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!

This session, TVS heroes have been writing science-based stories. While you may feel like we are living a science-fiction novel right now, you might enjoy losing yourself in this alternate reality written by a hero.

April 28, 2058, this was the day “The Incident” happened. Oh, you haven’t heard about that yet? Well, are you sure you want to know? Ok, ok, fine I’ll tell you, although it is not a tale I tell often. Why is my name The Narrator? I have no clue why they named me that, but you wanted to hear a story so I suppose I’ll tell it to you.

April 28, 2058, 3:42 PM 

[Yes I know you already know]

This was the day they finally got a monkey into a computer file. In the state of the art DNA R&D faculty (they had a sign in the lobby saying things like “If you put all the DNA molecules in your body end to end, the DNA would reach from the Earth to the Sun and back over 600 times” or “Every human being shares 99.9% of their DNA with every other human”) It was a monkey because humans share 98.7% of your DNA in common with them. It still took a while because the human genome contains 3 billion base pairs of DNA (the other option was mice, humans share 85% of their DNA with a mouse). They were celebrating and they also wanted to get a creature into it, they edited the genetic code to be able to transfer it over. It was done using the B-84 prototype, which can change the properties of nucleic acid, which makes up DNA. Using this device, they transferred a monkey to their computer file. Everything was fine until they waited to see how long it could stay as a file. At 9:36 PM they got a ransomware virus (If you don’t know what that is, its a virus the encrypts your files and has you pay a fee to get them back), the scientists were scared for the experiment so they paid the fee (use virus protection to prevent this in real life) but a couple of files didn’t decrypt, including the monkey, they tried to see if the monkey was ok not knowing at the time that the monkey’s DNA was messed up and that the code running the decrypting process was also bugged.

The de-computerization process messed up and the computer got the location wrong

The Monkey landed on his side in a park next to the DNA R&D facility after Instantaneously appearing in it. Only this monkey was much smarter than before, he hid and snuck behind a skyscraper, unbeknown to him, he had been injected with a small tracker, back at the DNA R&D facility they were in a state of sheer panic,

“NO, NOT JACK!” one of the scientists yelled

 “We can find him trough the genetic tracking device by matching his DNA sequence”

“That doesn’t work remember, genes make up only about 3 percent of human and monkey DNA”

 they called the FBI to come and capture the monkey, which had turned an odd shade of green and at this point was knocking over trash cans. The FBI thought the team at DNA R&D facility was mentally insane.

The monkey was in an alleyway when he saw a way to get to the main street, after walking there he saw the window of a bakery, his brain having been altered, he really wanted a doughnut so he smashed the window with a rock and grabbed it. It was made of plastic of course so the monkey didn’t like it. The people inside the bakery screamed and ran from the monkey on first sight. The noise made the monkey even crazier, he started running around and eventually climbing on balconies.

Meanwhile, the scientists were panicking trying to convince the FBI they are not insane and they just need help. Eventually, they decided to go do it themselves and they got in a car and drove around the city desperately trying to find the monkey. They put up lots of posters and they put up posters all around the city. 

Monkey that is green for some reason

If found, please call 1-555-DNA-LAB

Reward $1000

The people living there also thought they were mentally insane and some of them tried to kick the scientists out. This went on for half an hour until they came across the monkey. All the citizens screamed and ran away. The monkey cased them, then the FBI inspectors came. They were shocked. They called a military team immediately and within 5 min they came and tried to find the monkey.

There was a sewer cover that was left open that happened to be the secret entrance to the Anarchists’ secret hideout. Anarchists were a group of people who didn’t like the laws and the government. No laws or anything. The monkey fell in, and there was a room.

“Aw shucks. You didn’t close the sewer cover all the way, Joe.”

“Don’t worry, John, it’s just a monkey, it’s not a person. Don’t worry about it. It seems the zoo’s not treating him too well. We will just give him some bananas to keep him quiet. He clearly doesn’t like the people either.”

The room had concrete walls and a couple of mismatched posters of random tv shows. One poster was of the monkey.

“Wait a minute joe, that monkey is wanted”

“Great then we can be friends, monkey”

The people down there had heard about the monkey and agreed to help him. So the group of outlaws and the monkey went into the main city and charged the investigators, the FBI had not arrived yet so they tried to stop the investigators. The investigators were in a coffee shop and were enjoying themselves. Then the Anarchists and the monkey barged in and started attacking people and they demanded that the investigators put their hands up and call off the FBI. The investigators said no and that they had taken FBI hand-to-hand combat training for emergencies.

Both sides fought with their hands and feet. Punch. Kick. Jab. Bang. The investigators won due to the fancy training they had. The Anarchists ran away with the monkey as fast as they could. The investigators were trailing not too far behind. The monkey tripped on a rock. Everyone else ran off. At the last moment, a black SUV with tinted windows, full of FBI agents, pulled up. The doors opened, the FBI agents dragged the monkey to the car, locked him in a cage, and drove away.

******

That’s all we know so far. So now, Chris, you’re going to get the monkey. You’re going to do this because you’re the best. And because I feel like making you doing it.

“Wha- w- wh- Why me?” says Chris.

Because I feel like making you do it. I mean, Umm, You’re going to be a hero. You’re going to accomplish great things. I think.

“Bu- b- but I don’t want to,” says Chris.

Just go do it!

*** The story of Chris ***

So I’m supposed to get a monkey and people will praise me? I don’t think it’ll be too hard. All this walking is really tiring. I’m getting close to the address The Narrator gave me. Here it is, the FBI building. What if I just ask the guards politely if I can go in?

“Ex- E- Excuse me. C- c- can you let me in?”

“Get out of here, kid!” said the guy at the barbed wire gate.

“Okay.”

I go behind a tree and fall into a random hole. At the bottom of it is an air shaft. I crawl around in it like in the movies. But of course, this isn’t the movie so they have security cameras. Alarms start blaring, and some guards crawl toward me.

“Ah, it’s just a little boy. What can he do?”

“He looks about 13. What do you mean little?”

“Oh shush, Jerry.”

Just then an Anarchist stabs him. Then the Anarchist says, “Go kid!” So I crawl as fast as I can, looking through every hole in the vent to see if the monkey is in the room. Eventually, I come to the scientist’s room and there he is. In the room, there are a few scientists in lab coats. One is a computer. The monkey is in a glass cage with scanners and monitors around him. There are also a couple of science things lying around on tables as well as some more monitors and random wires. The scientists are overheard saying, “We ran a DNA test on him. He is apparently more Irish now. Don’t bananas share 50% of our DNA?”  “No, that’s 50% of our genes, only 1% of our DNA.”

A fly comes over the guard’s head and he looks up and sees me. He shouts “There’s a guy watching us!” And he shoots at the vent cover. And vent cover comes off. “Oh shoot! That’s my last bullet.”

“Ok, I have permission to fire now. Thanks, Greg! I get to do something fun now!”

“*Sighs* Ok, fine you can shoot, but don-”

I jump down from the vent on top of the guard with bullets and knock him over. The scientists are so scared they don’t do anything. I grab the gun with bullets and shoot the other guard with it. One of the scientists tries to hit me with a test tube and he misses. The liquid inside the test tube splashes on the alarm. I duck out of the way, and the test tube hits the cage, breaking it. The monkey comes out of the cage and jumps on the scientists and knocks them out. I see a tranquilizer on the wall, with the label “Tranquilizer”. I take it and jab it into the monkey, and the monkey falls to the ground. The Anarchist comes into the room. I give the address of the narrator to the Anarchist to take the monkey. I’m about to run away when I hear some guards talking outside the door. I scramble up the air shaft as fast as I can. But the guards heard me. I crawl as fast as I can. I hear them coming down the shaft. Then, everything went black.

I wake up being dragged down a hall by some guards. 

“Aw shoot Jim he woke up,” says a guard.

“Darn it! Knock him out bill”

I free myself and start running, they shoot at me, but they miss. I frantically try to get away. I look for an exit for what seems like forever. Then I realize I can jump out a window. I smash the window with a potted plant I picked up from the hall and jump out. I land in a bush and run. I don’t think anyone saw me, but then I hear the guards. To throw them off I go back into the building, I don’t think it’s a good idea when I hear guards behind me. I dash into a room but I think the guards saw me, I look around frantically and realize its the room the monkey was in. I realize I can upload myself to the internet and live forever but I’ll be lonely. Or, I can fight the guards and risk going to jail. I have to make up my mind quickly. I hear the gauds saying they see me. I panic and start trying to figure out how to put myself on the internet. The guards rush in and I jump at the sound of the guards. I fall on the computer and get sucked in.

***

You live in a nice peaceful neighborhood a couple of houses away from the narrator, but you never forget what happened that day.

The 10 Science Facts in this Story:

  1. DNA is made of nucleic acid
  2. You share 98.7% of your DNA in common with chimpanzees and bonobos
  3. Every human being shares 99.9% of their DNA with every other human
  4. You share 85% of your DNA with a mouse
  5. The human genome contains 3 billion base pairs of DNA
  6. Genes make up only about 3 percent of your DNA
  7. Your DNA could link you to places you’d never imagine
  8. A DNA test can reveal you’re more Irish than your siblings
  9. If you put all the DNA molecules in your body end to end, the DNA would reach from the Earth to the Sun and back over 600 times
  10. You share 50 percent of your DNA with each of your parents. But with bananas, we share about 50 percent of our genes, which turns out to be only about 1 percent of our DNA

A Poem for a Hero

This time of year can be extra challenging for our young learners. Add a major world event that’s disrupted their daily lives and it’s no wonder that they may be feeling stressed or overwhelmed. As the school year winding down, and some of our heroes look at goals they have yet to finish, I find it helps to focus on “small wins” in the form of a few solid daily habits and a time at the end of the day to reflect and reaffirm their efforts. In this way, it becomes more about the process of who they’re becoming and less about the end result.

Below is a poem, from me, to your precious children- because even heroes doubt themselves sometimes…(I hope Dr. Suess would be proud):

Do Not Forget

Do not wilt in the face of what

you can not yet do

An opportunity is there, waiting for you

Do not forget all that you’ve

already done

Your daily persistence

Your hard work has won

Keep going, keep SHINING

when self-doubt sets in

There is nothing as beautiful

as you in your skin

Full of magic and LIGHT

with an unstoppable mind

You are STRONG, you are SOFT

both able and kind

Don’t run from the voice

that says, “No you can’t do it”

BREATHE it in and then OUT

with a “hello” and “I knew it!”

That voice is not you

just an unwelcome neighbor

leaning in to distract you

from your role as CREATOR

So good riddance, goodbye

You’ve got work to do

Playing and making

DISCOVERING something new

Because we need what you make

We need what you do

What we need more than anything

is for YOU TO BE YOU

Who is this “you” that we need you to be?

Only the “you” that is your TRUE and your FREE

So keep going, keep shining

when self-doubt sets in

There is nothing as BEAUTIFUL

as you in your skin.

Ms. Lauren

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!

A Bump in a Hero’s Journey

ES Session 6: Week 5

Last week, a hero submitted his Newsela Badge. The Newsela Badge is designed to improve non-fiction reading and a hero must master 30 articles to move to the next level.

When this hero submitted the badge, he was proud that he had worked hard to complete the challenge. What he didn’t realize was that 14 of his 30 articles had disappeared. Nearly half of his work was gone.

As a guide, I made a comment on his badge. I thought that he had simply forgotten to post a third picture of the missing articles. I posted the comment, figured that he would fix it soon, and moved on.

I didn’t know that his work had disappeared. I didn’t hear a complaint about this weird system glitch. The next thing I heard was nearly a week later…

“Oh yeah, my Newsela got messed up,” he explained. “I have a plan to do 1 article a day until I catch up.”

This was mind-blowing.

Think to yourself about the last time that you were hit with unforseen circumstances. Maybe a restaurant messed up your dinner reservation and you had to wait an extra 30 minutes. Or an important email got shifted into spam and caused company delays.

Or back in the days of Microsoft Word, you were writing a term paper, forgot to hit save, and you lost the last 5 pages you had written right before the deadline (definitely not recalling a real memory).

You would be irate. Even the best among us would complain (often and loudly). 

But this hero didn’t do that. He did not try to blame others. He did not try to reason that he should be exempt from the full requirement. This hero accepted that this task was his responsibility and made a plan to finish the work. (And he sent the company an email to see if they could fix the problem for himself and others.)

In this pandemic, every day we are challenged to accept what we cannot change, so that we can move forward and do the best with what we have. I’m grateful for this elegant example from a hero.

Obstacles: Roadblocks or Opportunities?

Problems in life may seem to come one after the other, especially when you’re young. In one afternoon, a child might spill red paint on the table, get muddy water in their boots, and lose a favorite toy. What to do? Get mad and complain? Or tackle these situations head-on?

This week we talked about problems like hurdles on a track. Some kids might grumble, kick or yell that they’re not fair. Others may decide to leap over them. What would you do? During launch, I asked the heroes what advice they would give to a child who was stuck behind a hurdle. One piped right up. “I would tell him to jump!” And jump, I believe, they would.

An outdoor mission this week followed on that same theme. The heroes were invited to make themselves or their siblings an obstacle course using objects they had around the yard or garage. I saw footage of heroes jumping through hoops, balancing on pool noodles, and jumping off of playhouse roofs. Even if they didn’t quite grasp the obstacle course as a metaphor for life, I couldn’t help but imagine them bobbing and weaving, pirouetting, and running when life’s challenges came their way.

But while it might seem fun to leap over obstacles in a game, it’s not so easy to scramble over the stumbling blocks of real life. A sticky mess, painful scrape, or shouting match with a sibling—none of these is fun. So how can we nudge kids to see these problems as hurdle-like opportunities they can surmount?

One thing guides try to do in the studio is model the approach. We might say we are perplexed, explain how we feel, and then talk through step-by-step how we could put things right. We might even ask heroes’ advice about the best course of action.

We also try to help heroes recognize that they can solve their own problems. After we acknowledge that it’s a hard situation and label their feelings as valid, we may offer a way to reframe or give a choice of actions. “It sounds like this is a tough problem. What would you tell a friend in a similar situation? How could you turn this into an opportunity? Would you prefer to do X, Y, or Z?”

Lastly, we might ask their advice when a fellow hero (or at home, a sibling) has run into a difficulty. “It seems like Maeve is having a tough time waiting for her turn to use the toy John has. What advice could you give her?”

It is certainly a long process, but little by little we can help show our heroes that their problems don’t have to get them down. They can be part of life’s rich experiences, and they can mold us into more resilient human beings!