Discovery’s Up To The Challenge

Learners asking Tom Sayer, Co-Founder and CEO of Ello, questions about starting a business.

This session, the learners in Discovery Studio are embarking on a quest to build their own businesses. They aren’t, however, just crafting their businesses. They are also working together to pitch their businesses to a group of entrepreneurs. And the stakes are high – there’s a $350 cash investment waiting for the company who comes up with the most convincing pitch. 

In “Pitch This,” our Writer’s Workshop, the big goal is to write a persuasive pitch at the end of this session. Leading up to that, we’re writing pitches and practicing public speaking skills in weekly “Studio Shark Tanks.” Learners will take on the role of investors and decide how much money they would be interested in investing after hearing a pitch.

Discovery learners are practicing risk-taking and seeking out challenges, since those are traits of successful entrepreneurs. They don’t just want to be a group who can overcome challenges – they want to be a group who seeks them out because they know they can succeed (or that failure is okay!).

Since our session alludes to the show Shark Tank, we’ve thrown some reality show twists at the learners already! Many learners had already brainstormed business ideas and started to make plans with friends coming into this session. That’s great – it’s exciting to have that entrepreneurial spirit in the studio. However, this session isn’t just about building a business. It’s about overcoming challenges.

On the first day of Quest, it was announced that they would be starting their businesses in random groups of 3 people. Unsurprisingly, the learners were not excited about this first challenge. But, immediately after their groups were announced, the studio sprang to life with brainstorming and planning. Some thought it would be impossible to work together, yet every group has already come up with a company name, business ideas, and a mission statement!

We’ve extended our surprise challenges into Writer’s Workshop as well. Most learners would be comfortable writing a pitch for their business because it’s their idea! But how well can they sell people on any business?

For the first two weeks, learners will be writing and giving pitches for completely random, ridiculous businesses. Already, I’ve heard a pitch for Swoop, a pet psychiatry service for angsty teenagers. In our weekly Studio Shark Tank, learners will have to figure out how to convince their peers that the business is worth investing in, no matter how silly or serious it might be!

Our entrepreneurship venture this session is real. They’ll be leaving the bubble of their studio to bring ideas out into the real world, to real entrepreneurs. They’ll prove to a group of potential investors that, no matter their age, Discovery Studio is ready to change the world now!

An Opportunity to Reflect

We started this year with a call to action: will you accept the role of a hero on a hero’s journey and change the world? This remarkable group of young people met challenges, overcame obstacles, and grew stronger together. Now Session 1 is coming to a close and we pause to take a moment to celebrate the journey thus far.

What is an Exhibition? An Exhibition is a window into our studios. We invite our families to share the learners’  work and celebrate important milestones on their journey.

Here’s a preview of what you can expect in these Exhibitions:

In Adventure Studio, heroes explored who they are and who they want to become. The art of introspection can be challenging, particularly in middle school. Surrounded by a group of influential peers, vulnerability takes courage and trust. The Adventure heroes built both this session. Join us at their Exhibition to see their creative process (Hero Boards) and the outline of their journey ahead (Badge Plans).

In Discovery Studio, heroes worked together to create a studio of new and returning learners. Change can be hard, and it was an opportunity to mesh the best of both worlds. What worked well last year? What new ideas do we have? How can we create an environment that works for everyone? There were bumps along this road: an imperfect system, running into guardrails, and navigating systems and processes. At this Exhibition, you’ll see evidence of that journey (and its resulting growth spurt) throughout the studio tour. Then you will have a preview of the journey to come via your learner’s badge plan.

In Spark Studio, learners discovered their independence. Usually, it takes several sessions of watching lessons before the learners feel confident enough to teach other learners, but this year, leaders emerged from all ages, eager to help and support one another. In this Exhibition, your learner will teach you how to use some of the Montessori materials and give you a tour of their studio.

At the end of the session, we pause to celebrate the journey thus far. We reflect by taking a look at the top of the mountain and finding the motivation to continue climbing. Taking a look to the bottom of the mountain and appreciating the newfound height. Taking a breath and continuing to climb!

The Spark Contract

Ah, the start of a new school year at The Village School. Sharpened pencils itching to write, blank notebooks waiting to be filled, learners hungry for ever more challenging lessons…and a brand new set of rules to create. These aren’t just any rules. Every year, learners in each studio—not the guides—decide what guidelines they will follow for the year. How will they treat each other? How will they treat their studio?

In Spark, creation of the year’s contract is a very thorough process. Guides set aside time in Session 1 for the learners to brainstorm a set of promises they want to follow. The children take this quite seriously, offering suggestions for ways to make their studio safe, fun, and peaceful. Then they vote on which rules they will adopt, and which they won’t. 

Votes on the rules they brainstormed.

In large part, they come up with many of the same rules we adults might: be kind, be honest, and don’t run, hit or scream. But inevitably, they come up with some unexpected gems: be thankful, teach each other, listen to each other, and talk to one another.

Who would have thought these things were important to our youngest learners? 

Through these suggestions, learners are shaping their own space. Given the agency to come up with their own guidelines, they become more invested, taking on more ownership of the studio and taking the rules that much more seriously.

During Friday project time in Spark this week, learners wrote down their rules, painted cards, and assembled their contract. Soon they will sign it and hang it on the wall. Throughout the year, the contract will serve as a constant reminder of the standards they set for themselves at the beginning of the year. They can refer to it often, holding each other accountable and constantly examining their own actions to see if they measure up. Mistakes are expected and OK, so long as they learn from each one.

Creation of a fresh, new contract sets the tone for the year. It also furthers learner independence and leadership. Above all, it fosters a sense of right and wrong. The goal is for learners to do the right thing because they want to, not because an adult told them they have to.

You can see the final product at Exhibition next week. Learners will be more than a little proud to show it off!

Conflict Resolution in Discovery and Spark

The energy was high as the Discovery heroes flooded through the door on their way back inside from free time on Wednesday. Most heroes made their way into the Discovery Lab to prepare for launch, but one hero walked into the Discovery Lab, picked up the peace tray, and left the room. He brought it into the Discovery Library, where two of his fellow travelers were sitting, both visibly upset. 

The peace tray is a tool used in the Discovery Studio to solve personal conflicts. When there is an argument between heroes, the peace tray can help them work through it. It has different tools for conflict resolution, like suggested talking points that guide the learners through putting words to their feelings. 

So on Wednesday when two heroes hurt each other’s feelings, a fellow traveler decided to step in and help. He grabbed the peace tray and sat down with the emotional learners. 

Seeing how upset both heroes were, I sat there anxiously, unsure of how they were going to respond. That quickly faded as the fellow traveler effortlessly led them through a beautiful conversation about how they were feeling and why they were feeling that way. He was patient and gave each hero the time to explain their feelings. He was calm and reassuring, letting each hero know that he was listening, and he was empathetic, telling the heroes that he understood how they were feeling.

The two heroes gave each other sincere, heartfelt apologies. The fellow traveler then said, “So what do you think we should do differently in the future?” and they brainstormed a solution together. Then, the three of them stood up and walked into the Discovery Lab, where they joined their fellow travelers just in time for the beginning of launch. 

Earlier that morning a similar conversation had taken place in the calmer corner in Spark where there are tools to help the heroes talk about their emotions and brainstorm solutions. Wednesday morning, when a Spark hero walked over to the calming corner, a fellow traveler approached, eager to help the hero work through their feelings.

“Are you feeling sad? Angry? Tired?” the hero asked while flipping through cards labeled with different feelings.

“I’m feeling sad.”

“Okay, what do you want to try to help you feel better? Do you want to try taking a drink of water or closing your eyes?”

“Maybe I’ll drink some water.”

“Okay, try that and then come back to see if you feel better.”

Heroes at The Village School don’t shy away from talking about their feelings and emotions. They have tools to help them work through tough situations and they use them frequently. They step up when needed and help their fellow travelers work through hard feelings, not because they have to, but because they care.

Take a Hike

Middle schoolers can’t plan a trip by themselves. Can they? How will they know where to go? What to eat? What if someone gets hurt? What if they get lost? I’ll confess, I had these thoughts to various degrees leading up to last Friday.

My last job was at a traditional school, and I wouldn’t have believed my students there could have planned a hike. There’s a lot of variables to think about! So much to consider! But here at the Village School, I had the pleasure of watching it happen. Our Adventure learners were given guidelines on Wednesday for the hike: it’s at Great Falls, you have a $50 budget for food, and you need to ensure proper navigation, safety, and fun.

From those scant guidelines, they formed committees that chose the route, learned basic first aid, chose and ordered the food. My involvement consisted of showing up on Friday with a backpack and following where the learners led me. That’s it. The learners trickled in, and once they were all there, they divided up the lunch groceries and set off! 

Ms. Hannah and I followed along as they walked out of Great Falls Park, unbeknownst to them. The signage wasn’t quite clear, and they couldn’t quite figure out their map, so they set off based on what they could gather from their surroundings. We followed Difficult Run upstream, and after about an hour, they realized that this wasn’t the hike they intended, so we all turned around! We made it back to the parking lot and took the other path. Now on the path they’d planned, we stopped for lunch along some rocks in the middle of the stream.

We ate pita pizzas, turkey sandwiches, and a few snacks, like apples, bananas, and Cheez-its. At the end of lunch, the learners packed out the trash and uneaten food in their backpacks and trash bags that they’d thought to pack, and we went along the path up to a ridge along the Potomac. We found frogs, bugs, worms, and even a few snakes! After a few games and some exploration, the learners decided it was time to head back.

All parents were coming to pick them at the parking lot, and they made it back with twenty minutes to spare. When we had a little debrief, the learners determined that the hike was a success, because they learned, they had equipped themselves, and they had fun! 

Can middle schoolers plan a trip? After experiencing it, I can say that they can plan not just a trip, but a fun and rewarding adventure!

Discovering Independence in Discovery Studio

And we’re off! We’ve thrown ourselves into this new school year in Discovery Studio. 

We started the year off with the biggest Discovery Studio yet. With more learners and more space, learner independence isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. 

Being learner-led leads to so many incredible moments. Seeing young people learn, reflect, interact, and problem-solve through any obstacles is inspiring. In a world where so many adults can’t work together, watching young people work together the way they do here gives me a lot of hope for the future.

However, when a group of highly independent 6-11 year olds are first thrown together for the first time, it’s unsurprising that there are some challenges. That’s why our year starts with introductions to a lot of different systems. 

Systems are the backbone to our learner-driven community. Systems let learners decide their rules, hold each other accountable, share joys and failures, and celebrate each other. Systems let learners handle things themselves.

This group has proven that they’re eager for more independence. They’ve flown ahead in independent projects, like collaborating on an illustrated book about climate change in just one optional Friday. They’ve started thoughtfully making their contract and having constructive conversations about what they want their studio to be.

So, a bit earlier than usual, they were introduced to the system of Town Hall this week. Town Hall is a time when learners can share with their community, whether it’s solving a problem, getting feedback, or celebrating a success. They had an opportunity to write their first Town Halls of the year.

They made this meeting so much more than just an introduction. Learners brought up real issues in the studio. Even with issues I found a bit uncomfortable, they proved their maturity by having meaningful, productive conversations. They came up with their own solutions, debated their pros and cons, and voted to enact the things they felt their community needs. They celebrated each other’s progress and offered kind and helpful feedback. This group of young learners showed how much responsibility they already have for their community and their learning, and that they have the skills to work together for the greater good.

A learner driven environment can be messy at times but the ability to come together, discuss, compromise, and solve problems shows that this group is off to an incredible start.

Igniting the Spark: Off to a learner led start



This week, Spark learners embarked on a new journey as they prepared themselves to start a new school year at The Village School. Learners expressed how they felt going into a new year on their first day but by the end of the week, those emotions had quickly changed. We began to see amazing things happen as nervousness turned into calm and peaceful inquisitive minds working at their own pace.

The calmness of the returning learners is leading the Spark studio in a new direction. New learners are becoming acclimated to their new learning environments and are openly voicing their opinions in our daily launches. Grace and courtesy and safety were discussed as learners modeled how to carry materials with two hands and an outdoor tour of the playground was given to showcase new boundaries. These boundaries called for lots of fun outdoor play as learners expressed their personalities through collaborative play in hula hoop and planning to be your own boss games.

Collaboration also occurred during Sparks first music lesson. They learned about different instruments, their high and low-pitched sounds, and showed us how to control their body movements. Harmonious clapping echoed throughout the enormous room, one beat at a time. Learners were challenged with staying on beat and stopping at any given moment. Oh, how they wowed us!

What would happen if their excitement continued throughout each quest, project, and work period? Would learners awaken something inside themselves that they have never known? These questions have yet to be answered but we’re starting our journey with learners who have set their goals for a successful school year.

Teamwork at its Best

“We need those to catch frogs.”

“This is so gonna be amazing.”

“This boat is cool.”

Session 7 has been all about the Ocean. Artwork, seashells, and books about the ocean adorned the shelves. Spark heroes learned about the different layers of the ocean with their varying temperatures, amazing ocean animals that could be seen in many shapes and sizes, and how trash impacts the oceans around the world.  They even got to explore an ocean sensory bin where they could dig in to find all types of colorful sea creatures. Their last challenge encompassed everything that they had absorbed these past few weeks–building a boat. Hearing the news of the challenge, the learners erupted in enthusiastic chants and excitement.

Over the course of two days, Spark learners eagerly collaborated to build the best boat ever.  They all dove in immediately and got to work. They selected materials and started putting their ideas together. Some chose to work together in small groups and then bring their contribution back so everyone could ooh and aah. Others decided to work individually. There was no plan and no instructions. Just lots of conversations, input, and hands-on involvement.

Their newfound determination continued to show itself at the end of the year. Not one person opted out. Instead we heard shouts of “we need scissors, where’s the tape, I need that”. Heroes were listening to each other, communicating effectively, and using their critical thinking skills to solve problems.

“That can be like a motor boat”

“This is the best boat ever.”

“Umm, Umm, the ship is going down”

“It’s the soda escape boat!”

The qualities that learners showcased during this project were all focused on teamwork. Teamwork has been a big focus in our morning and closing launches and learners have been busy practicing their newfound skills in different ways. Whether helping each other achieve their session goals or working together outdoors in nature, learners have continuously shown that progress can be made together.

Throughout this school year, we saw learners who once happily played by themselves now join in to play with other learners. They feel a part of the community. Laughing and talking with other learners, voicing their opinions on how things can go has been a joy to see. Simple statements such as “What can I do now?”  can be heard loud and clear. Active engagement, curiousness, and independence have taken over. Guides have also watched as learners who did not share in conversations with other learners develop a connection like never before.

Michael Jordan once said “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” I so agree with MJ. The journey of witnessing Spark learners enter The Village School and flourish during such a trying year speaks volumes. The success of Spark Studio is in part to all of the amazing learners bringing their qualities and skills together to make a foundation for future learning. It has truly been a team effort this year!

Learner Led Lessons

What is The Village School?”

This is a question I find myself asked time and time again. It’s a question I haven’t been able to come up with an answer for. How do you describe this place?

But then, this week, I was taught the same lesson I’ve learned over and over again this year – leave it to the learners. This is a learner led school – of course they have better answers than I do!

Discovery and Adventure learners had their Hero Celebration this past Thursday. The Level 5s (and one Level 4!) wrote speeches reflecting about their time here and their growth.

In the spirit of being learner-led, this blog post will be a space to share excerpts from their speeches. What is The Village School? What have you learned? How have you grown? Let’s ask the experts…

What is the Village School?

“The Village School isn’t your regular school. It’s a place where learning is fun and team work, independence, and learning are sole ingredients. you need those skills when you enter the real world. Other schools may say we are preparing them but that’s only schooling. Not life experience. You still need those sole ingredients for your life, your job and your future. And that’s what the Village School does. We are prepared. “

Fin, Level 4

“Kids take responsibility for their learning instead of the teachers teaching… Almost everything was different to what I was used to from the guides not teaching to even the desks being positioned differently… The kids are so much more driven to learn and be responsible. “

Jackie, Level 5

“When you think of failure, maybe you think of disgrace, or just BAD in general. Well, in this school, failure is nothing but success, and hopefully that message will be known to the world some day. When we fail, we call it an awesome failure, because failures are, well, awesome. And the reason for that is every time you fail, you learn, it is part of your hero’s journey, because if you don’t fail, then you just don’t go anywhere, and where’s the fun in that?”

Maddie, Level 5

At the Village School, I can move at my own pace. I’m more free to work on the things I want to…”

Emerson, Level 5

“I love the village school. It really pushes your limits and teaches you how to be responsible.”

Alexa, Level 5

Lessons Learned

“…The best things I learned from Discovery Studio were great leadership, grit, my passions, and, most of all, I learned how to be on a hero’s journey.”

Jackie, Level 5

“Honestly, before I went to the village school I really did not like work. Everyone learned the same thing and could not have the freedom to follow our passion while at school… When I found the Village School, I was amazed a school like this existed.

Alexa, Level 5

“I’d like to share a quote that my dad motivates me to use: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Benjamin Franklin said that. What have I learned here? Never stop trying, and don’t make an important decision when you are in a mood. You will regret it. I have lots of memories, but what makes a good day possible here is coming in everyday and seeing someone determined to do work. We are a pack, and like a community, the pack leaves no one behind.”

Owen, Level 5

Teamwork and Independence

“Thriving villages use teamwork to get jobs done and are independent from other villages. It’s the same here at the Village School. There are no teachers but only guides who won’t answer a question directly, but let you figure it out yourself.”

Fin, Level 4

“Something I wish I’d known is that we all are a team, pack, community, whatever you want to call it, and yes, you are responsible for your education, but you are also a part of everyone else’s. When we work together we can make the world a better place. Individually you can, but together we can do it exponentially. We have done that this year and we will continue to.”

Owen, Level 5

Thank you, TVS learners, for all the lessons you’ve shared this year. In the words of Owen, together we can make the world a better place, and we will continue to do so.

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.