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.

Playing the Infinite Game

Most of us have only ever experienced school in finite terms, with learning measured in seat time, grades and tests over a predictable timeline. It’s finite because there is a clear beginning, middle and end, from the first day of school in the fall to the last day of school in early summer. With a child’s formal entry into conventional schooling starting in kindergarten and culminating at high school graduation, 13 years later. Each year, a child gets new grades, takes new tests, and moves up to a new grade level. It’s easy to deliver, easy to measure, and easy to control. 

This timeline, and all of the traditions and rites of passage along the way, have provided a common rhythm by which most families and students have come to count on. For many people, the comfort of this familiar routine, can be alluring enough to ignore the essential opportunities our children are missing while living inside these rhythms and traditions. Instead, we play the game. We don’t even stop to consider if winning this particular game actually means anything. It’s amazing what we’ll trade for certainty. 

We play a different game at The Village School. It’s the long game, a game that some might even describe as the “infinite game”, since the type of people our children become and the unique contributions they will make to the world around them, will hopefully far outlive even their own footprints on this earth. 

Our community exists because we believe children deserve outcomes of personal agency, independence, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and integrity as a result of their education and we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. 

Zooming in, we are a buzzing micro-school, where children get to work at their own pace and do really cool hand-on projects, earning badges along the way to demonstrate mastery of certain skills and subjects. Zooming out, we are part of a growing collective of people that believe a flourishing child is the greatest hope for a flourishing world. 

But, even when embracing an entirely new belief system of how young people learn and find success in the world, old habits are hard to break. Even when we consciously commit to the long game, we lose our infinite mindset and start looking for that predictable beginning, middle and end of our child’s school year. Without grades, tests, and report cards, we latch on to what’s easiest to measure and control- their progress on Khan, the number of research papers they’ve completed, their mastery of the reading and/or spelling drawers all contained within the confines of their badge plan. We start the year zoomed out, with a clear-eyed vision of why we’re here and what our hopes are for our children. Then, come spring, I find so many of us zoomed in on the badges our children have yet to finish, the skills they’ve yet to master. Somehow, our hopes for our children have been dimmed by our fears.

What if they don’t finish? 

How will they feel if they “fall behind”?

Will they always be behind? 

Will they feel bad about themselves if they don’t complete their goals for the year? 

Will they be okay? 

Self-paced and project-based learning seems cool when my boys are doing the work, but it feels incredibly uncomfortable when they’re not. It seems ideal when I think about the fact that they have nothing holding them back; they could fly ahead, mastering Algebra 1 long before their same aged peers and less ideal when they are working on math a grade level “below” these same peers. It is exciting when I see them shouldering the responsibility for their learning, submitting their session-long projects by the time it’s due and disappointing when I don’t. 

But, when I zoom out enough, I realize that it’s not about how fast or slow they go, or how many badges they earn, or how comfortable I am- it’s that they recognize their own sense of agency in the process. An unchecked box on their badge plan is just a signpost telling them where to go next. 

Admittedly, I think we need to get better about the narrative surrounding badge plans- so in the studios our learners see them simply as trail markers, not a measure of their worth. And so as parents, we see them as the tool they are meant to be- a tool, while imperfect, that’s far better than empty letter grades, that help our children develop those “long game” outcomes of independence, perseverance, self-awareness, and resilience.

The good news- it does get easier each year. I’m still learning- still constantly trying to shake old habits, especially at this time of the year. But I can see the fruits of this journey so clearly. A child who’s “behind”, hunkers down and completes their Level 4 and 5 badges in one school year. A child who has yet to show an interest in reading, comes in one day excited to master the colored reading drawers and surround themselves with books from the studio library. Within a month or two, they are reading independently. A child who is emotionally distraught that they have not completed their goals as planned, recognizes that they just need to read the signposts more clearly, and then does so, one day a time until they reach their goals. 

Will they be okay? 

They will be better than okay- as long as we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. As long as we’re willing to trade the certainty of the “finite game” for something better. 

Finding Balance in Discovery Studio

By this time in Session 5, learners have been together for 7 months. They have figured out the learner driven environment, learned to approach new challenges with confidence, and have grown close with the other members of the tribe. Even in this dynamic environment, learners have started to fall into a routine. That’s why this session’s drop in intentionality did not come as a surprise.

At this time in the year, it’s easy to lose focus. The weather is finally getting warmer, the excitement of the holiday season has faded, and the end of the school year is too far away to seem real. Learners don’t want to finish their far-off goals, which, after working most of the year on them, seem as faraway as ever – they want to be outside, playing and socializing.

During core skills, quest, writer’s workshop, and art, learners consistently lost focus, falling into games with one another or having conversations, and not holding each other accountable. Individual learners, regardless of their behavior, reported having difficulty focusing and wanting to get more work done – but they just couldn’t seem to do it. From a guide’s perspective, I could see the problem was a lack of boundaries and self-control. I thought of various solutions to return order to the studio. So what did I do? Nothing.

The role of a guide is not to fix problems. I equipped them with tools and prompted socratic dialogue about the situation. In launches, heroes identified there was a problem. They were able to say why this was happening. They were able to identify their individual behaviors that were hindering their learning. But, in practice, nothing changed! 

At this point, I admit – I started to panic! Luckily, we have an amazing group of guides at The Village School. The surprising advice I got? Dips in intentionality happen. Step back. See if they will pull each other up.

So I did nothing. Paradoxically, doing nothing felt like the brave, difficult choice. I decided to place my trust in the learners. 

That same week, at Town Hall, a learner brought up the level of intentionality in the studio. Everyone was unanimous in agreeing that the studio wasn’t doing well. They brainstormed solutions, and they decided that one hour of core skills time would be silent, independent work. 

After this decision, the change was incredible. Learners set big goals and were achieving them. Their collaborative time became a time of intentionally working together and helping one another. They were holding each other accountable. It was like being in a new studio; and, because the decision was learner driven and executed, every learner wanted to uphold a new standard in the studio. This is where the merit of a learner-driven environment shines: the learners developed their own motivation for keeping themselves focused, and they decided that focused learning time was something that they value.

In my personal life and my role as a guide, this session has taught me that, as tempting as it is to try to fix things for other people, it is impossible to make decisions for others or force them to have motivation. The learners have discovered that the studio is a sacred place and reinforced that their goal at The Village School is to pursue knowledge.