Making Connections & Learning to Live Together

During the first few moments of the first day in Adventure Studio, learners spent time making connections with a ball of yarn. They shared one of their individual strengths and how it might contribute to their team over the course of the year, each learner connecting to the previous learner’s thoughts to create a web with the yarn. When the web was complete, they noticed what happens when one person pulled too tight or let go:  the whole team felt the impact. This was their first step in Learning to Live Together.

Adventure learners make a web of connections with one another sharing their hopes for the year and the individual strengths they will bring to their team.

If you were a fly on the wall in Adventure Studio over the past month you would have heard more connections being made that sounded like this:

“I think religion and science are both saying the same thing, just in different languages.” 

“I think if a team is working well together, there isn’t just one person who is the leader, there are many.”

“I am really grateful for everyone in the studio because we all helped each other and played important parts in our team challenge today.” 

“I believe that evidence comes before all else when it comes to believing something is true – or not.”

“Flow is something that can come naturally to me if I convince myself that whatever I’m doing is important – and if I have friends to share it with.”

“I am grateful for our studio’s ability to share different opinions in a respectful way.” 

The past four weeks have included many connections and many first attempts at Learning to Live Together, one of the outcomes in our school’s Portrait of a Graduate. We measure Learning to Live Together through documenting growth in a learner’s ability to collaborate, be compassionate and respectful, hold themselves accountable, and be a servant leader. The learning opportunities in Session 1 are designed to build a foundation for these important and lifeworthy skills to flourish throughout the year.

Civilizations is a learning experience that provides a rich space for learners to grow in all of the skills noted above. During Civilizations learners engage in quality research about a specific topic, create original arguments, think critically about historical events and figures, and listen to each other through socratic discussions. Each Civilization experience creates another web of connections for learners to consider their role as individual learners and as members of the team. Did I engage with everyone, with whom the most, and who engaged with me? How much or how little did I contribute? Whose perspective made me reconsider my own? How did my thinking change as a result of the discussion?

A map of Adventure Learner’s Civilization discussion, marking the time they spent on each discussion question, how many times they contributed to the conversation, and who they exchanged ideas with.

We all play essential roles in the web of connections that we make in our studio and out in the world. Learning to Live Together is as much about understanding ourselves as it is about understanding each other. Adventure learners will continue to build on the connections from Session 1 – what will they discover about themselves and each other this year? What will their webs of connections look like in a few months? What will they teach all of us about what it means to Live Together? As one Learner put it, “We are all more alike than we are different. We should focus more on what we all have in common.”

What do you hope for?

What are my hopes and dreams for the year? What are our hopes and wishes for the studio? What do we promise to each other in order to make these dreams a reality?

These are the questions we start with in Discovery Studio this session. Over the past few weeks, learners have been doing the very important work of identifying the answers to these questions.

First, learners brainstormed some of their personal goals for the year. Some hopes learners shared were:

“I hope I master arithmetic.”

“I hope I get better at reading.”

“I hope I learn more about astronomy.”

“I hope I make new friends.”

A Discovery Learner shares the final draft of their Hopes and Dreams for the school year.

Then, learners were challenged to envision the ideal learning environment- one that would support them in accomplishing their biggest hopes for the year. Some of their ideas included:

“A place where everyone only speaks to each other with kindness, encouragement and truth.”

“A place where everyone is responsible for their actions and their learning.”

“A place that is clean, quiet, cozy, and well organized.”

“A place where everyone always respects and listens to each other.”

“A place where mistakes are accepted.”

These ideas became the beginning of their studio contract. Each week, they get to pitch new ideas, try them out, and then vote on whether they are ready to add them to their studio contract. At the end of the session, they will sign the contract and use it as a reminder of their promises to each other throughout the year.

Ideas in the “Laboratory” are tried out for a week before learners can propose to move a promise to the final contract. So far, two promises have made it to the final contract!

But, as they say, a dream without a plan is no plan at all. The next question Discovery learners explored was- What systems and/or routines are needed to make our hopes and dreams for the year come to fruition?

From here learners were introduced to the three most important systems and routines in Discovery Studio: Daily Goal Setting, Studio Maintenance, and Community Meeting.

These systems provide the structure for learners to be successful and for their big hopes and dreams, both for themselves and for their community, to become a reality!

So- What is it actually like to be a learner in Discovery Studio?

Well, you’ll just have to wait until the end-of-session exhibition to find out. Learners are excited to share all about the special place we call Discovery Studio!

Another Day, Another Challenge

Aaand, they’re off! For their second week of school, Spark learners took on their first big group challenge. After a week and a half of routine-setting and practicing procedures, they were ready to let loose and build something cool together. They explored their new big, heavy blocks, learned how to use them safely in the studio, then got to work.

The challenge seemed simple at first–build a structure that guides a red ball from one side of the carpet into a basket at the other end. 

But it wasn’t so easy. There were only two inclines that had to be strategically placed to form a ramp. Where should they go? In what position? 

“They should go this way.” “No, not like that, like this!” “How about here?”

The ball kept falling off course before it reached the end. How to keep it on a straight path?

“I think there should be a wall. Make a wall around the basket.”

As guides, it was so neat to step back and watch this young group work as a team. All by themselves, they pointed out problems, tried out solutions, failed, and tried again with lightning speed. Sure, there were occasional arguments over whose block was whose and which ideas to use. If the learners couldn’t manage to solve conflicts themselves, guides helped them take turns, make respectful requests, and support each other. But more often than not, the learners took the reigns and figured out how to work together.

That wasn’t all of course. At the end of the first day, they still hadn’t solved the challenge. They were getting close to a solution, but the ball kept losing momentum before it reached its target and was falling to the floor.

After cleaning up, one learner concluded that the day was not a success. This proved an interesting point of discussion to start our second day. Was that true? Other learners volunteered that since they had tried hard and worked together, and found ways that didn’t work, it had been successful after all. 

That second day, they set about planning, drawing their ideas and proposing additional tweaks that would eventually steer the ball to its target. They tried building it again and again and this time found success. “It’s working!” “Wahoo!” They tried over and over, seeing what solutions made it even more consistent and stable. All the while they cheered and congratulated each other.

It’s real-world experiences and challenges like these that teach the “hard skills” we emphasize here at The Village School. The ability to collaborate, solve problems, think critically, be kind even when you’re frustrated, contribute ideas, reach compromises, resolve conflicts, and celebrate hard work are so important for success in learning, a career, and life in general. Reading, writing, and math? Those skills are important, too. But let’s call those soft skills. We promise, they follow soon after!   

New Year- Same Mission

When our youngest son was four, he loved the act of throwing rocks into the water, by carefully selecting a stone and watching the impact as it hit the water’s surface. He loved seeing the ripples, watching them circle the rock’s point of entry and move outwards, creating small waves in the surrounding water. He could do this for hours.

Now, at age 10, he could still do this for hours- though the task has changed from simply throwing rocks to skipping rocks.

It’s evident to me why he has always loved this so much- the act of throwing a rock into the water. In the sacred space, he is in charge. He chooses the rock, how much force to use, and what direction to throw it. He chooses the pace, how many rocks he throws in a certain period of time, and when to take a break. In the comings and goings of life, the prescriptive nature of childhood, and a largely adult-imposed agenda, my son is captivated by this space that allows him freedom and choice. He has agency over his experience.

When I think of this sweet memory, it always reminds me that is truly what we all want, children and adults alike. We all want the opportunity to impact the world in some way- to see the ripples, the effects of our actions, no matter how big or small the splash. We all want the chance to stand back proudly and think, “I did that.”

This is the magic of self-directed learning- of a learning environment where young people learn by doing and effectively have the chance to see the ripples of their choices and actions.

As we settle into new routines and rhythms this school year, we do so with our mission at the forefront- a mission to give young people agency in their learning so that they can discover what they can uniquely contribute to the world around them.

Every step of the way, they’ll be discovering how powerful they are, as individuals, and as a community. They’ll be making messes, celebrating successes, and constructing deep and meaningful learning.

Again and again, they’ll be making their own ripples in the water and standing back to think, “I did that.”

Session 1 “Sneak Peek”

Session 1 is all about building the” team” at The Village School. Learning to live together is an essential skill and creating an environment where every learner feels like they belong and have something to contribute provides the foundation for meaningful learning. Each studio will focus on building the team through games, discussions, and projects designed to foster their individual and collective identities and will explore the questions, “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”

Spark Studio

Welcome to Spark Studio! Spark learners will spend this session learning the routines of the studio and building a community. Each week, learners will explore different areas of the studio, sing songs, and learn about each other.  We will introduce materials at a slow pace so learners can turn routines into habits that will make learning fun all year. Our returning learners will lead our community every step of the way.

Discovery Studio

Discovery will kick off the school year with lots of teamwork and collaboration! For our Build the Team Quest, we will work together to develop our promises to one another and learn how we can best take care of our physical space and each other. We will be getting creative and growing as a team through art projects, maker activities, and more! During Writer’s Workshop, learners will take on the role of journalists, getting to know each other through interviews and writing biographies to share the stories of the learners who make up Discovery Studio with the community. 

Adventure Studio

Welcome to the Building a Team Challenge! This session is all about building a team and mapping a path for individual and collective Adventures. Each week the group will spend time working through a series of Building Challenges, requiring each learner to discover their own unique strengths and imagine how they might add value to their team. Adventure learners will welcome adults who are teammates in their professional lives into the studio to learn about how they have successfully – or not successfully – built a team.  

Learners will also work towards building their own individual beliefs. They will explore what has built the beliefs of others including world-class athletes, famous authors, and their fellow Adventurers. After brainstorming and reflecting, learners will explore one true belief that is important to their character. 

The time spent this session building the team will serve the Adventure Studio well as they take on more responsibility and leadership roles throughout the school community. As the leaders of the school, their collaboration will serve as inspiration for what is possible in a community like ours at The Village School.

Big Feelings

It is the end of the session. A time where we celebrate big achievements like work ethic and dedication throughout a session.

It is also the time when session-long projects are due. Learners can work at their own pace for much of their learning but every session, we do a big project together (Quest) and explore a writing genre together (Writer’s Workshop/Communications). These projects are due each session to help learners stay on track and be ready to tackle something new with their full focus and attention next session!

That means that learners can feel anxious or overwhelmed if they fall behind. It is important to them to catch up and earn this badge because they care about their education. They take responsibility for it.

So the next time that they (and inevitably you) are sitting with big end of session feelings, I hope you remember these two things:

  1.  Your learner’s feelings translate to “I care deeply about my learning.” “I want to do well.”

2.  This experience is a catalyst for learners. Time and time again, we see that it motivates them to try something new in the next session. They are proud of themselves when they stay on track and become masters of their procrastination.

And always, the stakes are low. It won’t feel like that to your learner but they can always try again. It is far better for them to experience the effects of procrastination now than in college or working a real job. They learn from these experiences, try again, and find success. Then they are that much more prepared for the future!

What’s Changed?

Every year at this time, I marvel at the transformations of the young people in front of me. Yes, they are all a little bit taller, more physically adept and coordinated. But what I’m referring to is the transformation in how they see themselves- as learners, as readers, as mathematicians, as explorers, as friends- as leaders of their own learning.

I wonder- do they see themselves the way I do? Do they have a clear understanding of how much they’ve grown? Certainly, I could tell them but do they know?

So, over the course of the past several days, I asked them, “What’s changed for you this year?”

Using the sentence frame, “I used to ___________, and now I __________,” this is what they said: 

“I used to think I was bad at math but now I think I’m good at it.”

“I used to not be as interested in discussions but now I really like them- especially Civilization discussions.” 

“I used to think I was bad at reading but now I know I’m good at it.”

“I used to not like school. It was boring but now I love school.” 

“I used to rely on a teacher to learn but now I rely on myself.” 

“I used to not have as much freedom in what I could read but now I do and because of that reading is not a chore and is fun.”

“I used to not have a lot of say in what I wanted to learn about and now I do and because of that I have learned a lot more- like history, life skills, and communicating well through writing.”

“I used to be afraid of asking questions but now I am not and I love asking questions and finding the answers myself.” 

“I used to ask only questions to grown-ups but now I ask my peers questions to help me learn.” 

“I used to be really shy around older people but now I have a lot more confidence to talk to people of all ages.” 

“I used to think that quest was hard and in my panic zone and now I think it’s in my challenge zone.” 

“I used to not be as encouraged to speak in front of people but now I am more comfortable.”

“I used to try and dress a certain way and now I wear what I want.”

“I used to think making forts was hard but now I know I can do it.” 

“I used to be scared to share what I believed or how I felt but now I am comfortable sharing what I believe is right or wrong and how I feel about things.”

“I used to not care about a lot of things but now I care about so many things.”

They know it’s not a test and there are no right or wrong answers. And so they share these things with me thoughtfully as they are skilled at reflecting on their learning by this point in the year.

They smile as they share, many of them reaffirming their words after speaking them. “Yes, that’s what’s changed for me,” and I smile back in gratitude for this gift.

Help your learner get “unstuck”

A learner was stuck. Not atypical in the world of self-directed learning because after all, learning is hard work. What was unusual is that this learner discovered a remarkable way to get unstuck.

This learner is an artist. She is passionate about her art but in the past few months, she hadn’t been feeling motivated. 

A guide asked her the question, “What if you created art for others?” 

This flipped the problem on its head. It was no longer about finding the motivation from within; it was about using the present motivation from others. The learner announced in Town Hall that she would take requests for paintings. All of a sudden, she was painting again.

We hope our learners are intrinsically motivated. But even the most intrinsically motivated people feel unmotivated sometimes, and that’s normal. When you are doing something challenging and worthwhile, not all parts are fun! We all have to do the ‘paperwork’ side of things. 

But perhaps the next time your learner (or you!) are feeling stuck, you can try this strategy. What can you give to others?

Helping another learner with Khan Academy
An older learner helping a younger learner with the 100s Board

Setting Boundaries

Earlier this school year, our eleven year old would come home every day and tell us he had so much school work to do. He’d eat a snack, do his chores and settle in with his lab top, notebook and pen. He’d work for hours, unless his self-assigned homework was cut short by sports practice or other family events. As I prepped dinner, I had come to expect the cheery “ping” in the background as he practiced and mastered math problems on Khan Academy, followed by an enthusiastic, “YES!” when he got a problem right. Often, I’d see him collaborating with peers via Google Chat or Video, reviewing each other’s work or working on challenges together. From my vantage point, he was definitely taking responsibility for his education.

At first I was impressed- my middle schooler is choosing to learn and do school work with zero prompting from me? Isn’t this every parent’s dream? Until one day, I realized we had a problem. His school work was cutting into our family time. Walks with the dog, family dinners, and leisure and play time with friends and neighbors were met with resistance or outbursts of overwhelm. Day to day, our family schedule was not reflecting our values of rest, fun, and connection and our son’s life seemed significantly out of balance. It was time to redraw the boundaries so we were making time for the things that were really important to us as a family.

So I set a limit on “home” work. He could do no more than one hour of work and all devices were powered down by 8:00pm. When I heard “but I won’t be able to get everything done!”, I was prepared.

“Hmm, tell me about that. Tell me about your school day and how you’re using your time,” I said.

We sat down and looked at Journey Tracker together. He walked me through his day. We clicked on the challenges, looking at the requirements and expectations together. We explored how much time different things were taking and after we did this, his panic subsided, and he said, “I guess I do have enough time to complete my work at school. I just need to use it better.”

After that, things changed. Knowing that he had a limit on the amount of time he could work at home, he started using his time more efficiently at school. Some things got done and some things did not. This is still the case. But he knows what the boundaries are and can make his choices inside those parameters.

In many ways, our son is stumbling his way towards prioritizing the things most important to him- not unlike the way many of us do as adults. There’s always more to do. There are a million different ways to fill a day. But how to fill it in a way that reflects your values? It’s a process and we’re learning together.

From my perspective, I see him learning all of the things I want him to- learning to learn, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together.

Getting back to “Normal”

As of Tuesday, our school is officially mask-optional in all studios. I walked around the hallways to see smiling faces. It felt amazingly normal and totally foreign. 

One learner walked around on the first day and kept remarking, “It is weird to see everyone’s faces! I keep thinking that I’m forgetting something when I walk into the building!”

Of course, everyone is welcome to still wear a mask, and it is possible that we might have to return to masking for a period in the future, but overall, it feels like we are finding the light at the end of the tunnel.

We are getting back to “normal”. Or perhaps, a “new normal” because the world has changed and we have changed with it. We are not the same people that we were two years ago.

Change is the constant in life. The most important part is learning how to evolve.