Spark Celebrates Earth

This past Thursday was Earth Day, and was it ever a celebration. It was clear that learners love the earth and already knew a lot about how to save it. The day started with cheerful greetings of “Happy Earth Day!” as heroes entered the building.  Before circle time, they offered ways that they like to save energy and water. Learners then read a book about other ways to conserve precious resources.

In the afternoon, learners decorated flowerpots, carefully packed in soil, poked seeds in, and added water. They pledged to water them daily and see what grows.

Learners then added a little mud and lots of plastic trash to clean water. They challenged themselves to fish it out again using tools from the shed. They raced against the clock to remove the trash, comparing water samples to see which one was cleanest when they were done. They found out how hard it is to remove trash once it’s in water and that you need teamwork and determination to do so. 

Their project was followed by a video about a teenager, Boyan Slat, cleaning polluted water on a much larger scale. He invented a gigantic tool involving a pipe, a net, and natural ocean currents to help clear the oceans of toxic trash. Though Zoyan struggled to get his idea off the ground at first, he is now successfully helping to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It was a great example of a young person seeing a problem, finding a creative solution, and then persevering through obstacles to bring a good idea to fruition. As soon as the video finished, Spark learners proposed inventing their own Earth-cleaning machines and creating models from recyclables next week.

This daylong celebration of the earth, where we explored the many ways we can protect and nurture it, demonstrates the benefits of a cross-disciplinary approach to education. If we apply an idea in as many areas as possible, learners make stronger connections and are more likely to extend the ideas in innovative ways. 

After their Earth Day activities, these learners were inspired and excited to protect their environment. From the sound of it, the celebration will continue into the upcoming weeks and hopefully throughout their entire lives!

An Open Mind

Finally, Session 6 has started! After a successful (and crazy!) session and exhibition in Session 5, it was clear that the learners needed some time to relax and refresh. Luckily, we had spring break! Now it’s a new session, and the rejuvenated heroes came back ready to tackle the next six weeks.

In Session 6, Discovery Studio is doing an entomology quest – collecting, analyzing and caring for various types of insects. Knowing the general reputation of insects, it seemed appropriate that this quest should correlate with the character trait of open mindedness. While this group of learners is probably more open minded than the average group of 7-10 year olds, getting hands-on with bugs is still something that some of us (myself included!) will need to summon a lot of courage to do!

Outside of just the entomology quest, we explored being open-minded in the studio, too. The heroes came back to a totally redone studio, complete with lap desks and yoga mats. The learners needed no encouragement to be open minded about where they did their work- they immediately began working under desks, on the floor, and standing up with their computers on the bookshelves! 

We started testing out some new tactics during Core Skills as well. On Wednesday, we tried out the Pomodoro method together – working together and taking breaks throughout the 2 hours of morning work time. Some learners really loved the method and continued to use it – and some didn’t! That’s okay. Being open minded is about trying things. Whether or not they end up working, you learn more about yourself the more you try.

Over spring break, the guides at TVS did mindfulness professional development. Since the training, I’ve been enamoured by the benefits of mindfulness for elementary learners- it can change how young brains are developed, giving young people the lifelong gift of emotional regulation and self awareness! Discovery is using this to literally open and grow our minds- trying out a new type of mindfulness for 10 minutes everyday and writing down what works for us. Almost every learner has taken advantage of the different types of mindfulness and fully immersed themselves in the journey.

We finished the week with a picnic lunch outside in the grass field. Surprisingly, this was our first time eating out there- on nice days, we typically eat lunch in the school’s courtyard. However, all the learners brought blankets and laid out on the grass, and we tried something new. “Can we do this everyday?” one of the learners remarked. 

In the world of COVID and isolation, open mindedness has become less of a skill that we naturally obtain through interactions with others outside of our groups. We’re confined to our own bubbles, stuck in our own little areas of the world. Open mindedness is now a skill that we need to consciously and intentionally develop, and the Discovery Studio learners are doing just that.

Problem Solving in the Spark Studio

Our morning started with a short video about volcanoes and how they erupt. They were riveted. Before the video was even over, learners shouted out their ideas for their morning project. Without prompting, they started suggesting ways they could make a volcano with the materials they had brought from home. They agreed that they were up for the challenge!  

The materials were simple: each table held recyclables, water, baking soda, tape, and ketchup. They quickly formed groups and got right to work. One group used a milk jug, tissue roll, shoe box, and a piece of cardboard. Another group picked out a yogurt container, plastic, a fruit cup container, and scissors. Other learners decided to go solo, and experiment with the magic for themselves.

An amazing thing happened. Without instruction on what proportions of ingredients to use for lava, learners started experimenting and problem-solving. When the first round of plain ketchup and baking soda did not work, learners added water, then more water, then hot water, then vinegar. They changed the size of containers and cut them into different shapes. They punched holes in the middle of containers and solutions poured out like waterfalls. They excitedly stood around their potions, waiting for the solutions to bubble and erupt. They experimented and experimented while never giving up.  

“It’s about to explode, I just know it!

“Oh, yay!”

“Ketchup is lava.”

“Oh, I see the problem. It’s stuck”

“Can we just make a normal one?”

“We made snow.”

“Ours exploded on the bottom, not the top.”

Although water flowed from every container and box on the table–and the Spark studio was a bit of a mess–the learners had a chance to work in teams, think scientifically, and have a rollicking good time. Naturally, the wonder, discovery skills, and exploration occurred through their eagerness to dig in.

The ability to get messy means that learners can think messy, which translates to creative problem-solving down the road. That is one of the major goals in Spark Studio, to get learners thinking outside the box. This profound effect will keep learners open to new ideas, experiments, and solutions in our ever-changing world.

Playing the Infinite Game

Most of us have only ever experienced school in finite terms, with learning measured in seat time, grades and tests over a predictable timeline. It’s finite because there is a clear beginning, middle and end, from the first day of school in the fall to the last day of school in early summer. With a child’s formal entry into conventional schooling starting in kindergarten and culminating at high school graduation, 13 years later. Each year, a child gets new grades, takes new tests, and moves up to a new grade level. It’s easy to deliver, easy to measure, and easy to control. 

This timeline, and all of the traditions and rites of passage along the way, have provided a common rhythm by which most families and students have come to count on. For many people, the comfort of this familiar routine, can be alluring enough to ignore the essential opportunities our children are missing while living inside these rhythms and traditions. Instead, we play the game. We don’t even stop to consider if winning this particular game actually means anything. It’s amazing what we’ll trade for certainty. 

We play a different game at The Village School. It’s the long game, a game that some might even describe as the “infinite game”, since the type of people our children become and the unique contributions they will make to the world around them, will hopefully far outlive even their own footprints on this earth. 

Our community exists because we believe children deserve outcomes of personal agency, independence, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and integrity as a result of their education and we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. 

Zooming in, we are a buzzing micro-school, where children get to work at their own pace and do really cool hand-on projects, earning badges along the way to demonstrate mastery of certain skills and subjects. Zooming out, we are part of a growing collective of people that believe a flourishing child is the greatest hope for a flourishing world. 

But, even when embracing an entirely new belief system of how young people learn and find success in the world, old habits are hard to break. Even when we consciously commit to the long game, we lose our infinite mindset and start looking for that predictable beginning, middle and end of our child’s school year. Without grades, tests, and report cards, we latch on to what’s easiest to measure and control- their progress on Khan, the number of research papers they’ve completed, their mastery of the reading and/or spelling drawers all contained within the confines of their badge plan. We start the year zoomed out, with a clear-eyed vision of why we’re here and what our hopes are for our children. Then, come spring, I find so many of us zoomed in on the badges our children have yet to finish, the skills they’ve yet to master. Somehow, our hopes for our children have been dimmed by our fears.

What if they don’t finish? 

How will they feel if they “fall behind”?

Will they always be behind? 

Will they feel bad about themselves if they don’t complete their goals for the year? 

Will they be okay? 

Self-paced and project-based learning seems cool when my boys are doing the work, but it feels incredibly uncomfortable when they’re not. It seems ideal when I think about the fact that they have nothing holding them back; they could fly ahead, mastering Algebra 1 long before their same aged peers and less ideal when they are working on math a grade level “below” these same peers. It is exciting when I see them shouldering the responsibility for their learning, submitting their session-long projects by the time it’s due and disappointing when I don’t. 

But, when I zoom out enough, I realize that it’s not about how fast or slow they go, or how many badges they earn, or how comfortable I am- it’s that they recognize their own sense of agency in the process. An unchecked box on their badge plan is just a signpost telling them where to go next. 

Admittedly, I think we need to get better about the narrative surrounding badge plans- so in the studios our learners see them simply as trail markers, not a measure of their worth. And so as parents, we see them as the tool they are meant to be- a tool, while imperfect, that’s far better than empty letter grades, that help our children develop those “long game” outcomes of independence, perseverance, self-awareness, and resilience.

The good news- it does get easier each year. I’m still learning- still constantly trying to shake old habits, especially at this time of the year. But I can see the fruits of this journey so clearly. A child who’s “behind”, hunkers down and completes their Level 4 and 5 badges in one school year. A child who has yet to show an interest in reading, comes in one day excited to master the colored reading drawers and surround themselves with books from the studio library. Within a month or two, they are reading independently. A child who is emotionally distraught that they have not completed their goals as planned, recognizes that they just need to read the signposts more clearly, and then does so, one day a time until they reach their goals. 

Will they be okay? 

They will be better than okay- as long as we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. As long as we’re willing to trade the certainty of the “finite game” for something better. 

Finding Balance in Discovery Studio

By this time in Session 5, learners have been together for 7 months. They have figured out the learner driven environment, learned to approach new challenges with confidence, and have grown close with the other members of the tribe. Even in this dynamic environment, learners have started to fall into a routine. That’s why this session’s drop in intentionality did not come as a surprise.

At this time in the year, it’s easy to lose focus. The weather is finally getting warmer, the excitement of the holiday season has faded, and the end of the school year is too far away to seem real. Learners don’t want to finish their far-off goals, which, after working most of the year on them, seem as faraway as ever – they want to be outside, playing and socializing.

During core skills, quest, writer’s workshop, and art, learners consistently lost focus, falling into games with one another or having conversations, and not holding each other accountable. Individual learners, regardless of their behavior, reported having difficulty focusing and wanting to get more work done – but they just couldn’t seem to do it. From a guide’s perspective, I could see the problem was a lack of boundaries and self-control. I thought of various solutions to return order to the studio. So what did I do? Nothing.

The role of a guide is not to fix problems. I equipped them with tools and prompted socratic dialogue about the situation. In launches, heroes identified there was a problem. They were able to say why this was happening. They were able to identify their individual behaviors that were hindering their learning. But, in practice, nothing changed! 

At this point, I admit – I started to panic! Luckily, we have an amazing group of guides at The Village School. The surprising advice I got? Dips in intentionality happen. Step back. See if they will pull each other up.

So I did nothing. Paradoxically, doing nothing felt like the brave, difficult choice. I decided to place my trust in the learners. 

That same week, at Town Hall, a learner brought up the level of intentionality in the studio. Everyone was unanimous in agreeing that the studio wasn’t doing well. They brainstormed solutions, and they decided that one hour of core skills time would be silent, independent work. 

After this decision, the change was incredible. Learners set big goals and were achieving them. Their collaborative time became a time of intentionally working together and helping one another. They were holding each other accountable. It was like being in a new studio; and, because the decision was learner driven and executed, every learner wanted to uphold a new standard in the studio. This is where the merit of a learner-driven environment shines: the learners developed their own motivation for keeping themselves focused, and they decided that focused learning time was something that they value.

In my personal life and my role as a guide, this session has taught me that, as tempting as it is to try to fix things for other people, it is impossible to make decisions for others or force them to have motivation. The learners have discovered that the studio is a sacred place and reinforced that their goal at The Village School is to pursue knowledge. 

Can You Help Me?

We talk a lot about independence at The Village School. Every step in a learner’s journey in our community is meant to build independence and autonomy. By Middle School, our learners flex these muscles daily, exemplifying what it means to be a self-directed learner.

Interestingly, one of the most important things they discover, is that one of the most important parts of being a self-directed, independent learner is knowing when and how to ask for help.

“I’m not feeling confident in math right now and I’d like help.”

“I’m falling behind and feeling anxious about it. Can you help me set my goals?”

“I revised and edited my final book review. I’d like one more set of eyes on it. Can you review it with me?”

Our Quests are collaborative in nature and are designed to be completed in teams. Failing to ask for help will make it nearly impossible to complete the challenges. Everyone needs to contribute. Each person needs to be comfortable giving and receiving help.

During this session’s Rocket Quest, our Adventure learners have had to lean on each other to succeed in completing each week’s design challenge. While each week has presented a new challenge- from designing and launching a rocket to creating a battery and lighting system for a space station, the one constant component has been one simple but critical question: Can you help me?

Adventure learners work together to make their own homemade battery out of a lemon

The ability to identify and articulate a need and reach out is a critical part of being a self-directed learner. Asking for help is a strength and an important life skill. After some practice, we realize how much more we can accomplish when we work together.

As we select certain “heroes” and role models to discuss in the studios and in society at large, I’m increasingly suspicious of the stories that leave out or downplay the relationships in that person’s life. I wish more of these stories amplified those moments in which the person said, “I need help”, and showed us what happened next- that magical interplay of human relationships, of giving and receiving, of that person reaching their full potential and accomplishing their dreams because of, not in spite of, their ability to ask for help.

Serious Collaboration

On February 18, the Perseverance rover landed on the surface of Mars. After traveling for seven long months, the robot touched down in a crater, ready to hunt for signs of ancient life. Days later, learners watched the dramatic video-recorded landing, heard the researchers’ cheers when the rover landed safely, and listened to scientists talk about what they hoped to find.

For the culminating activity that week, learners were invited to put themselves in the shoes of space explorers and build their own robots. After taking a video tour of Perseverance and seeing all its working parts, they were given access to boxes, glue, markers, and so on. Away they went! The learners assembled cardboard pieces with plastic screws, glued craft sticks on the sides, poked pipe cleaners through to decorate, etc. They made cameras, lasers, chutes for materials, and even hiding places for people.

While the learners worked to create the robots of their dreams, the guides had some ulterior motives for this activity. This was yet another opportunity for them to practice their expanding collaborative skills. They shared ideas, took turns, and shared tools. “Can I have the screwdriver when you’re done?” “Can I have the tape after you’ve finished?” “Can you help me use the poking tool?” These requests flowed effortlessly from heroes’ mouths, in contrast to the sometimes contentious interactions that took place in the first part of the year. Even when minor arguments did arise, it was amazing to watch other learners step in to stand up for one another, issue reminders, and correct problems.

This was also a chance to practice their independence. Occasionally, someone had a hard time figuring out a tool, poking all the way through their cardboard, or ripping the tape. Rather than ask a guide for help, they sought out others who had struggled with similar issues or solved the problems already. Or sometimes guides offered suggestions for how the learners could do it themselves. “Have you tried holding your hand this way?” “What happens when you grip the tape here?” Rather than learning to depend on adults, learners showed that they are gradually coming to rely on themselves and one another.

Spark learners had a blast letting their imaginations and creativity run wild. They also got some valuable lessons in teamwork, as they do every day here at The Village School. Who knows, maybe some of them will explore Mars in the future!  

Exploration

3… 2… 1… blast off! Discovery learners launched into an exploration of astronomy. Starting with basic astronaut training last week and then a deep dive into the moon, teams are working together throughout the session to prepare for a final (simulated) mission into outer space.

Along with the space theme, Discovery learners are writing their own science-fiction stories. Each week, they draft a new story and share it with their peers. At the end of the session, they will narrate their stories for a TVS SciFi Podcast. There has been amazing creativity so far: unique characters like talking pink cats, exciting plot lines (aliens taking over Earth), and challenging obstacles (i.e. getting suddenly thrown back in time via time travel). Some learners are challenging themselves to write chapter books and are already planning sequels!

Other areas of exploration this session: the historical period after the American Revolution, pastel and collage art, and new challenging problems in math lab. Some learners are jumping into pre-algebra!

Sneak peek into next week’s Quest topic: The Solar System

In the words of former astronaut Frank Borman, “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.” Our learners are certainly enthusiastic about space!

The Power of Language: Listening to Learn

Guest Post by TVS Parent, Elizabeth Dean, EdD

You can tell so much about a child’s view of the world just by listening to them play. And as the mother of a 5 and 7 year old, there is a lot of playing happening in our house. 

The first time my oldest daughter, then 4, proudly announced: “Mom, go away so we can play!” is still seared in my mind. The oh-so-familiar parental feelings of confliction: overwhelming joy and piercing sadness all at once. She basically told me to not let the door hit me on my way out, thrilled (as was I) about the newfound independence. Since that day, one of my favorite pastimes has been eavesdropping on my daughters’ playtime. It’s where I learn what is going on in their heads, what they are learning from me, from their teachers at school, and one another. I have learned so much about both of them when I’m secretly standing outside their doors, listening to their language of play. 

Many times during my spying sessions I spend equal amounts of time smiling and cringing. The edgy tone one of them will use when annoyed with each other, or one of my go-to sassy  catch phrases. “Seriously!?” one of them will say, mimicking my inflection and tone to perfection.  How do they do that? I think to myself. 

As an educator, I am well aware of the power of our language. Ron Ritchhart, a principal researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes extensively about the power of language in our schools. He so well articulates the way our language shapes and influences the cultures we create in our classrooms. One of my favorite questions he asks is: If we asked your students, what does your teacher always say, how would they respond? Would it be a response like: “Shh. Be quiet.” or “Where is your pencil.” or “Put your phone away.” Or, would it be something like, “What makes you say that?” or, “Let’s be curious together!” Whatever the response, the answer would give insight into the kind of culture that exists in your classroom. Research also shows how the simple use of pronouns communicate leadership, and the simple shift from closed to open questions can elicit better responses from students as well as reveal the power dynamics that exist  (Pennebaker, 2011; Stanier, 2016). 

When I think about all I have learned about language in classrooms and schools, my mind often returns to thinking about the culture of my family. How would my own children and husband respond to the same questions? The possible answers make me uncomfortable – it’s probably somewhere in between, “Hurry up,” and “Stop yelling.” or “Yes, you must wear a hat.” or “No snacks before dinner.” and “If you do what I want you to do, I’ll give you a treat, just please do the thing and do it now!?!” 

As my oldest daughter began first grade, and her second year at the large public school a few miles down the road from our house, the cringe-worthy moments that occured during my spying sessions began to occur more when I overheard the language of school during playtime.

One of those pit-in-my-stomach moments occured while they were playing music class. My six year old sang her music teacher’s song that signaled the beginning of music class. To  the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat she sang:

“Hello, hello, hello, hello, sit down on the floor,

Zip lips, hands in lap, and then you’ll get a four.”

I read between the lines: Hurry up, sit down, be quiet, don’t move, and you’ll get an A for compliance. The message my six year old was getting from her music teacher – her music teacher- was that the way to “success” in music class was to sit down and be quiet – not to mention that success was tied to getting a 4, or an A. The symbolism and irony nearly took my breath away. I was furious. This was music class. Shouldn’t music class be full of movement and dare I say it, children making noise? I tried to convince myself that I was overreacting. I told myself to stop thinking so much. I tried to justify the message – the language in my mind.  

And I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t “un” see it – just like when I realized my own students’ questions about how long the paper had to be or when it was due were actually questions related to compliance not questions that reflected curiosity, engagement, and a love of learning. 

Does this music teacher’s song reflect the world we want for our students – for our own children? I am not judging this teacher – I have BEEN this teacher. It’s not her  fault – the language in the song is the language of our school system. And we live in the systems we create. 

Fast forward a few years. My daughters still play school, and I’m still spying, but things sound different. We go to a new school a few extra miles down the road, where the language is vastly different than the language of our old school. There are heroes, not students. There are guides, not teachers. There are studios, not classrooms. There are Core Skills, not subjects. There are Journey Trackers, not report cards. There are Exhibitions of Learning, not tests. There are Badge Ceremonies, not grades.

During my spying sessions now I hear my daughters refer to each other as heroes. I hear them discuss what core skills they would like to learn about during the day, and I hear them recreate “Town Hall” meetings where anyone can make suggestions on how to make their school a better place. They have “Character Call-outs” where they name and notice things other heroes did for one another: I saw one hero help another hero when she was stuck on a math problem, and I call that helpfulness. 

These sessions take my breath away – and now the cringe-worthy moments are all on me and my own language deficiencies. Language matters – we live in the world our language creates. Is our language helping to cement the system that already exists – or, is our language transforming and shaping the world we want to create for our children and their children? 

The good news? If you were to have a spying session on our family, the language of school is finding its way into the language of our home. We now have our own family Town Hall meetings, where any member of the family can bring suggestions for how to make our family better, and we often have Character Call-outs during breakfast or dinner. Both routines suggested and carried out by our kids. We are attempting to be more intentional so that our language reflects the family that we want to create – and our experience at our new school has shown us that this starts with listening to our own heroes. 

The Power of Questions

Questions are one of the most powerful learning tools we have here at The Village School.

Unfortunately not all learners have access to great questions, and instead are inundated with explanations, rules, and commands.

Of course there is a place for explanations, rules, and commands; but if that’s all that’s encountered at school—or if that’s the majority—then a learner’s development will be slowed.

At The Village School we’ve developed a long list of research-informed questions that we ask learners regularly to help them learn, self-reflect, build self-belief, and think deeply about their goals and challenges. We deliver these questions during weekly “check ins” with our learners with the goal of helping learners keep track of their learning progress and to think deeply about their goals and the challenges they’ll face in achieving them. We don’t judge learners’ answers, and instead challenge them to think deeply about themselves—their identity, interests, goals, and plans. When we perceive they may be getting in their own way (for example, self-doubt, stinking thinking, victim mentality, or misinformation), we use questions to invite them to run small experiments and learn for themselves the merit of their perspectives.

Below are some questions that we ask to empower our learners:

  • How are you? How do you feel?
  • When were you most yourself recently?
  • What are your expectations of yourself today and this week? How can you pursue your goals and interests and have fun?
  • What are your boundaries today and this week? 
  • How are you doing at getting into flow? What’s helping you? How can you improve?
  • Did you meet your learning goals last week? If so, how did you accomplish them? Do you feel proud of yourself? What challenges did you encounter? If not, what challenges did you encounter that didn’t allow you to accomplish your goals? Moving forward, what can you do to overcome those challenges?
  • Are you behind, on track, or ahead with your learning goals for the year? What makes you say that? If you’re behind, what does that make you think? Do you know what you would need to do to get back on track?
  • How do you feel about your workload today and this week? Do you feel like you’re in your Challenge Zone, Comfort Zone, or Panic Zone, and why?
  • What learning strategies are you using and finding most successful? How will you manage your tasks for the day? For the week? Would you change any strategies or your schedule for this week? For what reasons?
  • If you have been learning virtually (from home), what are the biggest opportunities and challenges you face?
  • How are you getting along with others? Are you expressing your feelings?
  • Are you having any conflicts with others? If so, how do you feel, and what is a healthy way to function with others in that situation? What are your boundaries? How will you learn to live together?
  • What do you enjoy most from your day, and why?
  • If you could learn anything in the world, what would it be, and why?

There is no such thing as too many questions at The Village School.