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Friday Update – The Week in Pictures 03.14.14

Here are the Highlights and Ask Me Abouts for this week.



Removing the tape from our newly painted walls to reveal the "old blue tape murals."


Improv Work – We have been playing a lot of drama improv games in the classroom for the last couple of weeks. These games are supporting our work in dramatic play, "Historically Realistic Play," and our community building work.  Last week we focused our work in invitation and acceptance – inviting someone into a dramatic partnership and accepting someone else's invitation.  This week we focused on relationships and intention.  In the photo above, partner one was on a camping trip and going to sleep.  Partner two chose the relationship she had with partner two, a relationship that was important to her, and then set an intention – decided what she wanted from partner one.  The rest of the partner drama work was spent in negotiating the outcome of that intention. 

In another example, if partner one is riding a scooter, partner two might decide that he is partner one’s younger brother, and he wants to ride scooters with partner one.  Partner two can initiate conversation with partner one, but partner two tries not to give away how they are related or what he wants, he just acts from that place.  The children were so engaged in this play!  They played out their relationships so authentically and had the opportunity to practice perspective taking (Who is she?  What does she want from me?) and staying in character (Should I let her play with me?  Is that how the big brother would act?  How might our relationship be affected if I push her away?)

I am so impressed with Opal 4’s work in drama!  They have such a great sense of ensemble, knowing each other and what the group needs, and they are so skilled at the act of inviting each other into drama-based relationships and at accepting invitations from each other.  Our classroom buzzes while we are doing drama exercises – the power of ensemble and of community is palpable!


Authors' Tea – celebrating published memoirs, reading them with our favorite adults


and reading them with each other.


Studying more about our colonies in 1750.  These boys are comparing a map of Manhattan from 1750 to the one they found on Google Maps.  How exciting to see Broad Way Street (Broadway) and the Battery at Fort George (Battery Park) on both maps!


Then going out into the Arboretum to "find" all of these places in the colony spaces.  Here the Georgians investigate the swamp land in which they will plant the rice fields on their rice plantation.  The two girls with their backs to the camera are trying to decide where the Big House and the slave quarters should be.


More investigating in the Georgia swamp land.


Using blue tape to get our new colonies on the classroom walls.  This is Lower Manhattan coming to life on top of the old mural of Leiden, Holland.


The Big House on the Georgia rice plantation on top of the old Wampanoag Village


And math — the fourth graders work with fraction circles to see how many ways they can combine fractions to make one half.  They are also working on landmark fractions this week and determining whether any given fraction is less than 1/2, more than 1/2, or more than 1. 

The fifth graders are also continuing their study of fractions.  They are focused more on ratios and rates.

Ask Me Abouts

Which colony am I in?  Where is our place in the Arboretum?  Do I know where my character might spend time there?  Doing what activity?  What is my role in the new blue tape mural?

What did my partner and I do in our improv work this week?  Was I partner one or partner two? What was our relationship?  What was the intention?  How is this work like the Clear Message strategy we use in our classroom?  What is ensemble?  What happened when we played the counting game as a whole class?

How is the OAKS reading test going?  Did I finish this week?  What strategies did I use to help me stay focused and make sure I was doing my best?  Did I try one of the new whisper phones?

What am I looking forward to for next week?


Thinking About the Role of Provocation

I am writing this blog post from an airplane at 35,000 feet, on my way to New York City for a three day visit with family.  What a stark contrast to the traveling we have been reenacting in our classroom this week!  On Wednesday morning, the students of Opal 4 were all passengers on a ship in 1750.  The ship left the pier in Dover, England with some passengers on board:


gentlemen and one lady traveling first class as guests of the captain,


passengers who could pay for tickets and were assigned bedsteads in berths,


and a handful of indentured servants.  It was common for Europeans who could not afford the passage to the British colonies sign an indenture contract, to agree to work as a servant for a specified number of years in for room, board, and sometimes, wages, and, following completion of their indenture, they would be free.  Some of the indentured servants on our ship entered into contracts like this while others were kidnapped from the dock and forced onto the ship and into the life of an indentured servant.

As the ship set sail, the passengers dined according to their station.



The first class passengers had fresh fruit,



the ticketed passengers cooked and ate their porridge,


and the indentured servants ate what they could of ships biscuits, avoiding the worms.  Along the journey, the ship stopped on the west coast of Africa and picked up a load of what the captain called, "human cargo." 


These African slaves were packed into the hold and then the ship set sail again.  

Stepping out of character, I asked the children to take some time to look around the room and see what their ship looked like, who was on it, and what sort of journey they were having.


Then we invited them to go write – what journal entry would your character from the ship record?

I never would have thought of being parted from my family, thrown onto a ship, eat nothing but dirt-filled water, worm-filled crackers, fatal throwing up… but it happened.  I got kidnapped from my family. I had no choice.  At 15, thrown onto a ship.
        -BC as a kidnapped Indentured Servant

Today we were taken by the English and jammed into a small cargo hold with big chains dropped over me.  On our land we are free to go where ever we want.  We have all the space in the world and now we are cuffed up and thrown into a rotting pool of feces.
        -SE, as a captured slave

May 20, 1750 – Journey to the New World
The journey has been very rough. The second class passengers are very in control. Someone almost killed another. The slaves and servants are disgusting. All dirty and sick adn stinky. The bread, dried fruit and tea was very, very good. What does the New World look like?  What are the people like? Does the climate change? The captain and first mate are kind and generous. I just love first class sailing. I have never been on a ship before.
        -DW, traveling first class

I was in a berth without a blanket. Everybody else had blankets, but not me. Later I cooked some mush and ate about 3/4 of it and then gave the rest to a young indentured servant that was starving. It smelled gross, so bad that I held my shirt over my nose the whole time. Then we had a storm. I barfed and barfed and barfed. I was cold, really cold. I left my mom and dad and two brothers. I left my friends and my dog. I was sad but happy. I could be free!
        -OD, traveling second class

The storyline ends here for now, with the children all on the ship, in different groups, as they take their three month journey across the Atlantic together.  We teachers are listening to the children to try to decide where their journeys will end. 

Teacher Reflection

This experience made me think about the role of provocation in the classroom. What do we do, as teachers, to provoke the children to respond – to think, to wonder, to engage in the work and life of the classroom?  Then, how do we position ourselves to listen for a response? 

This day was so rich – the provocation of the ship drama took only a short amount of time to play out. After the children wrote their responses, we took them into the Arboretum to an area where we hadn't been before and invited them to play.  They all quickly took on the roles of their new characters – finding people to play with them, setting up households and plotlines to support their play. 


I was surprised by how deeply they connected with these new characters right away and how they were so eager to continue playing in these new roles.

I wonder how much of the response I saw this day was a result of the drama we staged for them, the provocation, and how much I can attribute to the children being so comfortable and well versed in the art of dramatic, "historically imaginative" play?  Or is the nature of a classroom based on provocation and response one where all of those things must live together and don't need to be teased apart?

And what from this experience will feel important as our work moves forward?


The Power of Story Part 1

“When we say ‘old friend’, what we really mean is, I know your story and you know mine.” 

~Ralph Fletcher, Writing instructor/Author


The Power of Story

In January we hosted a curriculum night for Beginning School parents on the topic, The Power of Story. We enjoyed meeting with many who were able to attend, and hope in this post to both revisit and reach out to those who were not able to make it by touching on some of what was shared.  Although we won't try to re-create the whole evening for everyone, we will pull out some key points, with examples that were shared to illustrate the points.

 Why Story? 

– To connect with one another
- To make meaning of our experiences and the world around us 
– To feel a sense of belonging 
– Stories take care of us 
Of course there are many more points to ponder, as far as WHY STORY, however these are big ideas that ground our work, and which we spent some time discussing together.   
Stories are a way that we share a bit of ourselves with one another and connect with one another, so of course this was how we started out evening, inviting parents to share what they are noticing and enjoying.
“Since we’ve been back to school, I feel like I am watching her grow in front of my eyes…”  

“My child is singing, it’s not something he’s ever done; that’s another avenue for literacy.  We had a long car trip to California and he’s been making up songs…” 

"Over the break my child said ‘let’s find all the letters of the alphabet in our livingroom.  It was really tough and I gave up, but my relatives were really impressed he was leading the game and it was all about discovery…” 

 “I have a question: Should there be a difference between sharing stories from reality and those from the imagination?"



Diving into stories and questions around superheroes with materials

Meaning Making

After sharing some of our experiences through story and waking up new connections with each other, we began to unpack the idea of story as meaning making
We know that children are born with a strong desire to make meaning of their world.  One theorist suggests that "a child's first cry is a why."  Story is one way that we make meaning of our experiences in the world.  

An example of this idea happened for a Beginning School student over winter break who was bit by a dog, resulting in four stitches in her foot.  On the way home from the hospital she asked that her family “not talk about it ever again”.  When she returned to school – in the safe setting of her community – she showed her stitches to a friend and shared a sneak peek at morning meeting about her experience.  The following week, her teachers offered bandaids as a material in story workshop to invite and provoke storytelling, as they knew this held the power to invite children's voice; develop empathy for and grow new perspectives to consider. 

After hearing a few stories from her peers, she drew the following picture and explained:

Picture1 Picture2

How fortunate for this child that she is in a learning community that recognizes the power of story to begin to understand and make meaning of her experience–her questions, her fears, her sense of well-being.  She continues to use story as a way to revisit and heal from this encounter as she shares in a recent Staircase Land story:  I went to Staircase Land…there are two guards at the door.  They have a guard dog that LOVES children.  He really loves children and is nice to ALL of them.  He’s a Dalmatian dog.  The guards protect Staircase Land from Bears and Wolves


050 (2)Theorist Jerome Bruner proposes that we learn the syntax of our language to tell our stories.  This brings us to another idea–that we are wired for connection.  "Connection feels like a hole in your heart that has just been filled," states one former Opal 1st grader, and it is through story that we connect with one another and build a sense of belonging.  We explored this idea early in the Fall during reader's workshop as we paused on a passage in a book, Will You be My Friend, by Nancy Tafuri. 

Blue Jay is confronted with the dilemma of remaining in his wet, cold home during a rainstorm, or responding to an invitation from Bunny to join him in his warm, dry home to wait out the storm.  Blue Jay does not know Bunny yet, and the children speculated that he would need to muster his courage.  This presented a chance for the teacher to invite children to share their connection with this idea of vulnerability by asking, "Was there ever a time when your courage helped you?" 

 I was scared when I had to swim to my Grandma, but now I can do it! ~ZB

 When I walked on the rocks across the water.  ~JW

 I had to be brave when I walked on the slippery rocks to the deep water. ~QA.

 I went to the beach and I was a little bit scared to touch the starfish on the boat, but I did.  ~PY

 In this way, the children are experiencing the power of story in hearing one another share these vulnerable experiences, and see how each story invites them to add their voice, nurturing a sense of belonging through connection.  

 How do we define LITERACY at Opal School?


At this point in the evening, we paused to reflect on our definition of literacy at Opal School—which we define as the act of making meaning of ALL that we encounter.  This means that if we were to limit our thinking to the idea that literacy begins when children are reading and writing, we would hold the view that preschool age children are illiterate. 

Literacy as meaning-making means asking questions, making connections, learning to express in a variety of ways our experiences in the world—through the arts, sciences and through language. We know that preschool-age children already are doing many things that strong readers and writers do. Readers and writers play with language; play with inference, dialogue, and voice; use their imagination; take in information about the world and make detailed observations; use their senses; perceive relationships rich in variety of perspectives and contexts; and so much more! Readers and writers consider their audience and structures of story as they provide context, details, and sequence events.  They explore the connection between writing, illustrating and drafting by developing their ideas through drawing and construction to tell and generate ideas for stories.  So how do we see our role as parents and teachers in light of these ideas?

When a parent plays with her child; walks together and observes details in the world–patterns, textures, light, tastes, emotions; when we play together with voice and expression; when we sing songs and read books; when we set up areas for drawing and dramatic play, cooking and building–we are nurturing literacy development!

Sneak Peek for Part 2 Power of Story Blog Post:

Schema: The foundation of Story

What role does it play in developing shared understanding and language as well as expanding perspective and empathy?

How does this post stretch your own definition and understanding of literacy development?  What connections are you making?  Join our dialogue by adding a comment to this post!

Making Sense of Transitions in US History

Transitioning from reenacting King Philip’s War to understanding the colonial period in US History


How does a deep dive into a time, place and story give fourth and fifth graders the knowledge, understanding and experience to predict what European colonists and defeated Indians will do next?

As I am sure anyone with any connection to Opal 4 has heard, the children have been very involved in the last few weeks in reenacting King Philip’s War.  We all remember the Peace Treaty of 1621 that Massasoit signed alongside the Pilgrims, the one that inspired the Thanksgiving celebration that Americans remember when we celebrate Thanksgiving in November, but only one generation later, there was a great Indian rebellion led by Massasoit’s son, King Philip.  He issues a list of complaints and then, by a turn of events, is thrown into war against the English colonists.  This war, as the children will tell you, is “little remembered” in US history, but, Jill Lepore, a historian at Harvard University, published a book about the war and its subtitle is, “King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity.”  She argues that as a result of this war, the seeds of American identity and independence are planted. 

In our classroom, playing out the war turned out to be fun.  More fun than I expected war play to be, so we took some time to capture some mental images and written memories from the war.


I felt like I couldn't peek without MC aiming a gun at my head.  I was being hunted.     -BC


The war was harsh and brutal today. I know am only 14  years old, but I think I am getting better at the way colonists speak.  Anyway, I have to clear my mind.  I am about to shoot a Wampanoag.   -SK

Mccune 1

I saw a great shot.  I had so much fury.  I let my arrow fly straight at the back of his head and sssskkkk he was lying on the ground, face first.  The red blood dripped down his face.  It felt so weird to be in war.  Crack!  I heard something.  
I was scared.      -MM

Eventually, we all had to accept the surrender of the Wampanoag Alliance, the assassination of King Philip, and let the war end.  So earlier this week, I asked the children,

King Philip’s War is over.  What predictions do you have about what happens next for the colonists?  What predictions do you have for what happens next with the Wampanoag Indians?

The children wrote in their notebooks and then shared their thinking with each other:


Here is the conversation that followed:

AB:  I think that what’s going to happen next is the colonists, they got most of their land destroyed, they still have the land, but they don’t have settlements on it, it’s not improved.  There is a lot of unimproved land.  They also have a huge debt to pay back to England because they borrowed a lot of English stuff like cannons, food, guns.

AE:  But they won’t have to because they are in a different place.

AB:  They’re still run by the British

Levia:  The thing that I am confused about right now that I hear Ace wondering about too – the people who fought this war are English, there is no such thing as being an American, they are just English people living on this soil.

MG:  Do they call it England?

Levia:  They call it New England.  That’s why, it’s England, just different land.

RF:  There is a leader who leads them there, he is still under the control of the King of England.  He is the one who has to pay back all the debt.

KG:  If they were living in England, they would be completely under the king’s control.  The reason they came here to America was so they could have their own religion.  So they have the tiniest bit of free- independence.

BC:  The leader is letting them go there, and have independence from there, but they are still under their leadership.

MG:  They can pay in land.  Nowadays, I don’t think we’re fighting wars for land, it’s more about religion or oil, but they were fighting for land, they get land.

Levia: What resources are there on this land that the colonists can use to repay the war debt?

AB:  Wood!  Soil!  But they have to pay for the people to cut down the trees and the ships and the axes.

RD:  They just have to pay him back for all of the stuff they just used and he’s not even fighting in the war.

MG:  He thinks all of this fighting is his, but later it won’t be his.

RD:  He doesn’t really have to care.

Levia:  Does the King of England care if the colonists are successful in the New World?

QS: He kicked them out, but he is helping them.

Levia:  What does the King want from these people in the new world?

Land! Resources!

MG: If these people are still part of England, it’s pretty much considered that it’s his land.  He has control over it.

DW:  He owns the people so he owns the land.  He owns everything that his people own.

MG:  He’s probably going to ship people over to live there, and now that a lot of other countries are figuring this out that there is all this land here, they are going to try it too, and the king will say, “I found this first.”

LH:  Why would the King of England want all of this land?

BC:  He wants to rule everything.  I think he let them go because he wanted to be the first one to get there and when they actually found it he was like, happy because he was the first one to find it and he since he already had some of his kind there then everybody else knew that he is the ruler of that whole huge piece of land.  The reason he wants all of that land is because he wants to spread out and he wants to, I think he wants to rule a lot of other people so he can be the ruler of the world.

MG:  Bodhi, I don’t think he planned on having them – he figured out that there was a war going on and they were getting land  – you’re saying he was shipping them over there for a reason, but I feel like he didn’t know –

?:  He’s a greedy king.

SL:  All he wants is money and land.

HG:  I bet he’s really scared once they become independent and the money isn’t his anymore.

Levia:  Any other predictions?

BC:  The colonists will force the colonists to force the Indians to abandon their way of living and become English.  Wear Pilgrim clothes, go to church.

IM:  For the Indians to become English, they could just pretend to be Christian.

NT:  They know how to win a war.

RD:  Colonists will celebrate.

SK:  Would they send the remaining Wampanoags back to England to be slaves? Or send them to Africa?

AB:  Yeah, send them to England to pay back for the war money.

RF:  They probably did.

Levia:  Are you wondering how the colonists figured out they can be independent and live without the king?  That’s a really good question. Way more people are here so they don’t need as much help from England, from the Mother Country.  Have you heard that before – England was the mother country, the one that took care of us.

BC:  And America is the son country.

MG: That’s going to shift.

Levia:  Just a little baby who is hopeless.

KG:  Who is growing up!

AB:  One day it will change.

KG:  Around the age of a soldier it starts fighting back.

BC:  But the country itself is as old as time.  It’s been there since the dinosaurs.

SK:  Is it a mother country that sends off its little baby to go be helpless somewhere else and then it grows up and sends off its own little baby to go take stuff over and stuff.

AI:  Like Lewis & Clark!


The children made such accurate and insightful predictions, and we teachers wondered what else we could do to help them see how the English colonists saw their situation after the war.  Jill Lepore called our attention to these two images, both painted by English artists circa 1690.


Reverend Increase Mather, Joan van der Spriet, 1688


Ninigret, Narraganssett chief
Unidentified artist, 1691

We know at Opal School that if we want children to slow down, look closely and notice details in an object or an image, we ask them to draw or recreate it.  This is what we did with these images.  We asked the children,

How can you work with your tablemates to recreate these two images?

The materials they had were one large sheet of drawing paper per table and some cut pieces of the Oregonian.  I knew that one message in the paintings is that the colonists have “literal advantage” over the Indians, that they can read and write and the Indians cannot.  I wondered if the children would see the text in the image of the Reverend Mather and want to use the newspaper and make that connection to the power of literacy in European culture.



Today we had a gallery walk and looked at all of the images. 








I asked the students to leave sticky notes at each poster that would respond to the following questions:

Where is he?


In darkness -AE

His natural environment, maybe on a mountain. -MB

In a library, reading a book.  -DW

Who is he?


He's important, he looks smart. -LH

He's important.  -VR

A wealthy looking man who likes books.  -MB

What does it say?


You're a wild, beasty savage and I am important so you stay outside and do wild stuff and I will read important books.   -HG

He is writing an important book.  (It takes a long time.)  -BC

(not pictured) We are not the same, we are different.  -MB

What does it mean?


He is VERY smart! -SR

If the reverend is surrounded by books it means he likes books and he is highly educated. -HG

What does it matter?


The Indians are using a small bit of land that the Europeans don't care about.  -MG

The Indians should get off their land and go somewhere else.  -AB

And part of the conversation that followed:

KG:  “Someone high up who probably has lots of servants.”  Helena wrote that.

Levia:  Does that mean he is wealthy?

KG:  It is showing he is upper class.

MG:  The Indian is in the wild, there is no show of wealth.

AB:  It’s unimproved.

MM:  The Indian is out on the land.

MG:  They are showing other Europeans that living out there is for the Indians so the other Europeans will know that they are in charge.

BC:  That is what he painted…

RD:  The Indians should be outside. They are savages, uncivilized, and we are inside, with books, we are civilized, we have five forks!

MG:  They didn’t do anything to the Native Americans, they are in their rightful place.

HG:  God said so.   


Teacher Reflection

It was really powerful for me to put all of this rich work and thinking into one blog post, and it all took place in such a short amount of time.  This blog post feels like a celebration of this class’s ability to work together to construct an understanding of so many of the ideas that inform the colonial period of US history.  BC’s explanation of Imperialism is a strong example:

He wants to rule everything.  I think he let them go because he wanted to be the first one to get there and when they actually found it he was like, happy because he was the first one to find it and he since he already had some of his kind there then everybody else knew that he is the ruler of that whole huge piece of land.  The reason he wants all of that land is because he wants to spread out and he wants to– I think he wants to rule a lot of other people so he can be the ruler of the world.

At Opal School we believe that by taking a deep dive into one story and allowing children to experience that story through all lots of different modalities, approaches, materials and languages, and especially through perspective taking, they construct ideas that transcend the one story and allow them to see other stories (and histories and conflicts) through their new lens. I believe that is what happened here, and I am already seeing how the children are synthesizing their thinking and applying it to “future” stories in US History.

To me this is obvious in how the children worked out together how America will gain independence and then take over the role of, according to SK, “sending off its own little baby to go take stuff over and stuff.”

Levia:  Have you heard that before – England was the mother country, the one that took care of us?

BC:  And America is the son country.

MG: That’s going to shift.

Levia:  Just a little baby who is hopeless.

KG:  Who is growing up!

AB:  One day it will change.

KG:  Around the age of a soldier it starts fighting back.

BC:  But the country itself is as old as time.  It’s been there since the dinosaurs.

SK:  Is it a mother country that sends off its little baby to go be helpless somewhere else and then it grows up and sends off its own little baby to go take stuff over and stuff.

AI:  Like Lewis & Clark!

I wonder how rich their exploration of the colonial period in history will be now that they have these stories this fall!


Researching Play in the Arboretum

by Hannah Chandler

Part of our work in designing the playground has been rooted in understanding the work of design. What does design mean? How do designers do their work? Where do they find their inspiration? In order to better understand the work of designers, we visited several bike designers around Portland to interview them about their work and process. Interviewing designers helped students better understand the process of finding inspiration in the world around, growing and revising a small idea into something wonderful, and thinking and researching to figure out how to make something just right. 
At Vanilla
However, when we asked students to start thinking about where they could get their inspiration for designing the playground, they seemed to hit a stumbling blocks. We wondered if perhaps they needed to do more work with the idea of inspiration; what is it and where can it come from? We wondered about their experiences in finding and reflecting on inspiration. Students wanted to investigate other playgrounds to find ideas for their own. We wondered if they could find inspiration in something other than a playground. We decided to frame our Wednesday hike around the idea of researching play. 
We wanted to see how different environments inspired play and how our experience in the Arboretum might influence our playground design work. We visited open areas, swampy areas, and enclosed wooden areas. At each place, we stopped and played and then reflected on three main questions: What do you notice about this area? What are you drawn to? What inspires you? 
Photo 2
Our first stop was the upper meadow. I had anticipated that this largely open area would inspire big, spread out active play.  I could not have been more wrong. Students immediately gravitated to the area under the big pine trees. The tree branches created a wonderful hidden area which conjured images of forts and buildings. The abundance of pine needles provided a wealth of resources as they were quickly imagined into matches, sewing materials, currency, and more.  
NL: The scenery, the environment. The forest made me want to play in a different way. It changed the game. Here we were like explorers.
CW: The nature inspired us to play in a different way. All of a sudden we were characters in a story and these little pieces of sticks were matches. The materials gave us a game. 
SM: We could have these materials on the playground!
NL: We could replicate this area on the playground. 
PK: In the fantasy area, we could have these all these things, like little sticks and pine cones for playing with. 
CM: I notice the bugs made me want to draw. We should have bugs in the playground. 
DR: We could have a sign on the bug hotel that says you can draw these bugs. 
Our second stop was in a magical triangle of green ferns and grass with a wet mossy swamp in the middle. It was quickly apparent how drawn the students were to the water. In addition to the joy of stomping, squelching, and squishing in the mud and water, students also noticed how the ferns, grasses, and moss made the area feel more like a fantasy land, a place where anything could happen. They also made connections to their hopes and dreams for the sand and water area on the new playground. 
ZG: The swamp. I found a creek that led to the swamp. I think when it rains the water flows into the swamp. 
NL: I liked the moss. I liked sinking into it. 
CM: I liked the grass. 
Teacher: You all were really drawn to the water. Does that connect to our playground?
SS: Sand and water!
CW: There's something about water. Everybody likes it. 
NL: You can do experiments with water.
SM: The fantasy area could be like this. 
ZG: There are different little spots here, spots that draw you in. I was surprised by the swamp. Maybe we could have little surprises everywhere. 
MB: You can play anything here.
Photo 1
Our last stop was the running space, a place where students have been many times and of which they have many memories. We were running out of time, so I asked the students to use their memories to imagine what kind of play would happen here. They talked about how the openness of the space made it a place to run hard and fast, a place to be free, a place to cover a lot of ground quickly. 
We returned to the classroom to do some writing about our experience:
SS: When we went to the upper meadow, the grass became wheat and there were knights and servants. 
CM: How did the different spaces inspire your play? In the first place I felt WILD and free but in the second place I felt REALLY!!! free. It made me feel like I could play whatever I wanted.
NL: The first place we went to I was inspired by the scene because the scene changed what I played. 
MC: The different parts of the arboretum invited different kinds of play. Here are some of the different areas we went to explore and more about the ideas. In the upper meadow, lots of kids were pretending they were animals in a big clump of evergreen trees. We were making fairy houses under the big oak tree. 
On our hike as researchers of play, students quickly realized how the space and materials affected how they played. They noticed what they were drawn to. They noticed how their play changed depending on where they were. Next our work will be to translate this experience into playground design as we continue considering the details of each space on the playground. Some big questions for us right now include: how can each area invite students in to play? How can we design a playground that makes everyone happy? What materials and layout can we use to send a message about the kind of play that might happen in each area? How can colors, textures, heights, shapes, and sizes affect each area?  

Exploring Balance

Opal January 2014 480
Teacher: I had a connection and wanted to bring this word back into our conversations. It actually came up first when we were thinking about bikes.  The word is balance. What comes to mind when you think of balance?
We begin a list on the white board as children share:
weight – lightness/heaviness
you’ll fall over without it
big and little
move and go
Teacher: I'm remembering that this came up when you were interviewing bike designers — one group came back from a visit where a  designer had talked about balance and it wasn’t just about falling over or not falling over.
Child 1 – It was Sascha. He talked about the playground project and  he said we should have just 2 really fun things and not like a thousand little things.
Child 2 – And at L’Ecu he talked about how it inspired him – not just biking balance but all kinds of balance.
Opal January 2014 485 (2)
Teacher – What other kids of balance are there? Let’s crack open balance. What lives inside balance?
Child 3 – In gymnastics, there’s the balance beam.
Child 4 – Evenness.
Child 5 – A balance board.
Child 6 – Earth. If earth didn’t have balance it would be spinning faster or never be spinning. It has balance so it can go around. We’re so small that we don’t feel it.
Child 7 – Gravity.
Teacher – What does that have to do with balance?
Child 6 – If you were floating, you wouldn’t have balance. It keeps you on your feet.
Child 8 – Maybe weight. I remember something else they said at the bike store. You need to get design down to the smallest and easiest it can be even though sometimes that is a challenge.
Child 9 – Our guy said you need to keep moving forward — I figured out on my unicycle that if you just keep moving forward then you can balance. You can’t balance if you don’t.
Child 10 – Stilts.
Teacher – I know you’ve been working with the stilts and other balance challenges with Amy. You had a lot to say about that.
Opal January 2014 478
Child 10 – I just stood up and balanced for 3 seconds and then fell over. For a second it felt like I was just standing regular when I was balanced.
Child 2 – When I’m on my tightrope, when I am balanced it feels like I’m learning how to walk and not wobbly but when I am not balanced it’s all wobbly.
More collecting on the white board:
moving forward
yes and no
Child 2 – And then balance in life, well there’s a balance in cooking, or else it will mess it up.
Child 6 – If you didn’t have balance in life you’d fall over and in cooking you’d mess up.
Opal January 2014 477 (2)
Child 10 – You can’t do just one thing. To have fun there needs to be more than one thing or you'd get bored.
Child 11 – When I’m on the pogo stick when it’s balanced I’m happy and it’s fun but when I am out of balance I feel scared.
More notes on white board:
out of balance feels bad and scary
Challenging but good.
hard at first, but then good.
getting it gave me confidence to try more

Looking closely

In addition to questions related to documentation, the SDSU group came to Opal interested in learning more about how to help children create detailed observational drawings. It was spectacular happenstance, then, that some of the visitors and I came across Mary Gage working with a small group of students in Opal 1. We walked out of Opal 1 thrilled: We had witnessed a master class on just the issue we were hoping to come across.

O cooper's hawkLook with all your eyes, look.  

I had the good fortune of spending Thursday and Friday with a study group visiting Opal School from the Fishback Center for Early Childhood Education at South Dakota State University. Our time together was spent observing in classrooms, discussing what we saw and connecting it to their context, and investigating documentation processes and panels.  It also led me to reflect on a conversation I had with our colleagues in the Ashoka Changemaker Schools network who were exploring ways we might use LessonCast to extend attention to empathy in all schools.

In addition to questions related to documentation, the SDSU group came to Opal interested in learning more about how to help children create detailed observational drawings.  It was spectacular happenstance, then, that some of the visitors and I came across Mary Gage working with a small group of students in Opal 1. We walked out of Opal 1 thrilled: We had witnessed a master class on just the issue we were hoping to come across.  

MG line drawing

When I wrote to Mary Gage following the session, she dismissed the interaction as something that she hadn't given a lot of thought to.  So for both Mary Gage and any other readers of this blog, I'll share a quick list of some of the essential characteristics that we observed from outside the circle:

  1. The experience was connected to broader meaning.  This group of children were drawing pictures based on photographs of birds. The topic led from a previous encounter of wonder and amazement when the group came across a hawk in the meadow and watched it for an extended period. The group's longtime interest in birds intensified, and the teachers decided to hook into birds as part of the class' investigation of our relationship to the natural world.
  2. The experience was supported by aesthetic presentation. When children arrived to the table, the photographs were set up on stands. Each student's drawing space was prepared with a large sheet defining the space, a fine point pen, and a small sheet of heavy bond paper to draw on. When a student finished his drawing and was ready to leave the table, Mary Gage involved him in considering this dimension, asking him what he could do to leave the space in a way that would be inviting to the next artist who came to the table.
  3. Mary Gage brought herself fully to the table as a co-learner.  She drew next to the children and talked about what she noticed as she was doing so.  She made visible both her drawing experiments and her documentation notes with the other learners at the table.
  4. Relationships and trust pervaded every aspect of the interactions. We watched as Mary Gage sat with one student, nurturing his attention to details with a steady stream of questions guiding each step.  What do you notice about the shape of the head?  How would you describe the texture of the feathers?  When a child across the table showed frustration, Mary Gage looked at him with a big smile on her face.  "Isn't it frustrating when your drawing doesn't look just like the photo?" He replied in equally good humor, having had his experience affirmed, and returned to his efforts. Ten minutes later, when he was frustrated again, Mary Gage responded by encouraging him to pick just one part of the drawing to focus on: the part of the animal that was most interesting to him.  As the children were wrapping up the experience, she encouraged the children to turn to each other and discuss what they drew – and how they might extend the drawings. Throughout, it was the children making the core decisions regarding their work.

An approach based in these connections doesn't lend itself to banks of lesson plans.  It is a pedagogy of listening and relationships, one of decision making based on values and beliefs rather than prescribed sequencing. It is one which relies on principled storytelling, inquiry and reflection to change practice.

What have you looked closely at lately?  

How have you shared it with others to stimulate their growth?


When the rains come to the Northwest, I love to spend weekends searching for chanterelles. During all season, I find transcendent pleasure in wandering through an old growth forest – but in the fall, when it's covered with leafy debris, that joy is enhanced by the delight of stumbling over a patch of those golden mushrooms. While I might get fooled from a distance, on closer inspection I have no doubt when I find them.  Bringing my bags home, I brush off needles, twigs, and the occasional worm, then lay them out to dry. I cook meals for family and friends and share the bounty with always appreciative coworkers and neighbors.

In the post below, taken from this week's Opal 3 class page, Susan Harris MacKay describes her efforts foraging with her class community. She describes their walk through a forest populated by experiences, stories, materials work, adventures, books, and related meaning-making. It's clear that she recognizes when she the treasures arise. With the eye of an experienced chef walking through the farmer's market, she knows which ingredients are ripe and which will work well with each other.

I think this piece is both illuminating and provocative. The questions inhabited within it lie at the core of our work:

When we say that this is a pedagogy of listening and relationships, what are we listening for? 

How do we create the contexts for children to come to those expressions?

How do our beliefs in children's capacities guide our choices?

Interdependencies by Susan Harris MacKay

As children journey through Opal 1 and Opal 2, they spend a lot of time considering with their teachers and their peers the ways in which we depend on each other in this world. 

    What is a community?

    What is our relationship to the natural world?

    "The we that I am" — what does that mean?

In Opal 3 we become focused on supporting children to construct an understanding of what it means that we are also interdependent: that a healthy, thiving system requires a mindful effort to balance naturally competing forces, to be comfortable with paradox, and to negotiate conflict productively.

These are the big ideas we start with each year. Then we meet the actual children and we encounter the realities and opportunities that present themselves in a given time. This year, we have been presented with opportunities to take leadership on the playground project as well as to support the Museum's bike exhibit. So a study of the design process has been an obvious point of entry. Attending to the design process has offered us an opportunity to consider power and perspective. The children have made such comments as:

"Not everyone in the world likes everything in the world."

"You have to decide about your own happiness."

"You can't make everyone happy."

"But I want to be happy."


Landscape architect Michelle Mathis shares playground revisions influenced by children's feedback

What rich learning the children have a chance to do in the face of the REAL work in being stewards of the playground project as it moves forward. As one child remarked: "I'm picturing everyone here, and I think they'll all be smiling." How do we take responsibility for ensuring so many smiles? If we all want to smile, how can it be that we have so many different kinds of things that make us smile? And what do we do about that?


A designer at L'Ecu Bicycles answers the researchers' questions.

Meeting with bike designers around Portland gave the children a chance to talk with people who grapple with this dilemma every day. When asked "What keeps you excited about making bikes?", Sascha White from Vanilla Bikes answered:

I just love it. I like feeling that when I come in here, if I have an idea, I can take this picture in my head and make it turn out just the way I want it in real life. And to know the people who come to us for bikes are going to get so much joy out of riding a bike that we built for them, that’s a pretty big motivator for me because I feel like we’re making the world a better place a little bit.

Books offer another critical voice to our studies and dialogues. Before winter break, we read two important texts: Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox and Old Turtle and the Broken Truth by Douglas Wood.

Unknown Unknown

These books helped us consider how we are more alike than different, but that the differences really matter. One child explained: Hearts are the same even though you might speak a different language or look different, and in Old Turtle, the message is that people can be from different places but you can see yourself in them.

In Old Turtle, the people find a truth that says "You are loved." But they don't realize it is broken and the world is at war over it until Old Turtle gives a child who is looking for help the other half, which says, "And so are they." Another child synthesized the story this way:  When the broken truth was in two then the world was kind of in two. The animals were having a bad time because of the humans and the humans were having a bad time because of the truth. And so when it wasn’t one the world couldn’t be one. 

In all my years working through projects with children in this way, I've never been disappointed as long as I keep listening. I know a concept like interdependence is a big one. And I know that part of the reason it is so big is that it is so rich with connection to our experience. So, although I may not be sure exactly what will surface, I can trust that there will be connections to use to build understanding. I can trust that if I am listening, I will hear points of reference that already live within the children's knowing, and it is my job to pull those threads towards a loom that will support the weaving of new tapestries. Threads of this kind are captured through transcription (and other forms of documentation), like the two quotes above, offering me tools to use with the children themselves. These quotes will be returned to the children through future dialogue, further explored and expanded.

A thread of this kind was also presented when the children returned from their bike interviews having heard one of the designers talk about how he was inspired by balance. The child who had noted this made sure to elaborate: He wasn't just talking about balancing on a bike, either. He was talking about balance everywhere in the world.

Old Turtle's truth is full of balance. The design process requires balance. Healthy interdependence relies on balance. And so without even knowing yet that we are studying this concept — they already are. It is, in so many ways, their own wonderful idea. As Jean Piaget's protege and Harvard scholar, Eleanor Duckworth writes, "The having of wonderful ideas is what I consider to be the essence of intellectual development."

But also we must suggest opportunities for wonderful ideas to occur. We call those provocations.

At our Author's Tea the day before winter break, an Opal 3 parent let us know how eager she was to have the students work on a story and study of their families.


Opal 3 Author's Tea
Here was another opportunity for connection handed to us from the present resource of our community. And, of course, what better way to dive more deeply into the process of understanding how similar and how different we are than by studying where we come from, how we got here, and the interdependent system that is our own classroom community, built on our capacity to balance needs – to work together to keep people smiling, and responding productively when they don't.

So the provocations we have developed this week have been intended to support the students to uncover some thinking about family — their own, and everyone else's. We have turned to excellent literature for inspiration.

Images Unknown Unknown

And we have invited the children to respond through writing, with materials, individually, in small groups, and all together. Children have brainstormed their own lists of family stories in their writer's notebooks and will continue to grow and develop those lists in the coming school days. Something from these lists will grow into a new writing project for each child. 

As we've shared this week, we've been careful about paying attention to the difference between connections and sameness. For example, when one child shares the birthday tradition at her house, I might ask — "So who is reminded of their own birthday celebration? And does anyone say, 'Wow! That's EXACTLY what we do at my house!" We are intentionally seeking both same and different, and building the capacity to honor both — in balance.

This line of inquiry was itself a provocation. It was predictable that the children already knew that there was a common set of needs of every family, and I knew that in order to move towards the study of interdependence as it relates to family and community, we needed to generate that list. It is the list that will help us more deeply understand what it means to look at someone who is different from you and see  yourself in him.

But I also knew it would have the most power if the list was the children's wonderful idea. And sure enough, it didn't take long. One child, in the midst of a group sharing from writing in writer's notebooks, said, "Well there are some things that really are the same for every family in the world. Like, every family sends their children to school." This child's offering invited us/allowed us to create a list together of those nuggets of the human condition that live at the heart of our experience, no matter who we are.  

I believe it is because of this list, generated collaboratively as their own wonderful idea in their own language, that they were able to read (teacher selected) short stories from Sandra Cisneros' brilliant collections of family stories, The House on Mango Street, and Woman Hollering Creek on Friday. 


A small group works together to read "Salvador, Late or Early"
Though we selected, of course, pieces from Cisneros' work that were subject-appropriate for third grade, these are not texts that educators generally agree third graders could be capable of reading. They are short texts, but dense and dripping with gorgeous metaphors and descriptions. The children were asked to read, to work together to highlight lines that communicated strong experiences and emotions, to label those experiences and emotions with something from our list of things "all families have in common" and to then write the title or idea of something they might write themselves that connected to the same part of the list. If this isn't the "essence of intellectual development", I'm not sure what is. 

IMG_2992Here are some examples of the work they accomplished:

One child found Cisneros' line,"inside that body too small to contain the hundred balloons of happiness," and related it to the idea that all families have ups and downs and found her own idea: I sometimes get picked on and I feel as if my hundred balloons of happiness have popped.

Another child who read "The House on Mango Street" story connected it to the need for all families to have a place to live and wrote of her own need: My house is not like the house on Mango Street but it is not a huge house, either. We have a nice back yard and I remember when the big climbing tree got cut down and so did our fort and secret passageways. Now we couldn't either pick plums.

And one who read "My Name" connected the piece to the idea that all families have hopes and fears. He wrote: My grandpa was in war. He got hurt. I do not want to be armed. I want to be a pilot.

In fact, I could quote the success of every child in making their own connection and interpretation of these sophisticated texts. It will be a joy to continue this journey.

I will spend time over the weekend thinking about the connections, pondering which piece to pick up and bring back, which thread to tie next to the loom so our weaving can continue. I'll leave you with an example of a good bet – 

"I was once one [year old], so I’m still one inside me now. You can’t say, “I hate babies,” because that’s saying, “I hate myself”… It’s like you can’t say you hate any kind of person because you are going to go through that cycle, too." 

So much wisdom already lives within an 8-year-old.

It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. – Albert Einstein

There is such enjoyment in seeing and searching. It is the joy of teaching at Opal School.