The Art of Assessment

In schools across the country and probably across the world, September means assessments.  We give all kinds of assessments to get to know our students, or should I say to get to know their academic strengths and weaknesses.  I don’t think assessments have anything to do with getting to know our students.  We determine who is high, medium, and low; who succumbed to “The Summer Slide,” and who excelled without our teaching.  We do this in the grand name of progress.  We pore over every score.  Who is proficient and fluent?  Who is struggling and not retaining the concepts and skills we’ve taught? But what do those numbers and labels that we diligently collect really tell us?  What do we truly understand about the information we gathered?  And how does that data affect our instruction?

As an elementary school learning specialist, I am keenly aware of these questions because I am not sure that copious amounts of data are changing or improving our teaching.  I think the majority of teachers – whether in public, charter, or private schools – revert to the mean.  By which I mean, they revert to what they know: they teach to the middle, often leaving behind the students with weaker skills and also boring to tears the students who have surpassed their grade-level standards.

I am sure teachers mean no harm.  They just lack the awareness and knowledge of how to reach all students no matter their skill level.  Many think you need specialized training and yes, that might be very beneficial, but what teachers really need to reach students is simple: the ability to be present and listen – the ability to tune out the educational jargon and tune into the little scholars in front of them.  All they have do is ask…

  • What does this child need?
  • What is she telling me?
  • What can I do to build her knowledge, her confidence, her motivation, and her curiosity?
  • How can I create a classroom experience that will connect my students to each other and to big ideas too?

This past week, I came across a common assessment dilemma.  A new teacher came to me with a problem.  One of her young students did poorly on a sight-word spelling assessment, scoring 2 out of 27.  I asked to see the assessment. 

            The teacher responded, “You want to see the hard copy?”  And I wondered about her hesitancy until she handed me the student’s paper.  Then my suspicions were confirmed.  The student had left almost all of the test blank.

             I asked the teacher, “What happened here?  Why did she leave all these answers blank?” 

            The teacher replied,  “I don’t know. It looked like she was writing?” 

            “Didn’t you walk around the room and check to see if everyone was following along?”  I thought to myself, knowing full-well the answer. 

            The teacher responded, “I don’t think it’s my job to constantly watch over them.  I can’t stand over all of them all the time!” 

            I took a deep breath and calmly said, “That’s not what I am suggesting.  When I had my own classroom, I would walk around the classroom, so I could assess in the moment what each student was doing and what they may need assistance with.”

            She was silent.  Then I quietly asked to reassess the student the following day. 

            The teacher asked me if that was fair. 

            I asked her, “What is the point of the assessment?” 

            She answered, “To find out if they know how to spell grade-level sight words.” 

            I nodded, “Right, so do we understand what this student knows?” 

            The teacher shook her head. 

            Then I smiled and said, “Then I will need to reassess her.”

            The next morning, I sat in our sun-filled school library in the presence of a little girl with dark braids and big brown eyes.  She was eager and happy to sit with me.  I explained that I would be giving her the spelling assessment again.  Her bright eyes grew even larger.  I told her that she should sound out the words even if she was unsure how to spell them.  I told her to think carefully, go slowly, and try her best to show me what she knows about all the words I was going to read.   She took up her pencil and began.  I started to see what she knew.  Not all the words were correct, but she spelled out each word carefully.  Then I asked her why she had left so many blanks on the original assessment.

            She said wisely, “I don’t like competitions.” I tried hard not to laugh.

“I don’t like to spell in front of people.” she added.

            I asked her, “Were you nervous about getting the words wrong?” 

            “Yes,” she nodded vigorously.

When she was done, I showed her all the words she knew, and we looked at the ones she did not yet know how to spell.  Many of the ones she missed, she was able to correct on her own. I gave her a lot of praise and commended her for trying and really thinking about how each word was spelled.  This first grader, who originally scored 2/27, had now scored 21/27, given a second chance.

Now, why is that?  Did she suddenly remember the sight words?  Or is it more about confidence and performance?  Does this student need more sight word drills, or does she need more encouragement?  I guess it is obvious where I am going with this line of questioning.  I know that assessments are useful, but if teachers are not present to their students, then the assessments can become meaningless.  I humbly suggest five meaningful and mindful ways teachers can approach assessing their students:

  • Remain present and open to possibility.
  • Listen with intensity.
  • Give specific and positive feedback.
  • Find time throughout the day to encourage and motivate.
  • Keep yourself and your students curious.

A Fresh Look at Lists

We are entering the second half of September.  School has started.  My busy life has begun.  I reluctantly shift away from summer – the beach, the mountains, my independent reading time, the sun.  And slowly I enter September already weary from thoughts of all I have to do, all I must do, all the little things that await me.

School to Do

Get the Dresses
Out of the closet.
Buy the notebooks,
New pens, paperclips,
Transparent tape.
Get the class lists,
Start putting names
With eager faces,
Put dates on calendar:
Division Meetings,
Department Meetings,
Student Support Meetings,
Parent Meetings.
Set the kettle on the stove,
Brew a steaming
Cup of vanilla chai.
Breathe in the spice,
Exhale the stress.
In this moment
School can wait.

August to September

I leave…
Sleeping late,
Summer sun
Streaming through
The windows.

I leave…
Book adventures
Of my own choosing:
Romantic,
Mysterious,
Inspiring,
Hilarious.

I leave…
Big road trips,
New sights,
The sea and
The mountains.

I welcome…
Cooler days,
Morning commutes,
Little faces
Ready to learn.

I welcome…
Camaraderie,
Lessons learned,
Moments of
Laughter.

I welcome…
New books,
Crisp pages,
Fresh paint
On old walls,
A new school year.

This past week, I have been thinking of ways to energize myself for my school year. I have been going to school for sixty-two years.  I have been teaching school for forty-three years.  This year will be the twentieth anniversary of working at my present school.  All of these years could feel like a very heavy weight, if I let them.  School could finally become monotonous instead of fresh.  School could become just another long and tedious “TO DO” list.  Maybe instead of looking at all I have to do; I reframe my thoughts as all the wonderful thing I get to do.  One day I won’t be able to do these things; one day soon I will be retired; one day soon I will not be on this marvelous blue planet. So, in this moment, why not appreciate all the things I get to do at school, at home, in my daily life. 

Sunny-side

I Get to... 
Wake up this morning 
To green out my window 
And blue, blue sky.
Canada Geese on the field,
The verdant woods beyond.

I Get to... 
Crack open a brown 
egg for breakfast, sunny-side -
Multigrain toast, fig jam,
Strong Irish tea.

I Get to…
Set this day before me
With intention,
With a devotion to the real,
With a disposition, sunny-side.

I Get to…
Create space and opportunity:
Laughing with loved ones,
Painting the sunset
With words and brushes.

I Get to…
Choose the day I make,
The one that was
Gratefully given to me,
The one I am blessed with.


Some Websites on the Power of “I Get to…”

From “Have to” to “Get to”

How a Small Shift in Your Vocabulary Can Instantly Change Your Attitude

I Have To vs. I Get To: How to Change Your Mindset from Obligation to Opportunity

Improve Your Mood by Replacing “I Have to” with “I Get To”

Life is Good Founder: John Jacobs – Keynote

Wildflower Power

We are coming upon the last days of summer.  For me, there is something bittersweet about that.  I find myself holding on to the warm golden promise of summer.  I don’t want it to end.  No matter, how much I enjoy the fall, summer is a time that signals renewal and hope.  There is so much I wanted to accomplish, so much joy I wanted to breathe in and make last. I don’t want that feeling to end.  I need to find a way to sustain summer’s promise.  I find it in the fields of wildflowers that I’ve encountered.  I remember a poem I wrote many years ago.   I keep reflecting on the power of that wild beauty.  Something colorful and unexpected, something to surprise and comfort the faithful.

Wildflowers

I come upon a field of wildflowers -
Poppies, cornflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace -
I walk across the field
Almost on tiptoe so as not to 
Disturb a single petal.
I capture with my camera
Oranges and yellows,
The surprise of blue, the blush of pink.
As I travel the meadow.
I find a bunch of wild daisies -
“He loves me, he loves me not,”
I say to myself and shrug.
I wonder where that game began.
Each daisy petal holds a fortune,
Which way will it end?
I take hold of its bright face,
Count each white petal,
Lucky 13 – I take a chance.
He loves me, he loves me not -
He loves me, he loves me not -
Until the last petal is plucked:
He loves me!
I look down at the sad yellow center,
The white petals, like torn paper
Fall from my hand.


I came across a wonderful graphic book for young readers by Ricardo Liniers Siri called Wildflowers.  It is an imaginative journey through island jungle by three heroic sisters.  Liniers based the story on his three daughters’ creative play.  It is a pure celebration of how creativity and sisterhood can save the day!  Liniers notes that Tom Petty’s song, “Wildflowers,” served as an inspiration.  I had not heard of Petty’s song before, so I took a listen and began to weep.  What simple beauty!

You belong among the wildflowers

You belong somewhere close to me

Far away from your trouble and worries

You belong somewhere you feel free

You belong somewhere you feel free

What a powerful message for young readers!  Historically, I have not been a huge fan of graphic books/novels, but that it not to say that I have not found pure genius in some of them.  Graphic books for young readers seem to be a perfect way to motivate and engage children.  The combination of picture and text support fluency and comprehension.  I know our young K-3 readers gravitate to graphic books, as do our older elementary readers.  The vivid descriptions that I enjoy as I read are encoded in a different way in graphic books.  Here, the pictures serve as description and the readers must use their growing inferring skills.  The rich visuals beckon children to question, wonder, and explore. Thank you, Liniers and Toon Books, for making me a fan!

More by Liniers

Macanudo

Good Night, Planet

The Big Wet Balloons

Written and Drawn by Henrietta

Classic Graphic Books for Young Readers

Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

Baby Mouse by Jennifer L. Holm

Little Robot by Ben Hatke

Lunch Lady by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

My Weird School by Dan Gutman

Owly by Andy Runyon

Learn Something

This summer, I have been concentrating on healing my body and spirit, which has entailed a lot of physical therapy and many walks in gardens and parks. Usually, I read a lot during the summer but this summer I have only read a couple of books so far.  I decided to jump-start my reading by turning to a classic,  The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  I knew of the legend of King Arthur mainly from the Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone.  I loved that story because it was filled with hope, faith, and possibility.  It helped me to become braver and more courageous. It gave me hope that even a small person could grow into someone who could right wrongs and defeat evil.  As an anxious, insecure child, this legend especially appealed to me.

In early June, I was asked to find a quote about learning as part of a farewell gift for a retiring colleague.  I did what many people do these days, I Googled it. And that’s when I came across T.H. White’s insightful observation about learning via Merlin’s advice to young Arthur, who was upset that his foster brother, Kay, was becoming a knight and he would only be allowed to be Kay’s squire. Merlin offers this sage advice:

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.  Look what a lot of things where are to learn.”

T.H. White,  The Once and Future King, Chapter 21.

Throughout my life, I have found this advice to ring true.  Whenever I faced challenges or needed to overcome obstacles, learning something, was the thing that pulled me through and made me feel confident.  I gained knowledge, and I felt like I had changed for the better somehow.  The Once and Future King is a very long story, six hundred thirty-nine pages, to be exact.  It is not exactly easy reading, so I decided to listen to an audio version.  Over and over again, I was amazed by White’s writing skill and keen insights.  I find myself asking, “ How did he do that?  How does he know all that in-depth information about falconry and trees; badgers and hedgehogs; snakes and giants? He makes writing seem so effortless, and he has so much to say that could guide adolescents and adults.  He, indeed, is Merlyn, and we can learn so much from his words.

In the Book of Merlyn, White explains, “Nobody can be saved from anything, unless they save themselves. It is hopeless doing things for people – it is often very dangerous to do things at all – and the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas. Then, if you make available a larger stock, people are at liberty to help themselves from out of it. By this process the means of improvement is offered, to be accepted or rejected freely, and there is a faint hope of progress in the course of millennia. Such is the business of the philosopher, to open new ideas. It is not his business to impose them on people” I connect strongly with this view: ideas are what make us human and seeking new ideas make us stronger and make our journey in this world interesting and worthwhile.

Throughout my many years of teaching, I made sure that I found new things to learn so that I would never forget the feelings my novice students experienced.  Adopting the mindset of a beginner helped me truly understand the struggles my students encountered.  I believe that made me better able to connect with them and teach them effectively.  When I was teaching 2nd grade, I decided to take a drawing class at the Parson’s School of Design in New York City.  It was a big leap for me, but I wanted to learn how to draw realistically, and I wanted to face a challenge.  The classes were three hours long.  Three hours of sitting, observing, and drawing. It entailed a tremendous amount of concentration.  After my first forty-five minutes of sitting, I began to look around the room,  I stared out the window, I fidgeted in my seat, I got up to go to the ladies room.  I took my time.  I wandered.  I smiled to myself.  “This is what my students’ feel. What can I do to make them be able to concentrate longer and learn more deeply?”

When I taught 3rd grade, I learned Krav Maga,  an Israeli Martial Arts. I am not naturally athletic, and this class called for great physical exertion.  I did not back down.  I studied for three years and was preparing for my brown belt test before a back injury put me on the sidelines. Throughout my martial arts training, ,y students loved to see me demonstrate self-defense techniques and cheered me on. I think they felt more empowered my seeing their teacher take greater and greater risks. I hope I demonstrated to them that learning is hard and that is good – it makes you strong it helps to persevere.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

Listening Summer

This summer, I am setting my intentions on listening: listening to my body, to my friends, and to the awesome nature around me.  I am being mindful of my surroundings.  I am paying close attention to what is important. All around me over this past year was noise: people talking, talking, talking and me worrying, worrying, worrying.  So I decided to turn everything off – no television, no radio, no endless chatter.  I am becoming more discerning of what I listen to.  I want beautiful noise: great books, beautiful music, uplifting messages.  To do this, first I had to get very, very quiet.

I had to pay attention to life with little sound.  I had to cue into my other senses and learn to become present to vibrant colors, fragrant smells, and soft textures on my skin.  I found myself being grateful for these simple wonders.  I began to slow down, listen to my body, become kinder to myself.  I paused and learned to nourish myself with, not only good food and exercise, but with positive media.  So much of the media is intended to distract and cause anxiety.  I turned away from the constant barrage of news and information.  I decided I should be the curator of what I wanted to listen to and take in.

In the last six weeks of using this approach, I have found calm and contentment.  I don’t need the noise to keep me company.  I can just look up or out or down and be present to my surroundings.  I can better tune into what my husband and friends are saying.  The more I listen with attentiveness, the more calm I have become.  It feels good be present to others.  I don’t need to talk. I don’t need to do anything.  I just need to listen.  Listening is enough.

As I think about returning to teaching in the fall, I think about how I will talk to children about the importance of listening.  I’ve been thinking about ways to teach them to center themselves, ignore distractions, and concentrate on the thing or person right in front of them. I continue to reflect on the best ways to do this, and so this will be my summer project for school this year: tuning out the unimportant and tuning in to what is essential, to what nourishes, to what gives us positive outcomes and peace. 

Recently, I went to a nearby organic market and found a colorful mural on their cafe wall.  It is a perfect example of placing importance of what’s necessary for meaningful communication. I am reflecting on how I will share this with my students as a way to help them develop more thoughtful speaking and deeper listening.

Books about Listening For Adults

Emotional Intelligence: Mindful Listening by The Harvard Business School

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael S. Sorensen

Just Listen by Mark Goulston

Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred by Mark Nepo

The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James E. Miller

The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh

The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Straus

The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters by Kate Murphy

Picture Books about Listening for Children

Listen, Listen by Phillis Gershator

“I Have a Problem,” said the Bear by Heinz Janisch and Silke Leffler

The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerfeld

The Listening Walk by Paul Showers

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Summer Zen

In two previous blog posts, I wrote about celebrating a zen, self-care mindset: How Does Your Zen Garden Grow? and Zen Toolbox Redux. My busy life, like the lives of all modern women, scream out to me from time to time to pause, to ponder, to notice and wonder, to take a deep breath and focus on myself. What is good for me and me alone? What do I need. How can I nourish myself?

This COVID school year posed many stressors: masks, plexiglass barriers, six feet distancing, virtual, hybrid and in-person learning, weekly COVID tests (we lovingly called “Spit Tests”) and finally the vaccine. The would also posed many stressors – political upheaval and social unrest with no signs of resolution any time soon. All these things have made my students anxious, angry, and worried. So all year, I focused on helping them find calm and purpose . Right around May, I realized I had forgotten to focus on myself. I forgot to pace myself, to keep focus on creativity and nature – two areas that restore my sense of well-being. But I did hold on to faith.

We are now hurdling towards the end of June. I am trying to put the reigns on summer: “Hold up, Summer! Don’t go running wild. Slow and steady, now!” I cajole as if speaking to a spooked horse. I am just beginning to unwind, just beginning to take a long slow breath, look up into the impossibly blue June sky and be grateful for this season, for this time away from work, for this time to spend with friends, family and myself.

I’ve been telling my friends that I’m naming this summer – Project Jojo. I’m planning to do things that restore and replenish my body and spirit. When I reached the end of the school year, I found myself completely exhausted. I usually make lists of all the professional development courses I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the school projects I need to get done by August. “No!” I breathe out. No frenetic pace this summer. This time I will return to the lazy summer days of my childhood: sleep late, make beautiful salads with treasures from nearby farm stands, brew peach tea and let it steep in the sun, read nothing that has anything to do with education – a romantic novel, a mystery, a memoir, a cookbook perhaps.

I’ve been frequenting our local botanical garden and nature preserve. I am grateful that I live in a place with these natural resources. I miss walking among the trees and flowers, watching the birds flit from branches to branch and bees sip summer nectar. Immediately my shoulders drop, my heart rate slows, I find myself smiling. Slowly, ever so slowly I am re-learning the zen of summertime. And I know it is necessary. And I know it is sweet and brief.

Zen Summer

Today, I came to the garden
And walked the gravel paths,
Among the white rhododendron
And soft pink hydrangea.
I follow the path to the burbling creek,
Which flows into the pond laden with water lilies.
This morning I face my lone and tired shadow,
Let it sink into the grass to be restored.

I continue along the path in the noon sun,
Swollen bumble bees sip nectar from the peonies.
I try to capture them with my camera;
They are too fast, dipping from flower to flower.
White clouds drift slowly in the blue, 					
Reflecting on the surface of the pond.
The weight of my body lifts,
Free from earthly troubles,                                                                                                     
What cares can vex my mind?

Clear water sparkles like crystal over the rocks
You can see through easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free now from every thought,
Nothing can ever move it.
I am here in the present forever.
The sweet summer outside has come in,								
I have regained calm, I welcome peace.
I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Big Summer

Summer to me is a wide open space. I am a teacher and that means I have eleven weeks to play, wonder, and wander. I am grateful for this. I need this – especially this year. I need time to rejuvenate, regenerate, and grow in spirit. I am completely drained, but I know summer will help me heal.

Every summer, my husband and plan lots of trips. We used to go out West, then we explored all of New England, and then we traveled all along the Southern Coast. Then COVID came and our travels ceased. We are planning one small trip to Maine this summer, and I am looking forward to it. I cannot wait to get there. I travel there every night in my sleep. Maine is my happy place, my place of possibility.

When I was in grade school, summer meant weeks of reading on the beach. I would walk to our local library and stock up on novel after novel – historical, realistic, fantastical. I loved traveling to other worlds while I sat in my beach chair and listening to the crashing waves, smelling salty breeze, and letting my mind wander into blissful imagination and then peaceful sleep. That was summer to me, and it was endless. It seems to last forever.

Now for me, summer is short. It comes and goes. I vow to not waste it. I vow to savor it. I plan to enjoy it. I am ever grateful for the summer and its sunny disposition.

When thinking about the summer and the big possibilities it offers, I thought of a poem I wrote several years ago while my husband and I were on vacation in Colorado. We were driving to Aspen in the middle of the night, and there is it was – the golden moon – the biggest moon I had ever seen – an August moon – rich and ripe with possibility and promise.

Hide and Seek with the Moon

The road winds 
up the Rockies
and I awake 
to the twisting 
and turning curves.
We’ve been playing 
Hide and seek 
with the moon.
First she’s on the left of us,
then on the right.
She dances and 
skips across the sky.
Then is cradled
 in the clouds.
As we climb higher and higher,
We are amazed 
by her size.
She is a world aglow.
It seems that if 
we could drive
just a bit further,
We could reach her,

The Work Around

I embrace mistakes. I do.  Really.  I don’t mind making mistakes.  I always think of creative ways to fix them.  I’m not sure how I developed this mindset.  Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in my family.  I was always making mistakes and being reprimanded for them, so early on I decided to make them into a game – How can I change that problem into something positive? How can I make that ink blot an artistic design? How can I take that hole in my jeans and make it into an embroidered masterpiece?  How can I take what you think is wrong and make it right?  I will prove to you that indeed it is not a mistake, a problem, or an obstacle. I will prove to you that It is an opportunity.  It will be a success not a defeat.

Come to think about it, maybe my tenacious mindset could just be called stubbornness, but it has kept me in good stead.  On the last day of school, I received a text from a former colleague and dear friend who wrote, I admire your perseverance and steadfastness.  Maybe that’s what it is. But whatever it is, I think of it and call it “The Work Around.”  And I teach this to children.  No matter what problem you face, what obstacle you encounter, there is ALWAYS a work around. There is always some way you can solve a problem and improve your situation. You just have to keep curious and be willing to play with your stumbling block.  Toss it around a bit, roll it down the hill, bounce it into the bushes.  Don’t be afraid.  Create something new.

I had a chance to practice what I preach during these last few weeks of school. I was told that the school’s Wonder Lab had to be dismantled so that it could become the Computer Science & Engineering classroom.  I had worked on designing and developing the Wonder Lab concept for the last five years. The Wonder Lab had been an old art room, which I was allowed to renovate.  It was a beautiful space filled with all kinds of materials with which students could freely use, explore and create. They could make dolls, cars, tree houses, restaurants, skateboards, complicated marble runs, and anything else they could imagine.  And they did. The space was loud and messy at times.  Those were the times that I looked around and smiled because I knew the kids were engineers of their own learning.  It was a true play space.  No adult was telling the kids what to do or think or design.  When I first explained the concept to the children, I thought they might be hesitant, but I was mistaken.  From the first day, the kids ran to the materials with visions already in their heads. They began constructing immediately, and only asked my advice when they needed a particular item or help with the hot glue gun.  Thanks to the Wonder Lab, I have become a master hot glue gunner!

I tried to explain the importance of cultivating creativity and free play in childhood to administrators and colleagues. Over the years, I’ve noticed that little kids are exuberant and willing to take risks, while the older students begin judging themselves and limit their possibilities.  The Wonder Lab started to remedy that.  We were just beginning.  But I couldn’t convince them, and I started to dismantle the room glue stick by glue stick, egg carton by egg carton.  However, before it was completely shut down, our 4th graders commandeered the space, creating PBL projects on the importance of play.  They made cars, games, a club house, play dough, and dozens of fidgets.  As I watched them, I realized I couldn’t just let the space slip through our hands.  This space was necessary.  It was important not just to me, but to the children. They needed to have this kind of space, and I had to think of a work around. 

For a couple of days, I sulked, ate chocolate cake, and consumed an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting. I tossed my stumbling block in the air.  It fell on my head with a thud a couple of times, and then something happened.  There is a space in between the Wonder Lab and my office.  It is a small open lobby where I had to temporarily store all the Wonder Lab materials.  I looked at it and imagined it clear of clutter.  It would make a great wonder space for a small group!  I would just need to store the materials in another part of the building.  This could become a cozy creative space, a Wonder Studio of sorts.  When I shared my idea with a colleague, she looked at me with a smile and shook her head.  I asked her, “Do you think it won’t work?”  She said, “No, I think it’s a great idea. I’m just amazed by the way you don’t give up.  You are always thinking of another way to do things.”  I told her that I had a lot of disappointments in my life, and the work around was my way of dealing with them.  I almost let this disruption defeat me, and then I thought of the kids.  I couldn’t just let the space go because the kids definitely, absolutely, unequivocally need to play!

One of my 4th grade students is extremely creative.  She is a dreamer and constant tinkerer. Last year, she attempted to make a life-sized model of a bison.  A bison?  Yes, a bison.  Her class was studying Native American culture, and Simone became intrigued by bison.  I found a huge refrigerator box and she started to shape and construct the bison.  Then COVID struck and the bison was abandoned.  We talked about making a smaller, more portable version, but the Wonder Lab had been closed most of the year due to COVID restrictions.  During the last month of school, I gave the 4th graders time to construct projects centering on play.  Simone asked for another big box.  I found one, and she immediately began making what she calls “A Fidget House.”  It is a small house with a duct tape wrapped roof and an opening strung with colorful beads you can play with.  Looking back, Simone has had a rough year.  COVID made her anxious and her attention to her school work has fluctuated.  She has trouble sleeping and of course, trouble initiating and completing assignments.  But when I watched her build that house, she had laser-focus.  She had no trouble initiating or following-through. When problems arose with the construction of the house, it didn’t stop her.  She thought of a work around.  That is when I truly knew that I would not let Wonder Lab disappear.  I had to find a way to keep it going because Simone and her schoolmates are in desperate need of a place to create, imagine, wonder, and play.

During the last week of school, I spoke with Simone privately.  We talked about the obstacles she faced this year.  We made a vision board of what she imagines in the future school year.  As she filled in the board with possibility, an idea popped into my head.  I asked Simone if she’d like to be captain of the Wonder Team. She turned to me quickly, eyes wide and smiling.  Until that moment, we didn’t have a Wonder Team. We didn’t even have a Wonder Lab anymore, but I wanted Simone to know that I valued her ingenuity. She was a leader in creativity and curiosity.  Together we would make it up and figure out the work arounds.  

Books for Kids about the Possibilities in Mistakes

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg

Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess

Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Only One You by Linda Kranz

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman and Kerry Talbott

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

The Quilt Maker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Was That on Purpose of by Accident?  By Janelle Fenwick

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff.

– Bob Keeshan, AKA Captain Kangaroo

Time to Play

As the end of the school year approached and I looked out at the plexiglass-framed faces before me, I knew I had to do something to energize the last month of school.  I teach a Study Skills class to 4th graders, and I have tried this year to make organization, time management, and planning fun.  Sometimes, I admit, it is hard to make executive function skills fun and engaging.  I try hard, though.  I used videos, art, photography, poetry, movement to keep the girls actively participating.  However, as March turned to April, the girls’ exuberance was fading, and I knew I had to come up with a plan.  My plan was PLAY! 

The students had been cooped up all year: learning behind plexiglass, wearing masks, keeping socially distant from friends.  This year has been difficult, and incredibly difficult for children.  I’m not sure of what the ramifications will be in the future, but I do know that children have more fear and anxiety now.  The only remedy I know for fear and anxiety is collaboration and play. So, in mid-April I gathered my students and told them that for the rest of the school year they would be researching PLAY.  Many of them looked at me skeptically. “You mean we are putting on a play?” they asked.  I chuckled. “Well you could put on a play, but I mean you are all going think about and tell about why playing is important.” All of a sudden, the room became electric.  They buzzed with ideas. I smiled.  That’s just what I hoped would happen.

The first thing I did to prepare my students was to create a slideshow about the importance of play.  I added videos of children giving their opinions on play as well accounts from experts about how play helps people learn and thrive.  I found some great videos of animals playing, which I knew would be of interested to my nine and ten-year-old students. I loved watching their faces as I played the slideshow.  I had them hooked.  When the slideshow ended, they ran to me with ideas.  I told them to think about what they wanted to research about play.  It could be making a game, conducting an interview with a play expert, designing fidgets, or anything else they could imagine.

For the last three weeks, the girls have been thoroughly engaged in the process of creating.  They set goals, planned, organized materials, worked collaboratively, monitored their own progress and adjusted their plans to complete their projects.  I saw their independence and self-confidence blossom.  They were play engineers. They were in charge of their learning.

At times, they asked me for assistance, but these requests were mainly in the realm of getting specific materials.  Their work was their own. They did not seek me out to generate ideas or resolve problems.  I stood in the wings ready to help but found myself having free time to just  observe and document their progress.

Sometimes, when my colleagues witness my students at work, they think it is too chaotic.  The children are moving and talking constantly.  They are building and dismantling, and building again.  This is the process of creation.  It is messy and noisy and marvelous. It is the true nature of play.

Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens.

It renews our natural sense of optimism

and opens us up to new possibilities.

– Stuart Brown, MD

SOME RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT PLAY:

Baby Ravens Play

Kids Need Recess by Simon Link

Play is a Fundamental Human Right

Play is Important! by Brody Gray

When Huskies Meet a Wild Polar Bear

World’s Youngest Olympian: Skateboarder Sky Brown

Kitchen Literacy: Constructing Japanese Fruit Sandos

It was February turning to March and the bright and motivated 5th grader, Hadley, whom I have been teaching privately for the last three years suddenly became dull and bored.  Nothing could spark her interest.  Her normal bookworm self was now not interested in any book in any genre.  Her penchant for writing was also gone. All her academic energy and engagement was zapped.  Week after week this winter, I stared a cross my screen into the face of a girl who did not want to do a single thing except quietly stare at me and say, “No.”  So, I got out my secret weapon, poetry, and that worked for a while.  She created a wonderful assortment of poems and made a digital book.  Then one day, I introduced another poem and that dull stare came back onto her face.  She was listless, passively sitting, responding to me with one-word answers. I knew I had to figure out another idea but what? We normally read a short nonfiction current event passage each week to gain insights into the world around us and to get ideas about what we might want to read, writer, or research next. I timidly suggested we read a nonfiction article I found about Japanese Fruit Sandos (sandwiches). Food!  I often resort to poetry and food to engage students and usually it works! It did this time too!

I went to my trusted nonfiction resource, Newsela, and found an article in the Arts section titled, “Sweeten Your Springtime with Japanese Fruit Sandos.” I had never heard of fruit sandwiches before.  They were so surprising and beautiful  that I thought they might be just the idea to stir Hadley out of her doldrum. At our next session, we took turns reading the article aloud.  I watched Hadley’s face intently.  She was as intrigued as I was when I first read the passage.  The article briefly explained the origins of the fruit sando and then gave a recipe. “Oh, we should make these!” Hadley shouted to me from across her zoom screen.  And then a wisp of sadness came across her face because she knew we couldn’t get together to cook.  I asked her in a cheery voice, “Do you want to see a video of them being made?” and she readily answered, “YES!” I shared my screen and showed her a YouTube channel I found called Emmymade.  Emmy had a 17-minute video called “FRUIT SANDO – Japanese Fruit Sandwich Recipe Test.” Emmy’s presentation was upbeat and funny, a perfect video to engage an eleven- year-old girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdZxLetJSZg

At our following session, Hadley wrote her own fruit sando recipe. And as luck would have it, COVID restrictions were being eased, I had gotten the vaccine, and I would be able to see Hadley again in person in a couple of weeks.  Hadley’s curiosity had returned, she started a new fantasy series, she began writing and illustrating a story to enter into a contest, and most importantly she started smiling, laughing, and asking questions AGAIN.  The Hadley I knew had returned!

Last week, I gathered together all the ingredients for Hadley’s fruit sando and went to her house for our first face-to-face session since the fall.  We constructed sandwiches on her back porch, which conveniently connects to her kitchen.  Though Emmy used Texas Toast for her bread, I found a French Toast loaf that was cut in thick slices.  You might also use brioche bread cut thickly or throw caution to the wind and use pound cake! We used canned whipped cream because of time constraints, but the sandwiches will hold together better with fresh whipped cream.  Hadley and I also brainstormed about other fillings: Nutella, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff.  The varieties are endless so that these sandwiches can appeal to any palette, even the finickiest of eaters!

Set out the ingredients, cut the fruit, pile on the whipped cream!
Arrange fruit on top of cream, add more cream and top with bread.
Wrap in plastic wrap tightly, refrigerate for 20-30 minutes, cut in half, and ENJOY!

Here are ten books to spark a budding cook’s interest:

Cooking Class Glob Feast!: 44 Recipes that Celebrate the World’s Cultures by Deanna F. Cook

Cook Anime: Eat Like Your Favorite Character – From Bento to Yakisoba by Diana Ault

Easy Peasy Japanese Dishes for Kids!: Easy but Yummy Japanese Meals Kids Can Help to Make by Heston Brown

Japanese Cooking for Kids by Kimberly Ono

Japanese Cooking Made Simple by Salina Press

Japanese Kids Cookbook:  A Dedicated Selection of Japanese Recipes for Kids by Sarah Miller

Let’s Make Ramen!: A Comic Book Cookbook by Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan

Super Simple Cooking for Kids: Learn to Cook with 50 Fun and Easy Recipes for Breakfast, Snacks, Dinner, and More? By Jodi Danen

The Complete DIY Cookbook for Young Chefs: 100+ Simple Recipes for Making Absolutely Everything from Scratch by America’s Test Kitchen Kids

The Manga Cookbook: Japanese Bento Boxes, Main Dishes and More! by Chihiro Hattori