All posts by Matt Karlsen

Staying Close

Through Opal School’s courses, I’ve been in conversations with teachers whose learning communities are impacted by the Covid 19 pandemic in the full range of manners: Some, like Opal’s Beginning School, are meeting in person, navigating the challenges of temperature checks and sterilization; others, like Opal’s elementary school, are striving for playful connection in online gatherings;  still more are combining the two or dancing between one and the other as conditions shift.  Here in Portland, we are deeply in the midst of the crisis, experiencing shutdowns and holidays without family gatherings – but I correspond with colleagues in Australia, who write of how life has returned to (almost) normal as their public health responses have led to a close to total eradication of the virus.

Regardless of that range of public health dictates around social distancing, we all strive to create learning communities of connection and proximity – because that’s where humans thrive. 

In the spring, early in the crisis, I was touched by the words of Bill McKibben:

What’s the thing that most people miss above all? It’s just the chance to be gregarious, to be with other people. Human beings are socially evolved primates. It wasn’t that many generations ago that we were sitting on the floor of the Savannah picking lice out of each other’s fur. So, it’s hard to be told not to go touch people, hug people, be near people, talk to people, shake hands – all the things that we’re used to. When we get out of detention, I hope it will be a reminder to us how much social distancing we’ve been doing already these last few decades, how much we’ve retreated into a world of screens.  I think that we might – just might – prize each other a little bit more – and that if we do, we can begin to see how, in that pleasure, we might begin to replace some of the consumption that… drives every environmental challenge that we face.  Who knows?  It’s also possible that we’ll just set up all the pins in the bowling alley again.

Now, as vaccines promise a not-so-distant shift into something new, I listen to Agustín Fuentes:

When you talk about humans, our niche is social, through and through. Humans are never really alone. Even when we’re by ourselves spatially, like sitting in a room, our thoughts are filled with others; our bodies are even potentially carrying the skin cells of others and a variety of other things. So we are always thinking with and about other people, even when we’re not with them. In fact, our resting neurobiological state, like when you’re at complete rest, the default state of the brain is social. It’s the same one that turns on for social interactions.

So that means that over evolutionary time, the bodies, the structures of being human have adapted to and integrated themselves into the system where the social is everything. The psychologist Michael Tomasello says this great phrase: “a fish is born expecting water; a human is born expecting culture.” And so if we step out and think of the culture, the social, all of that dynamics as the water we live and breathe and move in, and how it shapes us and we shape it, then that statement makes sense.

McKibben and Fuentes point to how a social-constructivist approach of playful inquiry is not just a fun and beautiful way of approaching learning: it’s also rooted in what we know about our species.  As Devin (age 10) told us, it’s all about the brine we are soaking in:

We are like a cucumber and when we are soaked in something like the goals and expectations we are a pickle so we are always used to connecting and doing things around the Opal goals and expectations, so when you are a pickle you cannot change back into a cucumber.

That effort to identify, develop, and maintain Devin’s brine, Fuentes’ niche and Tomasello’s water, McKibben’s reach for continuity back to the Savannah, was always a stretch for schools – and it has been truly strained this year.  Our ability to connect across distances has been tested and the long-term damage remains to be seen.

Fuentes, again from the same interview:

One of my great fears is that people are not paying enough attention to the psychophysiological, or more specifically put, the neuroendocrinological, the hormone physiology and brain impacts of what we’re doing now. This lack of connections, these distancings, even though they’re so important for overall health and for societal and economic health, we need to be aware that we have to find some way to keep social, because our bodies and our minds are being damaged by not being around other people, not touching other people.

Many of you reading this are heading into a holiday break.  A time typically hallmarked by closeness will be strained.  May paying attention to that feeling – to that diminishment –inform our hopes and commitments to our work with children and each other going forward. For those of you who are game, I think that Susan’s new Beautiful Learning course would be a great place to grow these ideas.

Wishing all of you a new year of growth, joy, and meaning.

The election, politics, and young children

In this election season, many of us are energized to deepen both our political advocacy and our pedagogy.

I believe that we all need to be highly politically involved right now, whether that involvement is inspired by our commitment to children’s present and their future, or our responsibility as Americans, or our understanding that Black Lives Matter. We need to be politically involved because we know that at the border families are being torn apart, that nursing mothers and their infants are being separated, that children and adults are being caged, that women are enduring forced hysterectomies.  Because we know that violent white supremacy is being emboldened. Because we are outraged by climate catastrophe and originalism and indoctrination education and the dismantlement of electoral systems.

Because of all that, we need to step up: to vote and encourage our families and friends and neighbors to vote and to text and phone bank and send postcards and canvass and monitor polling stations and protest and prepare for what comes next.

That is what is demanded of each of us – that is our responsibility as adults in America today.

But I don’t think it is what’s called up on for young children.

When I think about the gifts of childhood – when I think  about what it means to have a strong image of young children as intelligent and competent and creative, as people constantly making meaning of the world, I don’t think that’s the same as saying that I think they are well equipped to analyzing the Iran weapons treaty or the Commerce Clause or the past and future of the Voting Rights Act.  Young children’s lives are shaped by the wider politics – and we need to be guided by an understanding that these children have a right to participate in civic society in meaningful ways. We need to recognize that their imagination and courage holds the potential to inspire all.  

To do that, we have to reflect on the extent to which all of our work with children has a political dimension.

Some people will tell you that working with young children shouldn’t be political – but we know that it always is.  That was really clear to me the other day when I was talking with a teacher who was taking one of Opal School’s online professional development courses.  She explained that, under Covid, her early childhood center has spent as much of the day outside as possible.  And when they are outside, the children are constantly finding worms.  

When they find the worms, they get to choose: They can lift the worms up and bring them over to the garden, sending them off to lives of bliss.  Or, they can feed the worms to the chickens.

What a profound ethical quandary these very young children are faced with! 

Let’s consider some of the many political dimensions of this landscape.  

That the school offers the children the opportunity to make this choice?  Political.

That the school offers the children only these two choices?  Political.

That each child is free to make their own choice regarding the outcome for each worm? Political.

Whether these decisions are made privately or deliberated over publicly?  Political.

If the decision was voted on with a majority holding sway? Or by consensus? Political.

For most children, entrance into early childhood programs is their first journey into a public space – a first time to encounter perspectives different than those of their families, to begin to develop their own voice and stance about these differences, to develop a vision of how their participation might be welcomed and experienced, to form their first relationship with authority outside the family.  And our intentions for what we want of that experience are profoundly political.

I identify with a political mission in education that aligns with advancing democracy. I know that many of you have been thinking about how to defend – and extend – democracy.  For me, that means shifting the way in which power functions in our communities.  We can explore relationships of power with, to, and within – and work against oppressive systems of power.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer called on all of us to exercise humility and chutzpah.

He wrote, 

By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it. By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be truth at all – so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to “the other,” as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction. Humility plus chutzpah equals the kinds of citizens a democracy needs. There is no reason, at least no good reason, why our number cannot be legion.

Of course, it takes more than two words to name the qualities we need today. Here are five interlocking habits of the heart – the first three related to humility, the last two to chutzpah. Such habits [are] deeply ingrained patterns of receiving, interpreting, and responding to experience that involve our intellects, emotions, self-images, and concepts of meaning and purpose. These five habits, taken together, are crucial to sustaining a democracy.

We must understand that we are all in this together….

We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”….

We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways….

We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency….

We must strengthen our capacity to create community. (pp 43-45)

We will be called on to exercise these habits in our work with children – and with our colleagues – and in our broader civic communities over the coming weeks.  Let’s look to each other to find courage and imagination in doing that.

Playful Inquiry and Politically Charged Topics

This post comes from our colleague Ben Mardell and is also posted on the Pedagogy of Play blog.

Persistent and pernicious racism and inequality. Hurricanes and wildfires of historic proportion. A pandemic that is increasing poverty and causing famines. Incredibly serious issues whose consequences young people will not only confront when they are finished with their schooling, but issues that also are impacting them now on a daily basis.

As an educator committed to bringing more playful learning into schools I wonder:  

What is the role of schools in addressing these and other serious topics?

How can playful learning support inquiry into serious topics?

What does such playful learning look like in practice?

On Monday, October 5th, my PoP colleague Mara Krechevsky and I, along with our friends Susan MacKay and Matt Karlsen from Opal School, will examine these questions. As part of World Education Week, Opal is one of 100 schools from around the globe being showcased for its innovative practices. Our hour-long webinar, Engaging Ambiguity, Emotion, and Power: Invigorating democratic imagination through Playful Inquiry, begins at 5 pm GMT (1 pm in New York; 10:00 am in Portland).  

You won’t be surprised that our answer to the first question about the role of schools in addressing serious issues is clear: a big one. We believe students, from an early age, have the right to engage, in developmentally appropriate ways, in issues of consequence.  

So how can playful learning support inquiry into serious topics, and what does this look like in practice?  To answer these questions, Susan and Matt will share a story from Opal they call Inventing a Way Forward. The story involves a group of predominantly white, middle-class, 4th and 5th graders and how they and their teachers co-constructed an experience that connected the personal, local, and global – both past and present—to issues involving power and privilege. Specifically, Susan has written:

Throughout the school year the group played out the inevitable kinds of power struggles that are part of the life of any community. As we began studying the operation of the United States government, my co-teacher and I invited the children to work collaboratively to design a governing structure for their classroom community. By mid-April, the personal feelings that impacted our local classroom community had a strong resemblance to what we were seeing play out on the world stage.  In particular, a group of children that had taken responsibility for operating the classroom library were increasingly livid with another group of children who refused to support the systems they put in place. When the tension began to run especially high, I met with this group and listened to their concerns. Interestingly, the group that was pushing so hard on the library were the children who were most used to being in charge, to voicing their strong opinions, and being listened to by others. Power and privilege is as local as it is global. But only on this local scale do we have a chance to go into it head on—to face it and tackle it in a real way.  

At the same time the class read chapters from Ronald Takaki’s (2012) young people’s edition of A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America and we had another problem. We had asked the children to work in small groups to re-write the experiences of the protagonists in a chapter of their choice – both the powerful and the marginalized. We asked them to create a skit that would show what might have happened if things had gone differently and those in power had been willing to share it.

The children said, “Not a problem” and they enjoyed their work as they found ways to retell the history in their chapter. But when the class came together to share for the first time, they discovered that every one of the groups in their own way had the same problem. They could all walk right up to the confrontation – to the moment when the powerful would find a way to redistribute the power making things more equitable —  and then they got stuck. Those with privilege and power had little motivation to give their power away. They all thought those who were oppressed could protest, threaten, or fight back, but they could find no reasonable way for both sides to get the relationship to move in a new, more fair direction. They couldn’t imagine it.

In the October 5th webinar, Susan and Matt will share the rest of the story and how the class found a way forward. We’ll also engage participants in the research process Opal School educators use to supports the creation of relationships and learning experiences that lead to meaningful democratic participation.  

To sign up for the session use this link:  

Click on the green registration button

Scroll down about 20 listings to 17:00pm to select our session…in the system it’s titled Playful inquiry: engaging children in democratic processes.

Racism. Wildfires. The pandemic. The issues I named at the start of this post can feel overwhelming and lead to despair. And I have found hope in the commitment, creativity and caring of educators at Opal School, and other schools, where young people are given the opportunity and support to engage in these issues and imagine futures where we create more just societies. Similarly, I hope that our session provides you with images of possibilities and promise.

An ecology of listening

“What’s the thing that most people miss above all? It’s just the chance to be gregarious, to be with other people. Human beings are socially evolved primates. It wasn’t that many generations ago that we were sitting on the floor of the Savannah picking lice out of each other’s fur. So, it’s hard to be told not to go touch people, hug people, be near people, talk to people, shake hands – all the things that we’re used to. When we get out of detention, I hope it will be a reminder to us how much social distancing we’ve been doing already these last few decades…  I think that we might – just might – prize each other a little bit more – and that if we do, we can begin to see how, in that pleasure, we might begin to replace some of the consumption that… drives every environmental challenge that we face.  Who knows?  It’s also possible that we’ll just set up all the pins in the bowling alley again.”

Bill McKibben

At Opal School, part of the way we resist holding each other at a distance and habitually resetting the bowling pins is our annual summer symposium.  For most of the last two decades, we’ve followed the completion of the school year energetically sifting through what we’ve collected, reflecting on what we’ve learned, how it has changed us, and what new questions we’re ready to ask.  We’ve then opened our doors to fellow educators from around the world, eager to explore these stories and questions together.  We’ve organized around themes of common concern: recent years have explored Growing Changemakers, Inventing the World, A Pedagogy of Play, and Education, The Arts, and Democracy.

Being together for those three days in June – with each other and with you – is transformative. It moves us out of the bowling alley, inviting new ways to play with ideas and possibilities.

This year, as we considered what has been particularly alive in our community, we selected the topic of An Ecology of Listening

We have been asking,

  • What is the relationship between Playful Inquiry, teacher-research, and anti-racist, pro-democracy, social justice education?
  • How do we create a culture where listening is transformational for all? 
  • How does documentation of practice support development of theories that lead to new practices and new theories? How can we help each other stay open to the unknown?

In those questions, we heard echoes of the early years of our symposia, which were all called A Pedagogy of Listening and Relationships. We recognized that our thinking had evolved towards seeing that pedagogy as an ecosystem – and we knew we wanted to crack that open with others. 

We articulated that title and those questions before the pandemic hit, causing us to close our school doors and cover our faces.  I’m thankful that we came to the questions first – because I don’t know if we would have come to them during this crisis, and they feel meaningful, important, and transcendent. 

Rather than the three days we’ve gathered in Portland in previous years, we’ve imagined a rich month together, which will go like this:

  • For three weeks beginning June 10, we’ll be sharing new content on Wednesdays and Fridays
  • On Saturdays, we’ll invite you to make meaning of that content using tools of the arts. 
  • On Tuesdays, we’ll bring you together to chat with other participants to reflect on your experiences and imagine new possibilities 
  • After three weeks of that pattern, we’ll bring back many of the presenters to discuss participant response to their contributions – and their response to each other’s.

Recognizing that we’ll never hit a schedule that works equally well for Seattle, Stockholm, and Singapore (and that within each of those locations, daily demands vary greatly), participants never have to be “live” at the same time – everything will be recorded to match a schedule that works for each participant – although there will be some opportunities for live connections.

With the launch a little less than a month away, we wanted to invite you to dig into these questions through a few readings. (Symposium participants, you’ll find these gathered for you in the course.)

  • Carlina Rinaldi is one of the thinkers who first led us to consider our work as a pedagogy of listening and relationships.  Her 2004 essay, The Relationship between Documentation and Assessment, opens doors to thinking about this ecology.
  • Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s Biased uncovers how our predictive dispositions guide all of our encounters. We invite you to read Chapter Two from the book to provoke new thinking about how a stance of staying open to recategorization and greater possibility from the youngest years opens doors to dismantling systems of oppression. If you don’t yet own the book, you can buy the Kindle version here for $1.99.
  • That idea of playfulness around “what else could it be?” is an animating force in Anne Pelo and Margie Carter’s From Teaching to Thinking.  In “Creating a Culture of Inquiry”, they propose ways to hold the tension of conflicting ideas.
  • Lastly, we suggest reading David Bohm’s “On Dialogue” to illustrate that space we might hold with each other – and you might hold with children – as we talk.

We hope these readings will get you talking: let’s try using #OpalSymposium20 on Twitter.

While we are unable to sit aside each other, hugging and shaking hands as we have in previous years, we can lean towards each other as we create a productive solidarity — as we speak and listen together.

The Max MacKay Rule: Decision-Making in the Time of COVID-19

These last days have come at us hard and fast. As we continue to respond and adapt, all of us at Opal School hope that we can continue to serve as a resource to your efforts to grow and thrive.

Yesterday, I received this from our friend Ben Mardell. While it’s not the kind of post you typically find on this website, it felt important to publish. Our community needs to be one not solely defined by how we work with children, but by how we strive to live in the world.

from Ben:

An obvious disclaimer: I have no special expertise to bring to bear on understanding the current global pandemic. I am neither an M.D., a public health professional, nor a biologist. And like my fellow non-experts, I am making daily decisions that, on an individual level seem insignificant, but on an aggregate level are extraordinarily consequential. While there is no clear guidance for making these decisions, I have adopted the Max MacKay rule to guide my behavior.

Here is the rule: make all my decisions–be that to hold an important meeting online or in person, or have dinner with friends—as if the life of someone who is dear to me depends on it. Prioritize minimizing contact, “flattening the curve,” and avoid contributing to the inadvertent spread of disease. Keep Max MacKay—who here represents millions and millions of at-risk people—in mind.

Max MacKay is the 19-year-old son of Susan MacKay. I actually have never met Max, but know his mother Susan, the Pedagogical Director of Portland Children’s Museum and Opal School in Portland, Oregon, who is one of the most gifted educators I know. Last summer, just before Max was supposed to start university, he was diagnosed with cancer. Treatment put him in remission and he was able to start his studies and even resume playing lacrosse. Then, in November, it was discovered the cancer had reappeared and spread. He is in the middle of an aggressive treatment regime.

On Saturday, Susan sent out the following message about Max:

Max should have started high-dose chemo yesterday and had his first stem cell transplant next Tuesday. But on Wednesday afternoon we learned that, because of Covid-19, it is too dangerous to proceed. We had to grind the recovery train we had been riding for weeks to a halt. The good good good absolutely wonderful news is that the CT scan he had this week showed that the treatment he’s had so far is working. His lungs are clear of perceptible cancer and the tumor in his belly has shrunk to about the size it was when we started in May. That buys us a little time. But given how aggressively this cancer grows it isn’t much time. A couple of weeks.

Plan B is to head to Los Angeles to have the RPLND surgery done at USC. The doctor said, “yes” on Wednesday to our doctor here — and that’s all we know. So when we read things like there are soon to be 75,000 cases of Covid-19 in Oregon, or that the doctors in Seattle only have 4 days’ worth of gloves left, or that within 10 days our hospital systems will be overwhelmed, and we don’t get a call back from LA for two days, I wonder whether the treatment will move forward. I wonder whether people think we have plenty of time, or that they know we don’t have any at all.

And then what?

I don’t think anyone knows. But the cancer doesn’t care. 

The Max MacKay rule is a planning tool, not an evaluative one. Some of us have spacious, second homes we can retreat to while waiting out the current situation; some of us live in cramped one-bedroom apartments. Some of us are empty nesters; some of us have young children at home. Some of us have great health insurance and guaranteed income; some of us don’t have access to clean water in order to wash hands. And of course, some have essential jobs. And all of us need to make decisions and change our behavior.

I am keeping Max in mind when I make my decisions.

I’m lucky because I have a good friend who does have expertise, which he shares generously. Dan Kass worked for the New York City Health Department and now is part of the leadership team at Vital Strategies, a global public health NGO. In explaining the current situation to me he said, “We just don’t know enough about the course this disease will take. We all have to take this very seriously, for our own health and for the health of others.” For me, this means adopting the Max MacKay rule.

Making biases visible

Last week, families gathered to discuss how work currently happening at Opal School supports knowledge and dispositions central to social justice and global citizenship. Families heard short stories from each of the classrooms to explore those connections.  

As we continue to grow into this work, we feel it’s important to do so in conversation with parents – recognizing the vulnerability doing so demands, as we recognize gaps between where we are and where we hope to be.  We’ll extend that vulnerability to you.

As you read Kye Ginger’s reflection on what is happening in the Dogwood community of first- and second-graders, what do you notice? What do you wonder about? 

Global citizenship, like so much of social justice work, doesn’t happen once and it’s over.  This work is never perfect. It’s practice. Really important practice. Perhaps, when we view our mistakes (and the mistakes of others) without shame, they might even be the catalyst for change.  

I was curious about the role of practice as children continued to try to navigate what it means to be seen and have a voice in a community. Many children have been finding out that in their desire to be heard, they were simultaneously stepping on or ignoring other children’s ideas.  We decided to read a book called Invisible Boy. I thought this book could remind us how human it can be, how often unintentional it can be, to not see someone else – AND how important it is to see clearly, to really tune in and listen.  

In the book, a child is described as invisible.  We wanted to unpack with the children why this might be happening.  Dogwood couldn’t agree on a why at first.

Some of their initial thoughts included:

I think [his invisibility] is partly his fault because he’s not standing up for himself. 

I think they don’t really want to be his friend.  

He’s not choosing to be invisible, but he’s not doing anything about [being invisible]. 

Everybody that said he should try to be more assertive. It’s a lot harder when you’re the actual person. They literally try to find anything to try and bully you with.  

After being asked, “Why do you think they don’t want him to be on the team?”, one child noticed that there is a line in the story that might help with the problem and he said it back in his own words.  He noticed that it says, “He’s not good [at the sport] and he’s not their friend and the categories are friends or good players.” 

They began to discover a tension.  Many realized that in order to really see someone else, you had to play with them – but that it’s easier to play with friends you already know, which might mean that you too are more likely to see your friends and the friends of your friends. 

They realized that could mean people in Dogwood might be invisible, too. 

During the read aloud they knew they didn’t want THAT to happen in Dogwood.  They wanted people to feel visible. So, the teachers decided to have a Partner-Explore to see if they could put this theory in action.  Partner-Explore has many purposes, but for this one we asked that they find a bridge buddy, or someone who they had not played with yet this year, with the task to notice them as they played.  We saw that when they went to Partner-Explore that very thing they didn’t want to happen, happened. We saw quite a few had wandered from people bridge buddies to find those more familiar peers, struggled to share their ideas, or take in the ideas of others.

Afterwards, we asked if they were surprised that some people had said they had felt invisible during this time.

It doesn’t surprise me [that people felt invisible] because people who are friends with people they would always feel visible, but if you go off with a person that feels like a bridge you might not play together much so you might not feel visible. I think it’s part of how Partner-Explore works.

It did surprise me, because my partner said she felt visible and I felt visible 

Some suggested that invisible might be something we miss if we don’t really try to see it.  Before they went off again the next day, they decided on what action to take if they thought they felt invisible or someone else felt invisible.  They listed ideas like snapping ideas together, planning before starting, and being flexible.

After two more days with the same partner, we asked them to reflect one more time on how their choices supported them to get what they wanted – a space where they felt visible, and, if someone felt invisible, they knew what to do to help them be seen again.

One student said about this time together, “It changed how I thought about him.”  When asked if they carried an assumption, another said, “I did originally, but I don’t anymore.” 

During this work, so many found that they had things in common with people they didn’t think they had anything in common with.  Their choices, like to “just ask her idea and I’ll try to include her ideas” created new friendships. One student reflected, “[My partner and I] weren’t really friends and making something together made us friends.  Maybe because we worked together instead of someone just working alone. We didn’t take the risk [before] but when we were together it grew friendship.” This makes me wonder: What other risks might the children be willing to take for friendship?  For connection? It leaves me wondering, What new ways will we discover together to playfully unpack the biases in the room? How might noticing our biases, and the mistakes we make because of them, help them see and unpack biases outside of our classroom?  How might that inspire us to take action, knowing we will need to take risks as we make even more mistakes along the way?

Visitation Days 2020: New Models for Friendship

Last week, nearly 100 educators from around the world gathered at Opal School to uncover principles of Playful Inquiry and imagine greater opportunities for learning in their unique settings.

You can get a hint of the experience in these participant voices:

Amazing, insightful, inspiring, game changer. It has shown/taught/offered me a new way of being in my classroom: with courage, vulnerability, empathy, and awareness. Thank you for offering a new and much needed way of guiding students minds and hearts in unbelievable ways.  [I am] energized beyond belief!

I do not think there is a way for me to put into words the value this visit has provided. The value is priceless.  I have been rejuvenated and reminded of why becoming a teacher will be the most courageous choice I make while also realizing the extreme honor it is to work with children.

I can not wait one more second to get back to my classroom and implement new ideas and practices. We are going to have so much fun with the new possibilities.

There were challenges presented to me (through stories and observations) that I was not expecting to experience coming here. My teacher heart was opened in new ways.

This time, I have been more able to truly see how you have so beautifully created environments where learning is democracy. I see more clearly how I might help our students to truly become active citizens who are hopeful and know they can make a positive difference in the world. 

I gained such a deeper understanding.  I used to think playful inquiry wasn’t deep thinking kind of work.  I know now that it is.  It is also the commitment of a truly dedicated educator.

I am super energized. This is exactly what I needed (I didn’t know it though until now.) My work has become overwhelming and at times frustrating but this has given me the shot I needed!

The experience included time spent exploring classroom environments, observing school in session, considering presentations, using arts materials to deepen thinking, and reflecting and conversing with fellow participants and Opal School staff.

The following is a brief peek into one of last week’s presentations. The full presentation is available for viewing by Members here.

If you attended the February Visitation Days, we thank you for spending your time with us and hope to see you at this year’s Summer Symposium and future years’ Visitation Days. If you missed last week’s retreat, you still have time to sign up for one of the upcoming sessions in March, April, and May.

When your light goes out

Weekly, the Opal School elementary community starts its day with a community gathering. It’s a time when all four classes, along with many family members, come together in the theater to sing some songs and hear about what new ideas are sparking.

The Cottonwood Community of kindergartners and first-graders led this week’s gathering. They sang a song they’re writing about the “Friendship Tree” idea they’ve been exploring. Sarah explained that there are diverse ideas about this phenomenon: Some children believe that love is magically pouring out of the tree, while others propose that it’s the way in which they relate to the tree that is forging those bonds of friendship.

As is often the case at these community gatherings, the class asked the larger group if others had questions for them to clarify or deepen their ideas.

When a parent asked where the idea of the Friendship Tree came from, a child responded,

We were thinking about friendship in our community.

At Opal, we spend a lot of time with trees.

So, we knew there needed to be a friendship tree.

A pretty simple mathematical formula. Children are constant innovators – always building and creating – and yet what they create is going to be reflective of where they are and the questions they are asked, of the larger environment.

When another person asked Why do you need the friendship tree, almost every child’s hand went up.

One child responded,

So if anyone feels sad –

or if one of their friendship lights go out –

we can go to the Friendship Tree to fix it.

Because if lights go out, we want to fix it.

Children know a lot about pain. They want to be a part of healing it. Wonderful that they get to explore and respond to that with metaphor and song and each other.

Book Club: Inventology, Parts 3 & 4

I hope that you’ve been enjoying reading Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World – and that the Framework for Inspiring Inventiveness has been helpful in connecting the ideas Kennedy is exploring to the school experience.

I proposed a flow for our conversations here. The entry for Introduction and Parts One and Two is here.

Part Three calls attention to the role of imagination in invention; Part Four, the importance of connecting across boundaries.

What stood out to you in Parts 3 and 4? How does your reading inspire new possibilities and questions for your practice? How does your reading lead you to new eyes on schooling today? What connections are you drawing to the Framework for Inspiring Inventiveness?

Some things that I’d love to discuss:

  • Martin Cooper talks about how his “mind has been floating around forever, which is not a very good attribute for somebody who wants to be an executive.” (p. 105)
  • Alan Kay is a proponent of the Wayne Gretzky Game, inviting people to “imagine ‘something that would be cool to have, or important to have,’ rather than a solution to a problem.” (p. 116)
  • Myron Stolaroff “recognized that a new era was coming and that a new kind of imagination would be required. The scientists and engineers who could create the most vivid mental pictures would be the ones who designed the future.” (p. 127)
  • “A recent study revealed that about a quarter of the female subjects and two-thirds of the men preferred to endure electrical shocks rather than sit alone with their own thoughts for fifteen minutes. For many people, the imagination is like the summit of Mount Everest, where the view is transcendent but the air is too thin to breathe.” (p. 135)
  • TRIZ proposes that “our minds are ‘shackled’ by what we already know”; “faced with… paradox, your imagination may shut down, and you may find you can’t seem to generate any ideas”; and “by embracing the impossibly ideal, we can transform the way we see the problem and open ourselves up to new strategies for finding a solution.” (pp. 145-147)
  • “Breakthroughs often happen when we allow unlikely collaborators and odd bedfellows to share our problems, or when we leap across boundaries.” (p. 158)
  • New ideas can thrive in a “zone of permission”. (p. 159)
  • “If you want to get people to think out of the box, do not create the box in the first place.” (p. 177)
  • “We tend to think of invention as a politically neutral activity, but it is not…. Inventing, at its best, can be a form of civic engagement…. Pushing for change usually requires facing off against powerful interests that have a stake in the status quo.” (pp. 187-189)

What school conditions support the “inventology” Kennedy is exploring?  What stands in the way? How are you navigating that space?

I hope that you will share your thoughts in the comments section below. Keep an eye out for a “slow chat” about the book on Twitter in January!

The Danger of The Guillotine

For the second year in a row, Opal School hosted a “Rising Educators Study Tour” for high school students who study approaches to early childhood education and apply that learning in a school-based center.  It’s a rare treat for us to learn with people at that stage of life.

As we often do, we spent part of the day focused on (and experiencing) the role of the arts as languages for learning.  

Offering wire and foil, we asked:

How can these materials reveal your emerging theories regarding your role in cultivating playful inquiry?

Walking around the room, I checked in with different participants about what they were discovering as they engaged with the materials.

I was surprised when a participant showed her creation: a guillotine.

As we both laughed, I asked her about the relationship between the question and her creation.

I love guillotines, she told me.  I know a lot about them.  

I wondered aloud about how her guillotine might help her consider the question.  

For a while, we were stuck.

Then, it hit me.

By nature of being on the planet for different lengths of time, adults know all sorts of things that younger people don’t.

If the adult thinks that their relationship with younger people should be dominated by telling that younger person all the things that they know that the other doesn’t, it doesn’t go well.  It really decapitates learning.

She laughed.  I got the feeling that she was quite familiar with that relationship.

Her work with wire and foil – in a quite unexpected  way – led to a big realization: What brings you joy is not what you need to share with children. Instead, reflecting on what brings you joy helps you construct experiences that lead children to find theirs.