Plastic Soup

ocean bottlesIt was a dramatic Earth Day at the Seed.  Maybe passionate would be a better word.  Those who had the great fortune of being with us were greeted by an “installation” of nearly 300 empty plastic water bottles, strewn all over the entrance area.  Some of the children were disturbed by the mass of water bottles and instinctively wanted to pick them up for recycling.  You probably saw a replica of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, created by our activist kindergarteners.  It was a galvanized metal tub with bits of floating plastic.  A sign reading “K-1 Garbage Patch, Bag the Bags” was posted behind the swirling soup.  The kindergarteners also made paper Earths, each with a message, that were attached to the front door.  The entrance display also included facts about water bottles and plastic uncovered by the 3rd/4th graders.

Throughout the morning, each class busily engaged in activities connected to Earth Day.  Toddler 1s used empty water bottles to make sensory bottles. Temporarily filled with colored water and other eye-catching items, they did a lot of shaking and observing.  The Toddler 2s made a lovely piece of art from found objects on the playground.  The Preschool 2.5/3s created a string of watercolored Earths, each with a pair of hands holding a heart with the child’s intention for helping the Earth.  At our all-school sharing of Earth Day activities, the Preschool 3s demonstrated their musical instruments personally constructed from recycled materials.  Blue water-filled bottles with a small piece of plastic bag inside were reminders from the Preschool 4s that plastic bags and bottles need to be recycled to avoid damage to ocean creatures and the Earth. The PreK students shared their graph they’ve been making all week, documenting use of reusable containers, recyclables and eventual trash from their lunches.  In addition to the front entrance display, the kindergarteners attended the meeting wearing plastic bag costumes (modeled after the Bag Monsters https://www.facebook.com/thebagmonster).  A display of plastic utensils used at the Seed picnic compared to reusable silverware was presented by the 1st/2nd graders.  And the 3rd/4th graders filled our heads with even more important facts about the impact of plastic on our planet.

We ended our sharing with “Celebrate Life on Planet Earth” and went  outside for a picnic.  Although the facts about plastic’s invasion of our environment were hard to hear, a feeling of hope remained.  The kids, especially the fours and up, for the most part seemed to grasp the idea that this is serious business and we can do this.  We HAVE to do this.  As I was leaving the Seed late Wednesday afternoon, one of the moms told me her son had found $80 and they were deciding how to use it to be helpful to someone.  After all of our studies about the impact of plastic on the ocean, he wanted to use it to help the ocean creatures.  I drove away that day feeling grateful and inspired, recognizing that the Seed is a wave already extending far out to sea.  In our own way we are taking on the plastic soup, that will hopefully someday be a thing of the past, in large part due to efforts of this generation of young ecologists.

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Earth Problem

lunch trashWe’re talking trash at the Seed these days.  Last week we collected the lunch trash for five days and I’m happy to announce that the entire accumulation fit in a smallish box.  You’ll be seeing a display of it in the coming days to further awareness of why it’s a good idea to utilize reusable containers.  In addition to collecting lunch trash, we’ve had several lively discussions about plastic, particularly one-time use plastic bags and plastic water bottles, and their impact on the ocean.  This video fueled the conversation:  (https://vimeo.com/100694882).

The first and second graders have been talking plastic, too.   Their April Scholastic News features a cover photo of a plastic bag floating in the ocean looking eerily like a jellyfish.  They’ve been learning how problematic this is for sea turtles, who can’t easily distinguish between plastic bags and jellyfish.  One of the second grade girls shared this spontaneous writing with me, titled “Earth Problem”:  “The world is so incredibly bad with plastic.  When people get a toy or something and the bag that the toy is in, some people just drop it and it goes in the ocean and sea creatures eat it and then it dies and if it is a fish, people eat the fish and then the people get sick and sometimes die.  And no more littering ever again!”

That same child, along with a classmate, took the initiative to pick up trash from the playground.  They decided they’d keep track of what they found all week and then make a statement about it.  I love how they are using writing, science and mathematics to further their social activism.  Social activism isn’t limited to the older children.  In response to our talk about plastic bags, one teacher shared a story of her three-year-old daughter who went shopping with her grandmother.  When the grandma took plastic bags for her groceries, the child said, “We can’t use these bags.  They hurt the Earf.”

As I researched plastics in the ocean, I learned that the average American uses 167 disposable water bottles every year (http://www.banthebottle.net/bottled-water-facts/).  It is estimated that only 38 of those 167 are recycled.  That means 129 go in the trash.  I also read that “5 trillion plastic bags are produced yearly. Side by side, they can encircle the world 7 times.” Only 1 to 3% of them are recycled.  (http://www.theworldcounts.com/stories/interesting-facts-about-plastic-bags)  These facts and lists of other facts from which they come are alarming to say the least.  It’s a problem that won’t go away without our help.  We will continue to make it part of our curriculum and our daily practices to reduce the use of plastics and increase awareness about recycling.  This is about the quality of our future and our children’s futures.  If we don’t take this on to help heal our planet, who will?

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Swarm of Human Bees

IMG_4131I encountered a swarm of bees on the playground this week.  Not the fuzzy black and yellow ones; they were human bees.  It was an intense swarm, with fierce negotiations around the hierarchy of a bee colony.  First there was the designation of the queen bee, as well as her responsibilities and privileges.  I heard one child say to the chosen queen, “You can sing all you want, because you’re the queen bee.”  As the swarm migrated from place to place, I heard additional assignments:  “You’re a carpenter bee,” with follow-up directions about where to go.  The bees continued playing harmoniously until the Power Rangers arrived.  I’m not sure what happened to the hive after that.

All of this bee business started in the PreK outdoor area, when a swarm of bees showed up several weeks ago.  Their presence ignited a passionate study of this significant species.  Throughout the course of the PreK’s bee study, they have utilized the arts to understand their topic.  They’ve created a paper honeycomb, made a larger-than-life queen bee and smaller worker bees.  Wednesday was Bee Day, a day of celebration for the PreK class.  They all wore yellow and black clothes, made personalized queen bee crowns, tasted varieties of honey (including some right in the honeycomb), had a picnic outside and gave a performance of their bee songs for Music Jay.  One “bee” was observed before school, immersed in his own imaginary world, flapping his wings and pausing to draw nectar from flowers in the kindergarten outdoor area.  No doubt, this child has integrated what he’s learned about bees.  During the musicial performance for Jay, which included a bee version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” I mispronounced proboscis.  The entire class resoundingly corrected me.  These kids know their stuff.

This study and the children’s passionate response, reminded me of a recent ASU Magazine article about STEAM education (https://magazine.asu.edu/march-2015/articles/featured-articles/gaining-steam).  The article makes a strong case for inclusion of the arts in science education, and, in fact, states that the arts offer a crucial perspective that is missing from a science-only curriculum:  “Arts-based inquiry is a very powerful way of exploring the world,” says Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “We know increasingly from the learning sciences that the kind of pedagogy that has high impact for student learning is exactly the kind of pedagogy that has been part of an arts curriculum for a long time.”

Clearly, the arts-based approach to studying bees has worked in our PreK class, just as it does throughout the Seed.  What’s even better, which is typical of others  school-wide, is what their teacher has in mind next.  As we talked near the end of Bee Day, she mentioned ways in which she could tell how much they’ve come to understand about bees.  Her next project is to teach them what we can do as human beings to help the diminishing bee population.  It’s what we strive to do with each day at the Seed, take in the world and then offer back the best gifts of our heartfelt selves.

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Light It Up Blue

blue lightsA sea of blue greeted me this morning. Earlier in the week, I sent out a reminder to staff and families that today, April 2, is World Autism Awareness Day.  Globally, we were invited to wear blue to promote this day of awareness, to “light it up blue.”  I thought maybe a few teachers might remember their blue shirts.  I didn’t know about the children or parents.  Many remembered.  What a feast for the eyes it was to see such a collection of blue.  Support for autism awareness and the families who are living with autism is alive and well at Awakening Seed.

For a small school, we have quite a few students on the autism spectrum.  Over the years we’ve made a commitment to serving as many children on the spectrum as we can.  The Seed has a system for carefully selecting which of them will be a good fit for the school, both for the child and for us.  We protect their privacy and offer our services to the best of our ability to meet their needs as well as those of their neurotypical peers.  Our students on the spectrum are a part of our regular program, embraced with the same inclusivity as we extend to any child.  Our goal is to help these and all children blend in, to be a part of the greater community.

Years ago I was on a graduation trip with our oldest class, which included a  student on the spectrum.  Near the beginning of the trip, a parent of another student asked me if I thought having a child with autism in the class might take away from the experience of the other kids because of the child’s need for extra attention.  I quickly said no, explaining that in fact it’s generally an excellent opportunity for the other kids to learn how to be with a child with autism, to learn empathy, kindness and patience.  Additionally, I went on to say that in many cases, the child with autism brings a unique perspective to situations and offers creative, innovative ideas for approaching life experiences.

With 1 in every 68 children currently being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, helping typical children learn about this disorder seems even more important.  They will grow up and live in a world populated by more and more adults with autism.  Our mission at the Seed is to foster relationships that far surpass tolerance.  As with all children, our intention is to develop relationships that celebrate each child’s uniqueness.  We are helping children learn to use their voices, so they can speak up for themselves and for their peers who may or may not have autism.  (check this link out for a child who has found his voice:  http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/27/health/cdc-autism/)

At the end of the graduation trip, the same parent who approached me with her question took me aside.  “I see what you mean.  He does bring something special to this group.  Now I understand.”  Our sea of blue at the Seed today, which is part of a global ocean, is our way of saying we understand.  And we will keep up the important work of helping others understand, too.

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Alumni Tsunami

sc000157602,207.  That’s the number of Facebook reaches for my blog last week.  It’s more than my last five or six combined.  What’s up with that?  I realize it could have been my catchy title, or the Facebook teaser about big news over spring break.  I’m certain a big part of it was the topic, alumni successes.  I’ve thought about it all week as the reaches and comments continued piling up.   On Monday I was reading a blog about blogging and learned that just because someone is reached with a blog post doesn’t mean they’ve read it.  Nevertheless, with more people receiving the link, I would think that means at least some increase in readership over all.

I don’t know who all my blog reached or why it was reached by so many more than usual.  What I do know, or at least strongly suspect, is that alumni news is important to my readers and the Seed alumni population is alive and well.  And interested.  Which encourages an idea I’ve been mulling around in my head for most of this school year.  Early in the year I met with two Seed parents who have an expertise in marketing and social media.  They have inspired much of the Facebook activity that has occurred on the Seed page and also introduced me to a website I totally love,  Humans of New York (http://www.humansofnewyork.com).  When I first saw it, I thought it would be a great way to feature our alumni Seeds.  I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year.

So when the tsunami of Facebook reaches happened in response to my blog about recent alumni news, I decided it’s time to get going on this idea.  I will need your help, my friends.  And your stories with a photo.  I’m still working out the details, which I’ll send you once I have it all in place.  Basically, I will want to know what you’re doing with your life, what your passions are, what makes you happy and how the Seed has influenced your life.

In addition to the enjoyment of hearing how you’re faring in the world, it’s important to remember that your stories are a significant part of the Seed history.  Furthermore, your stories are also a part of the Seed’s future.  What you are doing with your lives is living proof of what the Seed is all about.  Your passion for living in a way that sustains our planet is an inspiration to current students and families.  The acts of your generation will most certainly bring along those that will follow.  It will be an honor to help share your stories with the rest of the world.

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Hit by a Wave

waves on the shoreI didn’t make it to the ocean over spring break.  Nevertheless, I was hit by a wave.  Not the kind of wave that pounds the shoreline; it was a wave of good news.  It started with an email from  alumni parent Colleen Jennings Roggensack that included part of an announcement sent to her daughter, Kelsey, a Seed grad:  “I am delighted to inform you that you have been selected for a 2015-16 Fulbright U.S. Student Award to Indonesia. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program of the United States.  You will represent the country as a cultural ambassador while you are overseas, helping to enhance mutual understanding between Americans and the people in Indonesia.”  Colleen went on to say, “With the great educational start Kelsey got at The Awakening Seed, all things are possible.”

I was still processing Kelsey’s news, when I learned that another one of our Seeds, 25-year-old Teagan Wall, just completed a PhD in neuroscience at Caltech.  Interestingly, this week as I was going through some previous students’ writing, I came across one of Teagan’s second grade journal entries:  “Today I became a scientist.  Mikey, Jesse and I were setting traps to try and get the bees out of the garden.  It was a dangerous job but someone’s got to do it.”  Like Kelsey, where Teagan is today has roots back to her days of expressing her curiosity at the Seed.

Within a day or so, one of Teagan’s classmates, Chelsey Wright, announced that she has been accepted to the University of Oregon’s PhD program in Music Theory with a Graduate Teaching Fellowship.   Chelsea’s musical talents were already emerging in this poem she wrote when she was just about to turn eight:

“I am sitting on a rock
Peacefully writing my
thoughts with the wind
blowing in my face in the
fall with two days in the
middle of today and
my birthday thinking what
fun I’ll have on that day.
I love just sitting on a
rock not talking to anybody
writing my thoughts on a
nice fall day in a spot
that’s mine.”

Later that week, I read that Indra Ekmanis, a 1999 Seed grad and now student at the University of Washington, has reached a milestone of PhD candidacy in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies.  Her ease with multiple languages as a young child continues to serve her well.

The list of alumni stories keeps growing, stories of playwrights, artists, urban farmers, photographers, eagle scouts and young mothers with beautiful babies.  I am overwhelmed…and delighted to know that our Seeds are doing exactly what we’ve prepared them to do—follow their dreams, serve others and make the planet the kind of place where all humans can thrive and realize their highest potential.  I know this is just the beginning of the Seed’s impact on the world.  I look forward with great anticipation to what the next waves will bring forth upon the shoreline.

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Inside a Dinosaur Egg

dinosaur eggsToday is my dad’s 90th birthday.  I’ve been thinking about the full life he’s had and is still having.  On the phone this morning he described his recent project of clearing out several dead trees in the town where he lives.  It involved a ladder.  It’s ladders and trees that keep him young.  On the other end of the age spectrum are our Seed toddlers.  In the early months of their school lives, their days are full of invitations to explore and experience the world around them.   As I walked past the Toddler 1s Monday morning, lively Spanish music filled the room.  Singing and dancing followed.  Later, I caught a quick conversation in the kitchen with Jenny, the Toddler 2s teacher, who was scooping flour and salt into a bin to take back to the classroom.  “We’re making dinosaur eggs today,” she said casually.  I made a mental note to drop by their class later to check out the developing dinosaur eggs.

Ever since our Invention Convention, the toddlers have been on my mind.  During the event, several parents commented how impressed they were that even the toddlers were a part of our STEAM curriculum.  Around the Seed, it’s not “even the toddlers”; the toddlers are an integral part of the whole program.  We uphold the same standards and integrity for our toddler classes as we do for the preschool and elementary groups.    Toddler teachers are dedicated, reflective practitioners who spend considerable time each week planning activities and lessons that will extend their students in all directions.  They utilize the STEAM curriculum and other dimensions of their students’ school experience  to help them step into their highest potential.  Their work sets the foundation upon which the rest of the curriculum resides.  The toddlers’ studies of what hands do, how air moves in and through our lives and how primary colors come together to become a rainbow of possibilities open the door to everything else they will learn as they grow older.  These experiences, and the curiosity they inspire, set the stage for the children to become lifelong learners.

When I returned to the Toddler 2s for an update on the dinosaur eggs, a group of children was called to the art table to make their “eggs.”  Each child sat down to a plastic dinosaur and a small mound of a dirt-sand-flour-salt-and-water mixture.  The idea was to form an “egg” around the dinosaur, which would be baked and later cracked open by the future archeologist.  Another brilliant idea from a creative teacher who understands the importance of adventure in toddler learning.  Like the small plastic dinosaurs eventually emerging from inside their protective coverings, our toddlers’ minds are opening with curiosity to the wonders of the world that awaits them.  Their teachers are simultaneously witnesses and instigators of the process.

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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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