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.

Most Likely to Create

Humans are social animals and as such we seek community.  We yearn for communication and understanding.  We want to be seen and most definitely heard. There are all kinds of communities to which I have belonged.  I have been part of a community of quilters, dancers, painters, teachers, cooks, readers, martial artists, and writers. As part of those communities, I was able to build strong bonds with others who shared similar interests and passions.  These alliances deepened my understanding and helped me express my ideas and support my fellow members.  I experienced valuable interactions and connections.  I learned and thrived by being part of all these communities.

As a teacher, I’m a natural collaborator. I enjoy standing back and observing students working in small affinity groups on various projects.  Engagement is the key to empowerment, and I’ve witnessed formerly detached children flourish. In these types of circumstances, children begin to recognize what interests them and learn how to make important contributions to their groups and to their common projects.

Recently I watched the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed created by Ted Dintersmith, a professor of engineering and the author of Most Likely to Succeed and What Schools Could Be. The movie chronicles students from High Tech High in San Diego California, which is a project-based high school. Project-based learning is a method of teaching where students work on a project over a period of time that entails solving real-word problems or answers a complex question.  Students work collaboratively, building skills and knowledge, and ultimately showcasing their project or presentation to a target audience. The movie follows the students through their freshman year.  We watch as students gain more and more confidence and knowledge.  They support each other and develop leadership skills. The year culminates with a school exhibit where students showcase their work be it art, theater, or engineering.  We revel in their successes, but we also get a glimpse of failure.  One student fails to finish his engineering project on time.  However, instead of wallowing in despair, his peers, teachers and family rally around him. He is able to reflect on the reasons he was unable to make the deadline. Clearly this student had a keen innovative mind.  His teachers knew that proper reflection and determination would lead to eventual success.  And they were right.  The student worked through the summer and was ultimately successful. His project was very intricate and displayed a high level of thought and expertise.  By failing, he was able to fail forward and create a complex piece that reflected his vision.

            After watching this film, I saw that there was another documentary with the same title – Most Likely to Succeed directed by Pamela Littky.  This documentary followed four high school seniors who have been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”  The film follows these young adults over a ten-year period following their dreams of college and desires for career success and happiness.  The teenagers come from very different backgrounds and the film accurately portrays the trials and tribulations that arise given gender, race, and socio-economic status.  It is an incredibly powerful film, and I find myself wondering what has happened to those adults.  Viewers cannot help but create a strong connection with the characters, and one has to keep reminding oneself that these are real teenagers, with real problems, and real dreams. It is with community and connection that they are able to successfully navigate their lives and set a stable course.

            I have the honor of supervising my school’s make space called the Wonder Lab.  It is a multi-age community of elementary school girls.  They come voluntarily and work on projects of their choosing.  So often they tell me how important the lab is to them.  So often they beg to stay the whole afternoon.  It is so rewarding to see them take risks and work together; share ideas and challenge each other.  As we return to school this fall, I wonder how I can offer this space to them.  How can we still be a community of movers and makers?  I’m sketching out all types of plans because I know how essential this work is to their development.  I know it’s not just kids playing with duct tape and cardboard.  I know I have inventors, engineers, astronauts, entrepreneurs, artist, actors, musicians in front of me.  I know it is imperative to provide them space and foster community.

Most Likely to Create

Little girls gather

Forfeiting their recess

To spend time in the Wonder Lab,

A spacious room

Filled with light and

All manner of treasures:

Cartons, boxes, tubes,

String, nails, hammers,

Paints, tape, paper,

Wires, beads, gears…

What do you wonder?

What can you create?

Away they go –

The younger ones bound off

And start right away,

The older ones hang back a bit,

Talk together, write down plans.

The young ones have already

Started building with tubes

Taller than themselves.

And decide to begin

The older ones look on

Very carefully,

Very deliberately,

Soon there is a busy hum,

A flow of energy,

We forget the time.

Now older ones praise younger ones,

And younger ones help older ones,

And the quiet girl in the corner

Who builds by herself

Astounds everyone,

And is soon imitated.

They borrow, bend, cut, and paste,

They sketch, paint, and measure,

They lend a hand; they exchange ideas,

They construct a community of makers.