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!

New Beginnings

What a wonderful first couple weeks of school in Spark Studio. We’re off to an amazing start! Heroes spent this time settling into the their new environment, learning its rhythms and routines and the names of their new friends. They found focus and flow by using building materials, perusing the library shelves, and practicing activities on our practical life shelf trays. (Kinetic sand is just as engaging as you might imagine.)

The emphasis of these first two weeks in the studio was on expanding heroes’ concentration. As they move past the excitement of trying all the new activities and materials, they started focusing for longer and longer periods. Soon they will begin to ease into ever more challenging activities. 

Outside, the heroes had the opportunity to engage in more collaborative play. They invented games, imagined pretend worlds for themselves, and even began their first forays into  “loose parts” play.

“Loose parts” refers to materials such as plywood, tires, PVC pipes, lumber, tarps and bamboo that we store out back in a little shed behind the playground. During our extended outdoor afternoon period, heroes are free to explore these items, combine them in different ways, and plan and build unique structures.

Spark heroes were understandably unsure about the “loose parts” shed the first couple of days. The playground, climbing trees, and ample space to roam provided more attractive play opportunities. But as soon as it started to rain Wednesday, all of a sudden they were very interested! They came running from all four corners of the outdoor play area to grab materials from the shed to construct rain shelters. Within minutes, tarps draped over picnic tables and PVC pipe frames, and plywood leaned against picnic table benches to protect from the wind. It was so much fun to watch the problem-solving and teamwork take hold in this group.

When it was time to go in it took almost no urging for them to work together to organize it and put it all away. The heroes even used plywood to construct makeshift ramps for easier access to the shed. We could already tell this would be a group that would work and play well together this year. We’re looking forward to next week’s adventures!

Problem-Solving Masters

In the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by our heroes’ collective problem-solving abilities. It’s so interesting to watch this group of children work together to find solutions, without seeking help from an adult. They feel empowered to do it by themselves.

It happens daily, but one instance that really stuck out happened during outdoor water play last week. I brought along some water balloons, pre-filling as many of the colorful orbs as I could. I also brought along the water balloon-filling bottle and extra balloons in case they wanted to try it, but didn’t know if it would get much use as soon as the heroes realized how hard it was to use.

After they had so much fun throwing the first set of water balloons, the heroes set a goal of filling the bucket with “hundreds” more, and reached for the bottle without hesitation. With a little guidance, they learned how to position and hold the balloon on the spigot, pump the bottle full of air, press the lever to release the water, then tie the end of the balloon. It was complicated and difficult work. Balloons kept falling and bursting on the grass and squirting in heroes’ faces as they attempted to tie them.

Did these learners get frustrated or give up? Did they seek out some easier, more fun form of play (i.e. the nearby sprinkler)? Not once. I marveled at their tenacity and joy in the face of such a difficult task. They each took on a role, worked to try and master it, and encouraged each other along the way. Their little assembly line was quite a sight! They spent the better part of the afternoon trying to fill up those balloons. In the end, they didn’t amass quite the arsenal they had aimed for. But it really didn’t matter. It was the hard task of filling them and working as a team that was so engaging.

These children’s ability to organize themselves and find solutions to various challenges is teamwork at its finest. It’s a joy to watch.

Embracing a New Normal

After three long months at home, several Spark heroes returned to their beloved studio this week. The same familiar materials, their favorite books, and their beautiful plants—which have weathered this storm pretty well, all things considered—greeted them with open arms.

More importantly perhaps, the heroes positively basked in each other’s company. After weeks of interacting with each other on Zoom, FaceTime, and phone, they were more than eager to eat, learn, and play together once again. They were back to laughing as they played, comforting each other when they got hurt, and yes, resolving the occasional conflict. Their relationships picked up right where they left off, that’s for sure.

The studio isn’t exactly the same way they remember it though. Fewer chairs now tuck in around the tables, tape marks the carefully spaced out spots at the tables and on the floor, and their comfy pillows are conspicuously absent.  A small “disinfecting table” now stands off to the side and holds materials that need to be wiped down before they are put away. And some heroes still need to join us remotely, so the small crew now makes room for a computer at circle time!

How are they dealing with these new safety measures, you ask? Brilliantly. It was tough at first—not being able to crowd together at one table for afternoon project, heap together during quiet time, or play touch tag on the playground.

But as the hours ticked by, the heroes were adapting to these new changes and accepting them as their new normal. After just two days, they were happily grabbing wipes to clean materials before putting them away, wiping down tables and chairs without prompting, and cleaning books and leaving them to dry before replacing them on the shelves. They made elaborate lily pads in art, created challenging obstacle courses at project time, and constructed imaginative buildings out of blocks. Their willingness to help, keep each other safe, and find ways to thrive in their environment have become another emblem of their growing resiliency.

The Power to Choose

Spark Session 7: Week 2

Our central theme for morning launches this session is making choices. Spark heroes are at that magical age where kids realize that they can choose to act in a certain way. Activities and thought exercises that remind them of this ability and allow them to practice it are particularly engaging. They love to imagine themselves in a situation and speculate about what they would do.

The first book we read as part of this unit was entitled “What Should Danny Do?” In this choose-your-own-adventure-style book, a little boy named Danny—a self-described “superhero in training”—encounters various problems throughout his day. For each one, the reader gets to choose between a good choice and a bad choice, then see what happens in the following pages.

On our first read, the heroes were opting for all the good, reasonable-sounding actions. Logically they knew these were the “right” things to do. They decided Danny would cooperate with his brother, play with him even after he teased Danny, and share his ice cream when his brother dropped his.

But before we made the final decision, one hero stopped us and said “I think we should make this more like a normal day, where bad things happen sometimes.” I asked what they meant. “Sometimes you feel a strong emotion that makes you want to [make a bad decision].” 

With this insight, they had beaten me to the punch. In very simple terms, this young hero explained that an entertaining book is not the same as real life. Reality is much messier, spotted with hurt feelings, selfishness, and knee-jerk reactions. In real life, Danny might have demanded his brother give up the coveted toy, stomped on his brother’s foot when teased, then slurped up his ice cream before his brother could ask for a taste.

So we did what they suggested and made the “bad” choice—we decided Danny would yell at the girl who fell, spilling his lemonade, rather than help her up. Not only did Danny make the girl feel bad, Mom wasn’t happy with him either. Danny resolved to make better choices the next day.

Becoming aware of our ability to make choices is eye opening and empowering for young children. Wow, that one decision changed the course of his whole day!? It’s a difficult concept to grasp, and even more difficult to exercise in real life. It’s a big ask to suggest that a child pause, think about their options, and thoughtfully choose their actions based on the best outcome. Heck, that’s hard for an adult.

But when kids realize that with a single decision they can turn a bad day around or make a friend feel better, they strengthen the agency they feel over their lives and empathy emerges.

Each hero in our studio has the “power to choose.” How will they use it today?

Let the Games Begin!

In Spark, our session 7 project time theme is Games and Strategy. Why games? First and foremost, games are fun. And who couldn’t use a little boost in excitement, laughter, and joy at the start of this summer?

But games provide so much more than that. When kids roll a pair of dice, they are getting real-life practice with numbers, counting, addition, subtraction, and even probability. While they hopscotch down the sidewalk, they help solidify their spatial abilities and gross motor skills. When they imagine they are frolicking through Candy Land, they get practice strategizing, keeping track of hazards, and following the sequence of play. A simple game of Scrabble Jr. has them reading, writing, and communicating verbally.

Countless other games help heroes solve problems, make predictions, use logic and reasoning, and understand that actions have consequences. They also hone the ability to set goals, recall the rules, and follow them.

Many of these skills are essential for getting heroes ready to enter the elementary studio: exhibiting self-control, waiting their turn, and being able to concentrate and focus for longer periods of time. Each game is a prime opportunity to practice winning and losing gracefully. That last one is particularly tough, even for us adults!

Throughout all these games, we are developing life skills of collaboration and teamwork, perseverance, and creativity. For our final project, the heroes get to create their own game!

The benefits of games are unending, but this might be enough for now. Sometimes what matters most is watching our kids lose themselves in the pure joy of it all. What fun it is to play together!

Practicing Resilience

Resilience is one of the most fundamental qualities we try to instill in our heroes.  To be able to bounce back from a change or misfortune is an essential life skill. At the same time, this may be one of the hardest characteristics to develop. It takes a LOT of practice.

This whole session has certainly provided lots of practice, hasn’t it? There have been so many examples of heroes meeting challenges and never giving up. They adjusted to new routines, tried out different reading and math programs to keep them in their challenge zones, and collaborated with each other over Zoom. Virtual school has been a challenge for sure, but it’s been wonderful to witness how these heroes can think creatively, solve problems, and explore amidst it all. Just look at the learning that took place this session!

Ms. Katey wisely commented that if this period of isolation had occurred at the beginning of the school year, it likely would have looked quite different. The group was still figuring out how to learn independently and working to forge strong bonds. However, with six months under their belts, the heroes were quick to translate their learning to their home environment. For them, the location of school mattered far less than the attitudes they had developed. It’s been a privilege to witness their strength and determination!

Positive Feedback: The Words We Use Matter

“Good job, kids! Well done, that’s beautiful! Way to go, that was great!”

These affirmations are music to our ears, aren’t they? We all love to hear that someone else likes our work, that something we did makes them proud, that they approve.

But perhaps a bit paradoxically, we try not to say things like this to heroes at The Village School. When we tell kids that we like their work or we think they did a good job, we are essentially giving them gold stars. It doesn’t take long to shift their drive from “I want to learn new things,” to “I need applause from another person.”

For this same reason, we don’t give grades. Grades have the unintended consequence of encouraging students to do whatever they need to do to get that ‘A+.’ Instead, without that pressure, our learners have room to tinker, try new things, work at their own pace, and make mistakes—all without worrying that they need to perform to perfection. That frees their young minds to learn and grow and helps foster the learner-driven environment that we are trying to create.

So we try not to praise results at TVS. But we still want to cheer our learners forward, steer them in the right direction, and maybe give them a boost of confidence. How do we shape that feedback?

In the studio, one thing we try to do is praise effort rather than results. We say things such as “Wow, I saw you keep trying and not give up.” Or “I can tell you worked really hard on that.” In praising their effort, we strive to help kids focus on the process they used to make something. That encourages them to continue trying in the future—to practice and get better—which builds persistence.

Another way is to ask a few pointed questions. “Interesting, what gave you the idea to use those colors?” “Wow, how did you decide to use wood instead of cardboard like last time?” These questions show our interest and engagement, but avoid any judgment—positive or negative. And if they seem hungry to do more or make more, we might say something like ,“Great, what do you want to do differently next time?”

Perhaps the hardest method—but one of the most effective—is to say nothing at all. So many times, kids aren’t looking for any kind of feedback while they’re hard at work. If they don’t ask, they won’t miss it!

Our fervent hope is that the payoff for learners will be huge and long-lasting. Their whole lives, they will be able to pat themselves on the back for a job well done rather than chase the elusive accolades of others. Above all, they will be excited to learn for learning’s sake, which will help maintain that precious intrinsic love of learning. That life lesson will take them far!