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!

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!

Expanding Spark in the Fall

The transition from Spark Studio to Discovery can be a big one. While learners navigate new systems and computer programs, they simultaneously strive to find their place in a new, older peer group. At the same time, they have left a studio with more support, structure, and direct one-on-one instruction and entered one with new levels of freedom and responsibility. For some learners, all of this paired with the studio’s newfound academic rigors can be overwhelming.

In an effort to ease the transition for some learners, TVS will build in a ‘flex’ year to Spark Studio starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Essentially, the studio will expand to include comparable academic work to that offered in the lower levels of Discovery Studio. This expansion will allow some Spark learners to continue to excel academically while they spend a little more time in the structured, familiar environment of Spark Studio. In other words, early Discovery and older Spark learners will be working on the same material in both studios. A learner can do that work in the studio that fits them best.

The expansion will apply throughout academic areas from math to grammar. It will include computer practice, advanced workbooks, research projects, writing prompts and more. Some of these additions have been piloted in Spark this past year with great success. 

Who stands to benefit most from this change? Perhaps a shy learner is still working on the confidence needed to speak up in a group. Maybe a child still needs practice reading, working on a computer, or resolving conflicts peacefully. Whatever the need, allowing these final puzzle pieces to fit into place before moving to the next studio will enable a smoother transition when the time comes. If learners are excited and ready to take on more independence in their learning they will find the move much easier. 

As an added bonus, more older learners in Spark will have the opportunity to step up as leaders. They will gain confidence as they bring newer learners up to speed on how to run discussions, hold each other accountable, and maintain a tidy studio. At the same time, younger learners will benefit from their example. That’s the beauty of mixed-age learning!

The hope is that building in this flex year will relieve any anxiety on the part of Spark learners that they are being held back or being moved too quickly into something they are not ready for. Hopefully, parents can also rest assured that their unique learner will be getting exactly what they need to grow and flourish.

Spark Celebrates Earth

This past Thursday was Earth Day, and was it ever a celebration. It was clear that learners love the earth and already knew a lot about how to save it. The day started with cheerful greetings of “Happy Earth Day!” as heroes entered the building.  Before circle time, they offered ways that they like to save energy and water. Learners then read a book about other ways to conserve precious resources.

In the afternoon, learners decorated flowerpots, carefully packed in soil, poked seeds in, and added water. They pledged to water them daily and see what grows.

Learners then added a little mud and lots of plastic trash to clean water. They challenged themselves to fish it out again using tools from the shed. They raced against the clock to remove the trash, comparing water samples to see which one was cleanest when they were done. They found out how hard it is to remove trash once it’s in water and that you need teamwork and determination to do so. 

Their project was followed by a video about a teenager, Boyan Slat, cleaning polluted water on a much larger scale. He invented a gigantic tool involving a pipe, a net, and natural ocean currents to help clear the oceans of toxic trash. Though Zoyan struggled to get his idea off the ground at first, he is now successfully helping to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It was a great example of a young person seeing a problem, finding a creative solution, and then persevering through obstacles to bring a good idea to fruition. As soon as the video finished, Spark learners proposed inventing their own Earth-cleaning machines and creating models from recyclables next week.

This daylong celebration of the earth, where we explored the many ways we can protect and nurture it, demonstrates the benefits of a cross-disciplinary approach to education. If we apply an idea in as many areas as possible, learners make stronger connections and are more likely to extend the ideas in innovative ways. 

After their Earth Day activities, these learners were inspired and excited to protect their environment. From the sound of it, the celebration will continue into the upcoming weeks and hopefully throughout their entire lives!

Serious Collaboration

On February 18, the Perseverance rover landed on the surface of Mars. After traveling for seven long months, the robot touched down in a crater, ready to hunt for signs of ancient life. Days later, learners watched the dramatic video-recorded landing, heard the researchers’ cheers when the rover landed safely, and listened to scientists talk about what they hoped to find.

For the culminating activity that week, learners were invited to put themselves in the shoes of space explorers and build their own robots. After taking a video tour of Perseverance and seeing all its working parts, they were given access to boxes, glue, markers, and so on. Away they went! The learners assembled cardboard pieces with plastic screws, glued craft sticks on the sides, poked pipe cleaners through to decorate, etc. They made cameras, lasers, chutes for materials, and even hiding places for people.

While the learners worked to create the robots of their dreams, the guides had some ulterior motives for this activity. This was yet another opportunity for them to practice their expanding collaborative skills. They shared ideas, took turns, and shared tools. “Can I have the screwdriver when you’re done?” “Can I have the tape after you’ve finished?” “Can you help me use the poking tool?” These requests flowed effortlessly from heroes’ mouths, in contrast to the sometimes contentious interactions that took place in the first part of the year. Even when minor arguments did arise, it was amazing to watch other learners step in to stand up for one another, issue reminders, and correct problems.

This was also a chance to practice their independence. Occasionally, someone had a hard time figuring out a tool, poking all the way through their cardboard, or ripping the tape. Rather than ask a guide for help, they sought out others who had struggled with similar issues or solved the problems already. Or sometimes guides offered suggestions for how the learners could do it themselves. “Have you tried holding your hand this way?” “What happens when you grip the tape here?” Rather than learning to depend on adults, learners showed that they are gradually coming to rely on themselves and one another.

Spark learners had a blast letting their imaginations and creativity run wild. They also got some valuable lessons in teamwork, as they do every day here at The Village School. Who knows, maybe some of them will explore Mars in the future!  

Are We Ready For Change?

Do things need to change? Spark learners think so. They believe that they can change the world, as they voiced with us during circle times. We’re behind them! We discussed the past, present, and future of things like racial equity and women’s rights during our morning and closing launches. We have at least one future lawyer who is willing to make sure no one is treated unfairly. Learners won’t give up until they reach this goal!


Learners empathized with the frustration and embarrassment past heroes felt when everyone wasn’t viewed or treated the same. At times, learners have been candid about their intention to work hard to change what they do not like. Laws and ideas need adjustment, they’ve told us. They’re willing to take the necessary steps needed to foster a positive community like the one they’ve created in Spark studio. Characteristics like perseverance, pride, self-control, unity and passion, all of which we’ve discussed, will lead them along their way.  Learners are coming together, voicing their concerns, and providing solutions to the problems of the world we talk about in the studio. The awareness shown to their guides make their journey to leaders that much more likely. 

Watching and listening to Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about women’s rights inspired learners to be happy about how some things in the world have changed. They told us how dads would not have time to give hugs because they would have to work more than usual. They told us that they like how moms and dads work together in teams. Some learners even felt that they might not be at The Village School if these changes hadn’t occurred. Let’s challenge ourselves and our learners to a create a world where change is encouraged and accepted!

New Year, New Goals

Ah, the start of a New Year—a blank slate, a fresh start, a chance to turn over a new leaf…and a perfect time to set some new goals. At the Village School, we talk a lot about goals. Having learners set their own and map out the steps needed to get their puts them squarely in charge of their own learning. This will serve them here at TVS and well into adulthood!

For our deep dive into goal-setting in Spark Studio this week, we spread our discussions out over several days to make the information more digestible. We introduced the concept on Tuesday, asking what goals are and what the heroes would like to achieve over the next session. We heard aspirations such as taking on more challenging work, getting better at reading, and doing more math.

The next day, we emphasized that achievable goals are specific. The heroes responded by narrowing their focus, proposing goals such as completing the orange reading drawers, mastering Golden Bead Addition, or completing sound object exploration. We even heard goals that had to do with physical activity and creativity—making a city from the metal insets work and getting across all the monkey bars, for instance.

When the heroes had their Session 4 goal in mind, they wrote it down in their writing journals. We then talked about how to break these larger goals into smaller, achievable steps, either with a mind-map or step-by-step instructions.

The next day, they copied their goals onto art paper and decorated them with markers, cut-up paper, oil pastels, crayons–whatever would help visualize their ambitions. They then hung those pictures on the wall of our studio to serve as reminders throughout the session of what they want to achieve.

We have little doubt that the heroes will be eager to dig in to their goals next week. But if they reach a lull in working toward them, we might offer a helpful nudge by asking: What work would you like to do today to help work toward your goal? How much work do you need to do every day to help you reach your goal? How do you feel now that you are close to your goal, or now that you’ve achieved it?

We are excited to see where this takes us at the end of the session.

Stay tuned, and Happy New Year!

Collaborative Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Learners into Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goal Setting in Spark Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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