Challenging the Common Narrative

The world is full of narratives, especially those of middle schoolers. If you pay attention, you can see a master narrative running throughout, made evident by the systems, structures, and social norms in place. In looking at these pieces and parts, simply asking why can lead you to the master narrative at play.

Take the grading system for example. Why give grades? Because young people can’t be trusted to measure and reflect on their own progress. Why do parent-teacher conferences without the student present? Because young people are not capable of sharing and reflecting on their own learning. Why change the rules, provide the extension, make multiple allowances? Because young people are fragile and can’t handle missing deadlines or making mistakes.

So much of what we do at The Village School is construct a counter-narrative- a narrative entrenched in our beliefs about children and adolescents. In our community, young people are trustworthy, capable, strong and resilient. They want to learn, they want to improve, and they want to do excellent and purposeful work. In turn, our systems, processes, and language at TVS reflect these beliefs.

This year, I’ve seen the power of this counter-narrative in Adventure Studio. Within the walls of our school building, our middle schoolers are trusted with more freedom and responsibility than most young people their age. It goes without saying, they respond to this trust and respect by actually being trustworthy and responsible. Why? Because they are capable and they want to be trusted. In an environment such as ours, they can shed the narrow constraints of the outside world and step into a far more productive narrative about who they are and what they have to offer.

But like all things that challenge the status quo, this is not always easy- particularly when engaging with the real world.

On a recent trip to the bookstore, one of our middle schoolers was looking for a “definitive biography” of at least 400 pages to fulfill her Civilization requirement this session. After finding a book that she felt was in her challenge zone, the employee at the checkout counter engaged her in a long line of questions laced with skepticism:

“How old are you? Did you look at the young adult section? Why do you have to read 400 pages? Are you sure you can handle this?” and my personal favorite, “Is your teacher just trying to inflict some cruel and unusual punishment on you?”

I watched as she navigated this line of questioning that was so different from the types of questions she encounters in the studio. And, on the way back to campus, she shared some of her own questions that had formed as a result of the interaction.

“Why did my age matter? I read adult-level books. I know what is appropriate for me. I know my mom would agree. Why did they think I didn’t want to read a long book? I love long books. Why did they assume I wouldn’t choose to read a book like this unless someone was making me?”

She was baffled, understandably so. The bookstore employee’s behavior fit with the master narrative but not our narrative at TVS

Similarly, our Middle Schoolers faced this challenge when attempting to secure apprenticeships. It was not easy. Many potential employers who showed interest in hosting an apprenticeship at first, became less decisive and certain about having a young person spend time learning and helping their organization. It seemed the master narrative loomed large, threatening their success in landing their first apprenticeships.

But, after several weeks of hard work, persuasive and impressive emails and pitches, dead ends and promising new opportunities, our founding middle schoolers secured their apprenticeships, showing the real world just how capable they really are.

One Adventure Learner apprentices in Spark Studio

Again and again, our learners at TVS will be given opportunities to challenge the status quo. They’ll no doubt face struggle and skepticism. But, along the way, they’ll be part of a movement that actually changes the common narrative, one that offers a more complete and accurate reflection of what young people are capable of.

Math Quest

Everyone can get better at math. That was the message at this week’s Math Quest.

Like education, teaching math has remained pretty much the same for the last 100 years. A teacher puts problems on the board and students get them right or wrong. Everyone goes through the same spiral curriculum at the same pace. At TVS, we have innovated: learners go at their own pace. They are free to choose what they want to learn next and how they learn it. But we wondered… is there an even better way?

Computers can now perform millions of computations in one second. Algorithms are replacing human labor. The future of the workplace is one that we can’t imagine. Is math even an essential core skill?

Many of today’s great mathematical minds have thought about this problem: Jo Boaler at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stephen Wolfram from Wolfram-Alpha. It comes down to the fact that math is more than just computation. A true mathematician poses a question about the real world, creates a mathematical model, performs a calculation, and transfers the model back to the real world to see if the question is answered. Then the process is repeated.

To highlight, computation is only ¼ of that process, and it is the part of the process that is most easily performed by a computer. Why wouldn’t we use a tool that can quickly and accurately calculate vs. doing it by hand?

So we posed a question, “What if we used all the steps? What would math look like?”

It was a deep dive into how to learn math. Like many things, math is collaborative. Math is relevant when it relates to the world. Math questions are ideally low-bar (simple enough for anyone to start) and high ceiling (a potential for using very complex math). Problems should include a visual component because mathematical thinking uses 2 visual regions of the brain. From all of our research, Math Quest was born.

In Math Quest, learners are challenged each week with Skill Builders (collaborative, game-like activities). At the end of the week, they come together to solve a real problem as a team. These problems are open-ended (no right answer) with many ways to solve. The studio shares solutions at the end of the day.

For example, can you solve this challenge? Draw a shape in the middle of a square piece of paper. Fold the paper so that with 1 straight-line cut, you cut out the shape.

Can

So far this session, learners have explored probability and geometry. We’ve had fun tying our questions into each quest from this year. It has given us a chance to reminisce about time in the woods for survival quest and the intense role-playing of the American Revolution. 

Everyone can get better at math, even TVS.

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.

The Circle of Control

As a learner-driven community, we talk a lot about what we can control and what we can’t.

By the time a learner reaches Adventure Studio, they understand that they are in the driver’s seat of their education, meaning they have a lot more control over their learning than the average young person their age. Understanding badge requirements, doing excellent work, meeting deadlines, having the right attitude, being a good friend, resolving conflicts- they understand that succeeding in these areas is within their control.

Guides do help by asking, “What tools do these young people need to be successful?” The answers determine the launches, stories, experiences and challenges for the year- planned out by session, weeks, and sometime days- leaving room for the spontaneous needs of a learning, growing, changing, group of learners. The learning design is within the guide’s circle of control- as is their personal attitude, effort, actions, and words, all of which is intentionally modeled each day. The guide’s job is to inspire, equip and connect young people to the tools available to them so that they are empowered to take control over their learning.

Within this learning design, there are two very important tools that help a learner really understand what they have control over: Experience and reflection. This is the super-power duo of all tools available to our learners at The Village School. This is where the deepest learning happens and how the most growth occurs.

This session provided many experiences for our Adventure learners to reflect on what is within their circle of control.

From failing to earn a badge to a hosting a semi-chaotic Field Day, their reflections helped them connect their actions to the outcomes, providing vital experiences and life lessons that will be applied the next time they submit badge work or plan a Field Day.

Of course, of equal importance is learning what is outside their circle of control. Experience teaches them this too. They learn that people’s actions, other people’s words, the weather, external circumstances, world events (such as a global pandemic), and so on- are out of their control.

From not getting replies to emails about potential apprenticeships to the internet going out on the day you need to submit your work, they learned that things happen- life doesn’t always go as planned no matter how much we prepare or put all of our “ducks in a row”. In these situations, all you can control is how you respond.

Distinguishing between the two is critical, for it shows our learners where to focus their energy.

As we near the end of the school year, our guides also spend focused time reflecting on the experiences of the year, of the outcomes we see from the environment and opportunities we’ve provided. Without a doubt, one of the greatest outcomes for our Middle School learners is their ability to focus their energy on the things that matter. As far as life skills go, they are 1,000 steps ahead of many adults!

Indeed, Adventure learners are savvy travelers now on this journey of self-directed learning- and their adventures have only just begun!

A Day in Nature

Cicadas! Cicadas! Learners have spent a lot of time focusing on bugs in Session 6. They have been learning about butterflies, ladybugs, and cicadas for the past 5 weeks. This new found information has fostered into a life of its own and learners have turned into real life scientists as they actively explore in nature. This week, Spark learners had the advantage of going on a field trip to the park where their inquisitive minds ultimately took over.

At the beginning of the field trip, learners were asked what they already knew about insects. Hands were raised swiftly in the cool refreshing air. Learners attentively modulated their voices sharing that “some insects have wings and some don’t”. Each reply led to more questions and more questions led to more excitement.This engaging discussion gave our learners the opportunity to showcase the skills that they have steadily worked to equip themselves with. Leadership, confidence, and the ability to remain calm in challenging environments highlighted just how the Spark community fosters a sense of collaboration.

Working together to roll over logs and look for bugs was a joy to watch. Arms hugged the bulky piece of a tree as it slowly moved from its place. Afterwards, a learner was asked to showcase their bravery as they stood and modeled how a sweet-gum ball might feel on their back if it landed on their back. The learner stood peacefully without moving.

Along with cicadas, we discussed the beetle family, butterflies, and antennae. This learning experience will continue to nurture their love for nature and keep their spark as they discover new insects.

The Apprenticeship Hunt

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our founding Middle School learners are trying to do just that this session by finding and securing their first 40-hour apprenticeships.

First step: Who am I? What are my strengths? What are my interests/passions? What am I doing when I find myself in flow?

Through discussion, peer feedback, and self-reflection, Adventure learners identified their individual top character traits of insight, leadership, and creativity and narrowed down their many interests to history, event planning, radiology, alternative medicine, and education- among many other things.

Next step: Identify three possible apprenticeships: one “safe”, one “reach”, and one “dream” apprenticeship. Do your research.

Research

Subsequent steps: Draft a compelling email to secure a five minute phone call for each potential apprenticeship. Write, get feedback, revise and practice your phone pitches. Complete the same process for your in-person pitches. Make the pitch. Work out the details. Land the apprenticeship(s).

Sounds easy, right?

Well, sure- except doing something, anything, the first time is never easy. Things will certainly not go exactly as planned.

But this is real world learning at its best- learning that involves a worthy challenge, a strong why, and an outcome that feels fairly high-stakes. Inevitably, mistakes will be made, their skills and confidence will be tested, and our young learners will face disappointment.

Truthfully, we are COUNTING on these experiences. It wouldn’t be REAL world learning without them.

Of course, it always helps to hear the stories of others, complete with their own struggles and successes to better equip, inspire and connect our learners to the challenges they face. We were thrilled to welcome Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer, to campus this week and hear his own personal story to entrepreneurship and founding of Acton Academy.

Learners enjoyed a special visit and Hero Talk from Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer

Where will they land next session? What new experiences will they be having in their first apprenticeships?

This is still unknown. What we do know, is that they will have grown through the very act of doing, falling, and getting back up again.

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our Adventure learners are doing just that.

Entomology Quest Update

This week, Virtual Discovery learners welcomed insect ‘guests’ into their homes, inside a safely contained terrarium! We are excited to introduce Willy the Worm Jr., Kitty and Puppy (stink bugs), Centi the centipede, and a pod of mealworms: Sam, Jordan, Tyler, Lilac, Veronica, and John.

Virtual Discovery learners are challenged to provide the best habitat for their guest, researching their diet and natural habitat, and throughout the week-long stay, observe their insect. Is the insect more active during the day or during the night? Does it eat frequently or a large meal once a day? Is it happier in a cool, dark room or light-filled, humid room?

Already, they have noticed that some insects are more photogenic while others prefer to stay hidden under dirt and rocks.

In the meantime, in-person Discovery learners are raising mealworms (whose favorite food is baby carrots) and will watch them progress into full-grown beetles. Next week, they will nurture the caterpillars that currently perch on the library shelf as they make their chrysalises. 

This is just one more step on the Entomology journey this session. Learners are increasingly more open-minded about insects, which you can see in their willingness to pick up worms, beetles, and spiders. They spout insect facts, gleaned from their Writer’s Workshop research, and write persuasively about “creepy” bugs. 

We have gone from the infinitely big (space) to the microscopically small (insects). Discovery learners are ready to stretch their minds in any direction!

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!

An Open Mind

Finally, Session 6 has started! After a successful (and crazy!) session and exhibition in Session 5, it was clear that the learners needed some time to relax and refresh. Luckily, we had spring break! Now it’s a new session, and the rejuvenated heroes came back ready to tackle the next six weeks.

In Session 6, Discovery Studio is doing an entomology quest – collecting, analyzing and caring for various types of insects. Knowing the general reputation of insects, it seemed appropriate that this quest should correlate with the character trait of open mindedness. While this group of learners is probably more open minded than the average group of 7-10 year olds, getting hands-on with bugs is still something that some of us (myself included!) will need to summon a lot of courage to do!

Outside of just the entomology quest, we explored being open-minded in the studio, too. The heroes came back to a totally redone studio, complete with lap desks and yoga mats. The learners needed no encouragement to be open minded about where they did their work- they immediately began working under desks, on the floor, and standing up with their computers on the bookshelves! 

We started testing out some new tactics during Core Skills as well. On Wednesday, we tried out the Pomodoro method together – working together and taking breaks throughout the 2 hours of morning work time. Some learners really loved the method and continued to use it – and some didn’t! That’s okay. Being open minded is about trying things. Whether or not they end up working, you learn more about yourself the more you try.

Over spring break, the guides at TVS did mindfulness professional development. Since the training, I’ve been enamoured by the benefits of mindfulness for elementary learners- it can change how young brains are developed, giving young people the lifelong gift of emotional regulation and self awareness! Discovery is using this to literally open and grow our minds- trying out a new type of mindfulness for 10 minutes everyday and writing down what works for us. Almost every learner has taken advantage of the different types of mindfulness and fully immersed themselves in the journey.

We finished the week with a picnic lunch outside in the grass field. Surprisingly, this was our first time eating out there- on nice days, we typically eat lunch in the school’s courtyard. However, all the learners brought blankets and laid out on the grass, and we tried something new. “Can we do this everyday?” one of the learners remarked. 

In the world of COVID and isolation, open mindedness has become less of a skill that we naturally obtain through interactions with others outside of our groups. We’re confined to our own bubbles, stuck in our own little areas of the world. Open mindedness is now a skill that we need to consciously and intentionally develop, and the Discovery Studio learners are doing just that.

Problem Solving in the Spark Studio

Our morning started with a short video about volcanoes and how they erupt. They were riveted. Before the video was even over, learners shouted out their ideas for their morning project. Without prompting, they started suggesting ways they could make a volcano with the materials they had brought from home. They agreed that they were up for the challenge!  

The materials were simple: each table held recyclables, water, baking soda, tape, and ketchup. They quickly formed groups and got right to work. One group used a milk jug, tissue roll, shoe box, and a piece of cardboard. Another group picked out a yogurt container, plastic, a fruit cup container, and scissors. Other learners decided to go solo, and experiment with the magic for themselves.

An amazing thing happened. Without instruction on what proportions of ingredients to use for lava, learners started experimenting and problem-solving. When the first round of plain ketchup and baking soda did not work, learners added water, then more water, then hot water, then vinegar. They changed the size of containers and cut them into different shapes. They punched holes in the middle of containers and solutions poured out like waterfalls. They excitedly stood around their potions, waiting for the solutions to bubble and erupt. They experimented and experimented while never giving up.  

“It’s about to explode, I just know it!

“Oh, yay!”

“Ketchup is lava.”

“Oh, I see the problem. It’s stuck”

“Can we just make a normal one?”

“We made snow.”

“Ours exploded on the bottom, not the top.”

Although water flowed from every container and box on the table–and the Spark studio was a bit of a mess–the learners had a chance to work in teams, think scientifically, and have a rollicking good time. Naturally, the wonder, discovery skills, and exploration occurred through their eagerness to dig in.

The ability to get messy means that learners can think messy, which translates to creative problem-solving down the road. That is one of the major goals in Spark Studio, to get learners thinking outside the box. This profound effect will keep learners open to new ideas, experiments, and solutions in our ever-changing world.