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.

Simple Gifts: Balloons, Fox Traps, and Marvelous Medicine

At this time of Thanksgiving, I want to pause and reflect upon the simple gifts for which I am grateful.  When I think back, I realize that my grateful moments revolve around books and children.  For the last forty-two years, I have been so fortunate to build my life around serving children and celebrating stories. This year has been especially critical because my school has had in-person learning five days a week with some students learning remotely. We have been in school for about 40 days and we feel a sense of accomplishment.  This past week, both students and teachers were seeking a way to celebrate, to sit back a bit, and have some fun.  It has been an uphill task this fall to muster fun behind masks, plexiglass and gallons of hand sanitizer. But we are all so grateful to be together.  Humans are social creatures, and it is essential that we share.

I am an English Language Arts Curriculum Coordinator.  That title sounds a bit stuffy and boring.  However, my job is anything but ordinary.  Every day is a truly new adventure.  Every day is an opportunity to learn from children.  Every day is filled with problem-solving and creativity.  I love visiting our elementary classes, observing literacy lessons, and then letting my mind loose – thinking of ways to extend learning.   Here are three classroom adventures that unfolded this week.

The 2nd grade read Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet about the puppeteer, Tony Sarg, who created the first balloons for the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City.  Sweet’s illustrations are phenomenal.  They inspire children to draw and design.  Over the years, this project grew from drawing paper balloons to coding robots that would carry actual decorated balloons through a replica of the parade route.  Since it would not be possible in this time of social distancing, we went back to the idea of making paper balloons that students could easily take home.  However, I wanted to make the balloons three-dimensional.  That’s when my early childhood teacher-mind kicked in.  I took a small brown paper lunch bag, stuffed it with strips of newsprint and then inserted a twelve-inch dowel, taped the bag securely around the dowel and added a colorful ribbon.  I now had my balloon base. Then I took construction paper and quickly cut out a turkey shape.  I glued the turkey onto the paper bag balloon and voila, a Thanksgiving balloon was born!  The project was ready to be launched.

When I walked down the hallway and entered one of the 2nd grade classrooms, the children called out my name and started to clap.  All of them.  For several minutes.  Without stopping.  Let me say that 2nd graders are really good for bolstering my sense of self! If you ever find yourself in a doubting mood, find a 2nd grader and she will reassure you that all is right with you and the world. Shortly after I arrived, the children quickly got to work.  The room was soon quiet with creating.  When I looked out into that small sea of intent faces, I was reminded that children’s work is important and that, above all, creativity matters.

The following day, I worked with 3rd graders who just completed a Roald Dahl study.  One class read Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Their teacher and I prepared an engineering activity where the students needed to design a humane trap to catch Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I made a kit for each student which included cardboard, tape, string, pipe cleaners, straws, popsicle sticks, paper towel rolls, and fabric. What was fascinating about this project was that even though every student was given the same materials, each trap was different, proving that every mind is capable of unique and wondrous things!  For homework, the children created short videos of their traps explaining how they worked and what design problems they encountered on the way, and how they re-designed their trap.  Critical and creative thinking were evident.  The students took ownership and pride in their constructions.

The other 3rd grade class had read George’s Marvelous Medicine, and I decided to have students create a class concoction. As I arrived and peered through the classroom door, one child whispered, “She’s here!,” and the others started bouncing up and down, reminding me again that I am so grateful for the role I play at my school. The night before, I had gone to the supermarket to gather edible ingredients, though the children would not be tasting our concoction.  In the story, George’s medicine is made from toothpaste, hair tonic, and all sorts of gruesome ingredients from Dahl’s wicked imagination.  Our class ingredient included: pink Himalayan salt, blue Gatorade, grape juice, Karo syrup, Golden Syrup, mustard powder, beet juice, sugar cubes, chocolate syrup, and pink peppercorns. I selected items that would be edible, but interesting. Once the students were seated, I showed them all the ingredients.  Each student got a chance to select an ingredient and decide the amount to put into our concoction.  As we created our marvelous medicine, I wrote the recipe on the black board, and the children had their own recipe templates to fill in and take home.  Once we created the medicine, I poured the concoction into small plastic bottles, one for each girl. Meanwhile, the girls named their medicine, wrote directions on how to take it, and explained what the medicine would do.  Their ideas were wild and brilliant.  It was truly inspiring to see their level of engagement.

And so balloon, fox traps, and marvelous medicine are indeed very simple things.  Things that, at first glance, are of no significant consequence.  But it is precisely these simple things and the time spent with children for which I am profoundly grateful.