Slowing Down

ES Session 7: Week 5

We spent 2 hours wandering in the park.

It was outdoor play on Wednesday and we were venturing off campus.

It was cool in the shade. We spied minnows in the pond and giant tadpoles in the stream. A turtle was hiding in its shell near the skeleton of a rusty truck. We plucked blue, purple, white, and yellow flowers. One hero explained iron pyrite that cast a rusty tinge in the water.

Part of The Village School experience is moving slowly. We aren’t driven by test prep (though our test scores are pretty good). We don’t need to rush through community discussions to get back to the curriculum. Being in the moment is built in time.

Even during School From Home, we seek to create those slower moments for heroes. One such moment this week was our annual Heroes Celebration. Our whole community gathered to hear stories of perseverance and courage, enthusiasm and grit. A time to slow down and celebrate not the successes but the journey.

Congratulations to all of our heroes in this special moment of reflection!

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.

From Philosopher to Practitioner

If you look up the word ‘school’, you find three main definitions:

  1. An institution for educating children
  2. Any institution at which instruction is given in a particular discipline
  3. A group of people, particularly writers, artists, or philosophers, sharing the same or similar ideas, methods, or style.

At first glance, none of these descriptions seem to adequately define our learning community at The Village School. The first suggests children as passive recipients. No, that doesn’t fit. The second suggests teachers teaching specific disciplines and implies children ‘receiving’ as instructors/adults focus on ‘giving’. No, that clearly doesn’t describe our school. And the third- a group of writers, artists, or philosophers, well- no. But….wait. There may be something here.

This third definition is absent the word ‘institution’ so it departs from thinking of school as a location or place. It’s rooted in the concept of school as a community, as a group of people who share similar beliefs about something.

This seems closer to what we mean by ‘school’ at TVS. Interestingly, many of us are writers and artists- and I would argue that ALL of us are philosophers, *people engaged in thinking about the world, the universe, and society (*Definition from Oxford Languages).

Each person in our community, and in our network of learner-driven schools, shares similar ideas, methods, and approaches to education -which are, ironically, in contrast to the ideas, methods and approaches of traditional schools.

At the core, is our shared belief that all children have a gift that can change the world in a profound way. Our methods are rooted in Montessori and other inquiry-based, self-directed learning methods and our approach is one that emphasizes the development of the whole child– intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally. .

As a team, we are actively engaged in thinking about our methods and how they illustrate our beliefs about children and learning, hailing from the “learner-driven” school of thought. And this “team” includes our parents- particularly during these last few months of learning from home. Through our weekly surveys, every person in our community can give us feedback on our methods and approach.

Recently, we heard from a parent that our game-based Writing Workshop this session was inspiring their child to write more, but required a waiting period between submission of a writing entry and leveling up to the next challenge- which halted their child’s momentum and flow in the activity.

Another parent has observed something that I have observed with my own boys, while hyper-focusing on earning badges for their “level”, they are missing out on other rich learning experiences and activities.

These insights are a gift. Taken with our own observations and feedback from our learners, we can streamline, refine, or recreate parts of our learning design- particularly those that do not match our beliefs about children and how they learn best.

Like our heroes, we are committed to growth and improvement and we will continue to do so, just like them- by learning, doing, reflecting, and becoming better in the process. In other words, we come together as philosophers, but we stay together as humble practitioners- all of us.

Perhaps, if we were to create a fourth description of school that adequately defined our community, this would be it.

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.


ES Session 7: Week 3

Last year, TVS heroes were passionate about nature.

It only took 1 trip to the pond. After an hour of exploration, the heroes noticed the trash. It was everywhere: the sidewalk, the edge of the pond, scattered in the weeds.  A rescue mission ensued: it was an all-out team effort, and even involved getting into the pond at times. They joyfully dropped the trash into a huge pile on the sidewalk.

The heroes were even more prepared on the second trip. They dug out large black trash bags and tied smaller grocery bags around their feet. They brought out plastic gloves and a pair of “reacher grabbers”. They walked away pretty dirty but the park itself was pristine.

For a whole year, the heroes continued this fascination with nature: forming a team, creating a website, designing posters, and holding a bake sale. All hero-directed without any guide prompting or intervention.

And then that was it. No picking up trash at the pond or saving wildlife. 

That is okay. Forgive the pun- it is natural! Children like to intensely focus on one thing. They examine it over and over, turning it one way and then another. They have their fill and satiate their curiosity. 

Think of yourself as an adult, when was the last time that you focused intently on a hobby but after several months that focus dissipated?  

It doesn’t mean that these heroes won’t ever think about nature again. In time, they will because they will reach a new developmental plateau. They will understand the pond with a new layer of complexity and maturity. 

Find a passion. Change the world. Our heroes already have.

The heroes of 2019-2020 are music producers. Check out their beats on SoundCloud or ask them to play a piano tune for you. They are pretty passionate about making the world a better place through song.

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?

Help! My hero is overwhelmed.

ES Session 7: Week 2

“All I have left is math!”

Spring 2019, one hero had been diligently working on her badge plan all year. However, she did not like math and had chosen to first finish all of her other badges. As a result, she spent much of June working on math (her least favorite subject). 

Was she uncomfortable? Yes. 

Did she wish that she had made a different choice? Yes.

The end of the year is the closing of a circle. Choices made in September/October have real consequences in June. Some make heroes happy while others make heroes feel sad, overwhelmed, or frustrated.

All emotions are welcomed. Emotions tell us about our actions in our environment. This feedback helps us make different decisions in the future.

As a parent, you play a vital role in closing the circle. By validating your child’s emotion, you can help him/her reflect and then move forward.

If your hero comes to you and says, “I am overwhelmed!” Acknowledge that emotion. Feeling overwhelmed is uncomfortable. Many people don’t like that feeling. Then get curious. “Why doing you think you are feeling overwhelmed?” Perhaps, the hero admits that she didn’t work as hard as she could have in the beginning of the year. That’s okay. Move forward with 2 simple questions: what do you want to do about it right now? What can you do differently to change things in the future?

Successfully completing all goals by the end of the year is not important. What is important? Each hero learns from these experiences and becomes better equipped in the future. 

By the end of Session 7 in 2019, the math hero gave this lesson learned to future heroes, “Do a little bit every day. Don’t leave it all until the end!” And this year, she completed her math badge 2 months early.

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!

Start of ES Session 7

Session 7: Week 1

Recently, I have been re-reading one of my favorite series: Harry Potter. I love all the books but there is a part in the 5th book that I particularly love. It is magical (even more magical than the rest of the series).

Harry enters his 5th year at Hogwarts (the wizarding school) and discovers that in one of his classes, the students aren’t allowed to do magic. They simply read chapter after chapter about the theory of the spells. 

With the threat of dark magic outside of Hogwarts, this format simply won’t do. Harry and his friends form a rebel group. They set up secret meetings, electing a leader (Harry, of course), and practicing spells on their own. In essence, they become a community of self-sufficient learners with a common goal of mastery. 

I get excited every time I read this part. Even in a magical wizarding world, JK Rowling endorsed authentic, self-directed learning! Well, perhaps that wasn’t exactly her motivation, but she does highlight its benefits. Neville Longbottom, a notoriously poor student in a traditional classroom, improves “beyond all recognition”.

This session, the heroes are focusing on creativity through Writer’s Workshop and the Art Quest. As they paint, write, and draw, they will explore this big question, “How do I use my voice creatively in the world?”

Artistic forms (like creative writing) are less focused on fact and more on imagination. But I do think that art can reflect and inform us about our current state. I like to think that here at The Village School, we have our own brand of rebels. Proving every day that they are capable self-directed learning and mastering real-world skills. And it does seem like magic!

The first 2 levels of the Writer’s Workshop Game: Escape the Woods!
Playing a new socially-distant game that the heroes invented. I’d call that creativity!

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!