Great Mistakes

This year, Spark Studio has been exploring the concept of Great Mistakes. These are regular old mistakes—a scraped knee, a broken toy—made “great” by identifying something learned from them.

I first heard about Great Mistakes last year in the Discovery Studio. During a launch, the guide asked if anyone had made any Great Mistakes that week. Without hesitation, each elementary-aged learner gave an example of a failure they had experienced that week and what it had taught them for the future. It was obvious that they had been thinking about these all week and were eager to share them. 

I knew we had to bring the idea to Spark. At TVS, we spend a lot of time prompting learners to try new things, do challenging work, and step outside their comfort zones. Those things require them to shed their fear of making a misstep. Not an easy thing to do! But what better way to reframe their thinking than by celebrating those mistakes?

How to do this? We began with a launch in Session 1 that introduced the concept. At the end, each Spark learner reflected on one misstep they had made and what lesson they could take away. They were surprisingly forthcoming and reflective. A short puppet show next modeled the best way to turn those snafus into Great Mistakes. We also read books–“The Book of Mistakes,” by Corinna Luyken and “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg, about the merits of embracing mistakes and turning them into something you may not have thought of otherwise.

Reading “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg

Bit by bit, we began to overhear pieces of conversations from Spark learners. “Hey, you just made a Great Mistake!” one learner told another on the playground. Parents also started saying that their learners had explained the term at home. 

Trial and error during outdoor play

The adults in the studio also started modeling the approach. For example, I started highlighting my mistakes instead of downplaying them. “Oh look, I made a mistake! Do you know that grown-ups make mistakes, too? I’m going to make it a great one: next time, I will proofread that chart before I print it. Thanks for catching that.” 

Tough as it seemed at first, this practice was kind of liberating for me as a guide. I didn’t have to be perfect in the studio, and I started celebrating my own gaffes. Imagine that! But more importantly, the children loved it. They’d smile when I owned up to an oversight and quietly cheered me on when I proposed a solution for the future. Could it be that they were relieved to see adults make mistakes? Might they infer that it’s OK for them to make mistakes, too?

I came across another suggestion in a course I’m taking on the book “Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom,” by Jane Nelsen and Chip DeLorenzo. It has to do with our reactions to our children’s mistakes. If we validate their emotions around the mistake and let them come up with a solution, they feel empowered rather than ashamed. Our response might sound something like this: “I’m so sorry. You must be feeling really sad about what happened. I’ve made so many mistakes that I can really understand. How did it happen? I know you well enough to know that you can learn something really good from this. How do you think you could fix this?”

As they say in the Discovery Studio, heroes are not people who never make mistakes. (They actually make a lot.) Heroes are just people who accept responsibility and learn from them. When learners embrace that idea and lose their fear of failure, they can go farther than they ever thought possible!

When they’re not afraid to make mistakes, children are more willing to just try!

Core Skills and Morning Work

What does a typical morning at The Village School look like? While each studio is different, heroes in Spark, Discovery, and Adventure all begin the morning with a launch and socratic discussion in their studio. Spark heroes then transition into their Morning Work time and Discovery and Adventure studios spend the morning working on Core Skills.

Morning Work in Spark

After the morning circle, Spark heroes spread throughout the Spark Studio and Spark Lab for Morning Work. During this time, learners master early reading, writing, and math skills through both guided and independent activities. Learners can choose to work with the materials or activities they have had already had a lesson on or ask a guide for a lesson on a new material. They are encouraged to find work that is challenging for them and can ask guides to give them one-on-one lessons on new material or as an extension with already familiar materials. Some days most heroes work independently and other days are full of collaboration, but each day Spark heroes can be found working with materials that have either a math, reading, writing, practical life, sensorial, or cultural focus.

At the beginning of Session 2, Spark heroes began using their work plans, a tool that helps them track their work each day, set goals, and work on materials in math, reading/writing, sensorial, practical life, and cultural areas. The other day one of Spark’s youngest learners approached me, enthusiastically holding up her work plan to say that she was “so proud” of herself for working on all five areas that morning. 

An example of a Spark work plan

Core Skills in Discovery

After the morning launch in Discovery, the heroes have time to meet with their squads to check in with each other, ask questions, share, and set individual goals. They then transition into Core Skills time, spreading throughout the Discovery Library and Discovery Lab, where they work independently on building strong foundations in math, reading, and writing. Discovery heroes are learning how to manage their time and prioritize their work. Some learners create daily checklists for themselves, many set SMART goals on Journey Tracker, and others are still working to find a system that works for them. 

The morning schedule on Wednesday

Recently, Discovery heroes were given the opportunity to write their weekly goals on the whiteboard and many showed excitement to do so. Others chose not to. Guides hold guide meetings during Core Skills, where learners can raise concerns or talk about areas they are succeeding and/or struggling, and guides can hold up the mirror, saying things like “I’ve heard you say you want to work on _____, but I’ve seen you _____.” Or “I notice you’ve been setting daily SMART goals in math, but not in reading. What’s stopping you from setting reading goals?” Between squad meetings, guide meetings, setting SMART goals, and sharing weekly goals, Discovery heroes are given the opportunity to problem solve and to find a system that works for them so they are able to continue to challenge themselves during Core Skills time and explore their emerging passions and interests.

Core Skills in Adventure

Core Skills time in Adventure is similar to Core Skills in Discovery. Heroes work on math, reading, writing, Quest, or Civilization. Adventure heroes spend 45 minutes on math and 45 minutes on reading each day so that they are able to complete their Core Skills badges by the end of the year. Every other day they spend 30 minutes researching for Civilization to prepare themselves for their Civilization discussion. Adventure heroes generally use Fridays to catch up or make progress on Character or Skills badges. They are learning how to prioritize their work and are continuing to challenge themselves, explore their interests, and make progress on their long-term goals.

Building a Stronger and Positive Spark Community

“On our own we’re special, and we can chase our dream. But when we join up, hand in hand, Together we’re a team.”

“You can do this!”

“You only have 2 things left.”

“I’m just glad that you’re okay.”

As we dive into another week of Session 2, learners have been discussing and exploring ways to come together as a community. Learners are supporting each other, finding a sense of belonging, and understanding their role in the Spark community. Spark learners are slowly feeling more connected and working together in harmony.

Learners are working together as a team to support each other. Support comes in many forms and may look different on a daily basis in the studio. It may come as an observation where an encouraging word is overheard during work time and can be seen when a 2nd-year learner is helping a 1st-year learner spell words for their unique picture in their writing journal. Their desire to help echoes from the table. These experiences are challenging learners to solicit their peers for positive feedback which leads to bonding and building friendships.

Many bonding moments have occurred between learners writing a story and sharing it on Show and Share day. The excitement exudes from their faces as they proudly stand before the community reading to the other learners and their guides what they have worked so diligently on. Laughter and expressions of joy conclude after many of the presentations.

Sharing their unique and well thought out stories provides a sense of identity and belonging. In the studio, ideas come alive on paper and personalities not yet seen shine through. This excitement continues outdoors as it leads to building walls with bricks and pieces of wood and making healing potions, machines, and cupcakes. This has led to learners enthusiastically addressing any problems that may arise and solving them collectively.

As learners find their sense of identity and role in Spark, they are in agreement that together, they all have their own visions and self-confidence while recognizing that they are individually different but can help each other in many ways.

In the words of Helen Keller ” “Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much”.

Self-Directed Music?

Does your child love music? Probably. But how can there be a self-directed music class? This is a question I’ve asked myself since joining the Village School. My college degree is in music education, but I don’t think a single class of my Bachelor’s degree talked about how a learner-led music classroom could function.

Let’s take a look at traditional modes of music education: band, choir, orchestra, and general music classes. All of these have either a conductor/director or a music teacher who leads the class. The musicians follow directions and sing or play their instruments in accordance with prescribed methods. While there can be moments of self-direction, as a whole, the model is very teacher-centric.

So far, my approach to teaching music at the Village School has been one of experimentation. I’ve never seen a learner-led music class. I’ve done lots of research, and only one book even exists on the topic, written in the past three years, and originally in Finnish (luckily I found an English translation). So what have the learners done?

Spark learners during freeze dance!

The Spark studio learners have music twice a week, and we have a few main activities. One of the learners’ favorite activities is “Draw What You Hear.” I’ll play a piece of music that’s around 5 minutes long, and the learners have a blank piece of paper and crayons. Their only direction is to draw what they hear. They’ve drawn along to a Copland ballet, to Latin jazz, and to a Trinidadian steelband. Oftentimes, the learners get to explore with instruments as well. They’ve written songs together and played lots of games with their drums, castanets, shakers, xylophones, and a myriad of other instruments. We always end with freeze dance, where the learners get to dance however they want to a song, but they have to freeze whenever the music stops! Our first session was all music from North America, and this session, all of our music is from Asia. Each session, the music will all be from a new continent!

Discovery and Adventure studios have music together on Fridays. This is where I’ve been most hands off. Their goal in session one was to write a song. I provided a few online resources that they could use if they wanted, and wrote a very general framework for how most songs are written. With that, some formed groups, others went at it alone, and across three or four music classes, I got to watch people experiment at the piano, create beats online, bring in instruments from home and form bands, and write some exquisite lyrics, all without my help or direction.

Adventure learners dressing up and bringing in instruments

At the Village School, we want to do music differently. We want learners to explore and discover their musical interests and to harness their creative power. So far, I’ve seen lots of creative power, lots of discovery, and lots of exploration. As the year goes on, who knows what they’ll come up with?

Discovery’s Up To The Challenge

Learners asking Tom Sayer, Co-Founder and CEO of Ello, questions about starting a business.

This session, the learners in Discovery Studio are embarking on a quest to build their own businesses. They aren’t, however, just crafting their businesses. They are also working together to pitch their businesses to a group of entrepreneurs. And the stakes are high – there’s a $350 cash investment waiting for the company who comes up with the most convincing pitch. 

In “Pitch This,” our Writer’s Workshop, the big goal is to write a persuasive pitch at the end of this session. Leading up to that, we’re writing pitches and practicing public speaking skills in weekly “Studio Shark Tanks.” Learners will take on the role of investors and decide how much money they would be interested in investing after hearing a pitch.

Discovery learners are practicing risk-taking and seeking out challenges, since those are traits of successful entrepreneurs. They don’t just want to be a group who can overcome challenges – they want to be a group who seeks them out because they know they can succeed (or that failure is okay!).

Since our session alludes to the show Shark Tank, we’ve thrown some reality show twists at the learners already! Many learners had already brainstormed business ideas and started to make plans with friends coming into this session. That’s great – it’s exciting to have that entrepreneurial spirit in the studio. However, this session isn’t just about building a business. It’s about overcoming challenges.

On the first day of Quest, it was announced that they would be starting their businesses in random groups of 3 people. Unsurprisingly, the learners were not excited about this first challenge. But, immediately after their groups were announced, the studio sprang to life with brainstorming and planning. Some thought it would be impossible to work together, yet every group has already come up with a company name, business ideas, and a mission statement!

We’ve extended our surprise challenges into Writer’s Workshop as well. Most learners would be comfortable writing a pitch for their business because it’s their idea! But how well can they sell people on any business?

For the first two weeks, learners will be writing and giving pitches for completely random, ridiculous businesses. Already, I’ve heard a pitch for Swoop, a pet psychiatry service for angsty teenagers. In our weekly Studio Shark Tank, learners will have to figure out how to convince their peers that the business is worth investing in, no matter how silly or serious it might be!

Our entrepreneurship venture this session is real. They’ll be leaving the bubble of their studio to bring ideas out into the real world, to real entrepreneurs. They’ll prove to a group of potential investors that, no matter their age, Discovery Studio is ready to change the world now!

An Opportunity to Reflect

We started this year with a call to action: will you accept the role of a hero on a hero’s journey and change the world? This remarkable group of young people met challenges, overcame obstacles, and grew stronger together. Now Session 1 is coming to a close and we pause to take a moment to celebrate the journey thus far.

What is an Exhibition? An Exhibition is a window into our studios. We invite our families to share the learners’  work and celebrate important milestones on their journey.

Here’s a preview of what you can expect in these Exhibitions:

In Adventure Studio, heroes explored who they are and who they want to become. The art of introspection can be challenging, particularly in middle school. Surrounded by a group of influential peers, vulnerability takes courage and trust. The Adventure heroes built both this session. Join us at their Exhibition to see their creative process (Hero Boards) and the outline of their journey ahead (Badge Plans).

In Discovery Studio, heroes worked together to create a studio of new and returning learners. Change can be hard, and it was an opportunity to mesh the best of both worlds. What worked well last year? What new ideas do we have? How can we create an environment that works for everyone? There were bumps along this road: an imperfect system, running into guardrails, and navigating systems and processes. At this Exhibition, you’ll see evidence of that journey (and its resulting growth spurt) throughout the studio tour. Then you will have a preview of the journey to come via your learner’s badge plan.

In Spark Studio, learners discovered their independence. Usually, it takes several sessions of watching lessons before the learners feel confident enough to teach other learners, but this year, leaders emerged from all ages, eager to help and support one another. In this Exhibition, your learner will teach you how to use some of the Montessori materials and give you a tour of their studio.

At the end of the session, we pause to celebrate the journey thus far. We reflect by taking a look at the top of the mountain and finding the motivation to continue climbing. Taking a look to the bottom of the mountain and appreciating the newfound height. Taking a breath and continuing to climb!

The Spark Contract

Ah, the start of a new school year at The Village School. Sharpened pencils itching to write, blank notebooks waiting to be filled, learners hungry for ever more challenging lessons…and a brand new set of rules to create. These aren’t just any rules. Every year, learners in each studio—not the guides—decide what guidelines they will follow for the year. How will they treat each other? How will they treat their studio?

In Spark, creation of the year’s contract is a very thorough process. Guides set aside time in Session 1 for the learners to brainstorm a set of promises they want to follow. The children take this quite seriously, offering suggestions for ways to make their studio safe, fun, and peaceful. Then they vote on which rules they will adopt, and which they won’t. 

Votes on the rules they brainstormed.

In large part, they come up with many of the same rules we adults might: be kind, be honest, and don’t run, hit or scream. But inevitably, they come up with some unexpected gems: be thankful, teach each other, listen to each other, and talk to one another.

Who would have thought these things were important to our youngest learners? 

Through these suggestions, learners are shaping their own space. Given the agency to come up with their own guidelines, they become more invested, taking on more ownership of the studio and taking the rules that much more seriously.

During Friday project time in Spark this week, learners wrote down their rules, painted cards, and assembled their contract. Soon they will sign it and hang it on the wall. Throughout the year, the contract will serve as a constant reminder of the standards they set for themselves at the beginning of the year. They can refer to it often, holding each other accountable and constantly examining their own actions to see if they measure up. Mistakes are expected and OK, so long as they learn from each one.

Creation of a fresh, new contract sets the tone for the year. It also furthers learner independence and leadership. Above all, it fosters a sense of right and wrong. The goal is for learners to do the right thing because they want to, not because an adult told them they have to.

You can see the final product at Exhibition next week. Learners will be more than a little proud to show it off!

Conflict Resolution in Discovery and Spark

The energy was high as the Discovery heroes flooded through the door on their way back inside from free time on Wednesday. Most heroes made their way into the Discovery Lab to prepare for launch, but one hero walked into the Discovery Lab, picked up the peace tray, and left the room. He brought it into the Discovery Library, where two of his fellow travelers were sitting, both visibly upset. 

The peace tray is a tool used in the Discovery Studio to solve personal conflicts. When there is an argument between heroes, the peace tray can help them work through it. It has different tools for conflict resolution, like suggested talking points that guide the learners through putting words to their feelings. 

So on Wednesday when two heroes hurt each other’s feelings, a fellow traveler decided to step in and help. He grabbed the peace tray and sat down with the emotional learners. 

Seeing how upset both heroes were, I sat there anxiously, unsure of how they were going to respond. That quickly faded as the fellow traveler effortlessly led them through a beautiful conversation about how they were feeling and why they were feeling that way. He was patient and gave each hero the time to explain their feelings. He was calm and reassuring, letting each hero know that he was listening, and he was empathetic, telling the heroes that he understood how they were feeling.

The two heroes gave each other sincere, heartfelt apologies. The fellow traveler then said, “So what do you think we should do differently in the future?” and they brainstormed a solution together. Then, the three of them stood up and walked into the Discovery Lab, where they joined their fellow travelers just in time for the beginning of launch. 

Earlier that morning a similar conversation had taken place in the calmer corner in Spark where there are tools to help the heroes talk about their emotions and brainstorm solutions. Wednesday morning, when a Spark hero walked over to the calming corner, a fellow traveler approached, eager to help the hero work through their feelings.

“Are you feeling sad? Angry? Tired?” the hero asked while flipping through cards labeled with different feelings.

“I’m feeling sad.”

“Okay, what do you want to try to help you feel better? Do you want to try taking a drink of water or closing your eyes?”

“Maybe I’ll drink some water.”

“Okay, try that and then come back to see if you feel better.”

Heroes at The Village School don’t shy away from talking about their feelings and emotions. They have tools to help them work through tough situations and they use them frequently. They step up when needed and help their fellow travelers work through hard feelings, not because they have to, but because they care.

Take a Hike

Middle schoolers can’t plan a trip by themselves. Can they? How will they know where to go? What to eat? What if someone gets hurt? What if they get lost? I’ll confess, I had these thoughts to various degrees leading up to last Friday.

My last job was at a traditional school, and I wouldn’t have believed my students there could have planned a hike. There’s a lot of variables to think about! So much to consider! But here at the Village School, I had the pleasure of watching it happen. Our Adventure learners were given guidelines on Wednesday for the hike: it’s at Great Falls, you have a $50 budget for food, and you need to ensure proper navigation, safety, and fun.

From those scant guidelines, they formed committees that chose the route, learned basic first aid, chose and ordered the food. My involvement consisted of showing up on Friday with a backpack and following where the learners led me. That’s it. The learners trickled in, and once they were all there, they divided up the lunch groceries and set off! 

Ms. Hannah and I followed along as they walked out of Great Falls Park, unbeknownst to them. The signage wasn’t quite clear, and they couldn’t quite figure out their map, so they set off based on what they could gather from their surroundings. We followed Difficult Run upstream, and after about an hour, they realized that this wasn’t the hike they intended, so we all turned around! We made it back to the parking lot and took the other path. Now on the path they’d planned, we stopped for lunch along some rocks in the middle of the stream.

We ate pita pizzas, turkey sandwiches, and a few snacks, like apples, bananas, and Cheez-its. At the end of lunch, the learners packed out the trash and uneaten food in their backpacks and trash bags that they’d thought to pack, and we went along the path up to a ridge along the Potomac. We found frogs, bugs, worms, and even a few snakes! After a few games and some exploration, the learners decided it was time to head back.

All parents were coming to pick them at the parking lot, and they made it back with twenty minutes to spare. When we had a little debrief, the learners determined that the hike was a success, because they learned, they had equipped themselves, and they had fun! 

Can middle schoolers plan a trip? After experiencing it, I can say that they can plan not just a trip, but a fun and rewarding adventure!

Discovering Independence in Discovery Studio

And we’re off! We’ve thrown ourselves into this new school year in Discovery Studio. 

We started the year off with the biggest Discovery Studio yet. With more learners and more space, learner independence isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. 

Being learner-led leads to so many incredible moments. Seeing young people learn, reflect, interact, and problem-solve through any obstacles is inspiring. In a world where so many adults can’t work together, watching young people work together the way they do here gives me a lot of hope for the future.

However, when a group of highly independent 6-11 year olds are first thrown together for the first time, it’s unsurprising that there are some challenges. That’s why our year starts with introductions to a lot of different systems. 

Systems are the backbone to our learner-driven community. Systems let learners decide their rules, hold each other accountable, share joys and failures, and celebrate each other. Systems let learners handle things themselves.

This group has proven that they’re eager for more independence. They’ve flown ahead in independent projects, like collaborating on an illustrated book about climate change in just one optional Friday. They’ve started thoughtfully making their contract and having constructive conversations about what they want their studio to be.

So, a bit earlier than usual, they were introduced to the system of Town Hall this week. Town Hall is a time when learners can share with their community, whether it’s solving a problem, getting feedback, or celebrating a success. They had an opportunity to write their first Town Halls of the year.

They made this meeting so much more than just an introduction. Learners brought up real issues in the studio. Even with issues I found a bit uncomfortable, they proved their maturity by having meaningful, productive conversations. They came up with their own solutions, debated their pros and cons, and voted to enact the things they felt their community needs. They celebrated each other’s progress and offered kind and helpful feedback. This group of young learners showed how much responsibility they already have for their community and their learning, and that they have the skills to work together for the greater good.

A learner driven environment can be messy at times but the ability to come together, discuss, compromise, and solve problems shows that this group is off to an incredible start.