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. 

Can You Help Me?

We talk a lot about independence at The Village School. Every step in a learner’s journey in our community is meant to build independence and autonomy. By Middle School, our learners flex these muscles daily, exemplifying what it means to be a self-directed learner.

Interestingly, one of the most important things they discover, is that one of the most important parts of being a self-directed, independent learner is knowing when and how to ask for help.

“I’m not feeling confident in math right now and I’d like help.”

“I’m falling behind and feeling anxious about it. Can you help me set my goals?”

“I revised and edited my final book review. I’d like one more set of eyes on it. Can you review it with me?”

Our Quests are collaborative in nature and are designed to be completed in teams. Failing to ask for help will make it nearly impossible to complete the challenges. Everyone needs to contribute. Each person needs to be comfortable giving and receiving help.

During this session’s Rocket Quest, our Adventure learners have had to lean on each other to succeed in completing each week’s design challenge. While each week has presented a new challenge- from designing and launching a rocket to creating a battery and lighting system for a space station, the one constant component has been one simple but critical question: Can you help me?

Adventure learners work together to make their own homemade battery out of a lemon

The ability to identify and articulate a need and reach out is a critical part of being a self-directed learner. Asking for help is a strength and an important life skill. After some practice, we realize how much more we can accomplish when we work together.

As we select certain “heroes” and role models to discuss in the studios and in society at large, I’m increasingly suspicious of the stories that leave out or downplay the relationships in that person’s life. I wish more of these stories amplified those moments in which the person said, “I need help”, and showed us what happened next- that magical interplay of human relationships, of giving and receiving, of that person reaching their full potential and accomplishing their dreams because of, not in spite of, their ability to ask for help.

Serious Collaboration

On February 18, the Perseverance rover landed on the surface of Mars. After traveling for seven long months, the robot touched down in a crater, ready to hunt for signs of ancient life. Days later, learners watched the dramatic video-recorded landing, heard the researchers’ cheers when the rover landed safely, and listened to scientists talk about what they hoped to find.

For the culminating activity that week, learners were invited to put themselves in the shoes of space explorers and build their own robots. After taking a video tour of Perseverance and seeing all its working parts, they were given access to boxes, glue, markers, and so on. Away they went! The learners assembled cardboard pieces with plastic screws, glued craft sticks on the sides, poked pipe cleaners through to decorate, etc. They made cameras, lasers, chutes for materials, and even hiding places for people.

While the learners worked to create the robots of their dreams, the guides had some ulterior motives for this activity. This was yet another opportunity for them to practice their expanding collaborative skills. They shared ideas, took turns, and shared tools. “Can I have the screwdriver when you’re done?” “Can I have the tape after you’ve finished?” “Can you help me use the poking tool?” These requests flowed effortlessly from heroes’ mouths, in contrast to the sometimes contentious interactions that took place in the first part of the year. Even when minor arguments did arise, it was amazing to watch other learners step in to stand up for one another, issue reminders, and correct problems.

This was also a chance to practice their independence. Occasionally, someone had a hard time figuring out a tool, poking all the way through their cardboard, or ripping the tape. Rather than ask a guide for help, they sought out others who had struggled with similar issues or solved the problems already. Or sometimes guides offered suggestions for how the learners could do it themselves. “Have you tried holding your hand this way?” “What happens when you grip the tape here?” Rather than learning to depend on adults, learners showed that they are gradually coming to rely on themselves and one another.

Spark learners had a blast letting their imaginations and creativity run wild. They also got some valuable lessons in teamwork, as they do every day here at The Village School. Who knows, maybe some of them will explore Mars in the future!  

Exploration

3… 2… 1… blast off! Discovery learners launched into an exploration of astronomy. Starting with basic astronaut training last week and then a deep dive into the moon, teams are working together throughout the session to prepare for a final (simulated) mission into outer space.

Along with the space theme, Discovery learners are writing their own science-fiction stories. Each week, they draft a new story and share it with their peers. At the end of the session, they will narrate their stories for a TVS SciFi Podcast. There has been amazing creativity so far: unique characters like talking pink cats, exciting plot lines (aliens taking over Earth), and challenging obstacles (i.e. getting suddenly thrown back in time via time travel). Some learners are challenging themselves to write chapter books and are already planning sequels!

Other areas of exploration this session: the historical period after the American Revolution, pastel and collage art, and new challenging problems in math lab. Some learners are jumping into pre-algebra!

Sneak peek into next week’s Quest topic: The Solar System

In the words of former astronaut Frank Borman, “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.” Our learners are certainly enthusiastic about space!

The Power of Language: Listening to Learn

Guest Post by TVS Parent, Elizabeth Dean, EdD

You can tell so much about a child’s view of the world just by listening to them play. And as the mother of a 5 and 7 year old, there is a lot of playing happening in our house. 

The first time my oldest daughter, then 4, proudly announced: “Mom, go away so we can play!” is still seared in my mind. The oh-so-familiar parental feelings of confliction: overwhelming joy and piercing sadness all at once. She basically told me to not let the door hit me on my way out, thrilled (as was I) about the newfound independence. Since that day, one of my favorite pastimes has been eavesdropping on my daughters’ playtime. It’s where I learn what is going on in their heads, what they are learning from me, from their teachers at school, and one another. I have learned so much about both of them when I’m secretly standing outside their doors, listening to their language of play. 

Many times during my spying sessions I spend equal amounts of time smiling and cringing. The edgy tone one of them will use when annoyed with each other, or one of my go-to sassy  catch phrases. “Seriously!?” one of them will say, mimicking my inflection and tone to perfection.  How do they do that? I think to myself. 

As an educator, I am well aware of the power of our language. Ron Ritchhart, a principal researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes extensively about the power of language in our schools. He so well articulates the way our language shapes and influences the cultures we create in our classrooms. One of my favorite questions he asks is: If we asked your students, what does your teacher always say, how would they respond? Would it be a response like: “Shh. Be quiet.” or “Where is your pencil.” or “Put your phone away.” Or, would it be something like, “What makes you say that?” or, “Let’s be curious together!” Whatever the response, the answer would give insight into the kind of culture that exists in your classroom. Research also shows how the simple use of pronouns communicate leadership, and the simple shift from closed to open questions can elicit better responses from students as well as reveal the power dynamics that exist  (Pennebaker, 2011; Stanier, 2016). 

When I think about all I have learned about language in classrooms and schools, my mind often returns to thinking about the culture of my family. How would my own children and husband respond to the same questions? The possible answers make me uncomfortable – it’s probably somewhere in between, “Hurry up,” and “Stop yelling.” or “Yes, you must wear a hat.” or “No snacks before dinner.” and “If you do what I want you to do, I’ll give you a treat, just please do the thing and do it now!?!” 

As my oldest daughter began first grade, and her second year at the large public school a few miles down the road from our house, the cringe-worthy moments that occured during my spying sessions began to occur more when I overheard the language of school during playtime.

One of those pit-in-my-stomach moments occured while they were playing music class. My six year old sang her music teacher’s song that signaled the beginning of music class. To  the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat she sang:

“Hello, hello, hello, hello, sit down on the floor,

Zip lips, hands in lap, and then you’ll get a four.”

I read between the lines: Hurry up, sit down, be quiet, don’t move, and you’ll get an A for compliance. The message my six year old was getting from her music teacher – her music teacher- was that the way to “success” in music class was to sit down and be quiet – not to mention that success was tied to getting a 4, or an A. The symbolism and irony nearly took my breath away. I was furious. This was music class. Shouldn’t music class be full of movement and dare I say it, children making noise? I tried to convince myself that I was overreacting. I told myself to stop thinking so much. I tried to justify the message – the language in my mind.  

And I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t “un” see it – just like when I realized my own students’ questions about how long the paper had to be or when it was due were actually questions related to compliance not questions that reflected curiosity, engagement, and a love of learning. 

Does this music teacher’s song reflect the world we want for our students – for our own children? I am not judging this teacher – I have BEEN this teacher. It’s not her  fault – the language in the song is the language of our school system. And we live in the systems we create. 

Fast forward a few years. My daughters still play school, and I’m still spying, but things sound different. We go to a new school a few extra miles down the road, where the language is vastly different than the language of our old school. There are heroes, not students. There are guides, not teachers. There are studios, not classrooms. There are Core Skills, not subjects. There are Journey Trackers, not report cards. There are Exhibitions of Learning, not tests. There are Badge Ceremonies, not grades.

During my spying sessions now I hear my daughters refer to each other as heroes. I hear them discuss what core skills they would like to learn about during the day, and I hear them recreate “Town Hall” meetings where anyone can make suggestions on how to make their school a better place. They have “Character Call-outs” where they name and notice things other heroes did for one another: I saw one hero help another hero when she was stuck on a math problem, and I call that helpfulness. 

These sessions take my breath away – and now the cringe-worthy moments are all on me and my own language deficiencies. Language matters – we live in the world our language creates. Is our language helping to cement the system that already exists – or, is our language transforming and shaping the world we want to create for our children and their children? 

The good news? If you were to have a spying session on our family, the language of school is finding its way into the language of our home. We now have our own family Town Hall meetings, where any member of the family can bring suggestions for how to make our family better, and we often have Character Call-outs during breakfast or dinner. Both routines suggested and carried out by our kids. We are attempting to be more intentional so that our language reflects the family that we want to create – and our experience at our new school has shown us that this starts with listening to our own heroes. 

The Power of Questions

Questions are one of the most powerful learning tools we have here at The Village School.

Unfortunately not all learners have access to great questions, and instead are inundated with explanations, rules, and commands.

Of course there is a place for explanations, rules, and commands; but if that’s all that’s encountered at school—or if that’s the majority—then a learner’s development will be slowed.

At The Village School we’ve developed a long list of research-informed questions that we ask learners regularly to help them learn, self-reflect, build self-belief, and think deeply about their goals and challenges. We deliver these questions during weekly “check ins” with our learners with the goal of helping learners keep track of their learning progress and to think deeply about their goals and the challenges they’ll face in achieving them. We don’t judge learners’ answers, and instead challenge them to think deeply about themselves—their identity, interests, goals, and plans. When we perceive they may be getting in their own way (for example, self-doubt, stinking thinking, victim mentality, or misinformation), we use questions to invite them to run small experiments and learn for themselves the merit of their perspectives.

Below are some questions that we ask to empower our learners:

  • How are you? How do you feel?
  • When were you most yourself recently?
  • What are your expectations of yourself today and this week? How can you pursue your goals and interests and have fun?
  • What are your boundaries today and this week? 
  • How are you doing at getting into flow? What’s helping you? How can you improve?
  • Did you meet your learning goals last week? If so, how did you accomplish them? Do you feel proud of yourself? What challenges did you encounter? If not, what challenges did you encounter that didn’t allow you to accomplish your goals? Moving forward, what can you do to overcome those challenges?
  • Are you behind, on track, or ahead with your learning goals for the year? What makes you say that? If you’re behind, what does that make you think? Do you know what you would need to do to get back on track?
  • How do you feel about your workload today and this week? Do you feel like you’re in your Challenge Zone, Comfort Zone, or Panic Zone, and why?
  • What learning strategies are you using and finding most successful? How will you manage your tasks for the day? For the week? Would you change any strategies or your schedule for this week? For what reasons?
  • If you have been learning virtually (from home), what are the biggest opportunities and challenges you face?
  • How are you getting along with others? Are you expressing your feelings?
  • Are you having any conflicts with others? If so, how do you feel, and what is a healthy way to function with others in that situation? What are your boundaries? How will you learn to live together?
  • What do you enjoy most from your day, and why?
  • If you could learn anything in the world, what would it be, and why?

There is no such thing as too many questions at The Village School.

And checkmate!

Session 4 Wrap-Up

What a session! This week, Discovery learners wrapped up their Chess Quest and reflected on their journey.

Many minds strategize

One learner reflected, “ A few weeks ago, when I first started playing chess, I didn’t even know how to set up the board.  Now I have just beaten the third level robot. What I’m trying to say is that some things don’t come naturally but if you keep trying, you will get better.”

Another said, “I think I was successful because I love a good game of chess, and I think that love has only grown more since we started this chess quest.”

One summed it all up, “When I learned how to play the game, I never wanted to stop playing ever again.”

Learners share their chess boards and pieces

And we asked them to creatively sum up 1 lesson learned about chess in an acrostic poem. Here is one example:

Parents

Are 

Helpful 

When you 

Need

Some help

Virtual Discovery learners continued their exploration of Civilization. When learning about an emperor who saved and burned books, one hero remarked, “You need multiple views of history to have an accurate understanding.”

The Virtual Discovery Studio wrote in journals throughout the session. Here is an excerpt from one entry, “I’m sure when you read this in the future you would be thinking: virtual school?! That’s not possible! And I wish I could think the same thing, but no. Hopefully in the time that you are reading this you can go to in person school, and see your extended family and friends, and even maybe just maybe ( not sure if this could actually happen) but just imagine if you could take off your mask when you are under six feet!”

In-person Discovery Heroes teamed up with Adventure Studio for Process Drama, a combination of art and Writer’s Workshop. Twice a week, they explored elements of storytelling, improvisation, and got (more than!) comfortable speaking and performing in front of their peers. The session ended with a final performance where learners performed plays that they wrote and created – totally self directed. They made props, costumes, and some even wrote music to go with their play. While the plays themselves were successful, the learners learned even more important skills in the process – collaboration and problem solving. Congratulations, Discovery and Adventure Studios!

Skill-building in Adventure Studio

From the very beginning of a learner’s time at The Village School, he or she is in an environment that is focused on skill-building- not meeting academic standards. We describe this as the difference between learning to learn and learning to know– the latter, the primary focus of traditional education. (Don’t get me wrong, our young people learn about a lot of really amazing and interesting things, it’s just that accumulating knowledge of facts and figures is not our focus).

It might start like this: In Spark Studio, learning to learn might be as simple as staying focused for 10 minutes on a task. In Discovery Studio this looks like learning how to set SMART goals consistently, how to navigate the systems in a learner-driven community, and how to take responsibility for their choices. In Adventure Studio, our learners rely on these skills to thrive in the face of challenging work, high standards, and real-world projects.

By Middle School (Adventure Studio), our learners are well-versed in the three main obstacles they face in accomplishing their goals: Distraction, Resistance, and Victim-hood. Most importantly, they can identify which one they struggle with the most.

“Resistance- or as I call it, procrastination is always my biggest obstacle,” said one Adventure learner recently.

“I would say distraction is mine. I will often stop and help others. I like doing this but sometimes it distracts me from my own work,” said another learner.

Being self-aware is a start. Building even one good habit that works to counter these tendencies, or at least keep them in balance, is a step in the right direction. Having an arsenal of “learning to learn” skills AND a Heroic mindset is the ultimate toolbox that will allow our learners to “punch procrastination in the face”, as one of our learners humorously declared.

But, building this toolbox is hard work and our young people are still adding these tools. Some sessions they might stop at awareness. Another session they may develop one new positive habit- like planning out their week on Sunday, submitting their work before it is due, or blocking out “do not disturb” times to minimize distractions.

Other sessions, for one reason or another, these self-identified obstacles loom large and our learners struggle. They struggle with finding focus, creating quality work, and/or meeting deadlines. They struggle with facing the consequences of their choices, with linking the chain reaction of events, of identifying how one thing led to another. They struggle with embracing that hero’s mindset.

But, they are building skills here too.

Just like in the real world. Sometimes we manage to “punch procrastination in the face” and sometimes we don’t.

Are We Ready For Change?

Do things need to change? Spark learners think so. They believe that they can change the world, as they voiced with us during circle times. We’re behind them! We discussed the past, present, and future of things like racial equity and women’s rights during our morning and closing launches. We have at least one future lawyer who is willing to make sure no one is treated unfairly. Learners won’t give up until they reach this goal!


Learners empathized with the frustration and embarrassment past heroes felt when everyone wasn’t viewed or treated the same. At times, learners have been candid about their intention to work hard to change what they do not like. Laws and ideas need adjustment, they’ve told us. They’re willing to take the necessary steps needed to foster a positive community like the one they’ve created in Spark studio. Characteristics like perseverance, pride, self-control, unity and passion, all of which we’ve discussed, will lead them along their way.  Learners are coming together, voicing their concerns, and providing solutions to the problems of the world we talk about in the studio. The awareness shown to their guides make their journey to leaders that much more likely. 

Watching and listening to Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about women’s rights inspired learners to be happy about how some things in the world have changed. They told us how dads would not have time to give hugs because they would have to work more than usual. They told us that they like how moms and dads work together in teams. Some learners even felt that they might not be at The Village School if these changes hadn’t occurred. Let’s challenge ourselves and our learners to a create a world where change is encouraged and accepted!

A Day in the Life

*Guide Note: Virtual Discovery heroes are writing in journals this session. This week, they were asked to write a composite “Day in the Life” to describe what virtual school is like. This blog post was entirely written and edited by Discovery Heroes.

Welcome to the Virtual Discovery Studio!

I crawl out of bed trying to stay awake. Then I brush my teeth and get dressed. Next I eat breakfast and then I’m all set.

For core skills, I like to do my hardest subjects first, like math, before I get to the easy stuff like reading or writing. You also get to be with your family and pets, and you can still see your friends just not in person.

Hanging out with pets

When we log on for our 11:05 meeting, we get to play games, my favorite game is probably when we get to do fun exercises. My favorite part of an 11:05 launch is talking to my fellow travellers. My favorite part of an 11:05 launch is probably the exercise videos because they are very fun and challenging. 

After that meeting we always get a delicious lunch, my favorite is probably either a grilled cheese sandwich or graham crackers and peanut butter. My favorite lunch to have is a quesadilla, one time for lunch my family ordered mexican, I got a quesadilla. My favorite lunch during virtual studio is probably apples and grilled cheese. Sometimes I would have peanut butter with my apples too.  one time mommy made me goldfish crackers and cheerios

Each session we get a new quest, this session was a chess quest. Chess is a game that is well known for its concentration. It has helped me learn that losing helps you learn and get better strategies. When chess quest comes, there’s lots of things to do, you learn new things about chess in lessons, or you can play as many games of chess as you want.

One thing that I have learned about chess is that you can’t just think of a move in one second, you need to think of a strategy and think stuff through. Chess quest is really fun.

My favorite thing to do after school is play outside. Usually, I play on my jungle gym, but sometimes I like just run around with my dogs. My favorite thing to do would probably be to read. I think reading is very fun, challenging, and relaxing. Board games and football are my favorite after school activities.  After school my favorite thing to do is go outside and make up new games that we can play. 

This is my virtual studio life.

Celebrating a great week in Virtual Discovery Studio