Celebrating Mama

Blaine paintingThis morning one of the first messages  appearing on my iPhone was from a Seed grad, wishing me the “happiest of Earth Days.”  She said she’d be singing “Celebrate Life on Planet Earth” all day.  It was a heart warmer.  Other people have commented, too, some former students, their parents and staff.  Reminders that our work here at the Seed is having an impact on young lives long after they are physically away from the school is more than gratifying.  It also inspires me to want to keep doing the work.

Lately we’ve engaged in conversations about the Seed’s future at both the staff and board levels.  We are in the process of looking back at what we’ve accomplished over the past 37 years and what we want the Seed to look like in the years ahead.  It’s a process filled with mixed emotions and one that will ultimately keep the Seed alive and well for other generations to come.  As these conversations evolve, it’s evident that what we want to keep in place, and even accentuate, are days like Earth Day.  I’m not sure how much time is given to this day in other schools.  Here at the Seed, it’s almost as big as the Celebration of the Winter Solstice or the Halloween Carnival.

Each year we approach it in a slightly different way.  Other years we have made quilts, dedicated a castle on our playground, made posters and picked up trash.  This year the 3rd and 4th graders painted a gigantic Earth on canvas to hang in the front of the school.  Every class also worked on a project as part of an art installation by the front door.  The installation has a tree with origami birds hanging from it, rain drops and a rainbow made of different colors of paper wrapped around sunflower stalks from the garden, a real compost pile surrounded with clay earthworms and a chart explaining why composting is important, and some cardboard flowers hung on the fence.  There is also a box of dirt filled with sweet little sock creatures that we’re hoping, with a bit of sunshine and and water, will eventually sprout grass hair.  And there is a bright warm sun, paper machéd by our very youngest toddler Seeds.

Soon we will gather to sing and share our Earth Day projects with each other before heading out to the playground for an all-school picnic.  Although we try to make every day Earth Day, I’m glad we have set aside this day to truly honor our planet.  It sets a foundation for our young students to know how to care for the Earth, and reminds the rest of us to keep up our global stewardship through every thought and action of our lives.  Our planet’s future depends on it.

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Look for the Good

Tibetan cloudsI’d hoped for a breathtaking photo of Tuesday morning’s complete eclipse of the full moon.  Unfortunately, iPhone cameras aren’t so effective for photographing the moon, eclipsed or not.  Especially if the photographer is extremely sleepy.  I lasted about five minutes gazing at the blood moon before crawling back into bed.  It was awe inspiring nevertheless.  It left me curious, though, about why the moon appeared red and what is so significant about this astronomical event.  As it turns out, there will be three more of these, six months apart.  http://www.space.com/25250-a-tetrad-of-lunar-eclipses-starts-in-april-video.html  Nature never fails to amaze me.  It often shifts how I am feeling and, especially during challenging times, reminds me to look for the good.

A few weeks ago I walked at dusk after a hard day.  Walking allows me to shed the stress and worries of day to day life as the director of a school.  On this particular evening, I looked up at the clouds and saw a most unusual pattern.  The cloud formation resembled waves and stayed that way for nearly 20 minutes.  They looked somewhat like the waves in traditional Tibetan paintings.  Just seeing the clouds that way caused me to pause, breathe deeply, and feel my inner self shift back into balance.  The beauty of the clouds brought me back to seeing the goodness in my world.

Recently I was talking with my yoga teacher about this.  She mentioned the word shri, a Sanskrit word literally meaning “beauty, fortune, venerable one.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/Shri)  In the yoga world, shri means splendor, the light that shines from the sun and one’s eyes, as well as an agreement that there is always more and life is inherently positive.  As our conversation continued, she added a new word to my experience of shri, wildness.  In the wildness of nature, be it the clouds, the way a hummingbird hovers right before your eyes, or the light of the twilight sky, there is frequently an auspicious feeling.  In these times of being present to nature we are stopped in our tracks.  Everything else fades away momentarily.  This is shri.

This past week with a lunar eclipse, full moon and Mars line-up seems to have intensified life on many levels.  Sometimes it feels like a whole lot to hold together.  Remembering shri, as I take deep breaths on morning walks or at my desk at school, nudges me back to the practice of looking for the good.  It helps me reconnect with life’s wildness, and my own, making each life experience worthwhile.

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A Simple Stool

twos stoolI started the week planning to write about this simple stool, a beautiful wooden step stool hand painted by the Toddler 2s and their teachers.  It has tiny thumb and finger prints embellished to appear like insects.  The stool rests prominently on the table of items displayed for the Seed art silent auction, which reaches its finale on Saturday afternoon at the Seed picnic.  Given the bidding war going on for that little green stool, it will no doubt be a dramatic finale.

As I considered writing about the stool, I also thought of writing about a few other items, including two paper maché guitars, a wooden box filled with wooden planets, a quilt, a clay alphabet and a teapot bird house.  Quite an eclectic assemblage added to more traditionally framed art.  The thing is, though, my mind has been elsewhere.  If I could describe my week in one word, it would be Photoshop.

Over the years, I’ve been minimally involved in the yearbook production.  For years we had an exceptionally talented parent who did a good portion of the work, supported by a few staff members and other parents.  The yearbook was a piece of art, well documenting each school year.  All that shifted last year as the yearbook went through a major change.  We had to find a way to produce it as simply and inexpensively as possible.  Using a website called Mixbooks, another talented parent not only gave lots of her time for last year’s yearbook, but left us with an excellent template.

I didn’t sign up for the committee, although somewhere along the way I landed on it.  I think I offered to do some of the backgrounds, bowed out when I found out we had a Photoshop-worthy parent on board, then ended up working on a few after all.  I’ve wrestled with Photoshop for years.  My skills were limited at best.  After checking out a few YouTube videos, however, something clicked and before I knew it, my week was overtaken by Photoshop.  It was a high learning curve kind of week, and also a fun one.  I love learning new skills, especially when art is involved.  The most enjoyable part, though, was the collaboration with such talented and hard working people.  Just another reminder of the concentrated pool of creative people staffing the Seed.  Of course, that’s obvious when you check out the collection of art for this year’s auction, little green step stool included.


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Oh, Rats!

TempletonOn April Fool’s Day I scurried around my house, trying to get out the door in time to be at school by 7:30.  It was lice check day, and I didn’t want to let down Team Lice Check.  Besides, being April Fool’s Day, it was a great opportunity to trick the older kids into thinking they might have lice. Knowing I was down to the wire, I went into my study to close the blinds.  As my hand reached to pull the cord, I glanced out into the garden and noticed a rat hustling across the dirt.  Seriously, a rat?  No fooling, there was a rat in our back yard.  In no time I realized what it was after—the fresh cut sunflower heads loaded with seeds.   The rat hung around for awhile, nibbling on seeds long enough for me to catch a few photos.  Then we both hurried off into our days.

I thought about that rat all day.  My granddaughter, who recently owned three rats, thought it was funny.  Other people were more on the horrified side, finding it hard to imagine having a rat in their back yard.  I’m still not sure how I feel about it.  Our garden has always been creature-friendly.  Quail families frequent our lantana bushes during nesting season.  Hummingbirds, roadrunners, bees, ladybugs and varieties of lizards feel welcome among the rocks and vegetables of our back yard.  We’ve known for awhile that someone furry and brown was living under the lavender plants and I’ve always assumed it was a little mouse.  No problem.  So why does a rat trigger such a different response as it runs among the onions on its way to a breakfast of sunflower seeds?

These questions come up quite often as I pull weeds, uncover scorpions and think about the gophers that frequent the Seed.  I think about the fine line between plants or creatures that are desirable and those that aren’t.  Some have reputations which precede them, but how do I know for sure that the rat in our backyard isn’t helping out another creature like Templeton helped Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web?

As the week unfolded, I thought of my rat writing.  I wasn’t sure where the words were headed.  I felt like something was missing in my thinking.  This morning I received a message from a site that sends out daily inspirational quotes with a commentary.  Today’s read like this:  “A plant is a weed only within a certain context; one person’s weed is another person’s wildflower.”  The commentary referred to a weed as a plant that grows where it is unwanted.  When I read the word “unwanted,” I thought of the rat.  It wasn’t doing anything wrong, just looking for food.  It didn’t know it was in a garden cultivated by humans.  It was just hungry.  If the rat shows up again, I’d be willing to share a few more sunflower seeds with one furry brown rodent.  If there is a next time, though, I just hope he or she won’t be accompanied by an extended family.  That could be a problem.

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Thin Places

light wallThis post is not about dieting.  Nor is it about body types or places where slender people reside.  It’s about places where we have access to light in a different way.  I first ran across the term “thin places” when I began studying the work of John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet and philosopher.  According to Celtic philosophy, there are places on earth where the “veil” between the seen and unseen world is thinner than other places, where a sense of sacredness is more present.  The poet Sharland Sledge describes it this way:

‘Thin places’ the Celts call this space
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between this world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side. 

I noticed one of these thin places on our playground a few weeks ago.  It was late afternoon as I observed light shining through glass blocks in the wall separating the K-1 and 3rd/4th graders’ outdoor areas.  It was a breathtaking moment and everything else around me seems to slide away.  I felt a strong sense of peace and a deep gratitude for this moment of interplay between glass and light.   The way I felt reminded me of “thin places.”  It set off both an inquiry and investigation into what this term means and how it applies to life here at the Seed.

In a photo essay by Sarah Blanton (http://www.onbeing.org/blog/thin-places-and-the-transforming-presence-of-beauty/6180), she describes the lake of her childhood as her “thin place.”  She writes of its constant invitations for reflection, a place that “pulls me out of the shallow fray of my frantic life to rest in a centered awareness.”  John O’Donohue refers to these places as thresholds.  Eric Weiner, in his New York Times travel section article (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?_r=0), asks what exactly makes a place thin.  He says it’s sometimes easier to say what it isn’t, rather than what it is.  He goes on to explain, “Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

Although much of everyday life at the Seed is anything but relaxing and tranquil, we do have our thin places.  I remember a time in the summer of 1999 when we were under construction, ready to make the move to our new location on 40th Street.  It was monsoon season and our playground had no grass, just contoured dirt hills and a huge body of rain water.  That summer Bill and I took a 13-hour vacation.  The rest of it was working on the building.  I missed my annual trek to Minnesota and at sunset one evening sat on a dirt hill, watching visiting ducks enjoy their water play.  It was as close to Minnesota as I knew I’d be that year.  Nevertheless, it felt like a sacred time in a sacred place, connected to a sacred mission, the Seed.  I hadn’t heard of “thin places” then and I am pretty sure it was one, fleeting as it was.

Gwen’s Castle (http://www.awakeningseedschool.org/2011/04/a-castle-for-gwen/) is another thin place.  Amidst the constant activity of children playing, it asks us to pause and appreciate the preciousness of life.  Whenever I go out there, either supervising children or giving tours of the school, I remember how lucky I am to be a part of all this.  It’s work that is rife with thin places, visible when our hearts are open and our practices are in alignment with what’s best for children and our planet.


Sand Kitchen

seed kitchenAt last, the Seed has a real kitchen.  Ever since the school started in 1977, prospective parents have asked how we do lunches.  They want to know if they’ll need to provide their child’s lunch or if we have a regulation size kitchen to prepare nutritious food.  Until a few days ago, I’ve always said we have just a basic kitchen, not a commercial one.  Now I have a different answer.  A spring break project by Bill and Richard (Bill’s maintenance assistant) changed the course of Seed cooking in a big way.

Several months ago, the staff considered ways to enhance the playground to invite more imaginative play, including creating a “kitchen” to expand creativity.  I found a few prototypes on Pinterest and sent them off to Bill for inspiration.  A trip to the Goodwill and the hardware store later, plus many hours, and we now have a delightful, inviting kitchen.  Equipped with an oven (front door removed), a work station with hooks for hanging utensils, and a table with log seats, it was open and ready for business on the first day back from spring break.  At lunch time, pots were already bubbling over with sandy deliciousness.  Children sat at the work counter, deep in discussion as they worked.  What I appreciated was how 15-20 children could be in the area involved in a variety of ways, and there was plenty of room for all.  Some were cooking, others were “eating” their concoctions and others were just hanging out with friends.

The addition of our sand kitchen to the Seed playground opens several doors.  It gives the kids a new area to explore and exchange ideas with friends.  It’s a place where they can work out social interactions, solve conflicts and find acceptance.  They can practice communicating with their peers, testing out their ideas.  It’s one more activity option on an already vast space of possibility.  The kitchen also gives kids the message that food is important around the Seed and they are a part of it.  It’s a way to help link children to their future lives with food.

Around the time the sand kitchen was constructed, I received a link to a 2014 TED talk given in New York by one of our Seed dads, Matthew Moore.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cqe_5C5yQJU&feature=youtu.be  Matt’s talk is about his family farm in Surprise, Arizona.  It’s about the encroachment of suburbia on his farmland and his belief in the importance of his sons knowing what it means to be a farmer.  Through the art of digital recordings of plant life cycles and installations that bring these recordings to the public, the wonderment of growing food is communicated.  The intent of his art and the curriculum his organization, the Digital Farm Collective (http://digitalfarmcollective.org), has created is to inspire kids to be engaged in the growing process and appreciate its beauty.

Although the sand kitchen and Matt’s talk might initially seem unrelated, the more I think about them, the more I see how they work together.  They are each an attempt to reach out to children, to help them make connections between their actions with the earth’s and their own futures.  For whether they are witnessing the life cycle of a squash plant or practicing cooking with sand, they are receiving the message that what children think about and choose to do matters.  As they continue to integrate such messages into their minds through creative play, I’m certain they’ll make choices that will heal the earth and bring wholeness to their lives.  It’s a lesson that’s never too early to start learning.


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Tacos and Tasty Texts

paper tacosBook fair week is more than selling books. Over the years it’s turned into a solid Seed tradition that somehow gets better every year. It’s a community event that brings people together, supports literacy and has become a rite of passage into spring. Coordinated by our hard working APA team and supported by staff, thoughtfulness goes into all aspects of the planning and implementation of our book fair. Word on the street has it that ours is one of the more successful fairs, surprising to some because we are a small school. It’s not surprising to me, given all the preparation that happens prior to and during the week.

Book selection is important and the committee monitors the quality of books that fill the shelves. There’s a good blend of children’s favorite authors such as Mo Willems, J. K Rowling and Lane Smith. Favorite characters can also be found on the shelves, book friends like Clifford, Skippyjon Jones, Big Nate and Pete the Cat. Collections of annual world records are always popular, as well as do-it-yourself science books. There’s always a selection of pop culture books and those based on recent movies. Now the book fair even has an online shopping option for shoppers who can’t make it to the school. It’s a far cry from my childhood days in elementary school when we waited with huge anticipation for the our monthly orders to arrive in the mail.

As I said, though, it’s not just about the books. Each year there is a predetermined theme, which we respond to in our Seed-like way. This year’s is FIESTA. All classes and the after school program make decorations, which take on a life of their own. Among this year’s creations are flour and salt dough chiles, paper bowl suns, and (my favorite of the year) a plate of paper tacos garnished with shredded paper cheese. Decorations hang at the book fair entrance for ambience enhancement. They also serve as a lead-in to the culminating event, the Thursday family night.

Besides being fun to come to the Seed at night, it’s the last opportunity to purchase books while children are engaged in a variety of activities. This year’s fiesta line-up is sure to surpass anything offered before. For a starter, there will be a piñata on the patio along with Mexican music and macarena dance moves.  For the crafty at heart, children can decorate maracas and make a paper sombrero in the hallways. You can come dressed in your finest fiesta attire and have your picture taken with “Cliffardo.” Salsa and chips will be served to curb appetites generated from estimating tortillas, rolling up in a life-size burrito or dancing on the toddler playground. The grande finale will include poster and prize give-aways and breaking the piñata.

In the coming weeks, after book cases have been loaded up and returned to the warehouse to prep for other book fairs, our students will enjoy their new classroom texts. Studies will be enhanced by new books and bedtime stories will likely include books from this year’s collection. It’s good to know that such an enjoyable week will also have a far reaching impact in the literary lives of our Awakening Seeds.

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Beauty in a Bedspring Fence

canal fenceOne of the fences along the canal where I walk is a work of art.  In its own way, it’s beautiful.  In addition to the under layer of wood, it includes various types of wire fencing, a rusty panel that looks like it may have been a sign at one time, some corrugated metal sheeting, and, my favorite, an old bedspring.  The whole arrangement is wired together and propped up by a large section of wood that could hold up a ceiling.  I love its textures and the reusing of such a variety  of materials.

In some ways, this fence is a fitting metaphor for life.  We each have our underlying self that we carry with us from childhood into adulthood.  Layers of experiences, like the metal sheeting, are added on, held together by the lessons we learn along the way.  There are relationships that come and go, and those that stay with us for a long time.  Some take on different expressions, similar to the repurposed sign with its strata of rust and old paint.  And parts of our lives are like the discarded bedsprings, intended originally for one use, ending up serving a completely different function in the end.

Everything in this fence is worn out.  Each part of it isn’t particularly spectacular alone, yet when the pieces are assembled as they are, it becomes a work of art.  It’s the way life has shaped each piece that makes the whole assemblage work, and makes it interesting.  I believe that is true of our life  relationships as well.  When we go through challenges together, face hardships and share celebrations, we grow.  Our relationships take on a quality of beauty, just like the fence.  The late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, expressed it this way in his book Anam Cara:

“Every friendship travels at sometime through the black valley of despair. This tests every aspect of your affection. You lose the attraction and the magic. Your sense of each other darkens and your presence is sore. If you can come through this time, it can purify with your love, and falsity and need will fall away. It will bring you onto new ground where affection can grow again.”

Arriving at new ground is not easy.  As adults it’s often a matter of overcoming patterns of behavior engrained in us for our whole lives.  Learning to speak our truth, for example, is not something that comes naturally for most of us.  We struggle with speaking up because we haven’t practiced it enough.  Yet when we work with children on a daily basis reminding them to use their words, we, too, are asked to practice using ours.  One huge lesson I’ve learned from helping children speak up is that the more we practice, the better we get at it.  And each time we allow our voices to be heard, it opens a new space between us and the person with whom we’ve expressed our thoughts and feelings.  When we show another person that we love them enough to take a risk in order to care for ourselves (and them), it makes a space where wonderful experiences can grow.

As we navigate our way through days and years of all kinds of relationships, our lives do become seasoned like the fence made of reused materials; weathered and worn, yet arranged in a way that exudes intricate beauty if we pause a moment to see it that way.


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Looking at a Menu

owl pellet menuI’d like to clear something up.  The emergent curriculum is not a haphazard process.  It’s a well respected, research-based approach to authentic learning.  The emergent curriculum is generally known for taking into account the interests of children and teachers, developmental tasks, things and people in the environment, unexpected events, and matters that arise from living among other human beings.  While it’s often applied in early childhood classrooms , it’s a framework for learning that also works with older kids (http://elsci.coe.nau.edu/docs/mmeredithpaper.pdf).  We use the Common Core as the foundation of our Seed elementary curriculum (in our state they’re referred to as Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, http://www.azed.gov/azccrs/).  One benefit of the standards is that they allow flexibility for how to teach each item.  The emergent curriculum is a perfect fit, especially given our creative and innovative teachers.  I landed right in the middle of a wonderful example that “emerged” in the 3rd/4th grade class recently.

Each Wednesday I spend an hour teaching poetry writing to the 3rd/4th grade students.  Our recent focus has been on crafting animal poems, using research facts gathered as part of a bigger study of Arizona.  As I dug deeper, I learned that students are working in teams to write and illustrate informational books about their chosen Arizona animal for several other classrooms, an idea that evolved from a class discussion.  In preparation for this project (and to meet several standards, including W. 4. 4  “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development and organization are appropriate to task, purpose and audience”), students used books, charts and websites to gather their information.  They had to consider their audience as they created and published age-appropriate texts about their chosen animals.

The poems were an offshoot of this writing.  I invited students to help me brainstorm a list of ideas for a poem I’m writing about an early-morning owl encounter.  Following our collaborative list, I suggested they repeat the process with their animal facts, paying close attention to any surprises that arose.  What emerged and is still emerging is full of surprise.  One student in his yet-to-be-named poem came up with these lines about an owl pellet:

“As the owl swoops down to
catch the fleeing rodent in her razor
talons, she brings it up to her nest
to feast.
Two days later she coughs the bones up.
As we hike by a pond in
Chauncy Ranch, we find the pellets
and as we dissect them I realize
that I’m looking at a menu.”

Poems from the rest of these smart, creative children are still forthcoming.  As their emergent curriculum immerses them further into using the menu of Webquest (www.kidwings.com/owlpellets/flash/v4/index.htm) to dissect a virtual owl pellet and eventually an actual one, I am certain their plates will continue to be full of words, questions and explorations selected from the menus of their imaginations.  Their curiosity and this unique opportunity for learning to follow their interests will serve them well as they grow into the responsible, caring adults we know they will be.

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A Happy Snake

Mindy's snakeOver the weekend a snake slithered into the Seed.  Somewhere between parent/teacher conferences and early Monday morning, the snake, a new digging spot, pots and pans mounted on the fence and a log meeting circle appeared in the Preschool 2.5/3s’ outdoor  area.  In a short time, the space was transformed into an inviting dirt-floored classroom.  Weeds were removed and individual spaces for specific activities were designated by adobe blocks.  It was a happy surprise.

When I went to check out the children in action in their new space, there was activity in every area.  One child sat by herself happily in the middle of the coiled green snake.  Several children played in the shady corner where the log circle is, the same place where they later had Spanish outdoors.  A curly-haired boy was busily digging under the tree where all the trucks and construction toys were lined up.  Three others attended to the garden, one with a hose and the other two digging up mud.  A proud girl excitedly shared her freshly picked green pea, first in her hand and then partially chewed in her mouth.  Everyone was engaged, delighted, happy.  Throughout the day, teachers, parents and other classes stopped by to see the new space,  offering praise and congratulations.  The snake and its new environment provided a sweet beginning for the new week.

In my writing about the school, I try not to single out individual teachers or children, to keep things fair and equal as much as possible.  Everyone works hard every day.  We work as a team.  While different staff members step to the forefront from time to time, most prefer to do their work with as little attention as possible drawn to themselves.  It’s all about the children and providing them with the best educational experience possible.  In fact, that’s what the arrival of the snake was all about.  That said, I also think it’s important to acknowledge greatness, especially when it’s done with such humility.

As I caught my first glimpse of the happy snake in its new place, I saw much more than the physical results.  I witnessed a teacher’s vision of what her students needed to extend their learning.  I saw an invitation to experience the natural world with a few new props in order to deepen the relationship with the earth.  I noticed a commitment to teaching that goes beyond meeting minimum requirements of lesson planning and showing up for each day.  And I observed a teacher’s passion for her life work, an expression of love for the children in her care.  On behalf of us all, I want to thank Mindy for her artistic creation of such a beautiful, inspiring space in which her students can be with each other and the natural world.  This kind of work, done without being asked and without fanfare, is what sets our Seed teachers apart.  I won’t be surprised if other happy snakes appear around the school in the very near future.

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