Opal School closed in 2021. You can continue to access these resources for free at teachingpreschoolpartners.org/resource-library/.

The Learning Communities Teachers Need (to support the learning communities children need)

Visiting the preschool this morning, I came upon a group of three children creating a world on a mural.  As they developed their story, they found themselves delighted by each other’s imaginations and, at the same time, proposing contrasting possibilities.  Learning meant figuring out how to confront different ideas: How to snap some together; how to express discomfort; how to find new visions that fit everyone's needs.

Opal School is abuzz with thinking about learning.  What does learning look, sound, and feel like?  What conditions support learning?  How can we best support learning?

I know that can be said of all schools. This week, I’ve enjoyed thinking about that question with adults in mind as much as children.

Thursday night was the first gathering of this year’s Mentorship Program.  In a meeting this week, Judy Graves told me, “This habit of mind of forming questions, responding to questions – thinking in questions – is so vital to this work.” To fully embrace that, we employed RQI’s “Question Formulation Technique.” The group ended up with a set of rich questions that will inform their teacher-research work this year (just a few here as a sneak peek: What are the consequences and effects of all the different ways I might respond to children’s questions and inquiries?  How does the process of inquiry approaches to teaching and learning relate to teachers of those with developmental delays?  How do we put learning into practice? How do we share deep understanding with one another in meaningful ways?)  The process kept us thinking about not only our classrooms but the question generating protocol itself:

  • I got better at asking questions.  We’re more curious about things now – especially when I hear the other groups.
  • Hearing the questions that others ask makes me wonder about the environments that lie behind those questions.
  • Our good questions came at the end. We never would have gotten there if we had answered the questions at the beginning.
  • [The process] took out any sense of judgement of the questions being “good” or “bad.”
  • We come from different answers and beliefs. Questions help us build bridges.


The following day, the year-long mentorship group returned, joined by fifty other teachers and administrators from all three West Coast states, for our Creating Learning Communities workshop.  How can we help participants – who join us for a brief six hours – consider the rationale for and foundational conditions of learning communities at the beginning of the year?  What follows is the anatomy of how we went about it – and I’d love to hear from both people who were there or those who weren’t about how our approach reflects their ideas of professional development that meets learners' needs.

Before gathering, we started by juxtaposing readings from the press (the NYTimes’ Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?, the New Republic’s American Schools are Failing Nonconformist Kids, and EdWeek’s Self-Regulation and Social-Emotional Learning: Let’s Not Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater) with stories from our classrooms (through the class blog pages.)  We hoped that this started participants thinking about the difference between a program that aims to teach social emotional intelligence and an approach to teaching and learning that anticipates, supports, and celebrates children’s social emotional intelligence throughout all aspects of the curriculum.

Once gathered, we began the day with a presentation that discussed that difference.  Susan MacKay provided an assessment of the current educational landscape regarding the question, challenging us to think about the classroom implications of what neuroscience tells us about children’s learning needs.  Embedded into that keynote was a story from last year’s Early-K class by Nicole Simpson-Tanner, about a classroom that learned more about empathy and care-taking through their relationship with Boris the Dragon, an imaginary friend whose safe, reliable temperament invited relationship.  The presentation ended with an unusual feature: A video of an Opal staff meeting, reflecting how we playfully collaborate with each other – an invitation for participants to recognize how the way we work with each other parallels how we work with children.

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Next, participants spent time in the classrooms.  School was out of session – it was the statewide professional development day – so participants were able to investigate the role of the physical environment as a cultivator of relationships and examine traces of the work that has happened in the school over the first month of the year for evidence of  developing communities.  Participants returned to the workshop and followed a discussion protocol to unpack and examine their observations.

After lunch, we delved into the role of materials in supporting learning communities.  Kerry Salazar offered a presentation that focused on the way in which the arts are used as languages at Opal.  She discussed the kinds of questions teachers ask when thinking about the affordances of the application of a material to a specific context as well as the ways she has seen children respond to different provocations.

Then, the participants themselves got to work with wire to explore their hopes and dreams about their classroom communities –


And connected those dreams to each other’s.


Kimie Fukuda then told a story from last year of a similar provocation in the Opal 1 classroom.

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Opal staff was back this week, like all other teachers in Oregon, reconnecting with children after a day of "inservicing" in whatever way that meant for them. We have continued to be asking: What does learning look, sound, and feel like?  What conditions support learning?  How can we best support learning?

At last night’s staff meeting, the Opal staff unpacked the collaboration they found in a very brief interaction between two preschoolers.  It didn't matter the age levels of the people those around that table had spent their day with – everybody was equally fascinated by the social construction of knowledge revealed in the text.

In many ways, we spend our lives as though it’s productive to live in silos.  What does someone who works with adults have to learn from someone who teaches fifth graders have to learn from someone who teaches preschool?  

A lot, it seems.

I wonder: How could we go further in permeating these walls?  How are you doing it in your learning communities?