Learner-Driven Collaboration

During a recent outing to Mason District Park, Village School heroes found their way to the creek. They stopped to play for a while by the shallow, meandering water. It was too cold for bare feet, but they scrambled across the stream—or lava as they called it—by balancing on log bridges or hopping from rock to rock. When they finally found a good spot, they set about stirring potions in the water.

After a while, one of the heroes turned to look at the five-foot bank on the opposite side. It was too steep to climb with his bare hands, but he found that if he grabbed an exposed root hanging down from the top he could use it as a sort of climbing rope to hoist himself up. When he reached the top, he called down, “Hey guys, look at this!” and offered to teach the other heroes how to follow him. They quickly abandoned the potions experiment to join him.

For the next 20 minutes, the heroes made it their mission to climb that ledge. It took some effort for them to find the right foot placement, keep their balance, and use their arms to heave their bodies up. But with advice and guidance from the first learner and a little perseverance, they all finally reached the top. “I did it!” they each shouted in turn, before they ran down the adjoining slope to the creek so they could try again.  “You OK over there?” “You can do it!” they called to one another as they worked.

The learners climbed that ledge over and over. When the root broke, they found another that would help them up. Then they discovered a U-shaped one sturdy enough to hold them upside-down. With their newfound skills, they tried climbing other ledges, honing their climbing technique along the way.

It was a striking example of our learning process at The Village School. Both inside the studio and out on the playground, heroes are surrounded by intriguing challenges. They have space to wonder and follow their curiosity in order to find their own passions and set their own goals, which is essential if we want them to pursue their goals with interest and determination. They learn from each other and work together to solve problems. They struggle and sometimes fail, which develops resilience. There is little adult intervention, but plenty of help from peers. It’s with a genuine desire to help that they teach each other, and fervent joy and satisfaction that they celebrate victories.

Let’s go back to the creek for a moment and consider what might have happened under different circumstances. Would the heroes have been as eager to scale that ledge if their guide made it a goal? Probably not. Would they have figured out different ways to climb it if an adult had shown them the ‘right’ way to do it? Doubtful. Would they have taught, encouraged, and celebrated with one another if they were focused on earning points, or trying to get a prize for being first to the top? Not a chance.

Certainly there is a time and place for contests, rewards, and guidance from adults (especially when it comes to safety). But that’s not the primary way we pursue knowledge at The Village School. One of our main goals is to foster an intrinsic love of learning that will translate into a lifelong hunger for knowledge. We also create a culture that values confidence, independence, leadership, and collaborative skills. Reading, writing, math—all these things matter, but they come as a result of developing those invaluable character traits. It’s all part of creating a learner-driven environment.

Heroes went home that day asking when they could go back to the park again. I wonder what challenges they will seek out next time?

Make your choice

“It seemed kind of flat,” critiqued the instructor.  There were immediately cries of protest from my fellow classmates, “That was what the other instructor told us to do!” One individual declared on behalf of the group, “We were just doing what we were told.”

This scene did not happen at The Village School. This class was a group of adults. It seems that no matter how old we are, our first reaction to feedback is defensive.

It is natural. We go about our lives trying our best. We want to get along and do well by others.

This teacher said, “I’m pretty sure the other instructor didn’t tell you to do it badly.” That nipped the excuses in the bud. He continued by saying, “Yes, use direction from other people but make your own choice what to do about it.”

TVS is unique because heroes have immense freedom. They make their own choices. And they often receive feedback on them before deciding on their next step. Either way, they own their decision. This skill is important beyond a learner-driven community.

Imagine life was a game and you could only make moves from someone else’s directions. You might win or lose the game, but either way, you are powerless to change the outcome. 

Alternatively, you play the game as the decision-maker. You choose a strategy and move forward boldly. You might win or lose but you always look forward to the next round.

Which would you prefer for your child? Which do you prefer for yourself?

Socratic Guide or Life Coach?

How would you describe the role of a Guide?

This question was posed to heroes in discovery studio recently. The hand of one of our founding heroes shot up. “A guide is a learning designer and life coach for kids”, he said confidently. Many heads nodded in agreement.

While it can be hard to explain the role of a Guide, this hero was able to pinpoint the two key “jobs” of a TVS Guide. Inspired by the Montessori approach, a guide’s role in a learner-driven environment is to set up the learning environment, to ensure all learners have the tools and materials they need to successfully direct their own learning, and to design engaging and meaningful learning experiences- ones that hopefully inspire them to explore even more outside of the school day.

But, there is also a second job. This is the job as “coach”- to listen, affirm, hold up the mirror, and guide learners to a deeper understanding of the obstacles they face and the potential solutions available to them.

Like a real coach or trainer, heroes have a standing appointment with their Guide each week. Here are some of the questions Guides and Heroes have discussed in their meetings this session.

How is your Passion Project going?

What excellent work would you like to present at Exhibition?

Let’s look at your Weekly tracker. Do you think you are on track to reach your goals by the end of the session? What are you stuck on?

What are you feeling really good about?

Which goal/badge feels like a “dragon”/puts you in your panic zone?

How can we break this big goal into smaller pieces? What else might help?

These guide “check-ins”, while seemingly small, provide the support young learners need on their journey of self-directed learning. As they grow in independence, they start to see the solutions available to them and gain confidence in their ability to act, create, and learn through their own practice of self-affirmation and experience.

Even now, in the second session of a new school year, these young learners are rightfully celebrating their hard work, naming their areas of challenge, and identifying strategies and actions they could take to accomplish their goals. Below are just a few of the “aha” moments that have occurred during Guide-hero meetings so far this year.

“I was stuck in my research. I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I could ask a fellow traveler next time if they had any ideas.” -TVS Hero, age 7

“Math is my dragon. I have not been doing 30 minutes a day or watching the videos. I should do this first- then see if someone who is really good at math can help me. One of the Middle Schoolers said she would tutor me.” -TVS Hero, age 10

“I need to do a better job in my writing. I think I just need to slow down. I’ll ask my squad leader to hold me accountable to this. I know they can help me.” -TVS Hero, age 9

“I have been avoiding Lexia. I need to set aside an hour to get into flow and get started.” -TVS Hero, age 11

“I don’t know what to read next. I’ll ask my fellow travelers for recommendations and pick my next badge book by the end of Session 2.” -TVS Hero, age 9

“I love reading so much that I sometimes forget to work on other things. I will do the other things first during morning work and set a timer. Then I can use the remaining time to read!” -TVS Hero, age 7

Guide meetings are constant reminders of how capable young people are. Whether viewed as a Socratic guides or Life Coaches, it is certain that our Guides are learning too and feel lucky they get to do so alongside this next generation of world changers.

Turning Learners into Leaders

What makes a good leader? What does it mean to lead by example? Do good leaders allow others to lead, too? Those were some of the questions our Spark heroes grappled with at circle times this week, where the theme was—you guessed it—leadership.

Some of the qualities we strive to develop in Village School heroes are independence, accountability, and integrity, all qualities of good leaders. So we coach our learners to step up, take responsibility for themselves, be kind and keep others safe, and to work as a team.

We explored three main areas of leadership starting with the basics—good vs. bad leadership. What sorts of things do good leaders do? What shouldn’t they do? The heroes had a lot of good ideas—they suggested that the best leaders help others make good choices, use kind words, and keep everyone safe. Conversely, they said that bad leaders encourage others to make unkind or unsafe choices.

But what if you’re shy and don’t feel comfortable addressing a group? We talked about how some leaders lead by example. They quietly demonstrate the right thing to do and provide an example that others may follow. As one hero put it succinctly, “Instead of telling people what to do, you show them what to do.”

We also discussed the importance of leaders who help others contribute ideas and lead alongside them. (As opposed to telling everyone what to do and expecting complete compliance.)

Each of these discussions addressed something we had seen in the studio that week, either indoors or on the playground. It was pretty remarkable to see behaviors shift as heroes thought about their actions and those of others. They were excited to be positive leaders, and felt empowered to speak up when they witnessed someone making poor choices or leading others astray. We all agreed that leaders are rarely perfect, that everyone makes mistakes. But we decided that it’s important to be self-aware enough to learn from your own mistakes and hold up a mirror for others so they can learn, too.

This series of launches doubtless provided more than learners could absorb in just one week. But we guides (and some heroes) reinforced the concepts by referring back to our discussions again and again. The launches also laid the groundwork for future group discussions slated for the coming months. Finally, they planted seeds that we hope will help them grow into effective leaders as adults.

Halloween Fun

Session 2: Week 2

Learning is hard work. TVS heroes spend an average of 1.5 hours on math and reading daily. They spend another hour writing or researching. And they spend an additional 1.5 hours combining all those academic skills during Quest.

In Adventure Studio, we keep it simple: balancing hard work and fun.

That’s why you could find MS heroes carving pumpkins on Monday. Playing baseball on Tuesday. Spinning around in circles on the grass on Wednesday. Escaping a virtual escape room on Thursday. These moments of fun balance the hard work.

According to psychologists, there are 5 components of happiness: optimism, flow, community, meaning, and achievement. The hard work of learning has many of these components: optimism setting goals, finding flow in learning, creating meaningful work, and achieving milestones. But fun is crucial to community, and perhaps, opens the door to everything else.

Creating a Culture of Excellence

This week in Discovery Studio was action-packed. The studio was buzzing with new energy, having returned from Fall Break, and heroes were happy to see each other and get back into the flow as self-directed learners. This energy also stemmed from kicking off new routines, new learning adventures in writing and quest, and implementing new systems into the studio.

While our focus last session was on learning how to identify and set challenging goals, this session our focus is on building a culture of excellence. Whether it be in communication or writing, in Socratic discussions, or excellence in teamwork and leadership, Discovery heroes will be active participants in creating a culture of excellence at The Village School this year, and beyond.

I have no doubt that they are up for the challenge.

Where did I see excellence this week?

-In writing workshop, when heroes put pencil to paper and did their very best in writing their first draft of personal memoirs and then sharing these stories with another learner in the studio at the end of the week.

-In quest, when, during a full day in the wilderness, heroes joyfully worked together on navigating new surroundings, and put their all in the day’s orienteering and camouflaging challenges.

-In self-governance, when one hero bravely brought the first case to the studio Judicial Committee after a studio-mate broke the studio contract and decided together on a fair and logical consequence- all the while supporting the hero who had made the misstep.

– In character, when, during a closing activity, heroes were asked to send their “wishes for the world” up into a pretend giant ball that we would toss into the sky, imagining that it would carry our friendly wishes to the world.

“I wish that all kids are safe.”

“I wish that all kids like themselves.”

“I wish that all kids dream big.”

And with these three truly excellent wishes, Session 2 is off to a great start.

Catalyst of Growth

Session 1: Week 6

Session 1- done. Heroes tested their strength and came out strong. Now we celebrate their learning with Exhibitions. We take a peek into the daily life of a studio where hard work, creativity, and problem-solving thrive.

Adventure Heroes hard at work
First hero talk of the year

In Middle School, Adventure heroes presented thorough family histories. They explored their past, present, and future selves with honesty and compassion in their Hero’s Essays. They showed off a new studio design, and proposed a PE plan for baseball (which they will lead for ES next session). 

Presenting at The School Share

In the midst of congratulations and socially distant air high-5s, it is easy to forget. What happened prior to this success? 

Enter The Final Abyss.

We don’t often talk about this step of the Hero’s Journey. It sounds awful and dark. The situation looks bleak. The hero loses hope and resolve. Overcoming this final test seems impossible. A hero cannot possibly continue the journey.

You don’t want to linger on this step. You want to breeze through this part to the treasure. You don’t want to embrace and sit with this prickly obstacle in front of you. To stand and face your greatest test.

It is easy to conceptualize The Final Abyss as the bottom of the Hero’s Journey circle. But when you actually hit bottom, you are the one who has to climb out. 

And yet, is The Final Abyss the last step before growth or is it the step of growing?

We can reframe this greatest challenge. What if we entered The Final Abyss as heroes who know that everything is supposed to look bleak at this stage? That, although we feel hopeless, we are secretly excited because we are on the verge of a great treasure? What if we welcomed the greatest test of The Final Abyss with open arms? 

At the end of a journey, it is easy to celebrate the treasures. The successful accomplishments of the session. Today, let’s also celebrate the great courage it takes to face and overcome The Final Abyss. 

Goal Setting in Spark Studio

This week in Spark Studio we introduced goal sheets. Otherwise known as work plans, these single sheets of paper—with their carefully organized boxes for days and subject areas—offer heroes the opportunity to plan their work period. They have a column for each day of the week, with rows for specific areas, including math, reading, and writing. In each box, they specify which material they’d like to practice.

This creates space for the heroes to set their own goals. Guides offer a bit of help here and there if the heroes ask, but for the most part learners decide for themselves what they will accomplish. This is just one of the tools we use to set up a learner-driven environment.

At first, we weren’t sure how the heroes would receive this new tool. Would they find it hard to fill out? Might it be overwhelming to try and think ahead or consider more than one subject area at a time? Were the heroes still too unfamiliar with the materials available in the studio to know what to enter in each box?

To our surprise, the heroes took to the goal sheets as if they had been using them for weeks. They filled them out in the morning and kept referring to them throughout the day. If they couldn’t write words, they used pictures in each box to symbolize what they intended to do. Some asked for suggestions, but most remembered what they had worked on in previous weeks and were eager to review, practice, and build on those activities. Multiple subject areas were no problem either—most heroes planned out the whole work period at once. Some even mapped out their whole week.

Almost immediately, there was a sharp uptick in the variety of tasks the heroes were seeking out and completing during morning work. The reading drawers got more use, the math materials flew off the shelves, and heroes were trying new things outside their comfort zone. More importantly, their level of interest and periods of concentration were the highest they’ve been yet.

It’s so important to introduce the concept of goal setting at this young age. It preps the heroes for the more detailed self-directed goals they will set in the elementary studio. And it’s a valuable life skill to organize one’s time into manageable chunks and plan to accomplish specific things every day.

In addition, it’s important at this point in the year to encourage heroes to bring some balance to their work. It’s often tempting to spend a lot of time on easy, fun activities, such as coloring or building with blocks. (And on some days, even for us adults, this is completely justified.) But encouraging the learners to think about incorporating a bit of math, reading, and writing into their daily schedule helps them learn to manage their time and use it wisely. As one hero aptly put it during circle time “Adding balance to our work helps us grow our brains.”

And are they ever eager to do that! One hero was elated Thursday when she finished her entire work plan for the day. She jumped up and down as she put a check beside the last activity. “Ms. Gwyneth, Ms. Gwyneth, I did it! Look, I checked off the last box! That’s the first time I’ve done that this week!”

It was hard not to share her enthusiasm and joy. No doubt it was buoyed by the fact that it was a goal she set and she accomplished. What a way to finish out the week!

The Power of Questions

Discovery Studio Spotlight: Session 1, Week 4

“Telling creates resistance. Asking creates relationships.” – Andrew Sobel

At The Village School, we believe in the power of asking good questions. Questions show up in many ways throughout the day. Below are some of the questions heroes explored this week.

Socratic Discussion on setting SMART Goals: Is the best SMART goal: (a) Something you are positive you can achieve right now (b) Something you are likely achieve but want to be sure (c) Something you might be able to achieve (d) Something you probably can’t achieve (in a given amount of time), but you never know”?

Writing Workshop: “If you had to write an ode to honor and increase appreciation for one item, what would it be?  Why?”

Civilization: “Does a life full of hunger and daily struggle excuse future cruel actions completely, somewhat, or not at all?” to an even larger question, “Is it important to study history? Why or why not?

Socratic Discussion on Givers vs. Takers: “Would you rather be a giver or a taker? Can you be a giver or a taker when it comes to emotions?

Socratic Discussion on Community: What purpose does being part of a community serve in your life: protection, fun, collaboration, or something else?

Heroes fine-tuned the skill of setting balanced SMART goals with their squads. For fun, a “Top banana award” was given to the squad that completed or exceeded the most SMART goals this week. When asked, “What might make your squad stronger?”, Heroes answered by electing Squad leaders and creating Squad names. What names did they determine best represented their squads?

Our four squads have settled on: 1) Thee Holy Shrimp, 2) The Scarred Pandas, 3) Popcorn Party, and 4) The Scourging Coyotes.

During Writing Workshop, heroes worked on completing their first drafts of their Odes. Odes were written to music, books, words, parents, sports, the sun, nature, and many other things.

Heroes were excited to launch our Civilization studies this year. One young hero stated, “I think we study history so we can learn from it and try not to make the same mistakes,” and another said in his own words, “We learn from history to make a better future.”

During the many Socratic Discussions focused on building our community this week, Heroes unanimously agreed that they’d rather be givers in the studio and decided to add an important promise to each other on their contract “To try and be positive”, even when things are hard or don’t go your way.

In regard to the big “Why” of being in a community? Discovery heroes stated fun and collaboration as the primary reasons for being at TVS (with family communities offering protection).

A hero added one final thought- “And purpose. Our friends at school are here to help us on our Hero’s Journey. We need a community for that.”

New Year, New Adventure

Adventure Studio

Session 1: Week 3

On September 2nd, The Village School launched Middle School Adventure Studio.

It is a new adventure. Even without COVID-19, it was likely to be a year unlike any other. The Adventure Heroes are shaping a community for themselves and all the future Middle School Heroes.

Find a calling. Change the world. In Adventure Studio, heroes continue to broaden and deepen their passions, and they connect them to real needs in the world. They explore the larger community beyond the school. What needs to be changed? How can I be the one to change it?

A great journey requires a sturdy compass. The 4 cardinal directions of this year are Real, Ideal, Hard Work, and Fun. The studio goal is finding a balance. Heroes are exploring each direction in this session’s Quest by designing the studio contracts and learning space (ideal), learning new life skills (real), putting together a 1000 piece puzzle (hard work), and producing a film (fun!) 

On the road, heroes have already demonstrated their curiosity and problem-solving skills. They investigate and are open to new perspectives. They search for more than one answer. One recent question, “How can we fit the microwave and fridge together to make our studio more functional?” Brainstormed answers: microwave on top of the fridge, finding a new fridge, and putting the microwave into the fridge! 

As these heroes build their future, they look to past experience. They decide to hold onto tradition or forge a new path. It provides a tangible example for the overarching question,  “Does the past determine the future?”