What matters most in a young learners development? Is it how much information we can stuff into their brains in the first years of life? Or is it, instead, whether they are able to develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes perseverance, self-control, curiosity, empathy, grit and self-confidence. Some may refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us often think of them as character.
At Thursday’s hero’s celebration our young learners had the chance to reflect on new character traits they had built in themselves. They shared their gratitude with older heroes who aided them in their journey. We heard poignant speeches filled with words of friendship, wisdom and advice. Spark learners showed pride in the challenges they have overcome. As a group they decided that the traits of kindness, curiosity and grit all helped them to achieve their goals. Through giggles and teamwork they put together a snack and refreshing summer drink for all to share and enjoy! The celebration was a moment of pride and reflection that showcased the important life skills the heroes have honed this year.
During an early morning yoga practice as heroes share their intention for the day, a favorite answer was joy. What a beautiful way to start the day, anticipating happy moments that you will encounter. For the heroes, as for all people, there are a situations that can take away our joy. Some of these challenges are necessary to learning and growth and lead to deeper joy and even more meaning.
For many adults, in the journey toward our goals, we can often get caught up in comparison and expectations that really thwart progress and ultimately steal our joy. Too much comparison, too much worry about keeping up with a “standard” or fitting in – no matter what we are trying to achieve will stifle growth and individuality. It also makes everything much less enjoyable.
The heroes feel less of this comparison. They hear the message that everyone in our communities has different goals and things that they are working on. Each hero has the freedom to work at their own pace. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets a trophy and that it is acceptable to give up when things get tough. We are a community that values perseverance and doing the very best that you can do. The hard work, accountability, and resilience that heroes show is rewarded.
For our learners, challenges often come when things don’t go as they hoped or when they aren’t meeting standards they have set for themselves. These moments don’t look like joy, they look like big tears of frustration. While it is tempting to come to the rescue and try to alter natural consequences or re-adjust someone’s standards, this wouldn’t actually help. When small failures and hard moments are allowed to occur the result is growth and self improvement. The next day the frustrated hero will come in with a new outlook or plan to achieve that high standard or to avoid that mishap. When they do, the joy is back and this time, even bigger!
How do you inspire curiosity in a young learner? How do you instill the idea that what they share and give can impact the world in a profound way?
Our launches often include hero stories and picture books that feature beautiful illustrations. I find children’s literature to be a perfect combination of art and meaning. Our spark studio heroes grow particularly fond of certain authors and illustrators so I collect the books in a series and our emergent readers delight in knowing words they didn’t before. As we read the books by Peter H Reynolds like The Word Collector, I Am Peace and today’s story Say Something, the familiar drawings seem to resonate and the brevity of the author allows room for interpretation and discussion. Heroes identify times when it is hard to share your voice, like when you are frustrated or your friends are not playing the way you like. When asked what methods they use to share ideas they decide that thoughts can be shared through words, actions, and pictures.
After hearing hero stories our learners feel inspired to share their own. They delight in illustrating tales and have time and space at closing to share stories that they invent. They write about the topics they feel passionate about and places they want to explore. Our heroes observe problems in their day to day lives and confidently articulate changes they would like to see during our town hall meetings. All of this serves as practice for being citizens of communities and having an impact on the world they live in. As a 5 year old hero poignantly commented “talking is a really powerful way to move people.”
My dad is an excellent gardener and always has been. I have fond memories of sitting on the porch eating sweet watermelons that he had grown in our own backyard. My mom had beautiful flower gardens that she would insist that I help her weed, and she would speak more candidly as we sat in the dirt tugging at unwanted roots. None of this led to me having much of a green thumb. Quite the contrary, actually, I have a history of dead house plants. I am an excellent listener, but leaves and blooms just don’t communicate needs like people do.
I had resigned to just not having what it takes to grow and cultivate much plant life. This was the case until I got to be the guide of a community of young heroes starting a garden. If this was new for them, you wouldn’t know it. Maybe they hadn’t tasted and planned crops based on height and sun location, before. I saw no hesitation though. They accepted the challenge head on and jumped into botany lessons and discussions about pesticides.We marveled together at the asparagus growing tall at Whitehall Farm. They built the beds, laid the soils, planned each square and sowed each seed with hope and joy. These heroes works fastidiously without a trace of self-doubt. They inspired me.
So I spent my birthday weekend in my own backyard, digging the weeds out of an old neglected wooden garden bed. I planned according to the sun and I researched soil. I chose complementary plants and veggies that I would be excited to harvest and put them in the earth. I felt immense pride at having tried something that I had written off as too hard. I used the growth mindset that we talk about every day in the studio to quiet my own hesitation. It is hard to try something new or that you have previously failed at at. The heroes do this every day. They face academic challenges and emotional ones and they are gracious with themselves and other as they learn and grow. I don’t know if my first attempt at gardening will yield anything edible but I enjoyed the process and I feel thankful to be surrounded by a community of courageous learners.
The morning starts with mindfulness and then we launch into a story about the ripple effects that kindness can have. Heroes have a lively discussion about how they can change the world by sharing language and acts of kindness. They each drop a pebble into a bowl of water as they share a time where they witnessed themselves or a fellow hero being that positive change, and we all watch the ripples emanate from the stone.
From there, heroes are off setting daily goals and doing work of meaning. Fractions at the math table and writing stories of castles and of course, sea creatures. Then comes the free times of our day when play and imagination take over. Free, unstructured play is crucial for children to build the skills they’ll need to be happy, productive adults. These opportunities help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions and solving problems. These games include pretending to be firefighters, animals, superheroes or a rock band. What our heroes are learning is how to work in groups, negotiate, share, self-advocate, and make decisions.
After working hard, checking in with goals and navigating various social settings our heroes wind down to reflect. We play kindness mad-libs and give each other compliments about what went well that day and the gifts that each hero brings to our community. Equipped with tools and skills in mindfulness, aspiration, grit, and empathy our heroes continue on the journey that awaits them!
Have you ever had a problem? What about a problem so big that you just wished it would go away? The longer the problem is avoided, the bigger it seems to get. Spark studio read a story that inspired them to look closely at a problem and to find out why it’s there. Sometimes you might discover something amazing about your problem… and yourself.
Most young people aren’t looked at or referred to as heroes. They spend most of their day being ordered about, with little say. They never have to make decisions because people tell them what to do. Here, in spark studio, ideas are heard and respected. There is a great deal of freedom within limits. Heroes choose how they will manage morning work time. They choose where to sit, when to have a snack, and who to collaborate with on math facts and reading practice. Our space is curated to meet the needs and follow the interests of each individual in our community.
These freedoms, realistic expectations, and boundaries make up our studio culture but they are not set up to prevent problems. It is intentional that there is only one of many works and that some parts of our schedule are set at precise times. As in life, conflicts are bound to arise. Spark studio heroes discuss the big and small challenges that they face and how each time they deal with these it gets easier to move on. We brainstorm strategies for dealing with problems. Heroes are heard making suggestions like “Don’t give up now, just try it a different way” or “Maybe you could swing for five minutes and then give her a turn.” The approaches to dealing with these issues turns these challenges into opportunities for respect and empathy.
The problems of a five year old look different than the stresses and difficulties of an adult but they can be equally as daunting and meaningful for our heroes. Sometimes the lessons I have planned get pushed to the side because someone took the tape when another hero REALLY needed it. In these often arduous moments, the heroes come together and use the conflict resolution techniques they’ve learned and discussed. They face these issues with great courage and I am reminded that problems are really just opportunities for growth.
The learning process is inspired by many when everyone in your school is a fellow traveler on their own hero’s journey. Can your heroes change? Spark studio discussed the idea and decided that they absolutely could. Just like friends, it is o.k. to have as many heroes as you like! Maybe your hero changes after reading a book about a passionate journey into space and the challenges of being one of the first female astronauts. Your hero could change after you watch a fellow traveler complete 3 math lessons in a morning, because you want to be able to accomplish that too! ” I am my own hero because I never give up” another hero declared.
Heroes can also be found across the hallway from spark studio in the elementary. Quest work this week included our young gardeners becoming part of a seed team. This meant holding a nail while someone hammered into the wood of a garden bed. It also required compromising on what plants should go next to others in the square foot garden they were designing. They chatted about favorite vegetables and herbs that tasted like soap or smelled good and made them feel calm. While upholding the discussion rules can sometimes be a challenge for our youngest heroes, they are pushed to higher standards and conversations are elevated as they look to our older heroes as leaders.
While looking up to various heroes and developing their own ideas about what it means to be one, each person in spark studio has a chance to share their ideas. Being heard is an important part of community and our heroes value sharing interests and gifts with the world. This takes the form of creative artwork and stories that don’t fit into one book, but instead are broken into a three part series. They collaborate and decide who will write about each zone of the deep sea and they organize thoughts before they delve into topics that they care deeply about. Gratitude is practiced by writing thank you notes grit is exercised as new lessons are tackled. Each day bringing new challenges in social skills and self regulation, our heroes show each other support even when it takes patience. They are each developing the the courage and curiosity needed as they continue on their own hero’s journey.
“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the the hope of greening the landscape if an idea.” – John Ciardi, American poet
There is nothing quite like the magic of watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. It is maybe only topped by watching that same butterfly fly free or land on your finger! As plant scientists our heroes did a great deal of this close looking and observation this week. Heroes also felt worms wiggle from the mud into their palms. They watched one another other curl up on the floor pretending to be seeds,extending legs as roots and hands as leaves and petals stretching tall towards the sun- first on their own and then deciding they wanted to repeat it only together this time! They operated pretend restaurants called “Sunflower City” and “Blossoms” while other heroes acted as pollinators and ordered flowers that had smells, petal size and colors that attracted them.
This week heroes were inspired by stories of heroes like Jacques Cousteau who explored underwater worlds and shared his passion for protecting ocean life with the world. We all continue to marvel at the research done in Antarctica and the creatures in the deep sea regions all over. Spark Studio heroes methodically practiced measuring in centimeters and inches as our bean plants seemed to (and in some instances did) grow overnight! They continue to ask questions and share their curiosity with fellow travelers.
Our tight knit group works continuously to understand the needs of our community. Sometimes this takes the form of not telling a hero how to spell a word, but showing them where they can find it instead. Other times this means letting someone know that they are not being clear or that they are distracting their work. Such requests were met with flexible answers like “let me say it a different way” and “okay, we will roll the dice more quietly”. The days end in reflection and each kindness and character trait is called out and recognized as the heroes appreciate one another along their journey.
After exploring plant life, heroes are excited to dig in and begin our garden next week!
“I want to do an experiment!” a young hero exclaimed! Session 6 has started off with excitement. Our botany quest has included some scientific questioning and hands on discovery and some heroes have expanded on these ideas and developed experiments all their own. You start with a sense of wonder and then, after playing around with ideas and systems, you decide to create something entirely new. As a guide, an exclamation like this leads to asking questions like: what materials do you need? what do you hope to discover and what outcome do you predict?
Heroes practiced “close looking” in art and continued these techniques in quest time observing veins in leaves, liquid in stems, and granules and sediments in soil. Heroes wrote stories and joyously shared the fun things they did while away from school. They enjoyed new books on our shelves and made equations at our math provocation table. We read and discussed hero stories about artists like Vincent Van Gogh who worried sometimes but felt calmed by painting the way light looked on rolling hills and Katie Bouman who worked hard and followed her passion to form an algorithm to create an image of a black hole!
We wrapped up the week with a trip to into D.C. After using the map to navigate the art museum, heroes sketched the shapes they saw in Georgia O’ Keefe paintings and pondered where artists get their inspiration. They marveled at interactive exhibits and discussed the art they like to create. After lunch next to the reflecting pool, we explored endangered plants and cacti from some of the countries we studied in our studio! Heroes even got to do some planting and watering in the Children’s garden before braving the rainy walk back to the metro!
What a busy week for heroes in the Spark Studio. We had a hero complete the most challenging of our Waseca reading drawers, one complete a set of B.O.B. books, another conquered the 8 bead chain and others spent time researching geology, astronomy and marine life. We concluded our studies on the continent of South America. Heroes enjoyed stories of soccer players, librarians and children just like them who designed and created a playground. We talked about what things are different in other parts of the world like climate, landscape and plant and animal life. Heroes noticed that the people in the stories were on similar journeys to become heroes changing the world, just like they are!
Thanks to all families for attending our exhibition of learning, the excitement and pride that builds near these events is palpable. Heroes worked hard and used creativity and passion in their playground designs and were excited to share lessons and new things they learned this session. In reflecting on what they did our young heroes gain deep understanding of the importance of goal setting and the hard work they do each day. One hero stated she was proud of her accomplishments in writing and math as well as making new friends.
The week ended in a trip into Washington D.C. to visit the African American History Museum. Heroes made connections to previous trips as they talked about the courage and perseverance of the first black baseball players and marveled at music and art that came from African American communities.They also had a chance to paddle along the Tidal Basin and take in the beauty of the cherry blossoms! I hope everyone has a wonderful spring break!