Embracing the Process

During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students.  The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices.  I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations.  I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them.  Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be.  Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.

This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio.  They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly,  however they didn’t quite clean everything up.  Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps.  I get it.  I was twelve once.  I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.

Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them.  She looked up at me grinning.

“I know,” she said, “I love the process.” 

I laughed and agreed.  Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission.  As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials.  She often finds things I didn’t know I had.  Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project.  I looked at her skeptically. 

“They won’t mind.  It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.”  And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project. 

The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls.  Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing.  I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance.  I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me.  It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.

Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl.  She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials.  She frowned and began hunting for a replacement.  She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart.  As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure.  In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work.  At one point, I asked her what she was making.

With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”

I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”

“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant.  I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.

Today, Laila finished her project.  She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over.  Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down.  She came over and handed it to me.

“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.

“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.

I laughed, “Of course, a lamp.  It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”

And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads.  She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string.  “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.

Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way.  I know that I have to be quiet and listen.  My students always show me the way.  They know what they need.  They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.

Growth Power

I have been watching children grow for forty-two years.  The funny thing, like plants, children don’t always grow in a straight line reaching directly up to sun, luscious and fragrant.  Sometimes growth takes a hard, circuitous route and more time than expected.  With plants, you might need to adjust the proper amount of sunlight, temperature, moisture, air, and nutrients.  You also might want to provide beautiful music to encourage growth.  With children, it helps to be patient, provide encouragement and a positive attitude. Follow their circuitous route and give them the creative space to discover their interests and passions.

Lately, I have been bombarded by teachers with fixed mindsets about student progress.  The words: can’t, doesn’t, won’t, below grade level abound.  They repeat the mantra, “She’ll never catch up.,” over and over again until it becomes their truth. This fixed mindset about student growth has been debilitating to me, and I can’t imagine what it does to the students.  Children, even if they are having trouble learning, have no trouble understanding how their teachers regard them. They know what teachers think of them, and if the teacher’s truth is that the child can’t learn or there’s something wrong with the child, then undoubtedly the child begins to believe it too.

I believe that humans are miraculous creatures. They can surmount overwhelming odds. They can achieve their goals with hard work, encouragement, and burning desire. They can crush any limits with strong will and motivation. I know this to be true. I have seen it. The third grader who struggles to pay attention becomes a poet and a therapist. The second grader who struggles to read, grows up to get a doctorate in education. The first grader who applies an awkward pencil grip and avoids writing, grows up to be a world-class adventurer who sails across the Atlantic. Without some kind of struggle, it is difficult to truly learn. There should be no shame in struggle. We shouldn’t give children the message that if you are struggling to learn something, then you are not quite up to par and that this is the way you will always be.

This idea of children needing to be given space to question experiment and explore reminds me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist.  Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening.  When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio.  As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance.  As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled.  Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school.  Gillian went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer.  She is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009).  It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities. By encouraging risk-taking and experimentation, teachers guide students to explore their personal strengths and passions, allowing children to become authors of creative narratives of their own design. Children begin to see themselves as actors in the true sense of the word.  They are part of a creative growth process, responsible for their own learning. 


Didn’t They Know?

Melodramatic,
My family dubbed me.
"Stop being Sara Bernhardt,"
My mother declared.
Didn’t they know?
Didn’t they know
That I cut my teeth
On words and sounds,
On the sharp crackle of
circumference
On the soft chew of
statuesque.
I was born a poet,
Didn’t they know?

Sensitive dreamer,
My family called me.
"Get your head out of the clouds,"
My father demanded.
Didn’t they know?
Didn’t they realize
My mind was made
For curious, impossible things?
To wander and wonder
To dance with the breeze
Weave words into poems
And poems into stories
And stories into a rich, wild life.
Didn’t they know? 



Invitation to Joy

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy

in creative expression and knowledge.

– Albert Einstein

I think that my major role as an educator is to invite joy.  I have always thought this from the beginning of my career over forty years ago.  Maybe it’s because I started teaching in a nursery school.  You can’t help to be joyful when teaching two, three, and four-year-old children.  They actually exude joie de vivre and happily invite adults into their world. It’s a great place to dwell.

When I began teaching elementary school, I found that older children also respond to joy no matter their gender, socio-economic status, race, or academic progress.  Indeed, children who struggled with academics or behavior were even more in need of joy and became more motivated when their teachers found a way to invite them into joyful learning. It’s amazing what a little happiness will do.

These days, joy-filled learning is crucial.  Spreading joy is easy.  You just need to listen to children and take an interest in who they are and what they like to do.  This morning, I started my day in my favorite place, the school library.  As I chatted with our librarian, children drifted in to return books.  Riley, an artistic and creative fifth grader, wandered in. I greeted her enthusiastically and asked if she would like to create a comic strip for our school literary magazine.  For years, Riley has shared her drawings and handmade books with me.  Riley grinned from ear to ear and nodded her head enthusiastically.  I immediately knew that I had done the right thing by asking her.  She came closer and asked what kind of comic strip she should make.  I told her to use her imagination.  Maybe she’d like to include her llama or frog characters.  She smiled, dug in her pocket, and showed me a tiny notebook she created.  She promised to work on the comic strip and show it to me when she had it sketched out.  Then she skipped away, and my heart felt lighter knowing that I had added a little joy in her day.

Next, Naomi walked in.  Naomi is a tinker-master.  She loves building things with her hands.  For several years, she has signed up to create crafts with me in our Wonder Lab. And when Wonder Lab was closed because of COVID, Naomi created projects at home, taught her little sisters, and sent me videos of her work.  I marveled at her initiative and ingenuity.  I felt remorse that Wonder Lab had been closed for a year and a half.  This year, it reopened in a smaller space with a new name, Wonder Studio.  I can take only a limited number of children in the Wonder Studio at a time, so Naomi has not had as much time creating at school as she had in the past.  I called over to her and asked her if she’d like to create a crafting page for our school magazine. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, Naomi’s whole body started to vibrate.  She literal bounced up and down.  I looked over at our librarian and we smiled at each other.  “I guess that means – yes,” I said.  Naomi continue to bounce and nodded her head.  It was not even 8:30 in the morning and I had made two little girls extremely happy. And it was easy to do, and it was fun, and it made a difference. If nothing else positive happened today, that was okay with me because I had spread some joy and encouraged creativity. My work was done for the day!

Books on Joy for Kids

  1. Black Boy Joy by Kwame Mbalia
  2. Grandma’s Joy by Eloise Greenfield
  3. Olivia Dances for Joy by Natalie Shaw
  4. Sparkles of Joy: A Children’s Book That Celebrates Diversity and Inclusion by Aditi Wardhan
  5. The Joy in You by Cat Deeley
  6. The Little Book of Joy: 365 Ways to Celebrate Every Day by Joanne Ruelos Diaz
  7. This Joy! By Shelley Johannes

Books on Joy for Adults

  1. Awakening Joy for Kids: A Hands-On Guide for Grown-Ups to Nourish Themselves and Raise Mindful, Happy Children by James Baraz and Michelle Lillyana
  • Joy in Learning: Making it Happen in Early Childhood Classes by Leon Burton
  • Joyful Learning by Alice Udvari-Solner and Paula Kluth
  • Rediscover the Joy of Learning by Don A. Blackerby
  • Start with Joy by Katie Egan Cunningham
  • The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-filled Kids by Marcus Warner
  • The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
  • The Joy Journal for Magical Everyday Play by Laura Bland
  • The Joy of Learning: Finding Flow Through Classical Education by Jason Matthew Barney
  • The Joy of Teaching: Making a Difference in Student Learning by Gene E. Hall, Linda F. Quinn, and Donna M. Gollnick
  • The Joyful Child: A Sourcebook of Activities and Ideas for Releasing Children’s Natural Joy by Peggy Jenkins, PhD
  • The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to Engage and Challenge Students K-6 by Responsive Classroom

Writing to Entertain

It’s Wednesday, time for Kindergarten writing workshop. I have a hop in my step as I walk down the hall towards the Kindergarten classroom. I open the door, and the teacher rushes over to tell me that she desperately needs my help. The girls are sitting at small tables immersed in their speech bubble stories – all except the girls at the kidney-shaped table. At that table, three little girls are “writing:” Abbie is tossing her eraser in the air; Maddie is hopping up and down and writing at the same time, and Kelly is sitting backwards in her chair looking at her friends at the next table. Of course, the teacher sits me at the kidney-shaped table and says, “See what you can do.”

I smile at the girls. “Okay everyone, let’s keep writing,” I proclaim cheerfully. Kelly promptly get sup and sharpens her pencil. It is a long journey and I have to call her back to her story. Abbie is staring at her pictures. She has one more frame to finish. I encourage her to write an ending. “I’m thinking,” she says quietly. Abbie thinks for a long time. I periodically coax her along.

Maddie, the hopping one, has finished her story. She shows it to me. There is a happy drawing in six frames. The first one has a picture of a boy, a girl, and a house. The girl is saying, “Let’s go!” the boy is saying, “OK!” The second frame has me stumped. I turn to Maddie and say, “Can you read this to me?” Random words are scattered around the frame encircled in a speech bubble. I cannot figure out the order, but Maddie can. She promptly moves up and down, right to left and reads, “Hey Jack, it’s time for school.”

I smile and take a deep breath. Children never cease to amaze me. Maddie is hopping again. I ask her to quiet her body. She giggles at me like that is the funniest request she has ever heard.

“Maddie,” I say in my most writing workshop teacher voice, “When we write, we need to write the words in order.” Maddie giggles and bounces in her seat.

“Why?” she asks. “Because your readers need to know where to start and where to end.”

“I can read it,” she says proudly.

Yes,” I agree, “but I can’t”. If I follow the way you wrote it, it would say, ” Hey school, it’s Jack time.”

This sets Maddie into a gale of laughter, sprawling herself across the table. We erase her bubble and start again. I make light guide lines and Maddie begins to write her message. She stretches out each word. It takes a long time.

Meanwhile, Kelly has finished her story. It is in order, and she reads it aloud confidently. She begins to color her pictures. Abbie is still sitting staring at her paper. It is half done. I ask her to tell me the story. It is about a butterfly and a snake, and they are looking for their friend, a girl named Red. Abbie has imaginative ideas. Pictures are easy. Words are hard. Each character says just one word. It is easier to be quiet.

Maddie starts shouting, “How do you spell Nona?”

We stretch the word out together. I look at her picture frame.

“I thought you and Jack were going to school?”

“We are,” she declares boldly.

“Then, how come you are at Nona’s house?”

She sticks out her bottom lip and looks at me like I am the most dense person in the world.

“Because,” she says very slowly, “We go to Nona’s house after school.”

“Oh,” I say, “then you need to write that here,” I say pointing to her picture of Nona’s house. I remind her to put the words in order.

Maddie hops in place, finishes her words, and begins to color her drawings. I’m glad to report that Maddie, Jack, and Nona live happily every after. I am looking forward to my next session in Kindergarten writing workshop. I can just imagine what entertainment Maddie and her classmates have in store for me!

Finding my Way

Yesterday morning, I walked down the dim school hallway well before classes were due to begin.  I opened the library door, turned on the light, and set down my belongings.  I set up my place at a table so I would be ready to help any students who came in early in need of academic assistance or who just wanted someone to talk to.  I love this time in the morning when I can connect with students. While I waited, I perused the display of books and one caught my eye – this Way, Charlie by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso.  I don’t know whether it was the bucolic scene on the cover or that Charlie is the name of my maternal grandfather, but I picked the book up and started to read.  At that moment, our school librarian came in and saw what I had in my hand.  “Oh, that’s a sweet one, and it’s loosely based on a true story,”  she said. I love stories that are connected to real life.  I feel like I get two stories for the price of one!  I sat down with my cup of coffee and started to read.

There I was in a springtime field with Jack, the goat and Charlie, the horse.  The farm is for animals that need to be rescued either due to ill treatment or to an injury (the real-life farm is called Wild Heart Ranch). Jack was ill-treated, which left him grumpy and mistrustful.  Charlie is losing his eyesight and stumbles to find his way. Jack reluctantly begins to help Charlie find his way throughout the farm. They have some arguments, some adventures, and some mishaps – becoming in the end very good and trusting friends.

What a wonderful book with which to start the day.  Perhaps, I was first drawn to it because I’m always trying to find my way: finding my way with my writing, finding my way with my art, and  finding just the right way to help my students.  Finding my way rings out true and clear to me. Many wonderful people in my life have shown me the way.  Often ,these people have been children.  They sometimes see things so simply, so clearly that they can tell me with absolutely no hesitation the right way to go.  Maybe that’s because they haven’t yet become mistrustful or uncertain. Maybe their creativity is still intact, and they can imagine a world of endless possibilities.  I’m trying to regain that sense of childlike wonder. Reading picture books in the early morning has shown me the way.

Nurturing Creativity: Sing-a-Song

I was sitting in the hallway of my school trying to get myself organized for the day.  I posted my first Slice of Life entry and was wondering how I was going to write every day in the month of March.  That’s when our art teacher came and sat down beside me.  “I have a story to tell you,” she said.  At first, I was thinking, “I have no time for stories.  I wish I didn’t sit in the hallway. I have so much work to do!”  But here I was, and I knew the art teacher always has such funny stories, so I took a deep breath and made myself present. I turned to the eager art teacher and listened.

Yesterday was the worst day! Everything I had planned had to be changed.  The classes I thought were cancelled, actually came without warning.  I was so disorganized and distracted that I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day.  Then the 2nd grade class came into the room at the end of the day.  They all started to paint, but then someone was singing in a very high voice “la… la… la… LA… la…” over and over again. I didn’t know who was singing, and I thought that high pitch was going to send me over the edge.  However, I didn’t want to stop the singing because it seemed to me that someone was using the tune to help them work.  Later on, I realized it was Madison.  She came up to me after class and said that she had written a song while she painted and proceeded to sing it to me. It was quite a long song and had the same cadence that she had been singing.  I am so glad that I hadn’t stop her singing process.  What started as irritation became a joyful occasion.

We laughed together for a moment, and I vowed to find Madison a have her sing her song to me.  This small moment made it again so clear to me how important it is to honor student’s imagination, to be present to these moments which nurture student growth.  Later that day, Madison sang her song high and sweet and clear.  I held back tears.  She handed me a colorful picture and on the back was part of her song. 

The simple breeze flies through my hair,

The wind is soft like a wind,

Itself the flowers are like a beautiful bloom,

The river flows carrying water.

The trees will swing through the wind.

La… La… La… La… La…

I must add that Madison is an EAL student, and it is even more important to me that we celebrate her use of English.  I wonder what this song would sound like in Mandarin.  I think I will ask her tomorrow.

A Child’s Valentine

February means red and pink hearts, lace, fabric, scissors, glue – a collage of loving kindness.  It is one of the holidays I enjoy the most because I often celebrate it with school children.  They decorate bags and boxes and envelopes in which to store all the valentines they will collect.  They cut out jagged hearts with lots of glue and mounds of glitter and sequins.  They make a joyous mess, and they are so happy and excited that their exuberance becomes contagious.

I am so very grateful that I have dedicated my life to teaching children and learning from them. I have strived over the years to be a positive presence, encouraging and hopeful.  For my efforts, the children have given back to me so much more than I could have ever dreamed. Every day is truly a blessing, even when some of them face difficulties and do not show their best selves, especially then.  It is then when I am most needed. It is then when I summon all the grace within me and find a path forward and hold out a helping hand.

This week, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I reflect on all the blessings children have bestowed upon me.  though I am the teacher, they have showed me so many small, wise things. Their innocent perspective has allowed me to see circumstances in new ways.  Their voices rise and fall with laughter.  They know how to play and invite me along.  I. have to sometimes force myself to peel off the layers of adulthood, the mantras of “I’m too busy!, Not now!, Later on!, Can’t it wait?” I have to move past all of the negative noise in my head and tune into the children.  It always, always pays off and makes me a better human.

Learning Alongside Children: Math, Craft, & Curious Cats!

Math Cats

It is a typical Monday.  I sip on a cup of French vanilla coffee, inhale the rich soothing aroma, then head off to my first class of the week.  Every morning for about two and a half hours, I observe and support young children from three to ten years old.   Many people might find this job daunting, but the more I do it, the more I realize I was born to do this. I love solving problems.  I love connecting with kids.  I guess that’s why I have been able to teach for over forty years without feeling burned out and uninspired.  The kids always find a way to kindle  my curiosity.

This morning, I settle into the back of a 5th grade math class.  The teacher is eliciting ideas from her students about number patterns on a thousands chart. “What do you notice?” she asks, and several hands shoot up.  Soon, students are taking turns discussing all kinds of patterns, some easily apparent and some more enigmatic.  I am sitting between two students who engage me in conversation.  My role has changed since last year when I was the ELA Curriculum Coordinator so the student on my right is surprised to see me in math class and asks ,“Mrs. E, what is your job?  I just don’t get it!” I laugh and she apologies, but I reassure her that she doesn’t need to apologize.  I tell her that many adults don’t know exactly what I do, and sometimes I myself have a hard time explaining what I do.  Simply put, I help students learn. 

            “If you need help understanding something, I’m here to show you the way,” I say smiling broadly. 

            Then the student to my left begins to explain an intricate pattern she sees in the thousands chart.  I am amazed.  I tell the girls that math is not my strong suit, but I am curious about it. 

            I explain, “Numbers are like cats to me, they want to do their own thing and they are a bit mysterious.” 

            “Me too!” shouts the girl to my right. 

            “On the other hand,” I continue, “ Words are like puppies, they are friendly, and you can play with them.” 

            The girl on my right shouts again, “SAME!” 

            The math teacher is now looking at me, and I know it’s time to get back to business.  I circulate around the room to see how students are tackling fraction problems.  I am able to guide some on the right track and that makes me feel proud.  I want the girls to see me as an adult who doesn’t always know the answers, but who will keep trying to understand and find the answer.

Craft Cats

Later on Monday, a small group of 5th graders join me at recess to craft in the Wonder Studio, which is the lobby outside my office that I converted into a makerspace after the original makerspace (The Wonder Lab), was dismantled to create  a new classroom space for computer science and engineering.  The space can no longer accommodate a whole class of students, but small groups can participate.  This makes for an intimate and cozy makerspace.  I let the girls dabble and get acquainted with the available materials.  I start crafting too.  At the end of our time, Erin tells me to hold out my hands.  I obey and a bright litter of pipe cleaner kittens tumble into my hands.  I want you to have them,” Erin says cheerily.  I thank her and she run back to her classroom.  An hour later, I see Erin in the hallway. She tells me to go to her desk in her classroom.  She has make more kittens for me.  I enter her empty classroom and pick up the kittens.  Erin’s teacher greets me as I turn to leave. “Cute, aren’t they?” I say. She smiles weakly, “She make them all through my social studies lesson.” “Oh,” I say suddenly deflated, “ We will need to talk to her about that.” I quickly exit quickly, walking down the hallway softly petting my new kittens cupping them in my hands protectively.

Curious Cats

Now it is Tuesday at lunchtime.  I am eating in a tight corner in the faculty room.  The same  teacher finds me to say that one of her students cannot come up with a topic for her writing assignment.  The child is stuck, and the teacher is out of ideas.  She asks me to work with the student at recess time, which is in five minutes.  I agree and start packing up my half-eaten lunch.  I walk to Emma’s classroom and find her just about to play a board game with a group of friends.            “Emma?” I say sweetly, “ You are going to work with me.  Please get your pencil.” 

            She looks at me.  She is a smart cookie.  She knows why I have come.  Emma is an avid reader and a talented writer, but sometimes she gets stuck initiating ideas for writing and completely shuts down.  All the. way to my office, I keep the mood light.  I want to set a positive and carefree tone.

When we get to my office, Emma sits in a sunny seat by a window.  I tell her that I am here to help her come up with an idea for her writing assignment.  Half of her writing paper is folded up like an accordion.  I smooth it down and begin to pepper her with ideas that I think she’d be interested in  lacrosse, Vermont, and crafting.

            She shakes her head and then says, ”Well, I am making a sweatshirt.” 

            “Yeah, tell me about that,” I say hopefully. 

            Emma begins to tell me about the sweatshirt she is making, which is dark blue with light blue sleeves.  I stand at my whiteboard easel and make a web as she speaks.  I write down all that she describes.  I ask some questions to guide her.  Soon, the web is complete. 

            I push her paper closer and say, “Okay now write what you just old me.” 

            Emma does not pick up her pencil.  She is biting her bottom lip. 

            “Shall we come up with a first sentence together?” 

            She nods in agreement and we do.  Then I walk away and tell her that I am going to give her some quiet time to write.  When I return a couple of minutes later, Emma is back to folding her paper.  Her feet are tapping the rungs of her chair.  Her eyes are wide and glossy as she stares at me.  I take one look at her and gently take the paper away. 

            “You are not in trouble, “ I say.  “My job is to help kids through problems. Can you tell me what is making you stuck?” 

            Emma remains silent.            

            “You are a great writer.  We just have to find the right story,” I say, silently praying for a miracle.  “What if we pretend it’s after school and we are having milk and cookies. 

            I continue, “Hey Emma, tell me about something you love.  Can you tell be about your dogs?” 

            Emma’s shoulders relax. Her blue eyes begin to dance as she tells me all about her Maltese and Yorkie.

            When she is through, I smile and say, ”Okay do you think you can write about your dogs now.” My heart is beating wildly.  I am holding my breath. 

            “No,” she says quietly.

            My heart skips a beat.

            “But…” she adds, “I can tell you about my cats.” 

            I exhale loudly and grin, “Great, tell me about your cats, and I take up my pencil and begin to make a web from the information that Emma shares.  We have completed a second web, and now it is time to return to class. 

            “Do you think you can write a story using this web?” I ask Emma.  She nods positively. We walk back to her classroom both satisfied.

On Thursday afternoon, I am walking past the play area to my office.  Emma’s teacher points to a patch of grass where her students are busy writing.  I spy a small girl hidden in a blanket hunched over her laptop.  Emma’s teacher whispers, “She’s in the zone.  She has three paragraphs so far.”  I am pleased and relieved.  The writer has conquered her writer’s block.  Curious cats to the rescue!

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.

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