Being Gardeners: Session 6 Week 6

My dad is an excellent gardener and always has been. I have fond memories of sitting on the porch eating sweet watermelons that he had grown in our own backyard. My mom had beautiful flower gardens that she would insist that I help her weed, and she would speak more candidly as we sat in the dirt tugging at unwanted roots. None of this led to me having much of a green thumb. Quite the contrary, actually, I have a history of dead house plants. I am an excellent listener, but leaves and blooms just don’t communicate needs like people do.

I had resigned to just not having what it takes to grow and cultivate much plant life. This was the case until I got to be the guide of a community of young heroes starting a garden. If this was new for them, you wouldn’t know it. Maybe they hadn’t tasted and planned crops based on height and sun location, before. I saw no hesitation though. They accepted the challenge head on and jumped into botany lessons and discussions about pesticides.We marveled together at the asparagus growing tall at Whitehall Farm. They built the beds, laid the soils, planned each square and sowed each seed with hope and joy. These heroes works fastidiously without a trace of self-doubt. They inspired me.

So I spent my birthday weekend in my own backyard, digging the weeds out of an old neglected wooden garden bed. I planned according to the sun and I researched soil. I chose complementary plants and veggies that I would be excited to harvest and put them in the earth. I felt immense pride at having tried something that I had written off as too hard. I used the growth mindset that we talk about every day in the studio to quiet my own hesitation. It is hard to try something new or that you have previously failed at at. The heroes do this every day. They face academic challenges and emotional ones and they are gracious with themselves and other as they learn and grow. I don’t know if my first attempt at gardening will yield anything edible but I enjoyed the process and I feel thankful to be surrounded by a community of courageous learners.

Fixing your Mistakes: Session 6 Week 6

This week, the Heroes dropped a plate during the cleanup of CSA lunch. At the time, I was in the studio. If I hadn’t wandered into the kitchen to check on the progress, I wouldn’t have known that the incident occurred. And that is kind of a remarkable thing.

One hero was already on the way to fetch a broom and dustpan. Another hero warned, “You shouldn’t walk around in those flip-flops; you could get hurt.” The broom arrived when a third hero observed, “I see shards all the way across the floor, so make sure to sweep all around.” They stated any advice that I would have offered. In 5 minutes, everything was picked up.

Practicing teamwork and collaboration

The Heroes didn’t come to get an adult because they didn’t need an adult. Something had broken. They knew how to solve the problem. And they fixed it. Simple.

Elementary and Spark partnership in the Community Garden Quest

I thought back to my elementary school, even later school years, and I can’t remember a single time I broke something in school. Not because I was a particularly careful child, I don’t think that I was ever given the chance.

Perhaps for the best, a school doesn’t want to have to budget for 500 new plates every year. But I wonder about the bigger picture too: how many times was I given the chance to fail cheaply? Where were the opportunities that I had real responsibility and messed it up, then could fix it?

Time for focus and fun!

This is a school where students are learning that it is okay to fail because they have the power to make things better. Will another plate get broken? Maybe, but I imagine that the Heroes will be more careful next time. More importantly, they demonstrated that they know it is okay to fail and they are capable of fixing it. I think that is worth every penny for a new plate.



Learning to Be: Session 6 Week 5

The morning starts with mindfulness and then we launch into a story about the ripple effects that kindness can have. Heroes have a lively discussion about how they can change the world by sharing language and acts of kindness. They each drop a pebble into a bowl of water as they share a time where they witnessed themselves or a fellow hero being that positive change, and we all watch the ripples emanate from the stone.

From there, heroes are off setting daily goals and doing work of meaning. Fractions at the math table and writing stories of castles and of course, sea creatures. Then comes the free times of our day when play and imagination take over. Free, unstructured play is crucial for children to build the skills they’ll need to be happy, productive adults. These opportunities help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions and solving problems. These games include pretending to be firefighters, animals, superheroes or a rock band. What our heroes are learning is how to work in groups, negotiate, share, self-advocate, and make decisions.

After working hard, checking in with goals and navigating various social settings our heroes wind down to reflect. We play kindness mad-libs and give each other compliments about what went well that day and the gifts that each hero brings to our community. Equipped with tools and skills in mindfulness, aspiration, grit, and empathy our heroes continue on the journey that awaits them!

Measuring Growth

As a mastery-based school, our learners work hard each day to master the foundational skills of reading, writing, and math. But what about the non-academic skills? What about character growth? How do we measure meta-cognitive growth (or the ability to think about thinking)? What about social/emotional growth?

As we near the last session of our inaugural year together, I decided to find my own answers to these questions by asking our heroes directly.

What do you want your parents to know about your time spent at TVS?

“I want them to know that this is really hard and I’m doing my best.”

“I want them to know I am learning and I’ve gotten a lot better at figuring things out on my own.”

“It’s okay if we don’t enjoy everything we’re learning because it’s important to do it and feel the sense of accomplishment. We’ll be okay. We’ll be better than okay if we do something hard.”

“Sometimes I get mad but I’m learning how to work through things.”

“Sometimes I’ll get hurt, but I’ll be okay.”

“I am happy. We have freedom. I’m cared for here.”

What’s changed for you? (“I used to think/do _________but now I ___________.”)

“I used to think work was torture, but now I think of work as a challenge and a way to feel good about yourself. Laziness doesn’t feel good.”

“I used to think I wasn’t very good at learning, but now I know I am.”

“I used to think math was boring and I didn’t need it for life but now I’m in the middle because I’m getting better at it.”

“I used to be mad at everything. The rules were stupid at my old school and there was a lot of drama. I never wanted to go. I like coming to school now- except when I’m tired.”

“My view on things that are hard has changed. I think now the things you resist are often the things we need the most.”

“I used to think that I was just okay at things like math and spelling, but now I think I’m good at them. Also, I think I’m a more interesting person now.”

“I used to think I was clever, but now I know I am clever and smart.”

And, one of my personal favorites, (most of our heroes pack their own lunches each day…)

“I used to pack a small lunch but now I make sure to pack a big lunch.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a good question to measure growth.

R&R Day: Session 6 Week 5

A portrait of one hero: she is the first one with her laptop open post-launch. She is intently focused at her desk. Her work pattern alternates between math and reading, logging the hours to perfecting her skills. She is patiently waiting for the day her first badge goes onto the wall!


We hope every single one of our Heroes embraces this work ethic and focus. But after many months dedication and grit, it was time for a “Relax and Recharge” or R&R Day. We work hard and play hard too.

Early morning hopscotch
A round of Apples to Apples
Planting our garden!
The only photo I was able to take in our soccer game because we were running up and down the field!

When the Paradigm Shifts

How old were you when you realized that the adults in your life did not, in fact, have “it all figured out”?

My childhood experience went something like this: There were kids and there were adults. Adults had big, important things to do and it was best if us kids stayed out of their way so they could do all of the big, important, and mysterious adult “things”. These things required the cleverness, skill and seriousness that only an adult possessed. These adult “things” included cooking, shopping, planning trips, devising schedules, working, managing money, managing relationships- among other things. At home and at school, the adults made the rules and because adults had it all figured out, we (mostly) followed the rules without question.

And then, inevitably, this paradigm fails us. As we become more worldly, we realize the adults in our lives- the moms, the dads, the teachers, the administrators, the “bosses” and societal leaders are not the omnipotent beings we believed them to be. There is no race with a finish line and prize of “having it all figured out.” Those adults in our lives? They were just humans trying to figure it out as they went along.

I was far too old before I came to this understanding of adulthood. Regardless of your age, this initial paradigm shift is scary and confusing. It can lead us to question nearly all of our closely held assumptions. What does it mean to really “know” something? Who makes the rules? If adults are not as powerful as I thought, am I safe? If there is no such thing as the “all-knowing adult”, who is going to teach me “all the things”? If we are all just trying to figure this life thing out at the same time, are we doomed? How do I proceed now that the rules are blurred and the finish line no longer exists?

And then, bit by bit, we begin the arduous (and often painful) process of piecing together this new world we’ve now found ourselves in- often “unlearning” so much of what we pocketed as truth.

Step back a bit, and perhaps we can see the cultural and societal costs of this rebuilding process. (This is an interesting article on the topic).

Is it necessary? Or can we do better?

Imagine instead, a version of childhood that looks like this: Adults and children are each learners with different amounts and types of life experience. Both experiences are respected and important. Children work alongside adults, asking them questions related to the process of learning. These questions allow children to see that most of the things adults seem to be “mysteriously” good at, are from years of practice, determination, grit and failure. Starting from a young age, children learn the art of cooking, shopping, planning trips, devising schedules, working, managing money, managing relationships and, among many other things, they learn how capable they are. At home and at school, the adults make the “big” rules (safety, well-being, etc) yet engage the child in the very important process of creating the other rules. Each step along the way, the child is encouraged to look at all existing systems and “rules” from a place of curiosity.

Can you imagine this?

Growing up this way, children are shaped by a much different worldview. Early on, they recognize themselves as co-creators of knowledge and the adult-child relationship is based on respect, empathy and trust. They understand themselves to be leaders not followers, creators not consumers, and powerful agents of change.

This is why there are no “all knowing” adults at The Village School. It is why we have Guides and not teachers. It is why we have heroes instead of students and children. It is why we are all (adults included) learners on a journey.

We can imagine the paradigm shift described above because this is the very worldview etched in every part of learning design and community culture at TVS.

Step back a bit, and perhaps we can see the endless possibilities of building such a world. (Not to mention the relief, that now, as adults, we can graciously admit, that we most certainly do not “have it all figured out.”)

What do you do with a problem?Session 6 week 4

Have you ever had a problem? What about a problem so big that you just wished it would go away? The longer the problem is avoided, the bigger it seems to get. Spark studio read a story that inspired them to look closely at a problem and to find out why it’s there. Sometimes you might discover something amazing about your problem… and yourself.

Most young people aren’t looked at or referred to as heroes. They spend most of their day being ordered about, with little say.  They never have to make decisions because people tell them what to do. Here, in spark studio, ideas are heard and respected. There is a great deal of freedom within limits. Heroes choose how they will manage morning work time. They choose where to sit, when to have a snack, and who to collaborate with on math facts and reading practice. Our space is curated to meet the needs and follow the interests of each individual in our community.

These freedoms, realistic expectations, and boundaries make up our studio culture but they are not set up to prevent problems. It is intentional that there is only one of many works and that some parts of our schedule are set at precise times. As in life, conflicts are bound to arise. Spark studio heroes discuss the big and small challenges that they face and how each time they deal with these it gets easier to move on. We brainstorm strategies for dealing with problems. Heroes are heard making suggestions like “Don’t give up now, just try it a different way” or “Maybe you could swing for five minutes and then give her a turn.” The approaches to dealing with these issues turns these challenges into opportunities for respect and empathy.

The problems of a five year old look different than the stresses and difficulties of an adult but they can be equally as daunting and meaningful for our heroes. Sometimes the lessons I have planned get pushed to the side because someone took the tape when another hero REALLY needed it. In these often arduous moments, the heroes come together and use the conflict resolution techniques they’ve learned and discussed. They face these issues with great courage and I am reminded that problems are really just opportunities for growth.

What’s in a question? Session 6 Week 4

What can we learn about our CSA?

My role in the studio is to be a Socratic guide, not a teacher. I love to illustrate this point by telling people, “It’s in my contract that I can’t answer questions!” As a result, this year I have spent a lot of time asking (and analyzing) my questions. If there was a P.h.D in inquiry, I’m ready for my dissertation.

Which environment do worms like best?

Here are what I consider the most common types of questions:

Predetermined: This is a statement posed as a question. You are asking someone but in reality, telling them what to do. It is often fully illustrated with voice emphasis. Examples- “Do you think that is a good idea?” “Is that a safety concern?”

Fun aside. Heard in the studio this week from a Hero, “Are you talking or are you working?”

2 concrete choices: This one has determined outcomes, but there is still choice. It can be extremely helpful when a hero is overwhelmed or unfocused.  Choices like, “Would you like to put on your coat or pack up your backpack?” or “What will you work on next- Khan or Lexia?”

Evaluating: This question is the mainstay of discussions. It asks someone to compile the information learned and create an opinion. For example, “At its peak, what would have been the greatest aspect of living as a Roman? The brilliant minds innovating all around you, the mighty military that protected you, a government that was ethical and cared about you and your wishes, or the rest of the world wanting to join your culture, or infrastructure (buildings, roads, bridges, and aqueducts)?” Especially in Civilization, these questions provoke excitement as the stakes are raised. Sometimes, we even use a random number generator to “rewrite history”!

Truly Wondering: These questions stem from authentic curiosity. Often, children (and adults) have brilliant ideas that are packaged into endless stories or run-on, tangent, off-the-mark conclusions. It is easy to jump to the conclusion but I love when a truly wondering question illuminates a new perspective.

Personal: We play a game during the first week of each session. I earn a point if a Hero asks me a question that could be answered through the 3Bs (brain, buddy, blinks) and the Heroes earn points when I answer a question. It is a tough contest with only 7 points being scored this spring, but they always get me with a cheerful, “How are you this morning Ms. Sarah?” To be fair, I think that it is probably an okay question to answer, but a contract is a contract.

Serial Questioning: This series of questions is asked to lead the student down a line of rational thinking. Often it starts very broad and then returns to the original question. It is an excellent way to illustrate your thinking to another person without explicitly stating it. A train of thought could be, “Do you think it is important to keep the environment clean and healthy? What would happen if everyone threw litter on the ground? Do the same rules apply to inside as outside? Would you be unhappy if no one used the trashcan and just left their trash on the floor? Is it okay for you to leave your trash on the floor?”

Answering a question with a question: After all this thought, it turns out that it is fairly easy to answer a question using a question. “Do we have free time before Writer’s Workshop?” Answer- “Does it say that on the schedule?” “Could I use this ruler?” Answer- “Would that be a reasonable thing to do?”

To close, I love this quote from Laura Sandefer in regards to questions, “I am now grateful to be surprised. With surprise comes a sense of wonder, a sense of risk and flying off into the unknown, ready to self-correct when needed.”

What do you think about farm life?

Session 6 Week 3: What makes a hero?

The learning process is inspired by many when everyone in your school is a fellow traveler on their own hero’s journey. Can your heroes change? Spark studio discussed the idea and decided that they absolutely could. Just like friends, it is o.k. to have as many heroes as you like! Maybe your hero changes after reading a book about a passionate journey into space and the challenges of being one of the first female astronauts. Your hero could change after you watch a fellow traveler complete 3 math lessons in a morning, because you want to be able to accomplish that too! ” I am my own hero because I never give up” another hero declared.

Heroes can also be found across the hallway from spark studio in the elementary. Quest work this week included our young gardeners becoming part of a seed team. This meant holding a nail while someone hammered into the wood of a garden bed. It also required compromising on what plants should go next to others in the square foot garden they were designing. They chatted about favorite vegetables and herbs that tasted like soap or smelled good and made them feel calm. While upholding the discussion rules can sometimes be a challenge for our youngest heroes, they are pushed to higher standards and conversations are elevated as they look to our older heroes as leaders.

While looking up to various heroes and developing their own ideas about what it means to be one, each person in spark studio has a chance to share their ideas. Being heard is an important part of community and our heroes value sharing interests and gifts with the world. This takes the form of creative artwork and stories that don’t fit into one book, but instead are broken into a three part series. They collaborate and decide who will write about each zone of the deep sea and they organize thoughts before they delve into topics that they care deeply about. Gratitude is practiced by writing thank you notes grit is exercised as new lessons are tackled. Each day bringing new challenges in social skills and self regulation, our heroes show each other support even when it takes patience. They are each developing the the courage and curiosity needed as they continue on their own hero’s journey.

Celebrating the Process: Session 6 Week 3

Celebrations have spontaneously erupted this week. (To be more specific, celebrations occur normally, but this week has been more than usual.) As we near the end of our year, the Heroes’ hard work is paying off. There were so many badges earned in the first 2 weeks of this session that a mid-session Badge Celebration was added.  In our time-honored tradition, we brought out the ladder and announced Heroes’ accomplishments. The music played and a mini-dance party funneled the out-pouring of emotions.

But it would be a shame to only focus on the moment of success. Hours of work go into a badge. Practice problems followed by mastery challenges, Lexia syllable parsing into full text analysis- each completed skill adding to the overall accomplishment. The process is long and arduous. While it is fun to celebrate the moment of success, it is only a moment. There is so much more benefit in enjoying the process.

There are many examples of Heroes celebrating the journey: a Hero instructing another Hero on a tough math problem, and both are laughing. A Hero in the “flow” reading on the beanbag, fully concentrating, and immersed in the experience. Three Heroes clustered around a laptop as they give feedback and point out grammatical errors on a Hero’s persuasive writing. The very act of being in the same room with a community ready to learn.

Of course, the process is not always enjoyable in the “fun” sense of the word. Heroes experience setbacks, often and small and difficult in the moment. As much as we repeat, “It is better to fail cheaply, often and now,” that mantra is hard to appreciate when you are the one struggling.

That is why it is important to redefine failure. Heroes know that failure is not a bad thing, it is an essential stepping stone to success. When you hear about a major accomplishment, you know that there were hours, days, weeks of struggles leading up to that moment. The Heroes keep this truism in mind, and voted that between celebrating the moment of success and celebrating the process, each part is equally important!