Working in the Wonder Studio

A number a years ago, I created a makerspace for our elementary students based in an old unused art room.  I blogged about creating and re-imagining with children in the Wonder Lab here. However, last spring, I was told that the Wonder Lab needed to be dismantled to make room for the Innovation Lab, which would be used to teach students computer science (coding) and engineering.  I complied with undoing the Wonder Lab with a heavy heart.  It had taken many years of planning and collaboration to finally get approval. Then in three short years it was suddenly discarded.  I didn’t want to let it go, but I had no choice.  I thought long and hard about a way to re-establish it.  We had no open space except a small lobby between the newly named Innovation Lab and my office.  I worked two full days by myself and cleared out the Wonder Lab and the lobby.  I put everything in storage, which happened to be on the third floor, and there are no elevators in the Victorian house in which the Wonder Lab is housed.  I trotted up and down the stairs working out my anger and disappointment.  On my final trip down the stairs, I surveyed the lobby.  The words, “Wonder Studio” popped into my mind.  Yes, the Wonder Lab could be reincarnated into the Wonder Studio.  I just had to think small.

This fall, Wonder Studio is operating full steam.  Small is certainly beautiful. I have invited small groups of children each week to work on small projects.  I keep small and tidy supplies on hand. Tidy has been a challenge, but I keep working at it.  And my favorite phrase to the students now is, “If you do not clean up after yourself, you will not be invited back to the Wonder Studio.” That seems to have done the trick.  The girls are learning increasingly to be accountable for their materials.

This week, I was working with a group of 3rd graders.  They were wrapping yarn around small wreath forms on which they were ultimately going to attach jingle bells with ribbons.  Two girls were painting with water colors.  One was making a ferret out of a toilet paper roll, pipe cleaners, felt, yarn, and a plastic Easter egg.  Another made an octagonal loom out of popsicles sticks and created a web with yarn.  Yet another, was sitting on the steps gleefully finger knitting.  I paused and looked around everyone was busy and happy.  They were all creating in their own way.  Then the loom maker said, “Wonder Studio is better than Art because we get to do our own thing.”  The other girls agreed loudly.  I sensed a rebellion in the making.  So, I quickly explained that you needed both Art class and Wonder Studio.  Art class teaches you skills and Wonder Studio allows you to practice those skills and stretch your creative muscles.”  I look around at a lot of little nodding heads. Crisis averted. Phew!

            I know that this brief time with the girls – 30 minutes at recess time – is so important.  Wonder Studio supports creativity, imagination, agency, and self-confidence.

            “Look what I made!” 

            “I made that! 

Do you have rubber bands?” 

            “I want to make a slingshot.” 

            “Do you have balloons?”

            “I want to make a stress ball.” 

I love these statements and requests from our young learners.  They keep me on my toes.  I am endlessly searching for junk that they miraculously turn into their treasure.

Last week, I was walking through the cafeteria with my tray of food, when Mallory, a 5th grader, patted the spot next to her and called out, “Sit with us!”  I was planning to go back to my office, but from the look on Mallory’s face, I knew she had something important on her mind.  She put her tray down and hurried to grab a chair from another table for me.  Wow – she was determined. 

Quickly she said, “I have been thinking about you!”  I looked up at her surprised.  “Were you sad when they took Wonder Lab away?”  

            “Ut…Oh,”  I thought, “I better answer this very carefully, but honestly.”

            So, I smiled and said to Mallory, “ Yes, I was sad because I knew how important Wonder Lab was for you girls. I knew I had to keep a place for you to play.”

            She smiled back at me.

            “I think Wonder Studio is working out well, even through it’s small.”

            Mallory looked at me intently, “Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about.  I think we should build you your own Wonder House.”

            I started to laugh, “That would be wonderful,” I said (pun intended).

            Mallory continued enthusiastically, “We could build it right outside the Wonder Studio.  We could go out onto the porch, make a pathway, and then build the Wonder House right on the empty space on the lawn.  We wouldn’t have to cut down any trees.”

I marveled at how much planning and daydreaming Mallory had been doing.  She is usually a shy and quiet girl.  But her Wonder House idea had given her a strong voice.  I was so humbled and honored by her thoughtfulness.

            “Well, that is such a great idea to have our own house to work in, but it cost money to build a house,” I replied.

            “I was thinking about that too!,” Mallory said eagerly. We could make things in the Wonder Studio and sell them.  We could save up and then build the house. I’m going to talk to the Head of School about it.  We need a BIG Wonder Space.”

And this is why I love working with children.  They are ever optimistic and determined.  I am so glad I didn’t give up and made a space in which the girls can dream and create.  Every day, they give me more and more evidence for why creativity matters.  Every day, they fill me with hope.

Getting Wild in the Wonder Lab

 

I don’t think I have a very wild life, but I do have a wild mind.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to create a hands-on maker space in my school called the Wonder Lab.  It is a place where elementary students come to work on independent projects and make stuff out of recycled materials.  It has been my dream to be able to create this space.

Now that we are remote learning, the Wonder Lab lies dormant, but my mind is still wildly imagining.  I’ve created lots of Wonder Lab ideas for remote learning these past 3 months.  This weekend, I tried my hand at building a cereal box vehicle from an idea I got from this Ultra Creative – General Mills video.

Step 1: Okay, so what if you don’t have a cereal box?  Use what you have!

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I used 4 small boxes:

1 cracker box

2 tea boxes (1 tea box is inside the cracker box).

1 oatmeal box (cut in half and slid together so it is the same width of the cracker box).

I stacked the boxes on top of each other and taped them together with clear tape.  I made a basic truck shape.

Step 2: Building my Monster Truck

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I needed axels for the wheels.  I didn’t have any wooden dowels, so I used 2 unsharpened pencils.  I punched holes with a sharp pencil. I made sure they were in the place I wanted them to be before I punched through to the other side.

Step 3: WHEELS!

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I needed wheels!  And it’s a good thing that my husband likes to eat a lot of oatmeal.  I had an empty container of oat and grits.  I took the tops off and had 2 wheels.

But wait!  Don’t truck have 4 wheels.  I cut the bottoms off both containers and made another 2 wheels. 2+2=4 wheels!

Step 4: Two Types of WHEELS

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The narrow wheels would be the front wheels and the wider wheels would be the back wheels.  Then I punched a hole with my pencil in the center of each wheel.

Step 5: Try, Try Again!

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I slipped on my wheels and tried them out.  My back wheels were too wide.  The truck did not run smoothly. The back wheels kept getting stuck on the truck body.  So I took the back wheels off and trimmed them.  There are the trimmings under the scissor.  I had to trim a couple of times until it was just right!

Step 6: Wheel Caps

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Here you see that I took the wheels off again to make sure they fit just right.  I added caps to the end of the pencil, so the wheels did not fall off.  I had lots of little water bottle caps.  I poked a hole into the caps with a pen and then pushed a pencil through the hole until it was just right.

Step 7: Designing the Cab

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The tea box on top is the cab of the truck.  I drew a diagonal line across the front of the tea box and then I cut it off.  I made a hood from the cut piece and added aluminum foil headlights and cut a small rectangle from a plastic baggie for the windshield.

I LOVE MY TRUCK!

 Step 8: Ready to Roll!

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WHAT I LEARNED:

Making vehicles out of boxes is fun!

I had to try again and again to get it to work.

Making wheels is harder that I thought.

Next time, I will create all the body first BEFORE I make the wheels.

I want to make another one!  I must start saving more boxes!

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Being Present to Joy

My colleagues worry about not having time enough to teach.  They have so much content they need and want to cover.  As a curriculum coordinator, I create tons of documents – benchmarks, scope & sequences, lists of standards by grade level to make sure we don’t miss teaching one single skill or strategy.  This is all well and good.  In fact, this is our job: to give our students a quality education.

However,  as I observe many classrooms, I’m realizing that we certainly cover lots of material and teach a myriad of skills, but we often forget the joy of learning.  Often, we cannot find time for stopping and laughing and celebrating what we’ve accomplished.  Many of us squeeze in as many skills and strategies as we can and are grateful that we complete them so we can check them off our lists, our every increasingly long lists.  We’ve forgotten how to be present to a children’s sense of wonder, a student’s newfound knowledge, someone’s struggle with a difficult concept and then – click – her instant understanding.  When we are in a constant hurry, we miss these things.   This view was noted in an October 12, 2013 blog post by Pernille Ripp: “I stopped telling them what to do and waited for them to figure it out.  Sure I ended social studies 4 minutes before I normally do, but we still got through it, they still had the time they needed, and at the end of the day we walked out as the first group in our building with smiles on our faces.”  It is crucial that when students and teachers walk out of their schools that there are smiles and a feeling of achievement – a day well spent.”

Recently,  I was witness to classroom joy during an activity I designed.  Every November, we read aloud Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet to our 2nd grade students.  The book is about the work of Tony Sarg, who was the first person to create the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. After the students listened to the story and watched a slide show about Sarg’s life and accomplishments, the girls were tasked with creating their own parade balloons using paper, glue, scissors, and lots of imagination.  Each year,  I marvel at the ingenuity of these young students as their balloons take shape: unicorns, pandas, a cube, floating ballerinas, griffins, and more imaginative creatures.

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During our balloon making workshop, as the girls were cutting, glueing, and revising their designs, they spontaneously broke into song,  singing in harmony “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. No one told them to start singing.  They just were happy creating their balloons and began to sing as they worked.  Their classroom teacher and I smiled at each other and watched as they continued to work productively.  It’s in these moments of joy that children truly learn.  There were so many skills and strategies that the girls were applying and using.  They were right in the midst of what Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.” It is this optimal condition that we want all students to attain for it promotes independent thinking and motivation.  As Ellin Oliver Keene notes in her book, Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8, “Engagement…  is characterized by feeling lost in a state that causes us, on one hand to forget the world around us, to become fully engrossed. On the other hand, when engaged, we enter into a state of wide-awakeness that is almost blissful. We want to dig more deeply into our reading or listening or learning or taking action; we allow emotions to roll over us; we’re eager to talk with others about an idea—we’re even aware of how extraordinary or beautiful those moments are.”

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I urge all teacher to be open to those joyful moments.  Embrace them, make time for them, and realize that within joy lives true engagement, motivation, and life-long learning.

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Books for Teachers:

Mindfulness for Teachers by  Patricia A. Jennings

Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar

Practicing Presence by Lisa J. Lucas

Teach Happier by Sam Rangel

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

Books for Children: 

All My Treasures: A Book of Joy by Jo Witek

Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke

Augustus and His Smile by Catherine Rayner

Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling

Every Little Thing by Bob Marley

Happy by Pharrell Williams

If You’re Happy and You Know it by Jane Cabrera

Joy by Corrinne Averiss

100 Things that Make me Happy by Amy Schwartz

Perfect Square by Michael Hall

Taking a Bath with the Dog: and Other Things that Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

The Jar of Happiness by Alisa Burrows

 

 

 

Seeing Possibility

When I was starting my journey as an elementary classroom teacher, my eyes and ears were trained to search out problems.  Who was having trouble decoding words?  who couldn’t continue to build onto a pattern of shares or numbers?  Which ones had trouble settling down?  How could I help this one distinguish right from left?  How could I help that one learn to tie her shoe?  Of course,  I was a teacher and this was my job – to help – assist –  encourage – nurture.  I focused all my attention on the problems.  What wasn’t yet achieved?

As I gained experience, I relaxed into the role of a careful observer.  I still nurtured students’ nascent talents, but my gaze increasingly became one of possibility.  I was focused not so much on students’ weaknesses – the things they could not yet do.  But rather set my mind and intention to what they could do, what made them motivated, what ignited their passions for learning.  I had several mentors along the way who shared the same belief system.  Carl Anderson approaches writing workshop conferences as opportunities for students to see themselves as writers.  He recommends that during each conferring session, the teacher give the student a glow and grow This consists of giving the student feedback on something in their writing that works wonderfully, and also give a suggestion about their writing that will help them grow.  Katherine Bomer also takes on this stance in her book,  Hidden Gems, she encourages teachers to look for the surprising and fresh writing moves children make instead of focusing on the writers mechanical mistakes.  This growth mindset rings true to me because in my experience more growth and opportunities arise from seeing possibility than from focusing on deficits.

I have been fortunate enough to be teaching for forty years.  And with that amount of experience, I’ve seen young children who couldn’t stand still, had trouble learning to read, had undecipherable handwriting – grow into young adults who were accepted into colleges, including many Ivy League institutions. And later, those young adults became heads of real estate or financial companies, major athletes and artists, and promising entrepreneurs.  They learned to seek paths that played to their strengths and challenged themselves to see beyond their weakness and stay intent on building their strengths.

The very first mentor I encountered in my life was my mother, Vivian.  She was a talented artist, fashion designer, seamstress, and eventually an elementary teacher.  Her creativity and determination became my source of strength in so many areas of my life.  This month marks the fifth anniversary of her death.  I miss her every day.  I recently began reading Barbara Kingslover’s novel, Unsheltered One sentence stood out to me as the main character,  Will Knox, talks about the loss of her mother:  “Really it was her mother she’d wanted to call right after the bad news, or in the middle of it… it had been her mother who put Willa back together.  When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death.  You lost her as you kept living.”  When I read those words, I felt an instant connection to the author.  “Yes,” I thought – “Yes,” that is what it’s like to lose a loving mother.  Time has given me an opportunity to reflect not only on what I have lost, but also on what my mother gave me – all her gifts.  And for that I am so very grateful.

First Teacher

I remember your ruby-red lipstick and dark eyes,                                                                    You were the one who taught me laughter.

I remember the sound of your heartbeat as we cuddled                                                          Cozy together in the wooden rocker,                                                                                               It was you who taught me the power of stories.

I remember your hands pushing and kneading dough                                                              Into a perfect pie crust,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me patience.

I remember your cool cheek on my hot forehead                                                                          It was you who taught me love.

I remember your fingers flashing over fabric:                                                                Folding… pinning… cutting…                                                                                                             It was you who taught me perseverance.

I remember you standing tall,                                                                                                  Bending down close, guiding and reassuring,                                                                              You were the one who taught me kindness.

I remember you dipping into paint,                                                                                      Creating a world of color,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me possibility.

I remember your quiet calm in the face of pain,                                                                          You taught me courage.

I remember your lasting embrace                                                                                                    It was you who taught me acceptance.