For What It Creates

homegrownIt’s official.  The holiday season has arrived at the Seed.  On Monday we posted flyers for the Tanner Chapel food drive and that same afternoon lead staff met to select our theme for this year’s Celebration of the Winter Solstice, to be held on December 19.  Classes are gathering ingredients for next week’s all-school Thanksgiving feast.  The kindergarteners and Preschool 2.5/3s  made a huge painting of a fall tree this week, which will be enhanced by all our families in the coming days.  Already anticipation is in the air.

It’s a season when it seems important to stay close to the earth, to stay grounded.  I do this each day by inviting the morning in, first by walking, either along the canal or in the neighborhood, depending on the time of sunrise.  After walking, I like to open the patio door to let cool morning air filter in from our back yard.  Both of these practices offer a connection between my inner and outer world.  The immediate outer world at home is our garden, which I have to say is thriving.  I’m not sure if it’s the seeds from the 3rd/4th graders or if our soil has finally gotten to a point where it’s loaded with nutrients; whatever it is, a major crop of vegetables is on its way.  The garden is a part of my life that is incredibly grounding.  Each time my hands touch the soil, it feels like the earth is receiving and then transforming all of my fears, responsibilities, stresses and self-doubts.  It’s a form of unconditional love.

Yesterday I walked around the school and photographed gardens.  Some are thriving, while others have yet to pop up through the soil.  Composted Halloween pumpkins have become green beds of luscious leaves.  Red radishes, close to fruition, await preschool eaters.  As I’ve spent time in garden spaces with a few classes this week, it’s been quite an experience to witness such enthusiasm for watering.  One child stayed with it for nearly a half hour, flooding sections and even coming up with a small canal system to water more than one at a time.  It made me think that there’s much more to gardening than the food.

Last night in class my yoga teacher said, “We don’t do the practice for ourselves.  We do it for what it creates.”  When I heard these words, I thought of the Seed and especially the gardens.  We do our work because we love it.  We also know that its impact is and will continue to be far reaching.  When we teach children to grow gardens, we are teaching them about healthy food, caring for and respecting the earth, and showing them that, even at a young age, they can nurture something.  Gardens depend on us to thrive and, in return, foster a sense of responsibility.  As humans it’s a way we can stay grounded in ourselves, and at the same time heal both our planet and our future.

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Wasp in the Exhibit

wasp visitEarlier this week I was covering a playground shift in Gwen’s Castle.  A few of the kids had built a makeshift fort between the wall and a bush.  A brick annex was added, including a tire propped upright, held in place by large rocks.  Groups of children moved fluidly in and out of this space.  Just outside the castle walls, three girls claimed a plastic trash can, large enough for a child to crawl inside.  At the bottom of the trash can was a pile of acacia leaves that dropped to the ground and had been scooped into the can.  The pile resembled an oversized nest.  The girls brought it over and placed it inside the tire.  Recess continued, girls climbed in and out of the trash can and one was even rolled around the playground in it.  Seeing that brought a childhood flashback when we convinced my brother to climb inside a metal culvert pipe and we rolled him down a hill.  Not one of my finer moments of childhood kindness.  A shout from one of the children disrupted my reverie.

“Wasp in the exhibit!  Wasp in the exhibit!”  I turned to see a crowd hovering around the tire.  There, on the acacia leaf pile, was an unassuming wasp just  crawling around.  As I always do, I reminded the children to leave it alone and give it space.  The boy who shouted out gave us a play by play of the wasp’s activity.  I said, “I notice you are really observing this wasp.”  He said, “It’s because I’m a scientist.”  This warmed my heart, given that I’d spent part of my morning photographing evidence of STEAM work around the school.

What I’m noticing is the importance of play in the development of scientists.  Children learn all sorts of scientific information as they lift heavy rocks, touch a range of textures, and assemble materials in ways that promote balance.  Play, particularly outdoors in nature, provides surprises that invite response.  When a wasp suddenly appears, it brings a break in the action for young scientists to pause, listen, be still and focus intently on what it’s doing. An appearance like this inspires conversation, comparisons, stories and theories.  It also carries the message that we are all interconnected.

I’ve thought of interconnection quite a bit this week as we prepare to say goodbye to Billie Cruz, who is leaving the school to take a new job.  She and her family have been around the Seed since 2000 and she’s been on our staff since 2003.  Billie’s boys grew up at the Seed and her husband Andy created our first website.  Even after her boys graduated, we were fortunate to have Billie remain on our staff.  Her presence at the Seed will be missed.  These letting go experiences are never easy, even after over six decades of practice.  Yet, interconnect reminds us that we all continue to be a part of each other’s lives and even if we don’t see someone every day, they are still a part of us.  We wish Billie the best in this new adventure and hope that, like the wasp in the exhibit, she’ll drop in to the Seed from time to time to play, laugh, and have a little fun.

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Inviting Beauty

glass collectionsFor the second week in a row, light shining through glass jars caught my eye.  This time it was in the PreK, after a weekend rearranging frenzy by its teaching duo.  A science corner was set up with all kinds of natural objects, including a large rock occupying almost an entire shelf.  The loft was moved closer to the windows, opening up the room in new ways.  To accommodate the influx of emerging writers, an entire table was devoted to journals, equipped with an assortment of writing tools.  When I walked into the room to check it out, one passionate writer was having a moment of disappointment because someone had inadvertently taken her spot.  She wanted to be in on the action at the journal table.  Her teacher quickly made space for her elsewhere so her writing enthusiasm would not be interrupted.  The invitations for learning were everywhere and there was not one child who wasn’t passionately engaged.

As I looked around the room, one area in particular reached out and invited my attention.  It was a medium-sized white shelf in front the windows.  On the shelves were glass jars filled with collections of all sorts of small objects, including random puzzle pieces, beads, jewels, nuts and bolts, wooden rings, plastic ties, pom-poms, shells, buttons and pasta.  Each collection has a function and will, no doubt, be used by preschoolers for work and play I can only imagine.  What stood out in my mind as I studied the collection of collections was how beautiful the whole assemblage was.  It made me think of recent words I’ve heard from a scientist about the interplay of science and beauty.  Doris Taylor, a scientist whose life work has been devoted to the study of stem cells, described the beauty of the human heart (http://www.onbeing.org/program/stem-cells-untold-stories/178).  G. H. Hardy, in A Mathematician’s Apology, had this to say about mathematics and beauty:     “The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.”

The jars filled with elements of everyday school life caused me to pause and appreciate their beauty.  The collection is a representative of the “A” in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics), which is a focus of our work this year.  John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet, wrote these words in Divine Beauty:  The Invisible Embrace:  “To behold beauty dignifies your life; it heals you and calls you out beyond the smallness of your own self-limitation to experience new horizons.  To experience beauty is to have your life enlarged.”  It makes sense to offer this expansive invitation to our thinkers and makers of tomorrow.

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From the Inside Out

observation tableIn a thoughtful space between an impressively successful carnival and Halloween itself, our lead staff met to talk about about teaching.  I always look forward to these conversations, as they are strong reminders of why the Seed exists and how fortunate we are to work in an environment that not only invites children to think and follow their interests, but also encourages teachers to do the same.  Our topic this week was how to broaden current work with STEAM lessons (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) into longer, more complex studies like those that have been present at the Seed since its beginning.

We started with a reflection on this quote from John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design:  “A designer is someone who constructs while he thinks, someone for whom planning and making go together.”  We talked about how this relates to our work at the Seed, for both teachers and children. Our focus then switched to how our students demonstrate their thinking as they participate in STEAM and other classroom work.  Among the ways this happens is through class discussions, giving children permission to ask questions, offering actual experiences through which to express what they are learning, giving them time to share their thoughts, and providing real life problems where thinking is required.

Following this part of the meeting, grade level groups were given a choice of children’s literature from which to choose and then brainstorm ways the text could be a starting point for an extended STEAM project.  Based on a board book about opposites, toddler teachers thought of a long list of opposites to explore toddler style.  Elementary teachers came up with engineering ideas from a book related to westward expansion, such as ways to construct a covered wagon using materials like sheets, PVC pipes and connecting straws.  The wheels of creative thinking were definitely spinning.

As I walked down the hall after our meeting, end-of-the-day light  from the Preschool 2.5/3s room invited me in.  In front of the window that looks out into their outdoor classroom area sits a small “observation table” with several glass jars and gourds on it.  The jars are filled with unusual looking seed pods, bulbs sprouting roots, and an avocado seed propped up by toothpicks, just beginning to form its roots into a glass of clear water.  On the window a sign reads: VENTANA/WINDOW.  Right above the sign are outlines of geometric shapes with autumn leaves on the insides, sandwiched between two sheets of wax paper.  Just beyond the shapes outside is their garden.  Rows of determined sprouts have already pushed up through the soil.

This multi-layered view from inside to outside is what we’ve just been discussing and it’s what the Seed is all about.  Our work is to set up invitations for curiosity and wonder.  It’s creating a forum for observing and asking questions.  Then we listen and receive children’s thinking, helping them bring their thoughts from the inside out, so others can share the ride.

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Just Doing the Work

APAIt’s a busy week.  On Friday night we’ll hold our annual Halloween carnival, a Seed tradition since the 1980s.  The carnival has grown from a tiny event on a crowded school yard into a much-expanded major production.  Preparations for a carnival basically begin right after the previous one,  involving hundreds of hours by a small, but mighty, group.  Every year there is a reflection and review process to see what went well and what needs to be adjusted.  Soliciting raffle and silent auction prizes starts in the spring and summer and continues until just days before the event.  August ushers in planning meetings, committee formation and ordering of supplies.  For the past several years, I have also met weekly with one of the APA coordinators, to establish and maintain lines of communication between the school and the APA.  Carnival foundations are laid long before the decorations go up.

The thing about our APA volunteers is that they’re not in it for the glory, to be noticed or to receive accolades.  They’re just doing the work.  As I was thinking about this group of remarkable parents, I thought it would be interesting to hear in their own words why they volunteer as they do.  Here is what a few of them said:

“I volunteer to be a good role model, so our kids see that we are active in the community.  I also like getting to know other parents.” 

“I believe being involved is essential to help make a successful school home for our children.  Everyone benefits from supporting our teachers and staff.  I’m hopeful that my daughter will do the same when she has children.”  

“My mother had me volunteering at the local historical society/museum when I was in grammar school.  I have volunteered for a variety of community organizations during my life.  So why wouldn’t I volunteer in the most important community organization in my daughter’s and family’s life…The Seed? Volunteering fills my heart and without it I’m not my best.  It teaches [my child] the importance of volunteering and working with others for a common goal.  I already see the volunteer spirit shining brightly within her and she’ll help so many during her lifetime.”

What I notice from all three of these valuable members of the Seed community is their common belief in the importance of service.  All three mentioned how important it is to them to model for their child what it is to be a volunteer.  The idea of passing on such a noble  teaching to a child in hopes that the child will repeat it in his or her life is a powerful one.  The Seed carnival happens each year as a result of all our parents who give their time and expertise to make it happen.  As you volunteer your time for this event, supervising a game, baking treats or organizing big parts of the entire event, it’s good to remember what an important life lesson it is that you are also giving your child.

 

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Okra Forest

volunteer okraA small okra forest fills the space between the sidewalk and straw bale bench in the kindergarteners’ outdoor area.  It was not planted intentionally, by the class anyway.  When I first noticed the broad green leaves, I thought it might be okra.  Although it’s a food not high on my list of favorites, I’ve tried to grow it before and it seemed familiar.  The two pods provided confirmation.  When I checked with Kerri to see if they’d planted okra, she told me a story about one of her students who loved it and often brought okra for lunch last year.  Hmmm…it’s likely that a few of those juicy white seeds landed in the dirt and turned into the current mini-forest.  After further investigation, I learned that the student who loves okra planted some at home with his parents and the plants were unfortunately eaten up by local rabbits.  Which made our volunteers even more significant.

A couple weeks ago I attended a gardening workshop with Greg Peterson from the Urban Farm (http://www.urbanfarm.org/the-urban-farm-story).  The focus was on how to think about gardening in the desert.  Greg talked quite a bit about the solar aspect, where the sun is going and the kinds of plants that thrive under certain exposures.  He spent at least half of the workshop talking about soil.   He said that dirt won’t grow much of anything by itself—soil needs dirt, moisture, organic material, air space and everything that’s alive in the soil.  His strongest recommendation was to keep building the soil by adding organic material (compost) over and over.  I was happy when he suggested just adding compost to the top of the soil without doing a lot of digging.

There was one bit of wisdom that stayed with me, although it hadn’t been given nearly the amount of time as soil preparation.  Greg reminded us to pay attention to special plants that come up, especially the volunteers that choose to sprout on their own.  My interpretation of this statement was that these plants want to grow in their chosen location.  They are a good match for the environment in which they reach up through the soil.  They are strong and hearty.  I thought of this as I discovered two beautiful artichoke plants in my garden, most likely from plants I allowed to go to seed last spring in a spot I was planning to designate for composting.  And the apple tree going on its fifth season, originated from my granddaughter’s random planting of a seed from her apple.  As I thought about this, the okra forest came to mind.  I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning behind the okra’s appearance in the kindergarteners’ outdoor area.  Perhaps it’s a message telling us all to pay attention to the surprises in our lives.  For me it’s also an invitation to be a little more open-minded about certain foods I’ve shied away from.  And maybe it’s a way to see someone in a different light through understanding what they love.

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Carnivals of Halloweens Past

River Drive Halloween

We’ve had a monsoon of enthusiasm from our alumni lately.  Little did I know that a few dozen Seed archive photos would invite such an enthusiastic  response.  Last night while digging through closets at home, I hit a photo jackpot.  I was searching for old carnival photos and ended up reliving the last 38 years of my life.  It was surprising how many names and memories came back to me when I saw those young faces.

I found several photos from our first carnival, which happened in 1982.  It was originally established by our APA (Awakening Parents’ Association) as a fun and safe Halloween alternative.  It was held in our very small enclosed playground, which would fit inside the current toddler playground space.  We had no lights and limited funds for set-up, so it happened during daylight hours.  In 1984 we moved to a new location and the carnival expanded.  I vaguely remember getting rained out that year, then the weather let up and we went ahead with the carnival that night.  I recall that we added lights to the event.  By 1986 we had moved again and our playground offered a slightly bigger space for the carnival festivities.  One of the biggest changes to the carnival was the addition of the Mystery Theater, which has been a long standing tradition ever since (http://www.awakeningseedschool.org/2011/10/its-all-a-mystery/).  In addition to the entertainment aspect of the Mystery Theater, the proceeds are contributed to the staff faculty fund.

Over the years we’ve added a raffle and silent auction, more games and lights, and a photo booth.  The food offerings have been through a multitude of transitions, with the consistent element being an excellent array of desserts.  We now have an over-the-top cake walk, face painting and bounce houses.  We now ask each class to be in charge of a game booth and parents take turns running the booth.  We also ask each current family to sign up bring baked goods, sell raffle tickets and volunteer for a half-hour shift during the carnival, which frees up the APA coordinators to keep an eye on the big picture during the evening.  This year our raffle prizes are posted online with an option for online raffle ticket purchases  (https://seedschoolraffle.eventbrite.com), so Seed supporters who can’t make the event can still participate.

There are several reasons I love this event:
•  I appreciate the community aspect and how it connects our past families with the present.
•  I enjoy the opportunity to work closely with our APA coordinators who spend an immense amount of time putting this event together.
•  I love being involved with the Mystery Theater players, each year thinking of new ways to entertain and make our audiences laugh.
•  I’m deeply grateful for the proceeds, which not only fund classroom projects but also are the primary source of preschool scholarships for the Seed.

The carnival exemplifies everything the Seed is about and I hope you will all find a way to participate, help and support this significant community event.

 

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It’s All About Connection

playdough scientistsFour stories surfaced.  At first they seemed unrelated, but with further thought, it became apparent that the stories are all about connection.   Connections made by children, connections made by teachers, connections teachers are helping children make.  They are about connecting to the world beyond and from our past experiences.  Here are the stories:

#1:  On Monday morning as everyone was arriving in their freshly tie dyed shirts, one of the  kindergarten girls announced to her teacher, “My brother has a tie dye that looks like how the earth began!”  The teacher made sure I heard this quote, knowing my passion for kids’ quotes.  (When I checked on this later, it turned out that her brother had a much more detailed description/theory that included explosions and the swirling Milky Way.)

#2:  During a grade level meeting after school that same day, our PreK teacher shared an account of two girls working on their journals.  The first child drew a heart and was trying to figure out which letter the word “heart” starts with.  She was beginning to sound it out when a friend stepped in to help her. The second child remembered, “I know what heart starts with. I drew one the other day. Let me find it.”  She began to flip through the pages of her own journal until she found the picture that she had drawn of the heart. When she found it, she noticed that she had written an H, R, and T next to her work. “These are the letters you need,” she said. She read them aloud, making the sounds for the other child to hear, and then helped her as the first child wrote the letters down next to her heart.

#3:  At the grade level meeting for the youngest classes, I heard this story from the 2.5/3s  teacher:  “We were making play dough.  We mixed the dry ingredients first and before combining the water and oil I asked what they thought would happen when we mixed the two. After we’d all guessed, I poured. We passed around the mixture as it bubbled and separated and talked about what we were seeing. One child said, ‘I see bubbles,’ which were the balls of oil in the water. Next we passed around the liquid mixture and a tablespoon so everyone could add a little to the dry ingredients. What happened next was even cooler! I’d added a Kool-aid packet to the dry mix for an added level of sensory experience and when the wet mix hit the dry, it turned red! After that each child tried adding a scoop of wet to a new and still white patch of dry mix so they could turn their own portion from white to red.”  What started out as a group of two or three children ended up being a standing room only situation.

#4:  I’ve been working with a few of our parents to bring more visibility to the school through our Facebook page.  After posting the tie dye photos, one alumni Seed wrote the following:

“I’ve been showing my husband your Seed posts and I had him look at the website. He said ‘I think you should have just shown me all this when we started dating. It explains so much of who you are…it would have saved time. We should have gone on a tour before we got married, at least!’  He’s really jealous and wishes there was a grown up Seed.”

When I made the connection myself between these four stories and how they related, it helped me see that one of our most important roles as a school is to help our community feel connected.  It happens by teaching with intention and keeping our eyes wide open to what children are thinking and saying.  It occurs when teachers talk with each other to further our work of helping children put ideas together.  And it extends out to Seeds past, present and future who very much continue to belong.

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Human Gophers

dirt engineersDigging holes is sweaty business.  Although the temperature is dropping theoretically, it’s still hot enough to be dripping with sweat at the end of a digging session.  Over the summer I had the idea to take a few of our excellent logs and partially bury them around the second sand circle to make a pathway.  Inspiration for this idea came from the kids last spring, who were using most of the pots, pans and small metal bowls as stepping stones around that same sand circle.  It was imaginative, creative and innovative.  The only problem was, it damaged many of the brand new little bowls that weren’t designed to be stepped on.  The logs seemed like a plausible alternative.

For most of the summer, just a few logs lined the concrete sand circle curb.  A few weeks ago, I started in on them again.  The rains were helpful in softening the ground and I kept at it, mostly in the afternoons when no one else was on the playground.  This week I shifted my plan and started putting the logs in while the kids were at recess.  The log project took on a whole new life.  Of course, there were the questions:  “What are you doing?”  “Are you digging?”  “Why are you digging?”  My favorite:  “Why are you digging up the logs?”

A curious initial crowd gathered around and several children wanted to help.  Getting the concept across that standing in the middle of where the digging was going on wasn’t the most effective way to help was a preliminary challenge.  There was a core group destined for digging and got their hands on the shovels regardless of who else was present.  These kids know how to dig and stayed with me on more than one occasion.  They cleared dirt from holes, measured the holes’ depth with spoon handles and offered their expert engineering advice whether it was asked for or not.  When each log was fitted into its hole and the top was level, they scurried after the task of filling in dirt around the log like a bunch of human gophers.  They stomped dirt next to the log to pack it down, stood on the log to check its stability, and tested out the distance between logs for stepping accessibility.  It was a full-fledged engineering operation.

Just as impressive as the engineering was the collaboration.  Although it was a little chaotic when the shovels and logs first arrived on the scene, eventually everyone who wanted a turn got one.  Three-year-olds and third graders, girls and boys, quiet and high energy kids, all pitched in.  Communication and collaboration are key components of STEM and STEAM education.  Sand and dirt are frequent materials recommended for STEM work in early childhood education. I saw firsthand how sand, dirt and collaboration all came together with the hole digging project.  I’m certain it will be followed by many similar projects, at the Seed and in the individual lives of children.

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Makers

tie dye shirtIt’s no secret that innovation is on our minds.  As we pursue the conversation, timely and relevant material keeps coming our way.   The idea of innovation fits perfectly with our staff’s growing interest in incorporating more of the STEM activities (science, technology, engineering and math) into the curriculum at all levels.  We’re devoting this year to taking a close look at our current practices and reflecting on how we can adjust the curriculum to add depth and meaning to all of our students’ learning.  Always we keep in mind what is best practice for children.  John Dewey, one of America’s greatest educational reformers, once said, “ The school must represent present life — life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”  We take this idea seriously as we balance out the twin responsibilities of giving children a full childhood and at the same time ensuring that they are prepared to meet their futures academically, socially and emotionally.

Our work with innovation has brought us to the idea of “makers,” a term that has been furthered by the work of Dale Dougherty (http://www.ted.com/talks/dale_dougherty_we_are_makers).  Dougherty explains that America was built by makers, and making, fueled by curiosity, inspires innovation.  This is not a new idea to the Seed, having been makers throughout our careers, both on the teacher and student level.  STEM education is filled with endless invitations for children to be makers.  Already this year children have tested out their creative hypotheses with everything from tin foil and pipe cleaners to index cards with a small amount of tape.  What’s equally exciting is that STEM is now evolving into STEAM, adding in the arts.  This works for the Seed, giving our artists free range as engineers.  Angelo Patri, in Invent to Learn:  Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, said, “Playrooms and games, animals and plants, wood and nails must take their place side-by-side with books and words.”  The power of this blending is immense.

You’ll have a first-hand exposure to our artist-engineers next Thursday when we bring out the dyes for the Seed’s annual Tie Dye and Tile Painting Day.  One of the school’s most popular events, children and parents will make beautiful art in a big way as they twist and tie rubber bands, marbles and other small objects into a shirt.  Color blending will follow, bringing science into the picture.  Each artist will leave for the day with a surprise in a bag.  On Monday morning, an array of colorful new shirts will fill the Seed’s hallway.  It will be a celebration of makers, a splash of color, a burst of inspiration for all the world to see.

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