A More Beautiful Question Revisited

Almost a decade after reading  Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, I decided to re-read it, since it is such a thought-provoking book. I’m reading it in little pieces now, savoring each idea!  One nugget I read this week was about the amount of questions children ask.  Young children begin asking “WHY?” and they don’t stop!  Why is the sky blue?  Why can you see the moon during the day? Why do rabbits’ teeth keep growing?  The world is a large place, and little children want to know all about it.  That’s why I became an early childhood teacher 42 years ago.  That’s what I love about visiting the early childhood and elementary classrooms: children keep asking questions, more and more questions.! Of course, that can be exhausting, and you may run out of patience, but that process of asking questions is what separates us from all other species on Earth!  And you know what happens as children get older?  Yes – you are right – they stop asking questions!  

Berger noted that questioning “falls off a cliff” as kids become older.  A Gallup Poll revealed that as students’ progress through the grades, their questioning plummets (76% in elementary school to 44% in high school).  Instead of wondering, older students are busy gathering information and spitting it back in a rote manner.  This leads to massive disengagement from learning.  I was not very surprised by this information, but it did lead me to think and question the classroom practices  I observe each week:  

  • How do we use student questions to spark interest in a topic?  
  • Can the “parking lot” technique be used to display student questions and be a springboard for discussion?  
  • Can we have students generate questions from our essential questions?  
  • Do adults feel like they need to know the answers to all student questions?  
  • What do teachers do when they don’t know the answer?
  • How comfortable are we as adults to ask questions?  

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  

By honoring students’ questions, teachers facilitate learning, which  is relevant and motivates students to question further and seek out possibilities pertaining to any subject.  To be curious and to question is intrinsic to learning. Berger quotes research scientist, John Seely Brown who explains that “…if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things – then change is something that becomes an adventure.  And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.”

This adventurous spirit reminds me of a time when one of my young three-year-old students was outside playing. He suddenly looked up at the sky and was enthralled by the presence of the moon.  He could not take his eyes off the moon and wondered why it was out in the daytime.  In his experience, the moon only came out at night, and now all that he had come to know was in question.  That was an important moment for him as a learner, and it was an important moment for me as a young teacher.  I could have patted his head, given him a cursory answer, and brought his attention back to something tangible like the sandbox.  Instead, I listened and encouraged his questions and helped him to better understand the workings of the universe.  Indeed, this young boy’s curiosity sparked weeks of learning about the nature of the sky for all his classmates. We read countless books about the moon, created a moon surface, made a mural of the phases of the moon, and even built our own lunar explorer.

Teaching is at its most effective when it promotes risk-taking and relentless experimentation, which is the true heart of constructivist teaching. When teachers and students start asking open-ended questions such as: What do we want to learn?  Why do we want to learn it? How will we go about learning it?  How will we show what we’ve learned? – They are constructing curiosity, which will become a lifelong process.  This approach affords multiple avenues for learning, giving teachers and students freedom to learn in a personal, creative, and active way.

Did I piqued your curiosity? Do you ave more questions?  You might want to read and investigate a little further.

Books by Warren Berger

A More Beautiful Question

Beautiful Questions in the Classroom

The Book of Beautiful Questions

Visit Warren’s Blog:

Want to inspire more curiosity and inquiry in kids?

Celebration in the Wonder Studio: Lunar New Year

A dozen girls gather at recess time to work in the Wonder Studio.  They are in the midst of painting, decorating, and constructing projects of their choice.  This week, I added a box in the shape of a dragon’s head to celebrate Lunar New year.  I quickly cut the box to look like a dragon with a wide pointed-tooth grin.  The girls collected some found objects to make the dragon’s eyes, nostrils, and teeth.  Then we all took turns collaging bright colored tissue paper all over the head in layers upon layers.  Once completed, the dragon would be hung right outside their classrooms to celebrate Lunar New Year.

I have done this dragon project with countless students over several decades.  I love this tradition because it always sparks children’s imaginations and makes the classroom atmosphere festive.  I think the best way for young children to learn about other cultures is through celebrations (food, storytelling, and art). These are powerful ways in which to hold memories.  When I was a classroom teacher, this art project would be the anchor for deep research into the holiday and the Asian culture.  We read widely and began to understand these cultures and traditions more organically.

These days, I’ve noticed that with more and more emphasis on curricular initiatives there seems to be less and less time to celebrate, less and less time for conversations, and less time for connection. The classrooms are a rush of activity, one lesson after the next – go, go, go.  Don’t stop. Don’t think.  Don’t feel the struggle and joy in learning.

I’m glad I can eke out some time for kids to converse and create; some time to experiment and play; some time to celebrate the small things.  They need to know the joy of taking a risk – of taking a cardboard box and transforming into something whimsical.  There is magic held within that simple box, and I want children to experience that creative power.

As they worked, they began asking questions about Lunar New Year.  They began talking to each other naturally.  Some of them knew quite a bit about the holiday and supplied lots of information with facts and personal experiences. Questions grew and so did the students’ understanding.  They wanted to know more.  They wanted to become part of the celebration.

Books About Lunar New Year

3rd Grade Makers: Creating in the Wonder Studio

Sometimes the best learning environment

for students isn’t a bunch of devices powered by Wi-Fi,

sometimes it’s a huge pile of cardboard

powered by pure imagination.

                                                                        -Krissy Venosdale

It’s January, and it’s finally time for the 3rd graders to have time in the Wonder Studio during recess. They are beyond excited.  I look out onto a sea of eager faces, and they are literally bouncing with energy. I gather them on the porch before we venture inside, “Listen please.  I’m giving you two sets of directions: Number one – go into my office, take off your coats, and put them on the chairs on the left side of the room.  Number two – Then go into the Wonder Studio and sit on the steps. When you are all seated, I will give you a guided tour of what we have in the Wonder Studio today.”

To my surprise, they quieted down immediately, listened to my directions, and followed them to a T.  Note to self: when something is dearly important to children, they will tune in and engage in the process with their whole hearts and curious minds. The 3rd graders have been patiently waiting for this day.  The 5th graders participated in October and November, the 4th graders participated in November and December, and now it is their turn.  The quota for each session was 9 students.  Every single 3rd graders signed up to participate! In order to give everyone a chance, so I increased the quota to 12 students per session.  The studio is a very small space. I crossed my fingers and hoped that this group could navigate the room and materials without too much chaos.  To my delight, they got right to work, setting up their spaces and helping each other.  Long before this day, they had been thinking hard about what they wanted to create.  Soon, the studio was abuzz with activity.

Carlie wanted a small box, which I found for her.  “I’m making a bed,” she declared.

Francee wanted a bigger box and some cardboard.  “What are you making?” I asked.

“A hotel for my scrunchies,” she said, holding up three colorful fabric scrunchies.

I laughed.  I had never thought of making a hotel for scrunchies.  I marveled at her creativity.

Francee’s enthusiasm was contagious, and she soon had two classmates helping her construct the hotel.  It had three floors created with plastic strawberry baskets and needlepoint canvas.

Some people would observe this scene and define it as childish.  I suppose it is, but childish not in a dismissive and frivolous way.  When I think of the word childish, I think of creativity, imagination, a great sense of play, adventure, and wonder.  The studio session captured these childish times: a child painting paper plates with bright colors, another child duct-taping blocks together to make her own version of a Rubik’s cube, and yet another child stringing beads and wooden snowflakes together to make a winter garland.

Carlie has returned to request a stapler. “What do you need it for?” I ask.  I’ve learned to ask this question because often students do not request the tool that they actually need.  In this case, Carlie wanted the stapler to “sew” pillows for her bed.  I looked at the tiny fabric squares in her hand.  She had put a cotton ball in each square and showed me where she wanted to staple.  “May I show you something?’ I asked her gently.  She nodded her head.  “Staples are not the best tool for making pillows.  Let’s try sewing instead.  Would you like me to teach you how to do it?” Carlie nodded again.  We worked together to sew two small pillows perfectly for her cardboard bed.  “Do I have time to make a quilt?” Carlie asked. “Next session,” I promise.

I looked at the clock. “We have five minutes to clean up,” I announce to the girls.  They moan in unison. “I know.  I know.  You have done excellent work.  There will be more time next week.”  They slowly complied, as I stood directing where to put palettes and paint brushes.  Someone had spilled some water and others come to her aid.  We found space for paintings to dry and beads to stay organized.  Francee’s hotel was put on a high shelf, as was Carlie’s bed.

This childish time is essential, so nourishing.  I know it, and the girls know it. We have formed a strong bond.  There is such satisfaction, such a sense of purpose when making something with your own two hands out of your own wild imagination.  We all want to stay here in the Wonder Studio just a little longer.

Stirring the Senses – Part 2

Last week, I planned a winter sensory poetry lesson for out 2nd graders.  I decided to start with a slideshow of winter photographs and then brainstorm words that they might use in their poems. My goal was to quickly set them off to write so they’d have plenty of time to compose their poems and share them.

This week, I executed my plan.  As I presented the slideshow, the girls looked intently at the photographs, which were a mix of nature scenes and people and animals in the snow. After watching silently, they shared their ideas as I wrote them down.  We were collecting sensory words from what we had seen in the photos.  The words would act as a jumping off point to create images for their poems.

Before they began to write, they asked some questions.  One girl asked if she could use rhymes and I nodded my head.  She sparked an idea in my head because I don’t normally compose rhyming poems.  Since I always write when the children write, I decided to challenge myself and write a rhyming sensory poem. I think it is an important part of the writing process for children to see adults writing alongside children.  I made sure the girls were all actively thinking and writing, and then I sat down with my own ideas. One student came over to see what I was writing, but I quickly redirected her to her own writing and told her that I would share at the end of class.

As the children wrote, I circled the room looking at their poetry and making observations that I thought would nudge their writing further.

  • That’s an interesting idea! You’re making an acrostic.
  • Wow! You are using such strong verbs.
  • Oh, you are including lots of sound words.
  • Like each child, like each snowflake, each poem was different, exquisite in its creation.  They took their experiences of snow and thought about how it looked, smelled, sounded, tasted, and felt. They thought hard, they experimented with words, and they formed meaning to share with others.  This time to play is necessary and important for writers. It connected what they have been reading, to what they have experienced, to what they have learned about composing a poem.

2nd Grade Poets: Stirring the Senses

My colleague and friend asked me to cover one of her 2nd grade writing classes this coming week. I eagerly accepted. I was given two choices:  monitor the winter writing assessment or teach a lesson on winter sensory poems.  The decision was an easy one for me.  Given the choice, I would pick poetry every single time.  And poetry with 2nd graders? Nothing could bring more joy!

I have been introducing young children to poetry for many decades, so I jumped at the chance to teach again and this time try a new approach.  I spent the weekend thinking about ways to introduce sensory poems, which would engage these small, curious minds.  I know that the best plan of action is to speak briefly, make it visual, and step out of the way.  Though, I often want to explain and read example after example,  I have found that children have poetry squirming inside of them ready to jump out, and all teachers have to do is invite them to think, wonder, play, and create.

To prepare for the lesson, I sat down and thought about how to construct a winter sensory poem.  I summoned my beginner’s mind. I thought about the taste of winter.  Images swelled up inside me, and I quickly wrote the last stanza first. Since there were four lines in the stanza and five senses, I then knew the format of this poem would be five stanza with a total of twenty lines.  I don’t normally write poems thinking of the structure, but this is the way “First Snow” presented itself to me. 

First Snow

At the edge of the woods
Tall trees stand
Ina a swaying silhouette
Bracing winter winds.

Their boughs creak and thrum
Creating a winter rasping rhythm
Birds stay silent on branches
Muffled by their puffed feathers.

The clouds are as gray and thick
As chimney smoke.
The air is frozen-still 
And smells like snow.

Soon snowflakes whirl,
Dancing on noses and fingertips
Before drifting to the ground.
Flake, upon flake, upon flake.

A faint taste of salt
Is on my cold, cracked lips.
I wrap my arms around myself
And dream of the sweetness of spring.

Of course,  I wouldn’t expect children to work in this way.  However, going through the process again like it was my first time, helped me to better understand how to present sensory poetry to the children. And it reminded me that the process of both teaching and writing poetry should not be rigid with formulas and rules. When poetry is presented as play, then children have a much easier time adopting it and making it their own.

My plan was simple.  I will set the mood with a slideshow of winter scenes. Then, we will generate a list of words that express the sights of sounds of winter, which I will write on a chart so the children can reference it during poetry construction. And then, I will invite the children to start writing.  Mid-workshop, I plan to invite students to read their poems in progress.  I think this helps young writers keep the revision process in focus and playful.

As they finish their poems, they will read them to each other, further revise, and finally set their poems down on fresh paper.  Since they are 2nd graders, they will want to illustrate their poems.  Indeed, I anticipate one or two reluctant poets will need to draw first and then create a poem from their image.  As with the first snow of the season, I wait eagerly in anticipation for Tuesday afternoon with our 2nd grade poets.

OLW: Purpose

My One Little Word for 2023 is PURPOSE.  The older I get, the more I don’t want to miss and flit away.  I want to savor every moment.  Whether good or bad, I want to stay in the moment, take in the experience, and discover what it can teach me. My OLW for 2022 was Remember, but when I looked back at last year’s post – it was all about purpose.  I smiled to myself. At least I am consistent.  I realize that purpose is truly important to me, always at the forefront of my mind.

On Purpose

When you do something on purpose, you do it deliberately, with intent.  It can be a positive or negative thing:  He hit his sister on purpose.  She sent her aunt flowers on purpose.  Much of my young adulthood was not spent on purpose.  I was impulsive, reactive, impetuous.  Maybe that’s just the way young adults behave but looking back I realize how much my impulsiveness negatively affected my development.  I was all about DOING and did not plan or think things through very much.  Life happened to me; I didn’t try to create it.  I didn’t think I could.  I was timid, unconfident, with little self-esteem. Thank goodness, I kept growing.  Reflection came and with that much more self-understanding.  I began to slow down, think things through, and act deliberately.  I made less mistakes.  I enjoyed more moments.  I began creating a purposeful path.

With Purpose

When you do something with purpose, you have a goal and determination to reach it.  If you live your life with purpose, you are thoughtful, you execute plans, you reflect on your options. I was fortunate to have a passion which connected directly to my career.  I think I was born a teacher, and I was able to put my passion into action.  Even after more than forty years, I still am  excited by and enthusiastic about teaching and learning.  I have spent some of my best days in the presence of children. Sure, I have had my down days, but for the most part I enjoy teaching and learning.  It is a creative process for me. It nourished me.  It allows me to pursue my other passions: writing and art.  Now that I’m heading towards the end of my career, I am looking towards writing and art to take the helm – to create with purpose, to express myself with words and painting.

Purposeful Path

The way through
The winter woods
Is bleak, gray, lonely
I break through the bracken.
Ice, sticks, stones
Crackle under my feet.
I walk on.

I walk on
Choosing paths
As they split and swerve
Right or left,
Uphill or down.
I keep my pace,
Birds descend from branches.

Birds descend from branches.
Dashes of blue, yellow, brown
Dart from tree to tree.
I am not alone.
They sing to me in the chill air,
They fly above in the clear blue,
Showing me the way.






Persimmons in Winter

Persimmons are a new fruit to me.  I began eating them only two years ago.  They were not widely available in grocery stores.  They are seasonal and show up in the produce aisle for a few short weeks in winter.  They are rare and expensive.  I treat myself anyway much like I treat myself to my childhood favorites – figs and pomegranates.

I have had to learn how to know when they are at their peak ripeness.  I’ve tasted a few before their prime, which left a fuzzy taste on. My tongue.  But their color – their color gives me hope for spring and brightens my mood.

Persimmons first came from Asia.  There are many varieties and colors ranging from yellow to chocolate brown.  The variety I enjoy is Hachiya, which is flame-orange and heart-shaped. Persimmons are now grown all over the world: Asia, Spain, Israel, Azerbaijan, Australia and in Florida and California in the United States.

Every year, I look forward to the winter, to the change of season.  But when the leaves fall, and the trees are bare, and cold sets in,  I begin to feel a distinct loneliness.  Nature had gone to sleep but I’m still wandering in the wilderness.  I just doesn’t seem right to me.  I take precautions for the winter gloom not to settle into my spirit.  Candles, twinkling lights, trips to the garden store to see greenery and bright berries – all these help to lift my mood.  But the persimmon is uniquely responsible for bringing springtime back to me.  I smell, taste, and swallow, and something inside me brightens and grows.

Persimmons in Winter

The winter sky
Holds no color.
Cloudless and icy gray,
It is a blank canvas
For the bare branches
That crisscross and rise up
In the frozen air
Stitching the sky
With sharp lines and angles,
A sketch of the woodlands
In black and white.
There is no sound,
No smell, no color -
The air is empty.
The trees stand in solitude,
Perfect peaceful desolation.

In my black woolen coat
Hat, scarf, and mittens,
I walk the wide expanse of the meadow
Where all traces of green
Have leeched back
Into the soil till spring.
Cold stones and ice clods
Crunch under my feet.
Most animals have gone to hibernate,
Birds dip through the air
In quick silence,
A lone crow calls out
With his broken voice.
This winter loneliness
Seeps into my exposed skin
And settles there.

I walk back home
To find some respite from the cold,
To embrace some color.
A small bowl of persimmons
Sits on my kitchen table.
Their flame-like hue
Draws me close and warms me.
I touch their waxy skins
And immediately feel their warmth.
They are ripe and ready,
I choose one to enjoy.
Peel and cut in thick rounds.
In the center of each
Is an eight-petaled flower.
For this brief moment,
I return to spring.

Inspiration and Handiwork

Over the years, bloggers have blessed me with new ideas, book suggestions, encouragement, beautiful artwork and photographs, and myriad moments of inspiration.  I have learned so much from strangers, and I am so grateful for their knowledge and generosity.

My latest spark of inspiration comes from Adam Zucker who blogs at Artfully Learning. Last week, Adam wrote about Black Mountain College in North Carolina and its founders, teachers, and alumni.  He wrote about the life and art of Ruth Asawa. I had never heard of her, but I had read and studied the work of her teacher, Josef Albers.  As I looked at the work of Ruth Asawa, I had a tingling “Aha” moment. I had such a strong visceral reaction to her sculptures. They were curved and intricate biomorphic shapes. Her organic wire sculptures reminded me of some macramé sculpture I created in graduate school as part of my Master’s thesis in Creative Arts Education forty-three years ago. I carried those sculptures around for years and gave a few away to friends.  I had forgotten about them until I saw Ruth’s sculptures.  I said aloud to myself, “Oh! I wish I had known about Ruth Asawa forty-three years ago.  Her work would have greatly influenced my art and pushed me forward.”  I never thought of weaving with wire and stayed with more common materials such as paper, fabric, yarn, jute, and hemp.

I made twelve sculptures with accompanying poems. Two sculptures I remember very well.  My work was centered around the women who influenced my life.  The first sculpture was a rectangular wall hanging in a natural jute tied onto wooden branches on the top and bottom.  The knots were predominantly Josephine knots in honor of my maternal grandmother, Josephine, who I never met.  She died at the age of forty-six from a cerebral hemorrhage.  Family members always told me that I looked like her.  I never believed them until I came across a photo of her at the age of sixteen.  My heart skipped a beat when I looked at her eyes and smile. Yes, indeed, I look a lot like my grandmother.  I wanted to create a sculpture that would reflect my connection to her.

Another sculpture was a replica of a head of long chestnut hair.  My childhood friend, Roxanne, had the most gorgeous long, straight, thick hair. My hair was short, fine, dark brown, and curly.  I coveted Roxanne’s hair.  I craved long thick tresses that I could toss, braid, and put in in an elegant bun.  I found a wire-framed oval, and I tied long strands of wool year in multi-shades of brown.  Then I created different kinds of intricate braids down the length of the sculpture.  To add interest, I woven in some gold engraved barrel beads.  This is the hair I would have wanted.  This is the hair of my amazing dear friend.  After the exhibition,  I packed Roxanne’s hair in a box and sent it to her in Boston with a note expressing how much her friendship meant to me.

As years went by,  I turned to watercolor and collage for artistic expression.  And my time was spent more and more teaching children.  In my teaching, I always shared the connection of art to literature, and exposed my young students to various artists, genres, and materials.  I knew it was important for children to explore the world of art and use their imaginations to create their own work. This free expression is crucial for building identity, self-esteem, and for nurturing creative minds.

With a little research, I found a picture book A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa by Andrea D’Aquino.  She recounts Ruth’s childhood on a California farm, her interest in nature, and her studies in art.  She was influenced by choreographer, Merce Cunningham, the visionary designer, Buckminster Fuller, and the abstract artist, Josef Albers.  As Ruth developed as an artist, a trip to Mexico introduced her to write weaving.  When she returned home to San Francisco, she began to tach art and create beautiful nature-inspired wire sculptures.

I cannot wait to try my hand at wire sculptures.  After all, I have been waiting for forty-three years!  Maybe I can combine wire and fiber.  I am looking forward to playing and creating with this new-found idea. 

Josephine Knots in Copper Wire

The Conversation Connection

Teaching  is a long conversation.  It is an interplay of ideas and experiences.  I was attracted to teaching because I love connecting with people, learning about their interests, and understanding how they think. I know from my own experiences as a student that the teachers who stopped and took time to talk to me were critical in building my sense of self and developing my reasoning  skills. Without those conversations, I would not, on my own, have made the connections needed to grow my thinking. 

When I was a classroom teacher, I made it my practice to check-in regularly with each student, not only during reading and writing conferences, but also to check-in on their social-emotional development: how they were feeling about friends and family, how they were able to handle stress. I knew that the way my students felt about themselves greatly affected their ability to persevere and learn.  These teacher-student conversations were so rewarding; they built self-awareness, agency, and community.  Most of the academic content might not be remembered, but I knew the social connections would be.  Students would remember that someone listened to them and valued their opinions.

This week, as I worked with a small group of 4th graders, I was reminded about how important connection truly is. We were working in the Wonder Studio, and I opened up my adjoining office to make more room for their crafting projects. In my office, I had hung a large display of my class photos over the span of my teaching career.  Several students noticed the photos and started asking me questions.  I was intrigued by how their questions were so closely connected to their personalities.  The first one to comment was my logical reasoner and problem-solver, Jasara. She got close up to the photo and saw the date – 1979. “You have been teaching for 43 years!” she declared.  I chuckled. Another student chimed in, “43!  My father is 43!”  Jasara kept analyzing the photos, but what she focused on were the numbers: in 1985, I was teaching for 6 years; in 1993, I was teaching for 14 years.  I was relieved when she couldn’t find any more dates.  I was beginning to feel very old indeed.

Then Maren came to inspect the photo.  She is confident and competitive. Maren looked intently at all the children’s face. “Which one was your favorite,” she demanded. 

“I liked them all,” I declared. 

She narrowed her eyes at me, “You had to have had a favorite.”

I started to feel defensive but kept calm. “They were all great kids: Charlie was a great sailor, Ben made me laugh, Stephanie was quiet and thoughtful, Antonio wrote plays…”.

Maren cut me off, “My mother says she doesn’t have a favorite, but I know she does.” And with that she trounced off to get some fabric.

I breathed a sigh of relief.  If I were to be completely truthful, I enjoyed the company of all the children.  But there are a few who still keep in touch with me, who now as grown-ups take time to reach out to me. So yes, Maren is probably right, but I’m not going to tell her unless she calls me up ten years from now to see how I’m doing!

Darlene was listening to these conversations the whole time.  She sat by my side working and listening.  Finally, she got up and took a closer look  at the photos.  She looked at all the little faces of strange children now adults.  She also went over to some other photos I had on another shelf.  The photos were of some former students, who are now adults, with careers and children of their own. 

Then she came back to my side. “I’m going to be in one of those photo frames,” she said pointing.  Then quickly added, “But they won’t be here in your office.  They will be at your home because you’ll be retired by then.” 

I smiled and gave her side-hug, “And we can meet for tea, and you can tell about all the wonderful things you are doing.” 

Darlene’s face glowed, “Yes, yes! I’ll tell you about my newest cookbook.” This was an inside joke.  I have been encouraging Darlene’s writing through reading and making recipes for the past three years.  I have no doubt that her grown-up face will one day grace my bookshelf, as well as several of her award-winning cookbooks!                        

Hands-on Vocabulary

Last week in the Wonder Studio, I spent four days during recess time sewing with 4th graders.  The thing I learned about 4th graders is that they have definite ideas and want to carry them out quickly.  The Wonder Studio is filled with all kinds of crafting supplies, but the supplies that captured the 4th graders last week was my sewing cabinet.  They wanted to make pillows – all twelve of them – all at once – and not one seasoned sewer among them.  It was a chaotic and happy flow of ribbon, scissors, fabric, and floss.  They soon learned that sewing takes time and patience. 

One industrious student decided she would hot-glue her pillow until I stopped her and had her reflect on her process.  I called the girls over to look at the hot-glued pillow.  We brainstormed ways to make pillows without using up all our hot-glue and make a pillow that would last and could be washed.  I quickly set up some girls with needles and thread, while I showed another group how to make a tootsie roll pillow, which consists of taking a length of fabric, putting some batting in the center, rolling it up and securing each end with ribbons tied in a bow.  The seam can be stitched or secured with bonding tape.  Soon, we had a bright assortment of tootsie roll pillows. 

As they worked, I showed them how to fold fabric.  I taught them new terms: warp, weft, bias. They quickly understood my command for pinking shears and why you do not usually want your fabric to fray.  They learned how to attach buttons, separate floss strands, and embroider their initials with a basic straight stitch. As we worked together, I realized that  in just a few short days they were learning and retaining so much new vocabulary.  They needed to know these words to create an object of their own.  Words like batting, muslin, bonding tape, t-pins became essential for communicating their needs, so they learned them and used them quickly.

I remember learning this way from my mother – learning in the moment.  She was a gifted seamstress and could make a dress without a using a pattern.  I thought that was pure magical genius. I didn’t even realize I was learning new skills and words when I sewed alongside her. It was such an organic process. It was rewarding to work hard at something and have a beautiful end product.  Of course, even if my stitches were uneven and my hem was a bit crooked, it still was beautiful to me. Sewing taught me how to work through problems and learn from my mistakes. My technique got better and better the more I practiced. Sewing was teaching this group of girls that lesson too.  They love to be busy, to use their hands, and to learn new skills to make something useful.

This organic way of introducing vocabulary can be applied to other content areas.  Connecting new words with an activity that results in a product will ensure engagement.  The learning will stick because it is coupled with relevant action.  I saw this recently during a 4th grade reading/writing unit on graphic novels.  The teacher introduced new vocabulary (panel, frame, speech bubbles, gutters, motion lines, narration, etc.) Then the students would look for examples in the books they were reading, and then used those newly-acquired skills to create their own stories.  At the end of the unit, the students were deftly using the graphic story terminology.  It had truly become part of their writing toolbox.

Vocabulary instruction should not be viewed as a weekly list of words tiered, graded, and set aside in a neat little pile.  New words should dance out to students, play with them, engage them, make them think and do:  Where are those pinking shears?  Why are frayed edges not always a good idea?  Where is the selvedge end?  Stated simply, new words that demand action are remembered.