Creating Self-Awareness: Cultivating Our Learners Inner Value

“We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.” – Brenè Brown

Learning to be is an essential pillar of The Village School’s Portrait of a Graduate. This session, our community has taken a reflective approach to understanding one of the important components of learning to be – self-awareness.  Self-awareness, as defined by CASEL, “is the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. It also includes capacities to recognize one’s strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose.” With this definition in mind, we set out to better understand our emotions, the perspectives of others, our actions, our support systems, and the value each of us brings to the world.

Cultivating self-awareness in each of our studios looks and feels different when we account for the different stages of human growth and development. At TVS, we truly value that each learner, each studio, is in a different place in how we can nurture self-awareness. In Spark Studio, we began by making a connection to a recent emotional experience that many of our learners understood, fear. Our learners had recently felt fear before getting on stage for an exhibition performance. Many described “butterflies in their tummies” or were concerned that they would not remember their song in front of their parents. Some of our learners were too nervous to step on stage. We harnessed this moment as an opportunity to develop a plan for how to recognize fear within our bodies and create a plan for how to approach our fears. Developing self-awareness around this emotion supports our learners on their journey to being more mindful of how they are experiencing emotions, coping with those emotions, recognizing them in others, empathizing, and building a positive relationship with themselves and others.

In addition to identifying our emotions, becoming more self-aware means that we can recognize when change is necessary in our lives and discover ways we can progress towards change. This skill requires a person to be able to identify their strengths. In Discovery studio, we took time to reflect on our strengths, what each of us brings to our community that makes us feel connected to each other. Then, we built a strengths chain together. This project was full of excitement, hard work, and determination. The learners enthusiastically wrote down all the qualities they were proud of and helped each other build our chain. The chain hangs in our hallway so each of the learners can remember that they each have important qualities that they bring to create a thriving learning environment.

Towards the end of our session, all learners have been reflecting on values. This entails expressing gratitude to the important people in our life for supporting us in our journeys to becoming who we hope to be. Understanding our values and the values of others helps us to understand more about our emotions and actions. From this, the learners discussed their value, what each of them brings to the world that is unique and special. Each one of us has the capability to make a difference in our community, we just need to cultivate the self-awareness to be able to recognize it within ourselves and make steps towards creating the difference we want to make.

At TVS Learning is an Experience

“Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.” – Albert Einstein

Published authors (and sisters!) share what it was like to write and publish a book while still in high school.

Learning at The Village School is an active experience that connects young people to the community in which they live and beyond. Since September we have invited over a dozen Community Partners and guest speakers into all three of our studios and taken over 9 field trips out into our resources-rich community to learn from experts in their own environments. 

Learners have welcomed entrepreneurs and experts into our school including guests from Breaking T, Wealth over Now, Sloppy Mamas, The Stark Lab, Headrush, and Northpond Ventures. Three published authors have spent time in our studios including two local teens who published their first book when they were still in high school. 

Learners have also ventured out into the community for a total of 9 (and counting!) field trips to the Natural History Museum, Hirshhorn Gallery, National Gallery of Art, the National Geographic Museum, The National Zoo, The Botanical Gardens, local nature preserves, and even the movie theater. In addition to field trips learners travel off-campus each week and head to the public library, the neighborhood park,  and who could forget the local ice cream shop for an end-of-session sweet treat. 

Adventure learners exploring the local community and all that it has to offer on the metro.

Experience is one of the three main pillars of the The Village School learner experience, and as you can see, we are loyal to our design. As our learners enter middle school, the experiences we create have an even broader purpose: to grow each learner’s individual social capital – or what we like to call, their “village.” Since the pandemic and the renewed focus on young people’s social-emotional health, the idea of a young person’s social capital has caught the attention of education researchers. 

The research defines social capital as “the resources that arise from a web of relationships which people can access and mobilize to help them improve their lives and achieve their goals.” In a recent virtual Town Hall hosted by Getting Smart, educational thought leaders and researchers discussed social capital as relationship mapping. The discussion focused on two questions: 

  • Do you know who your learners know? 
  • What if schools could authentically engage with all of the people learners already knew beyond the classroom? 

At The Village School we have always believed that young people are capable of more than the world gives them credit for, and our commitment to that belief is enacted through developing their social capital through our middle and high school Apprenticeship Program. The experience-based Apprenticeship program places trust in a young person to learn about themselves, explore interests, and develop passions through active participation in the world of work. A Village School high school graduate will leave our community with an expansive web of connections that reflects 7+ Apprenticeship experiences, and a sense of self and community support that will far exceed their peers. 

This session middle schoolers will be challenged to begin thinking about their own social capital and mapping their own relationships. Their goal will be to identify potential apprenticeship placements and arrange a job shadowing experience to walk in the shoes of a professional for a day. We challenge middle school families – and all of our families to consider the question: Who do you know who might help one of our young people discover their passion?

What makes Montessori unique in Spark Studio?

Imagine peeking into an early childhood studio window and seeing a learner working with tiny pitchers at a table. Your eyes focus as you watch blue colored water flowing from one pitcher to another on a miniature tray. As an individual looking in, you may see this pouring work and wonder if the learner is working. In fact, this practical life activity is work. Learners learn through manipulation of hands-on materials and through their experiences.

In our prepared studio lie materials that pique the learners’ interest. This is where they can build upon their foundation and plant seeds of greatness within themselves. The areas of the studio feature a plethora of Montessori materials that support the learning design. They embody key beliefs of how a learner can learn and grow throughout life. Montessori is unique as it promotes independence, social skills, and a sense of self and community.

As independence is being fostered in the learning environment, it provides the learner freedom to choose lessons that they would like on a given work. They work toward their goals of mastering a specific work. The knowledge gained from reading, writing, math, geography, and household activities helps learners to gain skills needed to live a competent life.

In preparation of cultivating a whole-child experience to live an independent life, learners are continuously reshaping their thoughts to other learners and guides. Many opportunities are available to perfect their social skills as they navigate the process of recognizing their individual needs. Sharing during morning launches, community meetings, and at outdoor play helps to nurture their innate ability of inquisitiveness.

As the year progresses in Spark Studio, learners become more aware of what they like to do, how to do tasks independently, and as a group. As they continue to practice a sense of self, they learn to take care of their environment. This leads to an increase in their awareness and pride as they are on their own paths of learning about themselves and the world around them.

In the words of Dr. Maria Montessori, “the education of even a small child, therefore, does not aim at preparing him for school, but for life.”

What is Self-Directed Learning?

If you google “Self-directed learning” you will get many different definitions- enough to make your mind swirl. As a learning community, we’ve settled on this definition, as we feel it encompasses our why and mission at TVS the best:

When learners—in the context of an interdependent community of peers, trained educators, and caring adults—choose the process, content, skills, learning pathways, and/or outcomes of learning, with the guidance, accountability, and support of others, in service of finding a calling that will change their communities and the world.

Institute of Self-Directed Learning (From “Self-Directed Learning: A Landscape Analysis“)

There’s a lot packed in this definition. It’s a good one. But what does it really mean? Does it get us any closer to understanding all that self-directed education is? All that it promises? What it actually looks like in practice?

Maybe. But, I think to really understand self-directed learning we have to ask the learners. Earlier this week, as we kicked off a new session of learning and a new year in Discovery Studio, this is exactly what we did. First, we asked: What does it mean to be a self-directed learner?

Then, they were asked: What is the best part of being a self-directed learner?

Finally, learners were asked: What is the hardest part of being a self-directed learner?

I don’t know about you, but seeing self-directed learning through the eyes and minds of the young people who are experiencing it directly, does make me feel closer to understanding what it actually is, what it looks like, and what it feels like.

In regard to what self-directed learning promises, I think their answers speak volumes. In their responses (in addition to what I see every day in the studios), I see and hear young people who exude confidence, self-awareness, a strong sense of personal responsibility and agency, passion, and curiosity- among many other things.

I also see an awareness that the very best things about being a self-directed learner are also the hardest. Freedom and choice are wonderful things, but wonderful things are often found on the flip side of easy. As they say, with great freedom, comes great responsibility.

But of course, just dig a little deeper and our learners could have told you that.

Session 4 “Sneak Peak”

Spark Studio

“Animals, we are doing this for you!”  -Spark Learner

At their end-of-session field trip to a nearby creek, Spark learners were excited to clean up plastic waste in the creek–even if it meant getting their feet wet! In session 4, they will expand on that passion for cleaning the environment and saving animals’ habitats. They will learn about how watersheds work, what kinds of animals live in the creek, and other ways to clean our creeks, bays, and oceans. 

Spark learners will also study the continent of Asia in Session 4. They will explore materials from Asia in the classroom, view videos, and hear stories from the continent, and have the chance to join a Saturday family field trip to the National Museum of Asian Art on February 4. They will also start a weekly science series, where learners do hands-on experiments with evaporation, rainbow making, and color mixing.  

Discovery Studio

This session, Discovery learners will step into the shoes of physicists, working through experiments, testing hypotheses, and completing physics challenges to learn about work and force. Learners will explore the six different simple machines, discovering how each type of simple machine makes everyday tasks easier to perform. They will end the session by learning about Rube Goldberg and making their very own Rube Goldberg machine!

The wonderings Discovery learners have about the animal kingdom will inspire this session’s writing workshop. Kicking it off with a trip to the National Zoo, learners will choose an animal to explore, research and write about. As an extension to their studies, learners will have the option of creating a scientific drawing of their animal to accompany their research. At the end of the session, Discovery learners will share their informative writing projects with an in-house gallery walk exhibit for Spark and Adventure Studios to explore. 

Adventure Studio

“What if, every time I started to invent something, I asked, ‘How would nature solve this?'” – Janine Benyus

Adventure learners will consider this question and more this session as they continue their quest to contribute to solutions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with nature’s superpower: Biomimicry! Learners will use the expertise they built in Session 3 to continue their exploration of the solutions to some of our planet’s most dire problems that can be found right under our noses – in nature. Learners will take a field trip to the Botanical Gardens to explore examples of biomimicry, interview biologists working in the field of biomimicry from Villanova, UVA, and George Washington University, and create submissions to the Biomimicry Youth Challenge 2023. 

Biology will also inspire the Session 4 Communications Challenge, Biologist Biography. Learners will identify a current biologist whose contributions to their field are worthy of being documented. Learners will consider the great responsibility they have as writers, especially as writers of someone else’s story. Whose stories should we have more of in this world? What stories would make the world a better place? What can we learn about ourselves through the stories of others? 

The Session 4 Exhibition will feature final submissions to the Biomimicry Youth Challenge and inspiring Biologist Biographies. 

That’s the Community Spirit

As I reflect on Session 3, our time was filled with laughter, connection, reflection, and a strong sense of community. I set out with the goal of keeping things light and enjoyable, not profound but simple. What I found in each studio has been anything but simple. The heartwarming experiences lived through the lens of “healthy choices” were a testament to the community we hold so dear at The Village School.

During our last outdoor school day at Ms. Jenny’s, the Spark learners were given a task, to build a fire. Many learners had not had experience with how to build a fire, what to do, and what even goes into a fire to get it started. A few of our fellow experts, including an Adventure learner, stepped up to the plate. They shared how we needed to clean out the fire pit, what materials to gather, how to create a structure that would yield the best fire, and how to stay safe. Our experts gave each learner a job. Some learners gathered kindling, others shoveled, and a few enjoyed the role of leader, making sure everyone stayed on task. The goal was clear, if we wanted to enjoy something together, we all had to work to make it happen.

The result was a memory that will be enjoyed for years to come. Each learner was a part of our team. Each learner had a responsibility and worked hard to build something beautiful and enjoyable for all. We drank hot tea together around our finished campfire. This community building activity showed how the Spark learners have come to appreciate each other. Each learner is an important member of our community.

The Adventurers! Words cannot encapsulate the meaningful way in which we spent our last session together. During the Rite of Passage. Adventure learners hiked to watch the beautiful sunrise, enjoying hot tea and coffee together. The quietness of nature and the sounds of laughter filled the air as each adventurer wrote a quote of what they wanted to bring into the new year. On our hike back to the park, we tied our quotes to a tree, grounding our commitment to earth.

Then, it was off to the park to enjoy two activities meant to appreciate each other. Laughs were dominant as they had to work together to cross a field and identify missing objects, all while blindfolded! Their memories and communication skills were tested. The learners excelled at working together to figure out the missing objects. Walking together, well, they may have needed some guidance to make their way back to the starting point. Needing guidance did not take away from the happiness expressed through this team building adventure. There was a true sense of joy and gratitude expressed by each learner through their Rite of Passage.

The community in Discovery has been evidenced by their strong relationships. Rallying around those that need support is a common theme in the studio. When a learner is struggling, hurt, or upset, many (if not all) come to the rescue, offering ice packs, help, and advice. They are truly there for each other, always wanting to be a support to their fellow teammates. The bonds of friendship that have been created in Discovery are examples to our whole community of how to be there for each other, of how to show care in a time of need.

As we wrapped up session 3, we discussed goals for winter break. Formulating goals around the dimensions of health were not done in isolation. They worked together, bouncing ideas off each other, sharing what they noticed (in a kind way) about their fellow learners and what they could each work on. They also complimented each other, saying how they wanted to be more like their friend in one way or another. Discovery studio emulates what it means to work together as a community.

The experiences witnessed in session 3 were truly gratifying. Our studios have grown since the beginning of the school year. The foundation of community has been built and we can see this through their trust in each other, belonging, safety, and caring friendships. We can’t wait to see how the rest of our year together unfolds.

What is Learner-Centered: SparkHouse Conference 2022

by Hazel Hales & Owen Quinn

What does learner-centered mean and why is it important to us?

This is a question that we explored more deeply in the SparkHouse Education Reimagined Conference. Eleven different learner-centered environments from around America gathered together in Washington DC to discuss how to change education.

These are the top 3 things we learned and took away from the conference:

  1. Learner-centered education honors each person for who they are. 

One of the defining components of a learner-centered environment is learner agency. Education Reimagined defines agency as: an individual’s capacity to take purposeful initiative in shaping themselves, their relationships with others, and their circumstances. They make a point to say that agency is the opposite of resignation, passive compliance, and helplessness. 

At TVS, we call this taking responsibility for our own education. This allows each learner to shape their education to fit their own needs. We are proud to share that taking responsibility for our own education is a part of all three of our studios’ learner-created contracts! 

  1. Learner-centered doesn’t have to be the same everywhere.

On the first day of the conference, we did a sharing fair. Every environment set up a little presentation explaining things about their program and what made their programs unique. We had prepared a little list of things, but we weren’t quite sure how different we were from other schools.

When we presented -and looked around- we realized that we were very different from the other environments. In fact, none were the same! Even though we all had the similarity of being learner-centered, everyone did it in their own way.

One that stood out to us was Rock Tree Sky, an extra-curricular program (why we aren’t saying schools -instead saying environments- is for programs like these) that is learner-centered. Rock Tree Sky was like a maker space, but with mentors in the different subjects, and it was specifically geared towards homeschooled kids. There are many studios in the building, ones you can walk into at any time, as there are no held classes. You decide what you want to do then you ask a mentor for help. There is a studio for blacksmithing, music, art, sewing, and much more. This was a cool example of another learner center environment that stood out to us.

  1. Everyone was eager to share their own ideas and about their own programs.

There were more young people at the conference than there were adults, and everyone, but especially the young people, were eager to share. In our small groups, which were organized to intentionally connect learners from different backgrounds and programs, each person had opportunities to share their ideas about why learner-centered is important, what we each bring to our own programs, and more. 

The sharing fair was another chance for each program to explain what made their school unique, and what made it learner-centered. The chance to share TVS with young people and adults from across the country was awesome and inspiring. Many people were interested in our school as we were in theirs. And a couple of the environments mentioned how they wanted to use some of our ideas in their schools, especially the apprenticeships. 

You can read more about the conference here. We are excited to take what we learned from this experience to make a difference in learner-centered education. The conference reminded us how grateful we are to be a part of this school and this movement. We are part of something bigger than we ever imagined, and that is inspiring to us, and we hope it is inspiring to you.

A Field Trip Designed by Discovery

On Tuesday, Discovery learners left school at 9:00 and walked towards the East Falls Church Metro station. Despite the rain, the energy was high and you could feel the excitement about the day ahead. We got on the train together and arrived at the Museum of Natural History just a few minutes before it opened at 10:00. 

Discovery in front of the Museum of Natural History

We split into three groups and explored the museum until meeting back up for lunch at 11:30. After lunch we hopped back on the metro to go to the AMC Courthouse movie theater where we spent the afternoon watching Strange World. After the movie, we hurried back to the metro to make it back to TVS in time (just barely!) for pick up. 

This field trip was the final product of Session 2’s Pitch a Field Trip Writer’s Workshop. At the beginning of Session 2, Discovery learners were introduced to their Writer’s Workshop for the session. Their task would be to research and plan a field trip that they would like to go on and then write a persuasive pitch. They would share their pitch with the studio in hopes of convincing their studio mates to vote for their field trip. The field trip with the most votes would be the field trip for Session 3. 

There were a few constraints: It couldn’t be more than an hour away and couldn’t cost more than $20 per learner. 

Discovery learners jumped right in, googling museums and attractions nearby, navigating websites to figure out how much it would cost, figuring out if we needed a reservation. Was there a student discount? Would it even be open on the day we wanted to go? How would we get there?

Learners learned to use google maps, mapping out routes via metro and bus to the destination of their choice. 

They were then tasked with coming up with a schedule. What time would we need to leave TVS? When would we eat lunch? What time would we have to get on the metro to be back in time for pick up? 

Now it was time to start drafting their pitches. They thought about what would draw the listener in. What information had to be communicated? What were the unique parts of their trip that would convince people to vote for their trip?

They received feedback from Adventure learners and eventually it was time to share their final pitches. They each shared their pitch and then voted for their top 3 choices. 

Discovery learners shared their pitches with each other

On the last day of the session it was revealed that two pitches had won and we would combine them into one field trip. In the morning we would go to the Museum of Natural History and in the afternoon we would go to the movies to watch Strange World. 

And on Tuesday this past week we did just that! As a Discovery learner said on Tuesday, “It is so cool that at The Village School you can do things like write a pitch for a field trip and then actually go on that field trip.”

Renewed Focus in Session 3

Spark learners may have told you about some new systems we introduced in Session 3. There are a lot!

Each learner now has a small chart posted next to their picture on the main bulletin board. There is a different row for each day of the week. It looks like this: 

In that first column, learners add stickers for reading (red), writing (yellow) and math (green) as they complete them during morning work. There is also a column for the “Learning Game,” which is explained in more detail below, a notes section, and a place where they can record their guide meeting for the week.

There is a lot packed into this little chart and the goals are many-fold. In the most obvious sense, this is a tactile, visual way for learners to see variety in their work. It gives them a way to track and record their own progress. Crucial here is that they are excited to give themselves those colorful little vinyl dots. They decide what constitutes enough work in each area to warrant a sticker. It’s also a great way for guides to see at a glance which areas the learners are engaging in most and in which areas they may need more support. 

Parents can also help learners reflect at home and at exhibition with questions about the chart. “What is the challenging work you did this week for reading?” You might throw in a few observations. “I notice there are two learning game points on Tuesday and four on Thursday. I wonder why you learned more later in the week.” Or “Wow, you must really like math. I see green dots every day this week!”

Maybe you want to help them see progress. “I see that you started out giving yourself one sticker each day, but now are earning three stickers per day. I wonder what that means?” Or you might help them reflect: “I wonder if you like being in charge of your own learning.” “What do you want to do differently next session?” “How have your feelings change about learning this session?”

As a side note, we talk a lot in all the studios about doing challenging work. Work that is not too easy, not too hard, but just right. We visualize this in Spark with the ‘challenge doughnut’ above. We also tell a story about Goldilocks visiting Spark studio. (I wonder if they can recount this for you at bedtime this weekend?) The goal is to help learners find and stay in their challenge zone, a skill that will help them in the Discovery studio and beyond. 

Now we come to the second column in our chart. The “learning game” is inspired by Becky Kennedy in her book Good Inside. This is pretty straightforward–when you learn something new, you give yourself a point. There’s no competition with other learners, as everyone’s points represent different things to them. The goal here is to get the children to look out for opportunities to try new things that they’ve never done before, to step outside their comfort zone. There’s a notes section where they can be more specific about what the points mean. Did they have a new lesson that day? Did they master a drawer? Did they complete a really hard math work for the first time?

These new systems are in the trial phase. We’ll try different things in the studio, keep what works, and phase out anything that doesn’t. But in just this first week, we’ve seen them generate lots of engaging work. Interestingly, it has bred more variety than usual. They are writing more complex stories, sharing them, asking for new lessons from guides, and teaching each other new, creative things they come up with. We can’t wait to see what they do in weeks 2 and 3! 

Session 3 “Sneak Peek”

Spark Studio

Imagine living in colonial times and the holidays not being so magical. This session, Spark learners will explore the different cultures of the past and take a look at the present through curious detective eyes. Learners will highlight the similarities and differences of the evolving world around them through hands-on activities. Learners will continue their continent of study for this session. Learners will hear more about South America through a guest talk that focuses on Colombia.

Learners will share in the fun with projects that feature snow, trees, and popcorn. Homemade crafts will be made by learners and given as a keepsake to each other. 

Learners will conclude the session by inspiring creativity through poetry and artwork that they will showcase in the studio at our Session 3 Exhibition.

Discovery Studio

“We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

This session Discovery learners will transport themselves through their imaginations to the Ancient Greek city of Athens. Their mission: to complete a series of hands-on challenges and activities that will help them learn as much as they can about life in Ancient Greece. Along the way, they’ll be exploring big questions such as: How important is it to understand how the past has influenced our lives? How does knowing the origin of things impact our understanding of the world? How can understanding the past impact the future? 

Learners will extend their study of Ancient Greece by diving into Greek Mythology. They will explore the role that myths, gods and storytelling had in ancient times and will be challenged to write their own myths during Writing Workshop this session. 

Learners will share what they have learned at our Session 3 exhibition- where guests will be invited to time travel back to an Ancient Greek village!


Adventure Studio

What does velcro, your pillow, and wind turbines all have in common? They were all inspired by nature! 

This session Adventure learners will take a deep dive into the field of Biomimicry to prepare for the Biomimicry Youth Challenge in Session 4. Biomimicry is the study and use of nature as inspiration to design sustainable solutions. Learners will spend time exploring the history of the field, understand how biomimicry presents itself in their everyday lives, and consider the role biomimicry might play in solutions to some of our world’s biggest sustainability challenges. Learners will take on the role of biologists by spending time in nature observing for close looking, determining new curiosities about our local ecosystems, and meeting with scientists in a Biomimicry Lab.   

Learners will also take on the role of Historian and Researcher through the Session 3 DIY Civilization Communications Challenge. Learners will have the opportunity to take a deep dive into one of the exciting topics that have been explored throughout Civilizations this year. Learners will share their research and Big Questions at the Session 3 Exhibition – come ready to be curious about big histories! 

Health and Wellness

One day or day one. It’s your decision.” – unknown

What does it mean to make healthy choices for yourself? What areas of health are going well for you? What would you like to improve?

This session, learners will be exploring what we have learned so far about mental, social, emotional, and physical health. The learners will identify an area of focus, one that they would like to dive deeper into reflecting on, and create a goal for our winter session break. 

Learners will also have an opportunity to create a product of their choice that illustrates or demonstrates the healthy choices they are proud of.