“Tree-VS”: Adventure Studio’s Mural

Guest Contributors: Hazel Hales & Charlotte Myers, Adventure Studio Learners

Adventure Studio was challenged to design and create a mural for the Session 6 Quest, based on the murals in Washington, DC. Although we faced challenges and obstacles, our mural exceeded expectations and we are proud to share it with the TVS community!

To start the Mural process, we took a field trip to DC, where we went on a Mural Tour. Studying these murals inspired a list of things that every mural has 

  • vibrant colors
  • relatable to the location of the mural neighborhood/community
  • really big
  • represents something beyond – symbolic 

We used this rubric, as well as input from the community, to create our designs. We split into three groups, each coming up with an individual design, and then combined them into the final design. 

To start the painting process, we primed our masonite boards with two coats of primer (hoping to not get it on our clothes!), making it weather proof . And after two days of priming, we were ready to sketch!

Although mumbles of, “I have no artistic ability ” kept flying around, we were thankfully able to use a projector, projecting the image onto the boards and then trace the lines. This gave us a template to sketch it on the boards and would keep it proportionate. After finishing, we painted the entire thing with the first coat, and kept it up with the second and third coats, until week seven, when we finished and signed it. 

This mural represents the journey of the learners and trailblazers, when they come to the Village School. There are many symbolic representations in our mural, and each message applies to our school. 

The trees represent the growth of the learners as they move through the different studios, from Spark to Adventure. The caterpillar on the spark tree eventually turning into a butterfly on the Adventure tree serves the same purpose, representing growth. Next to the trees, there are symbols, a rose next to the spark tree represents a new beginning, the start of the hero’s journey. The apple represents discovery, since the apple that fell on Newton’s head led him to discovering gravity. The compass represents adventure, because of it being a necessary traveling tool, leading adventurers to their final goal, and destination. And the spirals on the sun and trees represent the journey, a cycle of accepting a call, embracing challenge, and learning important lessons.

Ms. Carrie, our Artist in Residence, was an essential part of this project. She provided us with materials and gave us guidance as we chose colors, size, placements, and how to fix mistakes, so shout out to her! 

Before this Quest, a lot of us thought that we couldn’t draw very well, and that we were bad at painting. But, we’ve all grown in our understanding of art, artistic abilities, and ability to work together, and we made something that we’re all proud of.

This video shows our process start to finish!

Measuring what Matters 

This week marks the one week each school year that our elementary and middle school learners spend time with a standardized test. They show up to school, sit in front of their computers and try to determine the best answer: A, B, C, or D. For these few hours our studios full of learners look a lot like classrooms full of students. 

Before we begin the testing experience, we spend time considering the purpose of the test and what it does and doesn’t measure. Like so many other mornings, we begin with a story and some questions: 

You are about to go on a solo trip on a sailboat around the world. It will take you 3-4 years to circle the globe. You will be alone on the sailboat with all your provisions. And because vast portions of the ocean are so remote, much of the time you will only have your wits to rely on.

Question 1: How will you prepare yourself for this epic journey?

  • Study and take a test
  • Go out and sail every day in vastly different conditions, taking longer and longer trips until you feel prepared

Question 2: Imagine this… You have a dream to become the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company. You have an amazing idea but little business experience. What do you do?

  • Study and take a test
  • Talk to other CEOs and experiment your idea by starting very small and growing

Question 3: Imagine this… You want to write and produce your own Broadway play- it’s going to be the next Hamilton! You know how to write and understand music but you have never written a play before. What should you do next?

  • Study and take a test
  • Write a play, get feedback, and try again

In most of these scenarios of epic adventures, our learners identified that the best way to prepare for the journey is to practice and develop their skills, not take a test. Life is an epic adventure and often, the real test is the journey each of us go on. And yet, in most schools, a standardized test is the only way that learning is measured and success is defined. 

The last question we pose to our learners is the most important and resulted in the most profound responses.

Question 4: And really importantly, what does this test not measure that will help you on your life adventure as you blaze your own trail?

Our learners’ responses included…

“It won’t measure how good of a friend I am.”

“Collaboration and how well I work with others and even how well I work with myself.”

“Basically every character trait that we think is important – like curiosity and compassion.”


“How funny I am.”

“How I’ve grown in public speaking.”

“All of the things we talk about in Health & Wellness.”

We closed our conversation confirming our learner’s ideas – that each of them are so much more than a score on a standardized test, and we reminded ourselves of some of our TVS core beliefs. 

We believe who you are is more important than what you know. We believe that a learner should only ever compare themselves to who they were yesterday – not to the person next to them or to some arbitrary standard. We believe that all young people have a calling that has the power to change the world. We believe that what really matters can’t possibly be measured on a test.

Apprenticeship Season: Adventure Awaits! 

This session middle schoolers are hard at work trying to secure an apprenticeship for the final session of the school year. This real-world experience, typically reserved for juniors in college, is something we are proud to offer learners as young as 11 here at TVS. The apprenticeship, like much of our learning design, is intentionally named. The term apprentice is from the old French word, “apprentiz” meaning “someone learning” typically from a mentor in a specific field of interest. The word apprentice also relies heavily on a relationship between a mentor and a mentee. Growing our learners’ “village” is a large part of the apprenticeship experience goal. 

The apprenticeship experience is a cornerstone of our school, as it draws on all three pillars of our learning design and puts into action our vision of empowering young people to discover their passions and share them with the world. 


We believe young people are capable of so much more than the world typically gives them credit for. Over a seven-week session learners will identify, research, and secure a meaningful apprenticeship working in a position where they can use and hone their greatest gifts, and explore an industry, company, and assignment that will advance them towards their calling in the world. Learners take personality quizzes that provide potential career fields to consider, determine what jobs they would never enjoy, as well as jobs they might consider the perfect match for their passions and skills. Learners are entirely responsible for this process, acting as the leaders in this work, while their parents and guides cheer them on as they go.


We believe that experience is the best teacher. Each step of the TVS apprenticeship is an experience that teaches learners about themselves and the world around them. The “process” here is just as important as the “product” (actually securing an apprenticeship). We consider it essential for learners to go through the process of reaching out to professionals, deal with getting “no’s” or no responses from potential apprenticeships, and to persevere and move forward. We know that our learners’ memories of time spent with a mentor in a field of their interest will last a lifetime. 


We believe that who you are is much more important than what you know. The experience of learning from a mentor beyond our school walls is a chance for learners to further develop the TVS character traits they work towards and reflect upon all year including: leadership, responsibility, gratitude, accountability, compassion, and trust. We also believe in what we call real-world feedback: feedback from the real world, rather than feedback from our own community. This kind of exchange is character building and important in terms of character development and growth. 

Our commitment to middle school apprenticeships is also an act of trust. We trust young people and we believe they can do and will do so much more than is generally expected of them. What will they learn from spending time with a professional podcaster, a Montessori educator, a costume designer, an entrepreneur, a chocolatier, a CFO, or a small business owner…. We can’t wait to see what each of them do and learn as they blaze their own trails this apprenticeship season. 3 – 2 – 1 Adventure Awaits! 

Session 6 Sneak Peek

Session 6 at The Village School will bring meaningful learning experiences to all of our studios. Learners will explore the world, discover plant science, express themselves through creative writing, design an original mural, and more! Read more about all of the experiences each studio has to look forward to over the next session.

Spark Studio

In Session 6, Spark learners will embark on an international quest. They will explore the cultures of countries on all seven continents. Learners will first design their own passport, complete with a stamp design representing a place they want to visit. They will then examine landforms on our planet and construct and paint their own imaginary island.  With the help of older learners from other studios, they will then pick a continent or country of interest and research the different cultures, foods, clothing, artifacts, landmarks,  music, and animals that make that place unique. 

Spark learners will also hear the history of how the continents came to be and how they evolved by listening to the  Five Great Lessons and participating in hands-on demonstrations. At the end of the session, learners will display their unique project creations within the studio.

Discovery Studio

During the Session 6 Community Garden Quest, Discovery learners will step into the shoes of gardeners. We will begin the session exploring plant science, including cellular biology, photosynthesis, decomposition, capillary action, germination, and pollination. Discovery learners will then apply what they have learned to their own garden space at Ms. Jenny’s. As gardeners, they will take on the responsibilities of planning, building, and raising a garden.

In this session’s Writer’s Workshop, Discovery Learners will write a story with the goal of  inspiring young people to read. They will create a great story by stepping into the shoes of a creative fiction author. Each week, they will write a draft of a new story or continue working on one they have started. At the end of the session, they will choose one story to revise, edit, and publish into a real book that will be added to the Spark Studio library!

Adventure Studio

It’s Apprenticeship Season in Adventure Studio! This session learners will research three possible apprenticeship opportunities, craft emails, elevator pitches, and talking points to help secure a placement. The Apprenticeship is one of the cornerstones of the TVS middle school experience – and one we are so proud to facilitate. Sending young people out into the world to learn about their strengths and passions is what we are all about. 

This session’s Adventure Quest will require creative expression, collaboration, and lots of paint, as learners design, create, and install an original mural to display in the TVS playground. Learners will research the history of mural making, one of the earliest types of artistic expression, local murals, and muralists. The project will kick-off with a walking tour of the many murals in Washington, D.C.’s U Street corridor. We can’t wait to invite you to the unveiling of the final creation sometime this spring.  

Health & Wellness

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Self-directed learning is a focal point of discussion at The Village School. Most of our learners have a good understanding of what this means, what this looks like, what is going well, and how they want to improve. But, what does it mean to be self-directed in our relationships with others? During session 6, we will explore what it looks like to be self-directed in our friendships and in our families. 

We will also begin to explore our purpose. What social connections give our life meaning? What achievements have we accomplished? What do we hope to accomplish in the future? How do we express ourselves in a way that aligns with our purpose? What parts of our lives bring us excitement and joy? What gives our life meaning?

Designing Meaningful Learning Experiences

Meaningful learning experiences at The Village School have a research-based, intentional design. As guides, we work each session to create a storyline that fulfills the following criteria:

  • Authenticity: learners will find the storyline compelling, and make a personal connection 
  • Lifeworthy: learners will have multiple opportunities throughout to build on their strengths, and develop interdisciplinary skills, such as those outlined in our Portrait of a Graduate
  • Experiential: learners are connected to the world beyond the school campus, through field trips and guest speakers

And, like all good stories, the experience must have a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

This session, our middle school learners  were challenged to identify a topic they were passionate about, research the topic and develop a strong opinion, write a persuasive speech on the topic, and deliver the speech to an audience of their peers and families. 

The Beginning

The project launched with a field trip to downtown Washington, D.C. to stand in the very spot that MLK stood when delivering his most famous speech. Learners stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, listened to MLK’s dreams for our country and looked out across the national mall to the U.S. Capitol, where they would share their speeches in just six weeks. After listening to MLK’s speech, learners walked along the National Mall to the MLK memorial where they considered how King’s words have continued to inspire new generations. 

Experiences like this, where learners are an active participant in the world beyond our studios, is part of our storyline. Our goal is that young people see themselves as an important part of the world beyond our studios, and that young people experience the world instead of just reading about the world. 

The Middle

After an inspirational day in the nation’s capital, learners returned to the studio where they watched examples of other inspiring speeches given by kids their own age – like an 11 year old’s speech at the March for Our Lives, and a 15 year old’s speech at the United Nations. Learners considered what elements made these powerful speeches and then began the task of selecting their own topic. 

To choose a topic learners had to ask themselves questions that many middle schoolers are never asked to consider: What am I most passionate about? What changes do I wish I could see in my community, or the world? What is something that I deeply care about? What are my hopes for my future? What are my future hopes for my community and my world? How can my voice make a positive change in the world? 

Speech topics ranged from taking care of our planet, raising awareness about learning disabilities, education that treats young people as human, new views on overpopulation, the value of freetime for young people, and kids’ right to vote. 

Learners spent the next several weeks focusing on each aspect of their speech: the introduction, taglines, compelling evidence, elements of persuasion, and mic-dropping conclusions. This involved several rounds of feedback, and a practice run where each learner shared their entire speech. 

The End

After 5 ½ weeks of preparation, learners traveled back downtown to Washington, D.C., this time to the U.S. Capitol. Learners spent the morning on a tour of the capital, taking in the rotunda, statues, and the hallways of history before making their way to the Kennedy Caucus Room in the U.S. Senate to share their dreams for their communities in front of each other, their families, and other members of our school community. 

Here are a few excerpts from their final speeches:

“Now, what I take from this story is that teenagers need help. They are stressing about grades, college, maintaining a social identity and are feeling more persistent sadness and hopelessness than ever.  As a teen, I find myself asking why?  Why is this happening to my generation? What is causing this growth in teenage unhappiness?  As a teenager, I am here to offer my views on one, what exactly the problem is, two why this is a problem and how it came to be, and three, how we can solve the problem.” 

“It’s important to understand what learner-centered education is. It’s what it sounds like. Their learning is centered around them. It means that each individual learner is honored for who they are and what they need because each person is different and unique. I want more kids to experience this learning because this is education done right. It should be accessible to kids all over the country, and the world.”

I am tired of kids being treated unfairly whether it’s not being trusted or not being listened to. Kids may not have fully developed minds, maybe we don’t have as much experience in the real world, Sometimes what we say doesn’t even make sense, but we know right from wrong and that is why our society needs to listen and hear what the next generation has to say. Today I am here to tell you why kids should be treated like humans and to go even farther to say that we should be able to vote and even run for office.”


The morning after, learners spent time reflecting on the experience. When asked how they felt, they shared:

Proud because I wrote an excellent speech in just a few days.

Amazes me that I was able to do that, I don’t think that I could have done that a year ago

Proud that I was able to memorize a lot of it and I was able to look up at the audience.

Proud because I can tell how much my writing has improved since last time

Proud of my idea and how I included a personal story to connect. 

Validated that audience seemed to agree and connect with my speech

I noticed that my writer’s voice has really developed this year.

Cultivating a sense of agency among young people is a part of our TVS mission statement. We define agency in young people as a feeling of confidence and a strong belief that they have a voice in their life, their communities, and their world. These reflections are evidence to us that the learner agency is alive and well after this learning experience – and it’s our goal that this is the case after each of our learning experiences throughout each year.

Witnessing the kind of change that occurs in young people after an inspirational, meaningful, and relevant learning experience gives us hope and it’s what keeps us coming back each day. At a time when the future seems like it could not be more uncertain, we simply have to look to our learners to see that there is indeed, so much hope for the future. 

Session 5 Sneak Peek

Spark Studio

How can we celebrate individuals of the past who’ve made a positive impact in the world while looking towards future leaders of tomorrow? We will start the session learning about people, places, and things that have positively contributed to our society. Learners will examine the choices these individuals made through stories and artistry. Learners will discuss how their choices have guided the outcomes of the world.

Learners will then research an artist, pioneers, or an entrepreneur who inspires them. We will document their journeys, create autobiographies of learners’ future selves, and dress like these innovators of tomorrow. Learners will also create a business plan which will highlight the problem they would like to solve, the one main idea they will create to solve it, and how to inform the targeted audience about the product or service. 

Learners will explore different states in the USA and countries of the continent of Africa. In some cases, they will hear about a problem faced by that place, look at the available resources, and think about ways to improve the situation. In projects this session, learners will plant food and flowers, design a state of their own, and make a no-sew stuffed animal.

These projects will help learners see and celebrate themselves as part of history as they act as makers of their future.

Discovery Studio

In the Making Space for Change Quest, Discovery learners will work in teams to redesign a local public space to be more sustainable. We will start the session learning about what sustainability means. Learners will then explore different sources of renewable energy, water management practices, and building materials before determining the most important sustainable design principles for their public space. Learners will then create a model of a local public space that they have redesigned to use resources more responsibly. 

In Writer’s Workshop this session, learners will learn more about young people who are tackling some of our environmental and sustainability issues and dive in to the (not yet lost) art of letter writing! Learners will write a long, formal letter to an environmental trailblazer of their choice. In their letters, learners will express gratitude, find common ground, and try to seek a response. The goals of this Writers’ Workshop are to encourage learners to discover more about individuals who are making a positive difference in the world and to explore the different backgrounds and origins of these trailblazers in order to further understand that heroes come from everywhere- and can be any age!

Adventure Studio

Learners will jump into Session 5 with a field trip to the Lincoln & MLK memorial to launch the Session 5 Communications Challenge: I Have a Dream for My Community – a TVS Adventure Studio tradition. Learners will spend time researching issues that are important to them, studying the persuasive techniques of other passionate young people, and developing a ten minute speech. Learners will end the session by sharing their final speeches in front of an audience of our community in the Kennedy Room at the United States Capitol.

What does red hair, blue eyes, freckles, dimples, toes and ear lobes all have in common? The Genetics & Bioethics Quest will ask learners to develop a basic understanding of the biological concepts of genetics, as well as consider some of the greatest bioengineering ethical dilemmas of our lifetime. Learners will spend the first half of the session delving into 6 mini-genetics challenges focused on Mendel, Punnett Squares, Di-hybrid crosses and more. Each completed mini-challenge will earn learners additional argument time in the bioethics debate that will take place the last week of the session. 

These two projects will require learners to delve into research skills, hone their persuasive techniques, and step out of their comfort zone in several ways: developing arguments that challenge their own perspectives, or deliver a ten-minute speech in front of a crowded room. Each experience will prove to themselves that they are ready for the ultimate challenge that will come next – a real world apprenticeship. We’ll be cheering them on each step of the way – Adventure Studio, we can’t wait to see what you’ll do next!

Health & Wellness

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” ~E.E. Cummings

Session 5 will be a time to embrace curiosity and what it means to have a growth mindset. Our study of “learning to be” will continue with learning to be curious about ourselves, our inner dialogue, our imperfections, who we are as learners, friends, and individuals in our community. 

Curiosity will be explored through questions about ourselves and the world around us. We will analyze the questions we have and embrace the unknown. We will also discuss curiosity vs. judgment and why this is an important tool to use today. Remaining curious when others express value differences is a life skill. We will discuss how we can remain curious in these difficult moments. 

Do you know whether you have a growth or fixed mindset? Did you know that there are several different types of mindsets? We will be reflecting on who we are when we face challenges and tough moments. What type of person do we want to be? How do we view our imperfections? What can we do to embrace who we are and see ourselves as a whole person? Imperfections and all! The learners will be challenged to embrace who they are and continue on their journey to discovering their value and how they make a difference in our world. 

Advice From a Self-Directed Learner

Over a year ago I partnered with a TVS learner, who is now an alumni, to write an article with the hopes of getting published in a well-known educational magazine that had a call for proposals focused on Self-Directed learning. Our purpose was to raise the voice of a young person, a self-directed learner, in a magazine full of what we assumed would most likely be adult voices. Despite the fact that we failed at achieving our goal, we’d like to think that the experience was still valuable: we learned about each other, we considered different perspectives, and, once again, we confirmed our belief that a self-directed learning environment is rich for all those involved.

Advice From a Self-Directed Learner

by Emy Fase & Elizabeth Dean

A self-directed classroom where students follow their own intrinsic passions and emerge as life-long learners is every teacher’s dream. Most teachers themselves would call themselves life-long learners. For many of us, seeking out our own learning opportunities is the best part of our job. We are constantly reading articles, buying new books, and crowd-sourcing inspiration on social media. What we often overlook is the most valuable source for professional learning is right in front of us: our students. When I wanted to know more about how to create a self-directed learning experience for my students, the first thing I did was find a self-directed learner and have a conversation. Conversations with my students have been some of the most meaningful learning experiences that I have had as an educator. When I have made the effort to really listen to how a learner experienced the learning process, I’ve learned so much more than I could from any book. The following is Emy’s response to the question: What should teachers know about what it’s like to be a self-directed learner? Emy’s response taught me – and can teach others – quite a bit about what it’s like to be a part of a self-directed learning community. 

I have been a self-directed learner for the past four years. My name is Emy Fase, and I attended a traditional school up until fifth grade when I became one of the founding learners at my current school. I’m currently 14 and am passionate about psychology, debating, and anything to do with history from books to fashion. I chose to switch to a self-directed school because at my old school I was doing fine educationally, but I was very reserved and needed to be in an environment where I couldn’t just hide in the crowd and would have to develop my voice. When I switched schools I was the oldest at my new school and had to leave my comfort zone and take on more leadership roles. My fourth-grade stomach churned at the idea of even speaking up when something was wrong, so If I told myself then that in 4 years I would be giving a speech at the senate building, I truly would not have believed that it would be possible. Over my four years in a learner-driven environment, I’ve watched myself, and others fail, succeed and grow. I’ve also seen what has and hasn’t worked in a learner-driven environment. So as someone who has been in both a traditional and a learner-driven school, here are three things all educators should know about what it’s like to be a student in a self-directed learning community. 

1. Everyone learns in different ways. During my time at a traditional school, I saw myself and many of my peers struggling with some of the work we were given. At the time I always just assumed the reason I was having a hard time was that the work was just too hard. Looking back, I realized that it wasn’t that the work was too hard, or that my peers and I weren’t smart. We were having a hard time because the tools being provided weren’t fit for our individual learning needs, because while the tools were right for some, they weren’t for others. In traditional schools, the curriculum is very one size fits all, which leads to kids who don’t learn in that particular way feeling frustrated and often with gaps in their learning. For example, everybody has to learn algebra, but not everybody learns algebra the same way, and everybody has to learn to read, but not all kids learn to read at the same pace or in the same ways, or want to read the same books. If you aren’t learning the right way for you, it will often leave you feeling frustrated and the information will only be remembered short-term, if at all. From my experience at a learner-driven school, being able to learn in a way that made sense to me, my overall understanding and interest in topics went up, and I found myself excited to go to school every day instead of trying to fake sick to get out of it. For all students to reach their full potential and enjoyment in learning, they need to be able to learn in a way that makes sense to them. 

2. Learning curves are real – and emotional. For many students switching to a learner-driven school, there’s usually a learning curve that takes a bit of getting used to. However, those learning curves aren’t always strictly academic. I remember when I first started out at a learner-driven school after being in a traditional school for six years. I had always been a very quiet kid, and switching schools was quite intimidating to me. For my entire first week at my new school, I didn’t talk to anyone. And in turn, I had no idea what I was doing, however by the next week, I had begun to open up, and with the help of my peers, we all slowly began to get in our groove and figure the new system out. My mom’s approach at the time was to let me be for the first few months while I adjusted. She didn’t ask to see my work or try to check in on my progress. To her surprise, when she finally decided to ask about halfway through the year I had been ahead of the track. Now, if she had decided to check in on me in that first month of being there, this would have been a completely different story, because from an outside perspective on that whole first month it would have appeared that I was making no progress. In reality, I was making progress, not on my designated work but on figuring out this new system, how I learned and how I could motivate myself. Learning curves can be very different depending on the person. Some could be a week, some could be months or even most of the first year. Some emotional, some academic, or some both. I haven’t only noticed this curve in my own experience, but my peers as well. After a few years, I became more aware of these starting learning curves in others. New students would often take a few weeks to a few months to adjust and figure everything out, and like me, would often get nothing done in those periods of time. But once they became comfortable with the new learning model and environment, they would quickly meet and exceed their initial learning goals. 

3. Community is key. One of my favorite parts of being in a learner-driven school is the community. Community is important to each class, because even when you’re teaching yourself, sometimes you still need others to fall back on! And when you have a strong community of learners, they are always there to lift you back up, and help you start going again. In a community of peers when there’s no teachers to intervene, everyone has to hold each other accountable, and when it’s coming from a learner similar to you, that feedback is often taken more seriously and helps everyone be their best self. Everyone always is able to connect with everyone through shared experiences, we’re all trying to figure out this learning thing ourselves, and together. Whenever someone was struggling with something, there was always someone willing to help them try to figure it out, because if you have a good community, everyone will want each other to succeed.

Trusting students is the throughline to all of Emy’s reflections – and believe it or not, for us adults, it might be the hardest part. Our country has a history of not trusting young people. It is no mistake that the United States is the only nation that has yet to ratify the most rapidly ratified treaty in the history of the United Nations, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The CRC advocates for children’s rights, and specifically advocates to place trust in children as active decision makers and leaders alongside adults (United Nations, 1989). 

Over thirty years since the CRC was ratified, young people in our country face the most severe mental health crisis of a lifetime. Between reports of depressive episodes and anxiety screening for eight year olds, we face a national emergency (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2021; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 2022). Not to mention, students are leaving our schools more disengaged and disconnected to their learning than when they started (Quaglia, 2016). 

Despite the grim outlook, there is hope. Emy reminds us of all of the benefits of trusting students, and her experience is confirmed by research. When students are trusted in school they are more engaged in their own learning (Camino, 2000; Flutter & Rudduck, 2004; Rubin & Silva, 2003), report confidence in their mental well-being (Murphey, Lamonda, Carney, & Duncan, 2004), and believe in themselves to be a positive force in the world (Quaglia, 2016). 

Emy reminds us to trust young people to discover how they learn best, trust them to navigate the emotional aspects of learning, and to trust that often, young people can teach each other more effectively than we can. Learner driven spaces are built on trust – and so are healthy communities in and outside of schools. Emy and I challenge you to take the first step to creating a learner-driven experience: start a conversation. We recommend the question: What do you wish adults understood about what it’s like to be a student here? 


  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021). AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 
  • Camino, L. A. (2000). Youth-adult partnerships: Entering new territory in community work and research. Applied Developmental Science, 4, 11-20. 
  • Flutter, J., & Rudduck, J. (2004). Consulting pupils (1. publ. ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer. Murphey, D. A., Lamonda, K. H., Carney, J. K., & Duncan, P. (2004). Relationships of a brief measure of youth assets to health-promoting and risk behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 34(3), 184-191. 
  • Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations. (2016). School voice report. New York, New York: Corwin Press. 
  • United Nations. (1989). UN general assembly, convention on the rights of the child.
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. (2022). Screening for Anxiety in Children and Adolescents. https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org
  • Rubin, B., & Silva, E. (Eds.). (2003). Critical voices in school reform: Students living through the change (1. publ. ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

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 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.

Dear Math

Dear Math, 

I’m sorry about the way I’ve treated you for the majority of my life. I can still remember the moment I turned on you, the moment I decided I wasn’t a “you-person”. It was in second grade when I didn’t pass the test on how to make change. Instead of attending my remedial math lesson, I hid in the classroom coat closet reading Ramona the Pest, swearing you off forever. I avoided you for the rest of my school experience. I even managed to get away with no math courses on my college transcript. It didn’t help that I spent ten years of my adult life as an English teacher, which sealed my fate as a “not a math person”. I called you names like boring and pointless for practically all of my childhood and most of my adulthood. It wasn’t until I took a statistics course just a few years ago when I realized that maybe…just maybe…I didn’t loathe you like I thought. 

I’ll never claim to be a non-math person again – and now I realize how foolish I was to accept the dichotomy of math and English. Two things can be true: I can be good at math and love to read and write. I can struggle to learn math, and I can enjoy the process. So, I’m sorry that it took me so long to come to this realization.Thanks for your patience, math. Please accept my apology.



One of the first math challenges of the year in Adventure studio was to write a letter to math. The above is an excerpt from my own letter. What if you were tasked with the challenge – what would you write, what story would your letter tell? Would your letter sound similar to mine? If you had to graph your relationship with math over the course of your life, how would it look? Has your relationship with math changed since you were in school? Do you consider yourself a “math person” or not?  

Our goal at The Village School is to cultivate a culture of learning around math that focuses on curiosity, appreciation, and deep understanding. We design our curriculum in hopes that our learner’s letters to math sound much different from mine.

Research suggests that learning math is most meaningful when mistakes are valued as much as a correct answer, and when focused on authentic tasks rather than rote memorization. We can confirm these ideas through our experience as educators in many school settings, and especially through our observations of our own learners over the past four years. We keep this research at the forefront of our curriculum design as we strive to support our learners in developing mathematical mindsets. 

Khan Academy supports our learners in developing their own understanding through mastery-based online courses. The adaptive online programing allows learners to move through the curriculum at their own pace, focusing on mastery of specific math skills. Mistakes made in Khan are met with more learning opportunities instead of the traditional punitive consequences. Completing a course in Khan Academy requires a learner to fully engage with the learning process – they are the active participants determining the content and the pace of their learning. 

Great Problems are an opportunity for learners to collaborate on open-ended mathematical tasks. Learners engage in these In Discovery studio great problems take the shape of collaborative morning warm-up challenges. Adventure learners complete at least three great problems each session, spending sometimes up to one hour working on the solution to a single problem. 

Quests are a chance for our learners to engage with real-world, authentic math tasks. Science curriculum in Discovery and Adventure studio is delivered primarily through project-based learning Quests and often requires learners to engage in specific math skills that are in addition to their set curriculum on Khan Academy. Recent quests in Adventure studio include: The Physics quest, which required velocity and motion calculations using advanced math formulas, and the Money & Me quest required monthly budget, annual percentage rate, loan, and tax calculations. Recent quests in Discovery include: The Game Design quest where learners developed understanding around probability and statistics, and the Community Meal quest where learners are working on calculations that go into preparing a meal as well as the logistics of an event.

Math Coaching is an additional support we offer for our learners. Our Math Lab is open for learners for set times each week during both studio’s morning work sessions where they have access to a math educator to support them in their work on Khan Academy, Great Problems, and even Quest related math tasks. The dedicated time and space for math has been helpful in providing learners with the right level of structure and support in a self-directed learning environment.  

The learning opportunities focused on math go far beyond mastery on Khan Academy, and place learners in situations where mathematical reasoning and understanding is authentically relevant. The four elements of our math curriculum: Khan, Great Problems, Quests, and Math Coaching, are intentionally designed to instill an understanding, appreciation, and curiosity around math that hopefully results in a letter that sounds something like this…

Dear Math, 

Wow! Everywhere I look I see you. I see you in the design of the natural world, and in the architecture of the city where I live. You play such an important role in my life and in the world around me. Thank you for being patient with me, especially when I’m learning something new. Sometimes you can be really tricky, but I know if I’m patient with myself, I will figure you out. I’m so glad I’m a “you person!”