Writers Alive and Well

boywritersWe write, too.  With all the recent buzz over STEAM, it  could be easy to overlook the excellent writing going on here at the Seed.  We have first and second graders writing persuasive letters.  One of the second graders wrote a letter to Bill requesting a zip line at the Seed:  “I think we should have zip lines in our outside area.  If we install zip lines, more kids will want to come to our school.  I believe this because a lot of kids I know like zip lines.  It would give us more to do outside and you wouldn’t have to buy so many supplies.  I know you worry about safety so in order to keep everyone safe, the zip lines can have seats and we will put mats under us.  I know a lot of kids would agree that we should have zip lines.”  After signing her name, she added, “P. S.  Pretty please, at least one?”

This week during a lesson about simile and metaphor, one of the third graders shared his metaphor about night:  “Night is a version of light but instead is all out.  The sky turns dark.  And the whole world goes black.  No one can see because it’s so dark.  People look for their families.  Some are lost, gone in the dark.”  My jaw dropped on this one.  In the last couple weeks I’ve seen signs of significant growth in this group that started out as fledgling poets.   They are among many young poets I’ve taught during my teaching career.

Two of those young poets, one in high school, the other a graduate of Duke University, have resurfaced through messages from their parents.  The high school student, Shelby Weathers, was chosen to represent her school in a weekend regional Poetry Out Loud spoken word competition.  The college graduate, Alyssa Wong, is a writer and editor living in New York.  Her short story, “The Fisher Queen,” was just announced by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as a nominee for the 2014 Nebula Awards (http://www.sfwa.org/2015/02/2014-nebula-awards-nominees-announced/).  It’s quite a story (FYI, it contains adult themes and language, not for kids).  In the email from her dad, he added, “Isn’t it amazing that the creativity that the Seed inspired a short time ago has come to fruition?”  I couldn’t agree more.

While searching through my Seed poetry archives, I found a poem Alyssa wrote in second grade.  Already, at age seven, she had the touch.  I’m certain she will not be alone among future writers from our school whose Seed roots travel far and deep.  Here is her poem, “The Secret Partners”:

The Secret Partners
Alyssa Wong, age 7

The Wind Lady
you can’t see her
but when the wind blows
you know that she is there
right behind you
blowing your hair
sending soft winds
and stormy winds
to all of the earth

The Lily Lady
is the one
who brings the sweet
fragrant smelling flowers
each spring day
and the one who
brings the seeds
to the Wind Lady
saying these need to be
spread for all will learn
a lesson from them
and that lesson
has remained a secret
to our lives

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In Celebration of Scientists

convention visitorsThere are few moments in my career as the Seed director that I‘ve felt prouder of our staff and students than I did on Wednesday.  We tried something new and the response was overwhelmingly favorable.  For nearly a whole school year, we’ve worked together to make the STEAM curriculum our own.  From the tiniest hands of our Toddler 1s to researched inventors creatively displayed by the 3rd/4th graders, our Invention Convention was a celebration of much more than a science curriculum.

Each teacher thoughtfully created a display of STEAM projects and studies conducted thus far this year.  All of the iPads were put to use with videos and slideshows of other classroom activities.  Our Wednesday morning Lego Club, taught by a volunteer parent, even had a table full of excellent construction projects.  We also had a classroom set up, designated as the “exploratorium,” full of building equipment for budding engineers to demonstrate their skills.  Each teacher was stationed near  her display table as children and parents filed by, taking in the significance of each class’s learning.  There was a sense of respect for and honoring of the work, with families taking their time to soak it all in.

The work itself and how it was documented was impressive, as well as the parents’ appreciation of it.  The children’s pride in telling about what they’d done also filled the room.  What I found myself drawn to as the event unfolded, however, was the teachers themselves.  I noticed how they leaned in to conversations with children, how they squatted down to a child’s level to interact and listen.  I saw enthusiasm for rocks, gardening, games and colors.  Some stood back slightly, thoughtfully answering questions or inserting bits of wisdom.  Others actively engaged with children as they tested catapults, tried out marble runs and excavated specimens from rocks.  It was a beautiful combination of kindness, creativity and deep thoughtfulness.

As the event came to a close and we all commented what a success it was, I reflected on the process that brought us to this day.  In many respects, it seemed easy to put together the Invention Convention.  It was a culmination of work that has been going on all year.  Everyone has been diligent about photographing their work and we’ve been talking about STEAM since the first week of school.  The sense of ease rested on a foundation of critical thinking, creative expression and thoughtful problem solving.  These are all qualities we strive to pass on to our students, qualities that will prepare them significantly for their future lives.  There is power in this kind of authenticity and I’m delighted that so many were able to experience it through our first Invention Convention.

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Fearless Creativity

fearless paintersThe Seed is bursting with creativity these days, fearless creativity.  The 1st/2nd graders have been honing their skills as makers of marble runs and the PreK students are cooking up all kinds of new concoctions in their recently renovated outdoor kitchen.  The Toddler 1s, in their study of hands, have produced watercolor replicas of their own hands that are breathtaking.  Teachers are enthusiastically preparing for next week’s Invention Convention.  The arrival of this quote from Seth Godin couldn’t have been more timely:   “The enemy of creativity…is fear.  We’re all born creative, it takes a little while to become afraid.  A surprising insight: an enemy of fear is creativity. Acting in a creative way generates action, and action persuades the fear to lighten up.”

I’ve said for many years that we work in possibilities at the Seed.  Working this way requires fearlessness, because often there is no well traveled path ahead.  We are constantly observing and listening to children, inviting them to guide us in the direction our work is calling us.  We pay attention to their academic and cognitive needs, developing materials and lessons to teach necessary skills.  We teach them to read and write, to care about doing their best.  Our practice is not just to prepare them to do well on tests; instead, we teach them to love learning.  Someone once said that this kind of teaching is preparing children for the marathon of life, not a series of short sprints.  We are in it for the long run, which includes much more than academics.  Children at the Seed are encouraged to express themselves verbally, physically and creatively.  They learn how to be with each other in ways that promote healthy relationships.  Learning how to make good choices is high on our priority list.  We want them to see how they fit into the big picture of life and that their presence on Planet Earth makes a difference.

A parent sent me an article this week that describes truths about education that keep getting ignored (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/20/ten-obvious-truths-about-educating-kids-that-keep-getting-ignored/).  The original article was written by Alfie Kohn, in my opinion one of our greatest contemporary pedagogical thinkers.  Among the ten truths, he mentions these points:

• we want children to develop in many ways, not just academically
• just knowing a lot of facts doesn’t mean you’re smart
• students are more likely to learn what they find interesting
• students are less interested in whatever they’re forced to do and more
enthusiastic when they have some say
• students are more likely to succeed in a place where they feel known and
cared about

Of all his truths, the last one stands out the most.  I know we do this well and it’s how we help children learn to be fearlessly creative.  If you want a glimpse of how it happens, check this out:  http://vimeo.com/119309548

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Gallery under Construction

IMG_3358The Seed has a gallery in the making.  It was an idea born in August before school started.  It’s weathered several transitions and is finally taking shape.  If you look closely, you’ll see some of the shelves backdropped by splattery paintings.  Lined up side by side are handmade “snow globes” with a photo of a child in each one.  Shake them, and the glitter flutters to the bottom.  On the next shelf over are artifacts from “Candy Village,” a pre-holiday project made from Halloween candy leftovers.  The candy projects were made by groups of kids, all of whom drew blueprints prior to constructing their masterpieces.  Photographs of the artists, as well as the constructions themselves, are proudly displayed.

Moving to the next shelf, a collection of small clay sculptures, all painted white, attracts onlookers’ eyes.  Some resemble snowmen and others are more abstract.  A few have thin wooden sticks poking up from them.  One solitary sign that says “anonymous” lets us know that these were most likely the unclaimed remaining works of art nobody took home.  On the back of the leftover sculpture shelf is a collection of photos of children using PVC pipes connected to make indoor hockey sticks.  One child’s construction resembled a push broom.  I expect there will be more such photos of the many items created that fall in the “ephemeral art” category.  Marble runs, block ramps, Lincoln log buildings and railroad tracks will be among the groups photographed and not displayed.  They make up the bulk of constructed works in the multi, projects that are more process than product.   Cardboard bases will soon be available to showcase some of these “process” projects for temporary display.

What I love about the gallery (named KIOS, Kids in After School), and the approach to art the after school staff is taking this year, is that it’s an evolving project.  It’s challenging to meet the needs of children ages 3-10 through one daily project, so many of the projects have multiple stages.  Younger students can keep theirs simple and older ones have the freedom to add complexity to theirs over time.  There is also a strong effort to embed qualities of STEAM lessons into after school art.  In the days ahead a tree house project is on the drawing board, which will be another group project that will require a child-generated plan before diving into the materials.  Having been a tree house kid as a child, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.  I’m guessing you’ll hear about this project again before the year is over.

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Invention Convention

Kinder KarsOne of the best parts of working at the Seed is curriculum planning.  It’s been especially enjoyable this year with the addition of STEAM to our already creative approach to education.  We’ve always had a good handle on the arts, so integrating science, technology, engineering and math in a more intentional way wasn’t all that much of a stretch.  What I love about this year is how the staff has embraced the approach wholeheartedly, beginning with the toddlers all the way through the 3rd/4th graders.  Each class has its own expression, all with equal passion.  There’s so much enthusiasm for this work that we also decided to make it the focus of our summer arts camp, which we’re calling “Gathering STEAM.”

The summer program, from an arts perspective, will offer six weeks of science, technology, engineering and math.  Here are the weekly topics the teachers brainstormed a few weeks ago:
• Shapes, Colors and Patterns
• Potions and Mixtures
• Skyscrapers and Habitats
• Water Ways
• Tinker Thinkers
• Shadows and Light

My favorite aspect of the process is the way the general structure emerges, yet leaving plenty of space and freedom for individual teachers to express their specific interests and/or grade level needs.  We work from a solid foundation of best practices for children, then allow it to come forth organically.  When one teacher shares an idea, others offer encouragement and additional ideas from which to spin off.  As ideas are generated, teachers have strong ownership of the process.  This is the way we’ve worked on the STEAM curriculum, and will continue to in the future.

All year we’ve created hallway displays, written blogs and shared images of this work on the Seed’s Facebook page.  It’s important to us that you see and know what we’re doing.  We want you to witness STEAM in action.  On Wednesday, February 18, from 3:15 to 5 P. M. we’re hosting our first annual Invention Convention.  Each class will have a table display of individual classroom projects.  We’ll have the 3rd/4th grade classroom open as our “exploratorium” where children will have access to materials and equipment to demonstrate their skills as scientists, engineers and mathematicians.  The event will be set up so children ages three and older can be tour guides for their parents.  We invite you to check it out and catch a first-hand glimpse of STEAM at the Seed.  I’m certain you’ll be impressed.

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Tag, You’re It!

tagsOn January 1st, I started a yearlong art course.  Once a week, for 52 weeks, I will receive an online lesson to play around with and practice.  The second week I learned how to make altered tags, which has turned out to be a whole lot of fun.  I keep thinking of different ways to use my previous art and blend it into something new.  I also ask myself, what do the tags have to do with anything related to school?

Wednesday morning our dear friend, Elsie Moore, came to the Seed to tell her stories of growing up in rural Virginia during the Civil Rights Movement.  For an hour we heard recollections of her experiences, both as a young child and as a teenager, how she lived through and came to understand the complexities of racial issues of the times.  Her life required considerable courage.  With the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, her father spoke to her about which child in the family might be the best one to begin integrating the schools.  Elsie, about to begin high school, volunteered to go.  It was a “tag, you’re it” kind of moment.  Changes in the law required follow-up action.  Elsie, with encouragement from her father, tagged herself to be one of the many children who changed the course of American history.

Listening to Elsie speak and gracefully field questions from her young audience (even the ones about how old she is), I felt another moment of being “tagged.”  This time it was all of us at the Seed, both teachers and students.  We were given the gift of her stories, and now it’s our turn to make them life lessons and pass on the wisdom to the next generation.  It  is simultaneously an honor and a daunting task.  Yes, we’ve made progress with human rights, and there’s still so much more to do.

Later in the day, after Elsie left the Seed to return to her ASU job, I read a blog post written by my friend, Rebecca Masterson (http://sincerelybecca.com/2015/01/21/whats-up-time-wanna-race/).  She has a young son with autism.  In her post she wrote about the race with time she and other parents face, helping their children cope with anxiety in healthy ways before they are too big to manage.  She described a scene at her son’s school with a larger student during drop-off who had reached that stage.  She wrote that she waved at the father afterwards, letting him know she understood.  I shared her post and soon heartfelt messages appeared saying they would wave, too, and continue to wave.  My daughter wrote:  “Our family will always wave.  We don’t only wave. We stop to chat, lend a hand, love on your kids…because we love you and all the kids we come in contact with.”  Sounds like another round of “tag, you’re it,” and I feel privileged to be a part of the action.

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Each In Our Own Time

golden leavesAbout five years ago, unbeknownst to me, my granddaughter planted a seed from her apple in our garden.  When it sprouted, I wasn’t sure what it was until I noticed the leaf on an apple I was about to eat.  As it grew bigger, I transplanted it to a safer place.  The first time it lost its leaves, I thought it had died.  We left it in the ground just in case and in the spring buds formed on the thin branches.  Her apple tree continues to thrive in our yard, each spring growing a new crop of leaves.  It has yet to produce an apple, though.

Nevertheless, I don’t mind that it hasn’t grown any apples.  It’s provided other fruits, mostly in the form of non-edible bits of wisdom.  I noticed a few weeks ago that all the leaves on her tree were still a dark green, even though many of the surrounding ones were already losing theirs.  I even commented to Bill that her tree seems to be on its own timeline, and the timeline has changed over the years.  As everything else around it transitioned from autumn to Arizona’s version of winter, Grace’s tree seemed to be living in an almost timeless dimension.   Its greenery looked like it might last forever.

Then, on Sunday morning as I stepped out to check the garden, my eyes received quite a surprise.  The lovely green leaves were miraculously golden.  The apple tree, in its own time, had joined the rest of us in the grand cycle of life.  It made me think how each of us has our own timing as we move through life.  Some parts move slowly and others speed up.  We aren’t always on the same schedule as others around us and if we’re true to ourselves, it’s a process that is uniquely our own.

During this first month of a new calendar year, as a school we are preparing for our summer program and the coming school year.  We have to think ahead as we are also in the present cycle.  It’s a time of year when beginnings and endings have more meaning than usual.  The late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, said this of beginnings:  “Beginnings often frighten us because they seem like lonely voyages into the unknown. Yet, in truth, no beginning is empty or isolated. We seem to think that beginning is setting out from a lonely point along some line of direction into the unknown. This is not the case. Shelter and energy come alive when a beginning is embraced…We are never as alone in our beginnings as it might seem at the time. A beginning is ultimately an invitation to open toward the gifts and growth that are stored up for us.”  What seemed like an ending for Grace’s tree was, in fact, the beginning of a whole new cycle.  This is true for all of us as we go forth into our days, each in our own time.

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Free Range Childhood

mickmaryblocksI was a free range child.  The way I spent my early days made a huge impact on how my life turned out.  In fact, I’m fairly certain the Seed would not have happened without the kind of childhood I had.  The experience we had as kids has been on my mind lately, especially after reading an article a parent sent about the value of unstructured play (http://qz.com/311035/were-ruining-our-kids-with-minecraft-the-case-for-unstructured-play/).  I had a favorable response to the article and posted it for others to read, not because it was critical of computer games, but because of what it said about unstructured play.  The post generated a respectful response pointing out the benefits of gaming, including potential for “responsible, intergenerational and connected learning.”  It has kept my thinking about this topic in high gear, as I can see both sides.

I love technology.  In fact, we’ve spent considerable effort this year to include it more than ever in our curriculum.  Our emphasis has been applying technology in ways that invite creativity and empower children to use it as a valuable learning tool.  That said, I also feel passionate about ensuring that our students learn how to grow food, explore the natural world and have time to play in an unstructured way.  Although our children live in an urban setting, they can still have a free range childhood.

I’ve been reflecting on the elements of my childhood, what it was that made it free range.  First, there was the unstructured quality.  Whether it was the dead of winter or lazy summer days, we were outside using our imaginations, creating worlds made and lived in by children only.  We had time.  Another element was the availability of raw materials such as sticks, logs, cut grass, water, mud, sand, boards, hammers and nails, fabric, bricks, rope, and cardboard boxes.  In the winter we went sledding, built snow forts and carved hiding places out of giant drifts.  Indoors was for meals and sleeping.  Mostly we were outside.  In addition to the unstructured time and availability of materials, we were generally left to our own resources to work things out.  My mother stayed at home with us and was always around; however, we also had an abundance of unsupervised time to let our creativity flourish.

When I wasn’t outside during my free range childhood, I was often by myself, in my room or the basement, making things.  I made clothes and accessories for my dolls, as well as little sanctuaries for them and myself with whatever I could get my hands on.  Free to combine materials in innovative ways, I painted, sewed, glued and designed worlds within my own.  I read voraciously and most of my significant learning happened outside of school.

I don’t know what childhood would have looked like if I’d had technology.  I’m guessing I probably would have figured out ways to use it to continue making things.  Technology has changed all our lives, including our children’s.  They will use it to lead our future in new, and hopefully positive, directions.  Their childhoods will be different from ours, just by virtue of the presence of technology.  As we continue to evolve as a species, integrating technological advances into our lives, I believe we owe it to our children to provide balance by also including “free range time” to muck around with the natural world and make things by hand.   We’ll all be better off and our planet will, too.

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Silver Seeds

IMG_3012It’s solstice week.  Anyone who is a previous student, staff member or parent knows what this means.  It’s a week of finishing up projects, finalizing dances and taking deep breaths.  The gift drive is over and items have been delivered.  The multi is taped with all kinds of symbols and words to remind young dancers where to stand.  Even the staff holiday party is behind us.  We’re figuring out how to improve the sound system and our trusty videographer (a Seed alumni parent) is lined up for event.  I’m working on the program and we’re all trying to stay healthy for a few more days.  Hand washing is encouraged now more than ever, since the flu season is officially upon us.

This year’s program is based on the book Silver Seeds, a collection of short poems about parts of a day in the natural world.  It starts with dawn and ends with the night sky.  The final poem reads like this:

“Silver seeds
Tossed in the air
And planted in the sky,
Reaching out of the darkness
Sprouting wonder.”

On Friday night you will see children from ages one to eleven performing lively moves in colorful costumes, accompanied by music that expresses the essence of each poem, each group.  For some children it’s their big opportunity to shine as they entertain the audience.  For others, it’s a huge accomplishment just to make an appearance on stage.  It’s a proud moment for parents and teachers.  We do this each year to celebrate the season and to celebrate our Seed community, including our alumni, many of whom attend the event.  On Tuesday, I thought of another reason.

As I drove to school, listening to reports from Pakistan of another horrendous school shooting that claimed lives of 132 children, memories of the Sandyhook shooting around this time two years ago came to mind.  Part of the Seed’s mission statement is to promote world peace.  Our work with children is fully dedicated to helping them grow into strong, happy, creative, kind, thoughtful, well-balanced people.  The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, when darkness is more prevalent.  It’s a time when we can also remember the light, especially the light within each of us, and count on it to get us through the darkness.  Our Seed Celebration of the Winter Solstice is a reminder of this idea.  We are raising children who will be leaders of the future, leaders who emanate the light and inspire that in others. They are the “silver seeds…reaching out of the darkness sprouting wonder.”  It’s a time of hope, and maybe someday we’ll no longer have news of children being shot at school.  That’s my hope, anyway.

For links about other Seed winter solstice celebrations:


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Birds on a Wire

birds on the phone lineDriving down 24th Street late Sunday afternoon, a bird convention caught my eye.  Hundreds of birds lined up on the telephone lines.  I turned my car around and pulled over to take a photo before they dispersed.  A few took flight, but most seemed content to stay put.  Prior to noticing the birds, I was thinking about Bill Svoboda, my childhood friend’s father who had passed away a few days ago.  He was one of the last remaining male elders from my early life.  He was the same age as my own father, who is nearly 90.  It seemed meaningful that I spotted the birds, just as I was thinking of the village of humans that surrounded me as I grew up.

I wasn’t able to make it back to Nebraska for the funeral.  All day Monday I thought of my Nebraska community as they gathered to say goodbye to a man who was part of my childhood.  I knew my parents would be there as well as Bill’s wife and children, who were like a second family.  When it was apparent that I wouldn’t be able to be there with them, I decided that there was most likely a strong reason I was meant to remain here.  That reason was soon revealed.  On Monday afternoon one of our former Seed moms stopped by to deliver news of the serious illness of another alumni parent.  As we sat in our office, in quiet conversation, she talked about the Seed and its strong community, how we still value its members even years after the children have graduated and moved on from the school.  She said, “We’ve been involved with three different schools since we left the Seed.  There’s really nothing like it.  It makes such a difference when everybody’s so present.”

Community came up again today while talking with one of the teachers.  She reported that her daughter, who attended another school before the Seed, had this to say:  “Everyone cares for me here.  Knowing this makes me want to do my best.”  Reflecting on the past couple of weeks, particularly seeing individuals step up for the benefit of the greater good, made me realize that being at the Seed helps us all want to do our best.

In the past year or so, I’ve been interested in marketing.  One of my favorite marketing gurus, Seth Godin, mentions repeatedly the importance of individuals or organizations telling their story.  Over time I’ve come to realize that one of the Seed’s strengths is community and it’s a big part of our story.  Our lives, separate and collectively, are as tenuous as those of birds gathered on thin wires in the late afternoon light.  Our presence to that light is what holds us together, giving us the courage to take flight and return when it’s time.