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.
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.
A strange thing happened this September…no Monarch eggs or caterpillars were to be found on the Milkweed plants in the Peabody school garden. Every year, this is an important ritual. In fact most of the SWS teachers are part of the International Monarch Teacher Network.
I was truly disappointed.
Then, one afternoon, Margi Fineran (room 11 assistant teacher) asked me what the caterpillars were crawling all over the parsley in the children’s garden.
I did a little online research and came to the conclusion that they were Black Swallowtail caterpillars.
I took some in the studio. I was a little nervous. The Monarch life cycle I understood. I went to intensive trainings so I would not harm them, and in fact support their migration. With the Swallowtails, it was a whole new experience. However, it was just the provocation I needed to start the new PreK children thinking about looking closely, observing, and representing their thinking.
I took home those caterpillars every weekend. Of the four I took in, three went into a chrysalis. Instead of hanging from the top, like the Monarchs, the Swallowtails made a “string” around their waist to support themselves while they transformed.
To me they look like some kind of magical seahorse.
It was weeks before I noticed a change in their appearance, indicating it was almost time to emerge.
And then it happened.
Never underestimate the large effect a small moment can make.
Since I had no idea what to feed the Swallowtail butterflies once they emerged, each was released within 4-6 hours of it’s arrival. There would be no observational drawings for weeks at a time, as I did with the Monarch’s. I felt an urgency to release them so that they would survive.
Here is release 1:
For release number two, I asked for some help from Kindergarten friends:
For the final and third release, I asked my PreK friends for help:
There is such profound joy and exhilaration in releasing these small winged beings into the universe. It is the feeling of your heart swelling. It is a collective brief moment shared by all present. It feels like a big gift. When you are there in that moment time changes-as if nothing else exists, but the possibility of flight.
As I post these photos I am smiling.
Natalie left this image on the Buddha Board, a temporary water painting that evaporates. How wonderfully narrative it was of the fleeting experience.
Back inside school, looking closely and becoming observant continued to evolve as a project for the PreK’s. Now, I wanted them to use a new media, paint. This time, instead of using a live caterpillar, they chose from photos I captured during the field trip to the Arboretum. There were so many steps to take. Choosing the colors with thought and care and then following the many protocols for using the paints, brushes, easel and paint cart. Children have such capacity to rise up to expectations when they are trusted to take on new roles and possibilities.
The next preK journey in looking closely, will be observing and using diverse materials in a new way.
There is no discovery , awakening, or understanding without first possessing the ability to think and see and smell and hear and imagine through observation.
How often is thought unnoticed in a representation by a child? We as adults also need to be observant, and practice this skill, or we might certainly miss something important.
These projects (all projects) and this journey continues. Being observant is in fact a life long journey. But let us celebrate and maybe even see something we did not before through the children and their work.
The Kindergarten children have been on another trajectory. Last year, I noticed how much the then PreK children reveled in transforming themselves. Their stories and play, use of scarves and materials during free-time was complex and innovative. “What if? “I asked mr Jere and Ms. Scofield, “The children designed, created and sewed their own costumes in connection to something in your classrooms?”
So, we brainstormed. Each class has a special story they have been dramatizing in multiple ways. In Jere’s class, it is Chicken Little. In Ms Scofield’s, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. Using narrative, voice, movement and discussion, each class is deconstructing and acting out literature in a meaningful way.
I invited a costume designer as both a provocation and as an expert. Then, the studio work began:
Henny Penny design by Emma Clare
Carter designed a raccoon costume.
This project is truly challenging. The children not only have to draw themselves as the likeness of a character, but, they have to think about if the design can work realistically as a costume, based on the advice of our specialist Ms. Celestine.
Design for the character named Jonathan by Kiran
Jai designed a Chicken Little costume.
Chicken Little design By Zaire
Foxy Loxy design by Henry
Raccoon costume by Han
Each sketch and rendering offers multiple insights into learning. In the studo and in connection with the classrooms, interdisciplinary and multimodal thinking is intentionally developed.
I am aware, that I have taken on a huge endeavor. Each child will be constructing these costumes…not me and not the parent.
Just like those Black Swallowtail caterpillars I took inside, there is a whole lot of unknown mixed with the known. I am indeed a little nervous. And like I did for those caterpillars, I intend on creating an optimal environment. I also will provide nourishment for growth (the kids are planning, talking, and hands on learning how to sew independently.)
It is my deepest hope mixed with intentional work that those Swallowtail caterpillars that I knew little about in the beginning represent the metaphor needed for the emerging project work- the gradual magic of transformation.
First there was an earthquake (in DC!?) and then there was a hurricane.
Then it rained. Not just rain, but RAIN, for a week. I believe that this all happened within the first 2 1/2 weeks of school.
The rain flooded the landing to the playground so much, workers were brought in.
The rain and the puddle did not deter fun. In between the lightening and thunder, the kids went out.
Room 11 (Ms. Ricks and Ms. Fineran even requested boots for this exploration.)
Water, the essence of survival. The joy it brings to every sense.
The qualities of water are soothing and invigorating, and exploration is endless. As an adult, great films , literature and works of art rely on the many metaphors and qualities of water. One of my favorite films is titled Water.
While squeals of delight mix with my my often heard voice in the Common Area, “What do you need to do when you make a big spill on the floor? Why do we need to clean up spills? Keep the water in the water table…”, the concentration, discoveries made , and social interactions are rich. The warm water is soothing. The funnels, pulleys, measuring cups, tubes, water wheels and marbles lead to the unexpected. This is the beginning of theory development. These moments connect to understanding concepts.
In addition to water, the Nature Play Space outside is a rich environment and never ceases to amaze me. Children create soundscapes;
Create rich make believe (birds with eggs game)
There are so many versions of King of the Hill games. When was the last time you spontaneously made up a game with friends, complete with rules and fantasy? This is complex stuff for any age disguised in play.
Testing physical limits while being connected to trees and stones is important. Children are drawn to this area, more so than the manufactured play equipment. And while the equipment is good stuff, the Nature Play Space allows children to move what they climb on into new configurations, expand, change and create.
Inside the school additions and traditions in the studio and common area keep things evolving.
Small additions to the playhouse has brought big excitement this year ( I love a good hardware store and thrift store!)
A very special hand operated machine
The beauty of this pulley, is that you need a friend to collaborate with you.
A small tray with handles and a fiber woven tea set provoked an elaborate playtime. While this might seem banal, there was an intense amount of negotiating and agreed upon management of materials, as well as debated role playing. Freetime is an intentional part of learning and offers guidance to teachers, not only on social climate-but on what is interesting the children and what is difficult for them. You usually will find me scrawling on a clipboard while observing the children. Often I watch quietly, while other times I join in to offer support or a challenge to provoke new thinking.
A new opened ended provocation allows children to “sew lines.” Doing this sewing works best with two, and I am thrilled by the way the children direct each other and decide where to place the needle to make a desired shape, Almost like looking at clouds, the children exclaim, It’s a rocket ship or It’s a car! Everyday it gets more and more filled with color and line.
I finally bought the missing small piece of hardware that has expanded the piano play. A double jack! It is beautiful to watch the many interactions here.
While the next two experiences are not new in the studio, they are new to all our entering children. The snow globe collection and the whirly plate machine. I challenge any computer to elicit this kind of wonder, awe, and thought…
And the simple pleasure of painting during free time, choosing from multitudes of colors and varieties of brushes created these complex and organized representations. Sylvie’s palette is cool and breezy and notice the details like the bird flying above the two smiling figures.
Alex painted a Matisse like painting, filled with movement and brightness:
This year, the Kindergarten students spent their first few weeks in the art studio working at a furious speed to make ceramic pendants. Every year, Kindergarten children make a gift for all the new students in PreK and K. We created a ritual of gathering, all together, a circle within a circle to greet new faces (including all the staff), sing songs and give kindness. We have this tradition in response to September 11th, and it is called Kindness Day (just click on Kindness Day to the left for the full explanation.)
It was the first year the Kindergarten created not only a ceramic necklace for a new child, but an identical one for themselves too. This new idea was inspired by a conversation between Mr. Jere , Ms. Scofield and myself about upholding traditions while at the same time adding new layers of thought/intention.
What is kindness?
“Being polite” -Luke
“Making a card.” -Caroline
“When the Kindergarteners gave us a bracelet last year! I wear mine all the time. Alex is his name who gave it to me!” -Ava
“When you say, ‘Do you want to play with me?'” -Brooke
“Being nice and helping them to do stuff.” -Joseph
Ms. Cross led us in song, I asked each Kindergarten friend to say “Hi, my name is ________, what’s your name?” and then present the gift, Mr. Burst introduced all the staff, and we all closed by singing You are the Sunshine of My Life.
Look closely at the images. The earnestness of the intros and gift giving. The joy of community. Tenderness and pride. It is refreshing and hopeful.
I love this small moment captured between Emma in Kindergarten, and new PreK Tessa:
Adinath and Gabriel make their new friends Archer and Emmett laugh by pretending their necklace is some type of transmitter /phone:
New Kindergarten student Anja helps another Kindergarten student Sophia:
The beginning of the year is about developing new relationships that nurture the spirit to grow and expand (kids AND adults.) It is about creating a safe and creative space that offers boundaries and room for risk-taking. It is about getting to know each child as an individual and as part of a group. It is about caring. That is what I felt I needed to share, more than the emerging projects.
The Prek children just started a project observing Swallow Tail caterpillars and representing their observations in their new sketchbooks. The Kindergarten children have begun a project about costumes, and have begun planning in their sketchbooks. I can’t wait to post these emerging projects in the next blog.
I will end this blog with a favorite bit of prose which truly explains what the start of a new school year is like. It is why this work is always filled with wonder, research, joy, challenge and surprise. It is a metaphor of The Hundred Languages of Children. Welcome to a new school year at SWS. I hope you will feel comfortable sharing your comments and thoughts. My intention is to blog every two weeks, so check back soon!
Each new year is a surprise to us.
We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird,
And when we hear it again, it is remembered like a dream,
having lots of practice using the sketch books in different ways (in museums to make memories, outdoor observational sketching, indoor self portraits),
and after discussing the qualities of artificial, living, and found natural objects.
I am mentioning this, because this process of modeling and working with children is based on the idea of learning called ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development developed by Vygotsky.
To cite directly from Vygotsky, this most widely known concept of his theory represented “the distance between the actual level of development as determined by independent problem solving [without guided instruction] and the level of potential development as determined by problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”.
“This is confusing.” Ava
I was able to show Ava some work from her peers’ sketchbooks. I also was able to scaffold, or ask questions to give her support. Here’s some diverse examples of the plans:
Using the sketchbooks and mark making to create symbolic representations, for a blueprint, for a fairy house.
The following week, children worked in groups of 2-3, combining their ideas to create one Fairy House.
In these small groups, children challenged each other to develop and build in a more complex manner. Ideas bounced off one another. More experimentation was observed, due to collaboration. Groups working next to other groups shared ideas.
“Theirs is more beautiful than ours!” Maximillian
A magnanimous attitude towards others developed.
The thesis behind this “zone” is that at a certain stage in development, children can solve a certain range of problems only when they are interacting with people and in cooperation with peers.
The Kindergarten children spent a few weeks with me, developing the thinking and skills to make a 3 dimensional clay sculpture of a Fairy.
The collaborative time spent figuring out how to do this was essential to internalizing how to do this.
When I decided they were ready to create and keep a sculpture to be fired, I witnessed children commenting, questioning and supporting peers who were struggling.
“You forgot the neck, that’s why the head is coming off.”
“Make a slab, like this to make a body.”
“How did you do the hair again?”
“Attach the hands to the body, or it will fall off.”
This theory of teaching and learning (ZPD) differs from children performing tasks in isolation. In isolation, a child’s success depends upon another child’s failure.
Environments such as SWS that focus on Mastery as opposed to Performance create a paradigm switch amongst children from “self” to “other.”
Peers are seen as assets as opposed to competition. Each child’s individual success is celebrated within the context of a group.
Claire, Emma Clare, and Ava’s Fairy House has the following text. They created the narrative together, with passion and excitement:
There’s a water fountain you can drink out of on the outside of the house. Inside the shell, there is fur. You open it up, and then there is water to drink. The little tree is for the fairies to lay on. The seed pod is a big slide. The fairies have blueberry and cherry blossoms in a bowl. We have water and cherries for each fairy kid in the home to have dinner. The shiny shell is the entrance. I love it!
Once the problem solving activities have been internalized, the problems initially solved under guidance and in cooperation with others will be tackled independently.
This teaching/learning approach takes thought, intention and preparation. It is most powerful when deconstructed & shared with the community. Much time must be alloted.
Despite all the work and time involved, a funny thing happens. An awakening of sorts. What emerges from the children is often as magical and illuminating as a fairy.