacher John Burst.  I was talking to him about spaces and my observations of how the children use the narrow space of the studio. I told him that I noticed that most of the children use the large square table or the floor, and rarely the counter space, which was becoming space for materials or childrens work. What about creating something under the counter? he asked. I was thrilled with this idea, and thanks to Fredric Robb’s mom and her amazing sewing and creativity, there is an evolving space under the counter. lailaI placed two clipboards and pens next to the new cushions. In this first week, it has been used non-stop.legs A side piece of fabric was added mid-week to make it even more fort-like, milesand we are experimenting with adding another piece of draped cloth that we’ll try next week. I am still reading the essays in the book Secret Spaces of Childhood. I am struck with the small worlds all around me. Even the dream houses, which are constructed small worlds, have even smaller worlds within them.carolineCaroline’s Dream House detail

graceGrace’s Dream House detail

ellaElla’s Dream House detail (Keep Out)

P1050260Jonas’s Dream House detail

Within the project of using natural material to make temporary art, like artist Andy Goldsworthy multiple hidden small worlds and stories exist.

art“It’s a house in the Garden” (collaboration by Forest, Malin and Elanor)


Childrens stories are both sacred and informative, and as teacher Alysia Scofield said in a conversation about these ideas, “It’s all about children and power. These stories are like the figures they made with you.” Amazing.casey

(Detail, below from Casey’s Dream House)

As I observe, document, gather and transcribe stories, I will share them on later posts.

I’ll end with a poem by Walt Whitman:

There was a child went forth everyday,And the first object he looked upon, that object he became…


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