When I was in 4th grade my class took a field trip to a local state park. We studied the wildlife and discussed the ecosystems… at least I think we did. If I’m honest I don’t remember what we were supposed to learn from the trip, what I recall so vividly is how cold the water can be in October. I remember the excitement of moss covered rocks beneath my feet and watching minnows rush by in the clear water. I remember how brave some of my peers were to go out beyond knee-depth and I remember riding the bus home feeling invigorated and full of questions. How do species adapt to their surroundings? How can we protect our watersheds? Why was it SO cold?! My curiosity had been piqued and this quote was proven true. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”
This week on various social media outlets you might see a phrase like this, “If the schools are all closed, how will the children learn?” The good news is that this flame kindling does not need a school building to take place. Young heroes have a natural curiosity and are constantly learning. This takes place through the Village School’s experiential learning. We see this in our quests or project time. It also occurs through our emergent curriculum that follows the interests of the child.
The most seemingly ordinary things can be new discoveries and engaging, joyous challenges. This includes the everyday routines and practices of life. We see this in our studio when heroes work on sewing projects, tying shoes, or studio maintenance. At home heroes may learn through experiences like meal planning and preparations or taking care of plants and pets. These activities are complicated, multi-step processes that pave the way for a problem-solving mindset and a fulfilling experience.
Often learning looks differently than what traditional academics might suggest. In many cases, it looks like play. Playing with loose parts give our heroes experiences with numeration, patterns, and problem- solving. In games with rules our heroes learn strategy and they also build resilience and self regulation as they experience losing. In physical play heroes learn about risk- taking and what they are capable of.
In our weekly reflection Spark Heroes pointed out the work they were proud of this week. One shared the tower they built even though it was a challenge to decide where the horses fit best. Other heroes painted vibrant rainbows or carefully traced cursive letters. Heroes discovered how white blood cells protect us by using play dough they modeled to capture “germ” beads. Although they aren’t currently spending physical time in school I feel assured that Spark Heroes are continuing to learn every day!
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news my mother would say to me, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” -Fred Rogers
It is challenging to navigate uncertainty as adults and can be even more confusing for young people who are learning how the world works and what their role in it is. It is important that young people know that it isn’t their job to worry or make the world a safe or healthy place, even though children can contribute and continue to be helpers themselves.
Seek out news stories that highlight the heroes who have studied and trained to be helpers. Young people can find security as well as inspiration when they see adults working to keep the world safe. As parents and guides we have an opportunity to listen to children, both what they already know and what they are interested in finding out more about. We can support the efforts of using play, art and writing to work out an understanding of the things they see and hear. Open ended play in addition to open- ended questions help young learners come to solutions on their own, instead of having adults tell them how to think and process.
Our heroes have a grasp on what it means to be a helper. They have spent the year cultivating positive interactions with one another. They know that in the Spark community we are kind and make sure that everyone gets what they need- even if it isn’t what you want in that moment. From our books about bucket filling- to our empathy challenges, Spark heroes know that there is power in the “us”. They have a sense of community and shared responsibility. They are quick to offer the ice pack to someone who fell. They offer to trace a younger hero’s hands during project time. They come up with fair solutions and think critically about the needs of others.
We can help by washing hands and preventing the spread of germs and we can help by being kind to one another. I challenge our young heroes to come up with other ways that they can be helpers.
The Village School is a learner-led environment. What does this look like day to day for a Spark Hero? If you are a hero in our environment you are in charge of your own education and guides say, we trust you to make choices that help you learn and grow. This means there is no adult telling you what is most important, what you should care about, or where to direct your attention. You have the opportunity to follow the intrinsic motivation and curiosity that you carry with you each day.
You arrive at school and see friends creating artwork, playing board games, or tag outside. You hang up your things and decide if you would like to join in or read a book to yourself. An ordered environment is set up to offer choices within a familiar and comfortable setting. Promptly at 9:00 am you take part in a town hall meeting where you listen to the cares and concerns of others in your community, and then you have a turn to suggest that we hold a “pajama day” next week. You call for a vote and see everyone’s hands raise as they share agreement and enthusiasm. After a spirited town hall discussion you get to work setting goals in reading, writing, and math. You choose the work you are excited to do. Writing might be a list or a careful letter to a friend. You remember the new game you learned using the hundred board and invite others to join in. After free time you decide to do some reading and get out the books you brought in to share with others, taking turns with a friend page by page. A guide notices as you look over the daily schedule and invites you for a lesson on the clock so that you can figure out how much time you have before lunch begins.
Your afternoon begins with the challenge of following a recipe for a snack you’ll enjoy the next day. You work to carefully measure ingredients and then take ownership over washing the dishes. The guide makes sure there is a stool in place at the sink and you turn to assure her, “we’ve got it from here.” You return to the studio to finish making additions to a long term project you have been working on. You add elements to a human body model, knowing that the end product won’t be completed for weeks- this is considered as you use materials thoughtfully with attention given to time management. You circle up with fellow travelers and the guide provides moments for reflection and poses questions to further your research. There is an opportunity to give and receive feedback from your peers. You share what worked really well for you, and offer kind suggestions, showing leadership and empathy.
When students own their learning, they become self-directed navigators who tackle the challenges of an unpredictable world.
What is the general feeling after coming back from a week long break in our studio? Heroes return eager and excited. They notice a few new materials and furniture shifts in the studio. They see a new cactus plant on the shelf and rush to measure it- thrilled to discover it is taller than our other cactus but shorter than the philodendron.
Session 5 brings a new topic for exploration during project time. Heroes will delve into an inquiry about the human body. This week they made models of a cell and enjoyed acting out the important jobs of the organelles. Some favorites being the nucleus and the cell membrane, protecting the rest of the cell parts from bacteria! They also talked about how DNA makes us who we are are. Heroes gave examples of similarities they share with family members and the traits that make them unique!
A new writing center included cards, envelopes and new pencils and has already sparked creativity in letter writing and diagrams of other parts of the studio. A math station was centered around addition and in a launch heroes came up with their own equations such as “me plus water equals swimming” and “guide plus studio plus learners equals school. “
Let the discovery of a new Session in the Spark studio begin!
Is it when you say it- depending on the mood they are in?
How you say it and the tone of your voice?
Or what it makes the person feel ?
This topic prompted great discussion in our studio. Spark heroes love to vote and tell their thoughts and experiences. They are developing the skills they will hone in the Socratic discussions held in our elementary studios and they are finding their own voice as they form opinions. This particular morning launch, the vote was unanimous. Compliments are important because of how they make someone feel. Heroes are tuned into the feelings of others and they continue to value the character traits that we call out each week.
Heather O’ Kara said “Speak to all people as though they are the wisest, gentlest, most beautiful beings on Earth; for what they believe, they become.” The compliments that are given to heroes begin to shape what they believe about themselves. Guides model complimenting by giving growth mindset praise and offering genuine congratulations for hard work. We refer to our learners as heroes and experts. We celebrate triumphs and congratulate perseverance.
The compliments also seem to resonate deeply when they come from a fellow hero. “You are a great reader!” A five year old beams, proudly having read a book aloud to his peers. After a big jump off a tall ledge on the playground another hero shouts, “I knew you could do it you, you are strong and brave!” By assuring these young learners that they will change the world, we empower them to do just that.
“It’s ok , mistakes are good. There is no wrong way to do art”. Hearing growth mindset praise isn’t unusual at the Village School. It is especially effective when it comes from a peer, a fellow five year old using a booming confident voice as he leans across the large charcoal dust strewn table. As heroes explore the question of how they can use their voice, guides offer up different mediums, hero stories of artists and opportunities for creativity.
Art takes place formally once a week. A launch is given on a materials and heroes are able to explore. Sessions have featured drawing with charcoal, diving into color with pastels and this session heroes have filled paper with bold strokes of watercolor. These topics are also broken down further by discussing things like mark making techniques and the way you can use erasers as a tool. The artwork here is more about the process than the resulting piece of art. Heroes are encouraged to experiment and then reflect on what materials worked in unexpected ways.
In addition to these once a week dedicated sessions for art, heroes have access to creative materials during all work times in our studio.One child may choose to paint first thing in the morning as a way to ease into the day, while another may use the opportunity for self-expression to harness their creative energy for the day. Heroes learn about art and the art world by assuming the role of artist. They practice coming up with art problems to solve, asking questions and seeing possibilities in the world around them. Heroes learn to persevere through difficulties as well as to trust themselves and their own judgment while simultaneously becoming self-directed, and organized.
“Let us give the children a vision of the universe.” Maria Montessori observed firsthand children’s eagerness to understand themselves, their world, and their place in it. This week Spark heroes heard about Albert Einstein and talked about the particles, and laws that make up our universe. They recognized how curious famous scientists were and that they share a similar excitement for the world.
With context, our heroes form theories and have room for their imaginations to flourish. Heroes come up with experiments on their own and continue to share their interests with each other. While one hero tells us all they know about the Apollo mission another tells facts about the earth and when dinosaurs roamed it. Heroes connect these stories and begin to form a personal narrative as well as one as part of our community.
At the Science Center heroes built hover-crafts to fly in a wind tunnel. They created slime and compared what different additives do to its consistency. A crank was turned to build up pressure and shoot a plastic bottle up towards the ceiling. Afterwards,they spent the car ride talking about their favorite parts of the day and filling the backseat with laughter.
Stories of holiday happenings, new siblings, and volcanoes visited filled our studio as heroes were reunited after break. The excitement to see one another carried through the week and took the form of group hugs after cleaning up and belly laughs at lunch time. We also welcomed a new hero to the tribe. Heroes took pride in showing her the routine of Spark Studio and even helped her to sign our contract after discussing the agreement outlined there. They talked about how on a daily basis we uphold a culture of kindness, care of the studio, not distracting one another, and trying our best.
In this session, project time will have heroes play the role of architects designing an ideal school or home. The quest will equip heroes to use the language of location describing items on a map or blueprint and locations in the studio. They will be introduced to different architects and their techniques and hero stories. Heroes will study animals as master builders and make connections to the natural world. Math and engineering concepts will be used in a tangible way by building 3-d structures and models. Projects will focus on material studies and serve as creative outlets with hands on building challenges. Spark architects will use the design process with a long term goal in mind.
After a busy first week of focused morning and “epic” snowball fights, heroes are ready to take on a new session!
The week begins with a game of sharks and minnows and stories of fun from the weekend. A launch on kindness and empathy poses questions to heroes about how they like to be treated and how they can fill the buckets of those around them. Our heroes talk about times when they feel frustrated and how big emotions can cloud our judgement. These can be the hardest times to remain kind but they ultimately decided that even when things aren’t going your way there is always a way to extend feedback that is thoughtful of others. As these kind acts take place throughout the day, heroes fill out kindness cards that are placed in a red bucket and recognized at closing. Our bucket has yet to be empty.
Morning work time remains a busy hub of of meaningful tasks. This week that included sewing pants that had gotten torn and writing notes to friends. Inspired by last session’s business quest heroes also set up shop to sell pillows they had made- although there weren’t many customers in the parking lot. This session includes a writer’s workshop that allows heroes to propose a pet they might like to have in our studio. This includes doing some research and coming up with a convincing argument for why that pet should be chosen.
Our project time puts our heroes in the shoes of world explorers. Each afternoon they draw another continent on their maps and we hear stories of traditions from that place. They decorated shiny Indian elephant decorations and made flags from Europe.They crafted play dough animals from Africa and talked about how following her dreams and not giving up made Jane Goodall a hero. The week culminated in a trip into the district where heroes were able to put their hands on a replica of a chimp, invent robots in the SparkLab, and confidently navigate the metro as self sufficient explorers. Don’t forget to check the parent drive for photos!
Without teachers, how does learning take place? This is a favorite question of mine about the unique nature of The Village School. The answer allows a closer look into the independent learning that develops and is honed in spark studio and carries to the elementary years. As a hero grows and as the community matures the attitude shifts from I am capable to we are capable and succeed together. Independent learning does not take the form of total chaos and misdirected energy in the studio, but instead freedom within limits. Allowing a hero’s own curiosity to be the leading factor, shows a young person that we trust them to make choices and to be in charge of their own education. On a daily basis there are many teachers that a hero encounters.
The Prepared Environment: As soon as a hero enters the space they are greeted by a curated space just for them. The “prepared environment” is Maria Montessori’s concept that the environment can be designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child.In the prepared environment, there is a variety of activity as well as a great deal of movement. In the calm, ordered space of Spark Studio, heroes work on activities of their own choice at their own pace. They experience a blend of freedom and self-discipline in a place especially designed to meet their developmental needs.Gradually heroes reveal qualities such as intense concentration, a sense of order, effort, respect for others, kindness, and an obvious joy in meaningful work.
Peers: Our heroes benefit from a mixed age studio and learn from one another. This often comes from observation.One hero has spent months watching others practice reading drawers and is suddenly compelled to finish more than one in a days work cycle after watching and listening to her peers. It also happens through shared interests, heroes have conversations about underwater volcanoes and the tallest mountain ranges. They retain facts that are proudly shared with their friends and delight in sharing information with one another. These types of interactions are built into the structure of the studio. Informally, children learn from peers by asking questions while watching them work. Another way to learn from peers is through collaborative learning, most project time is spent working together in Spark Studio. Heroes navigate working as a team.
Launches: These 15 minute meetings, led by a guide serve three purposes: to inspire, equip and connect.They inspire heroes by connecting to a challenge, hero or world-class example. This may be a story or a short video clip that follows the curiosity of our young learners. They equip by offering a process, recipe, algorithm or framework that leads to better decisions and habits. Launches may highlight our goal setting process as well as methods for self- regulation and perseverance in the face of challenges.Launches connect by bringing the community closer together through discussions of shared experiences, empathy and similar goals.