An interview with Mary Oliver

This week, I happened upon an interview with Mary Oliver, one of the most important and powerful poets of our time. For the hour that I listened to her through the podcast On Being, I was transported. Hearing Oliver read her own poetry certainly made the experience special, but I was also struck by her musings on the relationship between appreciation, attention and devotion, the life of the mind and the heart. I found her words to be inspiring and intimate reminders of that which is important, and especially soothing to a New Yorker's soul. 

I share the interview with you because Oliver also reflects our shared vision of what the outcome of education should be: empathetic, imaginative people who engage with the world, who question, stay curious and dig in, who notice other people and pay attention to the way a grasshopper lands or the way the mushrooms grow. To get there, the learning we do needs to be feisty but steady, passionate but serious, intellectually expansive and demanding, and all the while patient. 

Oliver shared that sometimes as a poet, she "takes dictation" from the world, and "listens convivially." It was a powerful reminder for me as a parent, an educator and a human. 

Below is one of her poems, a longing summoning of summer. For a treat, read it out load and her how it changes. You can hear Oliver read more of her work below the interview on this page.

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? 

Posted on February 12, 2015 .

The Wonder of Learning

This week's post is from Laura Sedlock, Director of the Pre-Primary Program

In the fall of 2008 I had the privilege of attending the week-long study tour of preschools and infant-toddler centers in Reggio Emilia, Italy. I already felt that I knew so much about the Reggio Emilia approach from readings and conferences - about the image of the child as capable and full of potential, the strong focus on relationships as essential to learning, the idea of teachers and children as partners in learning, and the pursuit of emergent curriculum that responds to children’s ideas and questions.

To walk into an actual school steeped in these values, however, added a new dimension to my understanding. As I walked through the classrooms of the Ernesto Balducci preschool, I saw children engaged in various forms of “research,” as it was referred to by the teachers: one group of children investigating the physical characteristics of light through a study of rainbows, another group in the atelier drawing a large piece of bark as part of an investigation of the skin of natural materials. What moved me was not the specific topics they were researching or even the quality of their work, but the intense sense of purpose and focus that these children displayed. They had such strong motivation and investment in the work they were doing, even a sense of urgency. In the words of Mara Krechevsky and Ben Mardell of Harvard’s Project Zero, these schools “do not simply prepare children for adult or later life; they are seen as essential to life.”

Here at Blue School, where we seek a balance of academic mastery driven by student inquiry and enthusiasm, self and social learning, and creative thinking, the schools of Reggio Emilia provide an inspiring example of how a strong educational community built on relationships and the curiosity of children can lead to deep and meaningful learning experiences. While we do not aspire to be a “Reggio” school (as we are in New York City and not in Reggio Emilia), we are inspired by the approach, and we can learn so much from their example about what is possible when a school is built on respect, careful listening, and thoughtful responses to children’s ideas.

Fortunately for all of us, an opportunity to learn directly from the work of the Reggio Emilia schools is coming to our city! From January 15 - May 15, 2015, “The Wonder of Learning" exhibit will be at the Williamsburg Northside School in Brooklyn. This international traveling exhibition provides a comprehensive view into the world-renowned Reggio Emilia educational approach, and aims to expand visitors’ understanding of a child’s thinking and their approach to collaboration and relationship-based learning. Broken into six multimedia-equipped sections, among the exhibition highlights are:

  • Dialogues with Material: A display of Reggio children’s artwork created from a variety of artistic, natural, and recycled materials, with an emphasis on the processes that unfold during creative acts;
  • The Enchantment of Writing: Examples of ways in which Reggio children experiment with writing for the first time, and how they make it their own;
  • A Ray of Light: Explorations of how Reggio Emilia centers encourage children to encounter light and other natural phenomena

The exhibition is managed by the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA), which is also holding its national winter conference in NYC in March 2015 in connection with the exhibition. Blue School will play an important role in this conference, as we are one of four schools that conference participants will visit as part of the program. This is a very exciting opportunity for us to share our school and work with others in the context of a meaningful educational moment.

We hope that everyone in our community will travel to Williamsburg to see the exhibit and learn for yourself what it means to be “Reggio inspired.”

For more information about the Wonder of Learning in NYC, go to newyorkcitywol.org.

Posted on October 30, 2014 .

Blue School's balanced approach to homework

By Head of School, Allison Gaines Pell

Last week, I sat with a group of parents for an open dialogue, and the conversation turned quickly to homework. It's no surprise, given that it is a hot topic these days and that homework can be a window through which parents view their child's daily life in school. Many have asked about our perspectives on homework. So, with the understanding that opinions about homework exist on a spectrum, and the knowledge that your child will likely have a wide range of experiences at Blue School (or at any school for that matter), here are some thoughts: 

We take a balanced approach to homework at Blue School, as we do with so many other aspects of our teaching and learning practices.

1) Homework is not a proxy for expectations or the rigor of thinking that takes place during the school day. While it is of course understandable to see it that way, and many schools will talk about the many hours of homework children have as a way to describe the level of rigor in the school, it's important to know that we do not, as a general rule, expect that new learning should happen at home. Work at home is for practice, for fluency with reading or with numbers, or for further self-directed exploration. (Mostly, it is for reading for pleasure, stamina and enjoyment.) Additionally, there may be times that work time at home is used to complete work not completed in school. In general, we hope that our teachers will be present with children as they learn something new, to surface and to teach into and beyond the content presented by the learning materials.

2) We believe in a balanced life for young people. We hope that children's lives are filled with connections, explorations, play, and personal interests and investigations. These experiences, which often happen in the hours after school ends, are important for the soul and the mind. Studies have shown that play and open ended time support executive function, problem-solving, and relationship building. 

3) Homework supports time management, practice, and independent persistence. These personal skills are the building blocks for middle school and high school scholarship, not to mention the lives we live as learners beyond school walls. We want these habits to form early. So, when there is homework, we hope that you will support your children with finding a good place to work and focus, managing their time, independently reviewing their work, and packing their bags up for the next day. These experiences are as important as the work itself. And, keep in mind that parent involvement in the academic aspects of homework, i.e. doing it with or for children, does not enhance their academic achievements over the long term, so you can feel good about supporting their individual habits, and letting teachers see what they were able to accomplish independently. This is important information for teachers to collect. 

4) Homework is connected to ongoing learning goals. When teachers assign homework, which they do beginning in first grade, the homework they assign is intentionally chosen to balance the academics we expect your child to master within the year and the teachers' daily goals for learning. Additional practice writing assigned for homework can be geared toward editing, or it can be geared towards writing for expression. It is important for parents to know what the goals are, and our teachers will always strive to make them clear to children when the homework is assigned. The level of self-correcting children can and should do changes as they get older, so please ask your teachers how you can best support homework goals, and what to do if you aren't clear. 

In short, homework is nuanced; it has developmental and academic goals, and it changes over time. As with so many things in education and in life, the answer is rarely black and white. We hope that tonight, you'll curl up with a great book, whether it's a picture, chapter, board board, or novel, and enjoy how the pleasure of connecting through words and through work can contribute to a balanced life for everyone.

Posted on October 9, 2014 .

Building big ideas through co-curriculars

The other day in front of our building, a 3rd grade parent stopped our incredible movement teacher, Mariangela Lopez, to relay how moved she was by the video that Mari posted to her blog. She spoke almost tearfully about how present and "in their bodies" the children were as they interpreted lines and shapes through movement. I am so appreciative to have witnessed this moment, as our extremely hardworking co-curricular teachers are too often under sung, and their work goes a long way to amplify classroom studies and make your children's work visible.

We have a robust team of co-curricular teachers at Blue School. They are experts and specialists who work intimately with each teaching team to guide students in building skills, vocabularies and concepts in their areas, and also to follow threads of interest that weave in and out of big classroom studies. This year, we have welcomed specialists in Mathematics and STEAM to add to the already strong combination of Studio Arts, Music, Science and Sustainability, Spanish, Physical Education, Dramatic Arts, and Movement and Dance.

In the first month of school, the co-curricular work is already budding in our commons spaces. Here are a few highlights.

Mathematics: Check out this incredibly rich math problem from 5th grade (image below) and stay tuned for more on math in a future blog post. Mathematics Specialist, Meredith Lorber, is also more than happy to talk about math at any time! You can stop by her office on the 3rd floor or email her meredithl@blueschool.org.

photo (24).JPG

STEAM: Have you seen our newly renovated 4th floor space for making and idea-building? Here's a sneak peak (image below). Special thanks to Maureen Reilly, our STEAM Integrator, and to our friends from ConstructionKids, who spent last Thursday and Friday reconstructing this space.

Several of our co-curriculars also maintain blogs rich with images, anecdotes and details from the work they are doing with your children. Please have a look at these blogs, which you can find at the bottom of our newsletter each week, and follow them as you do your child's classroom blog.

In order to facilitate responsive, varied, dynamic, and challenging work, our co-curriculars take time each week with teachers to meet and to brainstorm. They check in, persist, help one another out, and make their talents evident at every moment. Their roles demand flexibility, creativity, adaptability, and phenomenal interpersonal skills, in addition to being exceptionally skilled with children!

We continue to be amazed by their talents, and stronger for their presence here. THANK YOU, co-curriculars!

Posted on October 1, 2014 .

Families learning together

Next Tuesday's Pre-Primary Program Curriculum Night marks the beginning of a robust program of opportunities for grown-ups (that's you!) to participate in the conversation about our school, what happens here, and your child(ren). This program includes:

  • Curriculum Night: 9/30 for Pre-Primary and 10/6 for Primary
  • Open Classroom for Age 4/5-Grade 5 students and families
  • Age/grade level Roundtables with Program Directors Laura Sedlock and Pat Lynch
  • A series of topical discussions with Dr. Bruce Arnold, School Psychologist and Harriet Richards, Child Development Counselor
  • Discussion Groups with Allison
  • November 4 Teaching Innovation Conference, designed for educators, parents welcome!
  • Blue Notes Speaker Series, 2014-15 dates and speakers to be announced
  • Last but not least, the ongoing dialogue about our Middle School, which began in earnest with current parents at Tuesday's Middle School Info Night

If you have not already, please take a moment to subscribe to the Parent Calendar so that you can save these dates and take part in these opportunities to connect with Blue School faculty, staff, and fellow parents, and deepen your experience of the Blue School community.

As a parent, we encourage you to attend these events to learn more about your child's experience, and as an adult learner, we hope that you will attend to contribute to sustaining our strong educational community. As faculty and staff members, we are all looking forward to another year of learning together at Blue School.

Posted on September 25, 2014 .

Middle School: part one of many more to come

What if we spoke up to the intellects of our young people? What if we centered our educational approach on ways of thinking, and focused on the types of thinkers and doers we want to graduate, rather than on the lists of discrete knowledge they will accumulate? What if we embedded what we know about our students, their minds, and their brains in the foundation of our school, and built a program to elevate those capacities? The past eight years of work at Blue School have been grounded in these provocative questions, and for the past few months, I've been working with Laurie Kardos, our new Director of Middle School, and with our faculty and leadership staff to frame answers to these questions for the middle-school-aged learner. In this Huffington Post piece published this summer, I shared some of our initial thinking.

This fall, we invite our current parent community to a special "first look" on the evening of September 23rd. (Current parents, please RSVP by this Sunday.) We will also share this info later in the fall, in Open Houses for prospective parents, and we're looking forward to sharing the results of our work with all of you! Our purpose is to combine best practices and the knowledge that educators, scientists and other thought leaders have about the middle school years with our core mission, vision and values, animated as always by our unwavering optimism in humanity's creative potential and in the intellectual capacity of young people. 

So, we invite you to learn more about the influencers who have shaped the program (Sir Ken Robinson, Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. David Rock, Ron Berger, Carol Dweck, Big History, The Cloud Institute, Project Zero, and the STEAM movement, among others). On the 23rd (for current parents) and on October 29th (for prospective parents), we will also cover the core elements of the program itself, and answer some of your questions. We can assure you that while we are proud of what we have established thus far, we know that our work will continue to evolve and strengthen throughout this year, and be truly elevated when the works meets your children, as is always the case at Blue School.

Posted on September 17, 2014 .

September 11th

The below is excerpted from an email that Allison sent to Blue School faculty and staff before the day started this morning.

On this day in 2001, I was working in Chelsea in a nonprofit serving schools, and after hours of watching the horrors of that day unfold, I found myself at Whole Foods buying food and carrying it to Manhattan's District 2 offices. Many teachers were there, some of whom were covered in dust, and all of whom had come to a place where they knew other educators would be after releasing their students to their parents that day. They were there huddled in corners, some silent, some crying, some conversing as if it was a normal day, each one with a different reaction to the trauma. I remember walking into that room with food and leaving it there, leaving quickly because I knew it was a sacred space that needed its own boundaries. I know that for me and for so many others, that day is with me every day.

Being an educator on September 11th, and on other days that memorialize horrific events, is challenging. We hold the opportunity and the responsibility to try and bring more peace and understanding into the world through our work, and after a summer like this one, during which unchecked and unmitigated hatred seem to define so much of the activity on the world's stage, this responsibility feels significantly more urgent. Depending on the age of the young people we work with, discussions may or may not be necessary or warranted. But for all of us at Blue School, I hope we can find a moment today with children to breathe, to find a center of peace, to teach a song of struggle and hope, to open our ears and hearts to someone we don't yet understand, to use a conflict between children as a way to teach that people have different ideas; and whether any of the events of that morning or the dynamics around it are mentioned, I hope we find a way to honor those who were lost by teaching for the future.

In the art studio, 4th and 5th graders have been considering what inspires them in the everyday. One student drew the WTC Freedom Tower. Its form and height also inspire our Kindergartners. One Kindergarten student called it "the building w  here the two buildings used to be." This drawing is now hanging on the 6th floor amongst other thoughts and drawings that inspire us.

In the art studio, 4th and 5th graders have been considering what inspires them in the everyday. One student drew the WTC Freedom Tower. Its form and height also inspire our Kindergartners. One Kindergarten student called it "the building where the two buildings used to be." This drawing is now hanging on the 6th floor amongst other thoughts and drawings that inspire us.

Posted on September 11, 2014 .

Sense of Wonder

This summer, Laura Sedlock, the new Director of our Pre-Primary Program, opened our Summer Institute with this quote from Rachel Carson's The Sense of Wonder: 

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.
— Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Today, our twos began their year at Blue School, and our teachers began to build companionship with them in partnership with the parents and caregivers in their lives. We are lucky and grateful to offer a program that allows our parents and caregivers the chance to spend this time with their children in school. In so many ways, entering school can mark a moment or threshold in development in which children trot off to become social and question the world with greater independence. But here in the twos program, we intentionally build the foundation for this threshold over time, and this allows our grown-ups precious moments, days and hours to watch that transition take place, to see the child they share their days with connecting and working things out with other kids, and observing what kind of learner he or she will be. 

In parallel, we are working on grown-up routines in the twos program, i.e. what do we notice about the children's conversations? How do they connect? What fills them with delight? Which materials afford the most agency for children to think through ideas? How do they learn to take turns, share, explore? Our twos program demonstrates how Blue School values the ideas and choices of our young people from the beginning -- by allowing children to explore a rich environment and experiences carefully designed by their teachers, and to discover answers to questions alongside the adults in their lives. 

We encourage you to take a peek into the twos room on the 3rd floor now and again this year, where you will see our youngest learners engaged in deep investigations, and our grown-ups working hard to show the twos that school is a place you can be joyous and excited, a place where you are encouraged to explore and to find mystery in our world, a place where your sense of wonder is your most powerful tool.

Posted on September 10, 2014 .

"The Real Work"

As I write, I hear the drilling of saws, the moving of furniture, the excited voices of teachers discussing big ideas and planning curriculum, the sharing of summer stories. In August of each year, our faculty spends a week together at our Summer Institute, reconnecting with staff members, with each other, and allowing time to focus our hearts and minds on the school year ahead. These precious hours are full of anticipation and hope, and intentional moments are carved out to think big in between setting up classrooms and unpacking supplies. 

This year, we spent our time at Summer Institute focusing our collective intellect and energy on this year's school-wide question: How can we think big, and work small?

We explored big ideas such as the ways in which teaching literature in classrooms plays a role in cultivating empathy in our students. We talked about the the promises we make by being here, in this place and with your children, our philosophy on using materials in our classrooms, the power of being mindful, and much more. 

In parallel, our program directors and teachers gave thoughtful consideration to practical applications for big ideas, one decision at a time. How can we create/enable "the third teacher" by carving out spaces within our classrooms and hallways for thinking, for exploring and for discovering? How do we make this school feel warm like home and yet conducive for complex, hard and productive group conversations? How many books do we stock on the bookshelves? Where do the blocks go? How can I consider the "top half" of my classroom -- the space above our natural sight lines? These big questions and small decisions (along with many more) fill the hallways and rooms our families are now beginning to reenter this week.

My hope for our community is that we never find all of the answers -- even after routines are established, the classroom projects are completed, and the year comes to an end. Rather, I challenge us to keep on seeking and discovering more ways to provoke, inspire and even baffle ourselves as we encounter young people and their powerful ideas. 

By the end of today, when we close the building for the night, our classrooms will be ready... their walls quietly awaiting the ideas, voices, and learning of the young people who will be working here. Until tomorrow, we will anxiously anticipate the richness that our Blue School students will add to our big questions and small moments this year.

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.
— Wendell Berry
Posted on September 3, 2014 .

Remembering Mandela -- Freedom and Equality as Shared Responsibilities

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. -- Nelson Mandela

Today is an international day of remembrance in honor of Nelson Mandela, on the 96th anniversary of his birthday. When he passed last December, we saw and experienced an outpouring of love and messages of thankfulness from his followers. To reflect on that moment, I wrote this letter to our school community. Almost nine months later, these thoughts still ring true, and I hope that over the years, #MandelaDay will continue to remind us of the values Mandela championed, the struggles he brought to light, and the shared responsibilities that need our sustained attention.

December 12, 2013

In reading through Mandela's quotes and reflections, I have been thinking a lot about how Mandela's legacy speaks to our work at Blue School. In his speech at the memorial service yesterday, President Obama urged us to make Mandela’s life's work our own -- to carry on with his journey to freedom and equality for all people.

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world - you can make his life's work your own. Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities - to others, and to myself - and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba's example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength - for his largeness of spirit - somewhere inside ourselves.

To me, this idea that freedom and equality are shared responsibilities is part of the public purpose of Blue School. It is both our charge and our responsibility to think beyond the everyday life of our school, and to ensure that the young people who join us at 2 years old and leave us at 10 or 11 have the foundation for a life of courage, love, resilience, and patience. While, as Obama said, we may always fall short of his example, we can nourish hope and seek to fulfill the dream that each of our children will live a life that is passionately, courageously and justly pursued. For as the families, educators and children at Blue School, we have freedoms that are unique to us, and therefore we also have unique responsibilities to sustain those freedoms and expand access to others.

We meet our responsibilities here and at home when we teach children to listen to one another, to take a deep breath when they feel big emotions, to delve into a complex idea, to try to answer a question that likely has no "right" answer, to stand up for a cause, to ask what is just, to connect ideas from one domain to another, to share. It begins when we teach love, kindness, compassion and respect. It begins when we model the confidence to pose a hard question or to forge a path that may end in failure, and when we all practice the resilience to try again, to change, to reinvent our minds as well as the things we make. It begins when we strive to model these ways of being and embody these values for our children and for the adults in our lives.

In this season of wishes and dreams, I hope that we always remember Mandela. I hope that once we catch our breath and resume our daily lives after his passing, we carry what he taught us in our hearts and minds, and bring a little more of Mandela's example into our everyday lives and actions.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended. -- Nelson Mandela
Posted on July 19, 2014 .

It starts here and now, not out there

Today, the second day after our school is out for the summer, a group of teachers sits in a circle sharing their thoughts about writing, and developing shared understanding of the writing process. They use a text (Writing Through Childhood, by Shelley Harwayne) as a launchpad for discussion. They are invited to first reflect on their own relationship to writing, their own inspirations, discomforts, and ambitions, and to consider how writing can be a way to move through childhood. They are reading reflections from established authors about their own writing, and the words of educators who have inspired joyful and passionate writers in schools all over. In another room, another group considers strategies for integrating wood, clay, wire, light and shadow into their work with two and three year olds, and to transform school spaces into rooms filled with paper, clay or light.

There is plenty of debate about how to make change in education these days: common core implementation, charter vs. public, standards-based, traditional, progressive… the list of dos and do nots go on and on. But in the end, doesn’t it always start here, in a room, through conversation? Truly, in a common sense kind of way, is there any other way to change educational practice than to begin with those who work most closely with children, each person connecting a skill like writing to their own human life, how we each imagine, create, and explain the unexplainable? Educational change, reform, advancement, or whatever we call it today, begins person by person, as a conversation and a deeply examined set of practices that take place between adults and children.

Thank you to teachers who spend these waning days of June in this way, hungry to keep intellectual engagement with this work alive and to continue to pursue balance, depth, and exuberance in our practice.

Posted on June 17, 2014 .

Brainstorming Middle School

This post is featured on the Huffington Post Education blog here.

Looking back, most of us recall a few key things about our middle school years: The often distressing emotional intensity, the urge to express our independent identities, the exciting, unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable desire to connect in new ways with peers. We may also recall that the school's and teacher's expectations required that we suppress (or worse, repress) these aspects of ourselves in service of our academic goals. So, we looked out the window, daydreamed and waited for three o'clock to come, when we could have engaging discussions and pursue our own passions and ideas, often through clubs, sports, arts or plain old hanging out with friends.

Today, the science of adolescence teaches us that being driven by those distractions is biologically useful and important, and that they should be respected and leveraged by educators. Daniel Siegel, in his new book, Brainstorm, shows us the possible ways in which these attributes -- what he refers to as E.S.S.E.N.C.E: Emotional Spark, Social Engagement, Novelty, Creative Explorations -- make up the driving forces behind the adolescent brain. Siegel argues that it is because of the courage and creativity of adolescence that our species has been so adaptive and successful. We need this time of incredible brain growth -- matching only the time between birth and age three -- in order for humanity to survive and thrive.

To make the most of this orientation, school should be a mystery, a challenge, a conversation and a process of self and world discovery stemming from adolescents' social and intellectual curiosity. So, in addition to reading or lectures involving the history of the Middle East told from a central place in the classroom, what if middle school students also learned about revolution through the Arab Spring movement? What if they learned to choose a question worth exploring and a problem worth solving? Suppose they began to understand the histories and dynamics that lead to revolutionary action, and they actually formed possible solutions going forward? What if this young person could communicate to a leader or dissenter of that Arab nation through Twitter, or using a video feed? What if all of this understanding was built through consultations with experts at area universities, interviews with community organizations and scholarly research?

Consider that when all of the world's information can be found in an instant, as this article about the teaching implications of Google suggests, and that the "age of knowing is giving way to the age of data navigation," then school learning must look, feel and be different. Technology should free individuals to think, question, plan and communicate in the creative and nuanced ways that are uniquely human. As you read this, some middle school-aged child is "hackschooling," learning about physics through genuine questions and experimentation with materials. Somewhere else, a 12-year-old is transforming his Lego Mindstorm into a braille printer. Yet another 14-year-old has a plan to save the government millions of dollars by changing the fonts it uses. More than ever before, with the power of technology and their innate creative capacities, adolescents are able to make powerful ideas real while they are still in school. These experiences need to become the norm in our schools if we are going to hold their attention and respectfully acknowledge their power to move us all ahead. What if we gave them the tools now to create and question and invent better stuff, ideas and projects? What if we (as parents and educators) let go of the false dichotomy that one set of educational practices leads to happiness and the other to success because science is actually telling us they are one and the same?

At a national level, our urgency around early childhood should be matched and redoubled with urgency for better, more scientifically-grounded middle school educational programs and practices. Doing so would much better align what we want for our graduates (leadership, creativity, problem-solving) with what employers want (see this New York Times article regarding Google hiring practices) with what humanity actually needs.

At Blue School, we will be opening a middle school in the fall of 2015. We are designing our program to inspire students to high levels of academic scholarship and to develop their abilities to be self-directed learners. Like our pre-kindergarten through fifth grade program, we intend to acknowledge the power of their ideas, their ability to independently use resources and work together on projects, and ultimately to find answers that not only help them fill in the correct circle on a test, but help them envision and create a better future. Through the integration of tried and true thinking on project- and problem-based learning, the best ideas from the Maker movement, and cutting-edge application of STEAM not as a place or person but as a framework for thinking, we work to align what we want to see in the world with what we do in school each day. We are bursting with ideas about and plans to make these ideas real.

The future belongs to them. If we want our children to help us preserve, sustain and re-imagine the world, we have to give them a chance to try it now. What if we did? Who would they be in high school, college and beyond? What are we waiting for?

Posted on April 22, 2014 .

A holiday wish: be mindful of tense

This week, I listened to an expert on, of all things, grammar. A teacher named Phuc Tran gave a TED talk on the use of the subjunctive in the English language, and spoke to the power of using the subjunctive tense -- to the implications of should, could and would. This meaningful tense allows us to dream big, to be optimistic, to imagine and to wonder what if. But it also allows us to wallow, to regret, to ponder what we should, could or would have done. While we all cherish and need our reflective capacities, our lives as New York City parents are way too full of wondering and often worrying about the choices we are making, the potential outcomes and the many influences on our children. And, there is no shortage of books, magazine articles and social media to nag us lest we forget to wonder and worry.

Yet Tran also spoke to the powerful use of the indicative, the present tense which enables us to talk about the here and now, to say “try it anyway” or “I want a hug” or “I want to enjoy this chocolate," and which gives us the phrases to act, reach out, love, laugh and do. Tran reminds us: “We all use the subjunctive and the indicative every day, and we can be mindful of when we are blinded by the subjunctive and overlooking the indicative around us.”

So this holiday season, I wish that we all have more moments in the indicative tense, in being here and now and doing and making, and in acting upon the urgency of the present that makes us better parents, educators and people each day.

Posted on December 19, 2013 .

Color mixing, great fun, and deep learning

Last Monday, we had our first classroom-led Community Meeting for the year. Each week, when we come together, each classroom will have the chance to guide us by sharing songs, their current learning, or a bit of their classroom culture with us. Here is a video shared by Kindergarten A, showing their experimentation with color mixing, which was also recorded in their science notebooks.

The video comes from the class's "film studio." Teachers record work and the children review it together to determine next steps for learning in their projects. Many viewers will see articulate children, joyful engagement, and discovery, but as part of a goal to make learning more explicit and visible, I'd like to draw attention to other key standards present in the video that we work to meet in kindergarten: understanding and internalizing primary colors and what they do when mixed, applying the concepts (recipe) in other contexts, basic foundations for chemistry, managing the unexpected, articulation of ideas, the scientific method (hypothesis, experimentation, research), managing our bodies and reactions, and working with others towards a shared goal.

This week, as we move towards our celebration of imagination and discovery at our Dumbo Pop-up to meet the global cardboard challenge, our fourth grade will be sharing their process as they built automata using cardboard and other materials at Monday's meeting. We hope others from other schools and communities will come and join us out there demonstrating the capacity of children to invent and create when given the time and tools.

Posted on September 28, 2013 .

Values-driven admissions

This summer, our board and leadership discussed whether to continue to use the ERB as an entrance requirement, following this guiding question: how can we align our admissions requirements and assessments with our vision, values and mission? How can we maintain our admissions process as a conversation about children and families that includes skills and dispositions but is not governed by them?

The admissions process at Blue School has always been a conversation between the family and the school over time. It is a statement our families and educators make about our shared hopes for children and our world. It reflects the seriousness of the commitment we make together to share responsibility for each child during this critical and foundational first decade of life. During our process, we strive to understand each child as a learner, a person, and a member of a family through time together, observation, and assessment. We have this thorough process because once committed, a Blue School education requires that families and children work hard with us to develop strong voices and become engineers of an ethical and harmonious future. It is joyous and meaningful work, and we want our families as partners in it.

For years, however, we have felt that the ERB did not provide adequate information for the way we see learning, achievement, growth and success at our school. We have also been concerned that its use as a universal entry test by independent schools could contribute to a culture of testing and test prep at an inappropriate developmental stage (see Jennifer Senior's "The Junior Meritocracy" in New York Magazine or Jenny Anderson's “Schools Ask: Gifted or Just Well Prepared,” in The New York Times). In our discussions this summer, we were reminded again and again that despite the widespread use of the ERB, we find our own assessments are deeper, more meaningful, and more effective in assessing skills, strengths and readiness for the environment we have created at Blue School.

So together, in August, our board and leadership decided to drop the ERB as an entrance requirement. Now, you will find no mention of the ERB in the description of our admissions process.  On Friday, we were glad to see, according to the New York Times's "Private Schools are Expected to Drop a Dreaded Entrance Test,"  that so many other schools (in addition to those few who have already changed their requirements) are also asking important questions about how we align what we know about children and learning with our entrance requirements in New York City independent schools.

We are looking forward to the bigger conversations that we hope this shift will provoke for many schools, as we further align the beliefs and practices in our schools with the outcomes we hope they will achieve. We look forward to the dialogue, as always, with you.

Posted on September 23, 2013 .

A Blue STEAM engine

Right now, at the MIT Media Lab, RISD the d.school: Institute of Design at Stanford, and NYU's ITP program, graduate students are tinkering, designing and making at the edges of technology with tools that we can only imagine, as well as tools that we have had at our sides for ages. Here in New York City, children at places like Beam Center and the Makery are working to understand component parts of technology --circuitry, sodoring, programming, robotics-- in combination with a multitude of design techniques to "make" their way to innovative implemenation of powerful ideas. Taken together, there is widespread agreement that makers represent an important future direction for education -- a perfect combination of tools for scientific and design innovation and 21st century skills like collaboration, flexibility and creativity. Since our inception, Blue School's DNA has been infused with the spirit of making. Three of our founders (Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton, the founding Blue Men) used a variety of materials and big ideas to build Blue Man Group, and a show that comments critically and creatively on our society. Then, as now, we understand that children need to own and make their ideas real using the academic, social and technical skills we teach in school.  In many ways, Blue School assigns a 21st century exclamation point to the education research that informs our work, as well as shoots off a question mark about what is next and how we can keep getting better.

A lot is going on with our makers at Blue School right now, and we are building the scaffolding for more to come.

Next week, our second graders will be learning to fly (almost). Working with a visiting faculty member from Beam Center (who is a tinkerer, woodworker, artist, and robot-maker in his own right), our seven and eight year olds will build a glider together. Their idea to build a glider emerged from studying birds and looking at DaVinci's observations, designs, and artistry. In kindergarten, children are building houses, vehicles and hotels to redesign our neighborhood which is still struggling to recover after Sandy (yes, more than six months later). They are using tubing, soil, wood, and other materials at various scales. In first grade, children have built a classroom-sized wooden Rube Goldberg machine, and are working diligently to add, take away, and explore to see how things move, fall down, and stand up.

truck

They are scientists and tinkerers, asking questions, failing and trying again. They discuss how machines can have an impact on the world.

And, what's next? We are bringing the practice of making to a new level at Blue School by working to codify a sequence of specific skills and experiences children need to be innovators and makers in the era of digital technology. If we aim to graduate 21st century inventors, engineers, and creatives, then school must be a laboratory where children can test out and experience those roles now. Thanks to conversations with people like our esteemed Advisory Board member John Maeda, president of RISD, Jon Santiago at HTINK,  Mike Fischthal at Pixel Academy, Brian Cohen at Beam Center, and Deb Windsor at Construction Kids, and influences from books like Design.Make.Play and MakeSpace, we hope to make the conversation around integrating and teaching 21st century skills broader, louder and more visible by developing maker spaces and experiences at Blue School that give our children access to the same types of thinking that is happening at the graduate level.

Posted on May 8, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

Vehicle Stories from Kindergarten B

I’m thrilled to announce guest bloggers Molly DeGesero and Richard Jenkins, the teaching team of Kindergarten B. At Blue School, we think a great deal about how children develop not only the skills but also the agency to become active and purposeful readers and writers. In the post below, Molly and Rich show how literacy (as well as so much else) begins with children's natural inclination to tell stories.

From Molly and Rich

“The children themselves continually reminded us that play [is] still their most usable context.” Vivian Gussin Paley 2004

Every day in Kindergarten, children walk into the classroom filled with ideas, excitement and energy. It is our job as educators to watch the children at their work: play. When children play, they tell a story. They tell stories based on their lives, their experiences, their hopes and their dreams. A play theme of family might tell the story of a little girl lost in the woods found by her faithful puppy and returned to the safety of her home. Another story might begin with Ninjas conquering the bad guys of the world and transform into a peaceful meal around a common table. As we observe, we think about ways for children to document and record the stories they create through play.

This year, Kindergarten B had the opportunity to visit ConstructionKids, a child centered woodworking lab in Brooklyn, where we created wooden vehicles. When we returned to Blue School holding our vehicles proudly,  we naturally went back to the work of children: we needed to play with them! After painting them with Glow Paint and playing with them in various environments from the Glow Hall to our own classroom, we elevated elements of story embedded in their play with these vehicles. We asked the children to create story maps: Who drives your vehicle (character)? Where does your vehicle drive (setting) and what does your vehicle do (action)?

With our story maps and vehicles in hand, small groups of children ventured out into our Construction Lab to “play the story of our vehicles.” Children first sat in a circle and looked through their story maps, but like any good author plans change once you begin writing! A story map including an adventure in the forest changed when the vehicle met another vehicle that took them into an elaborate city dwelling. Children's social interactions  influenced the kind of stories they were telling! At this moment, we supported the children in documenting and saving their stories. Once they had finished playing, they sat around the computer and dictated their “vehicle story” to a teacher. Children listened to one another’s stories with care and intention. They were excited at the twists and turns taken and even remarked that what they played wasn’t necessarily the story that ended up being told. Below are two sample stories from this experience.

glowvehicleA

Story A: Told in the Construction Lab with Glow Vehicle

Once upon a time, there was a car that had lots of friends. She was thinking, “Why can’t I go somewhere else?” Finally, she wanted to go somewhere and that included the places she was close to. Then she remembered that the closest places were where there was nature. Then she thought, “Why can’t I build a road there so I can go whenever I want to?” “I’m going to build a road so I can get there.” She made friends with animals. Then the animals needed to get to places. She brought them there.

The End

Story B: Told in the Construction Lab with Glow Vehicle

I am a car, which lives in a house. I am a normal car but I fly and swim in rivers. I have three friends, one is named Orion, one is named Dino and one is named India. I can do most anything. But I can get stuck in rain. I have the power to travel anyway but I cannot die. I stick with what I know. I believe in what I see. I made my life about recycling and keeping planet earth clean. I live in a recycling plant made for cars with an area with really nice beds and jumps and everything. I love to go visit my friends India and Orion. Dino comes to visit me. Not the other way around. I have one more question. Think up some more please.

The End

Posted on April 26, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

On being a great teacher

Blue School prospective parents sometimes ask me what qualifications I look for in a teacher, or where our teachers come from. I usually stop and have to think, because the qualifications for me of a masterful teacher are truly a set of personal and intellectual qualities demonstrated over time more than a list of itemized skills. And while checklists, rubrics, and multiple lists of attributes that define great teaching and skilled teachers certainly exist, I think we have lost the forest for the trees in a profession that lies so stubbornly on that sparkling line between art and science. For me, and at Blue School, a masterful teacher is a person of intellect, who is engaged and excited by the prospect of understanding a child's mind, personhood, and individual nature a little bit better every day. She has chosen this vocation not to be loved by her students, but to appreciate and understand who they are and the mystery and wonder that they bring each day. A masterful teacher has fun with children and holds them in the highest regard (and thus to the highest standards), looks them in the eyes, laughs at their jokes, smiles when they succeed, and helps them get up when they fail.

A masterful teacher has a vision for the classroom that is both responsive to the children he teaches but also unwavering in his attention to what they need to learn at all developmental stages. She knows that freedom of thought comes within structure and parameters. He cherry-picks the best from great educational programs and current ideas, and makes them his own. She is inviting to families and values their partnership, and works to ensure that each child is seen and known from all sides. He is a reader of books and a person with ideas about the world.

A masterful teacher is a team player, and knows that her practice is as much about building the school as it is about her classroom. She is courageous enough to take and incorporate feedback from colleagues, and creative enough to take the suggestions farther than the giver ever intended. He is a collaborator through thick and thin, knowing the work of nurturing good citizens and people requires hearing one another out, healthy disagreement, and patience, as well as the thrill that comes with an idea better played out by two rather than one. She is exceedingly humble and curious about our work, knowing that the more she learns, the more questions she will have.

This is a tall order, and it is no wonder that as the national conversation about education narrows, so many of these brilliant and expansive thinkers are leaving the classroom. I see it as my responsibility to create a culture where people like this can learn, grow, take risks and thrive, just as we want them to do for our children.

Posted on April 1, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

"Rainbows in the clouds"

This weekend, I was surrounded by close to 10,000 people -- teachers, school leaders, and other educators -- who chose to attend the ASCD annual conference (#ASCD13) in Chicago. There were many important ideas to share -- and I will do so in future posts -- but I wanted most immediately to share with you my thoughts listening to Maya Angelou. In a room of 10,000, Ms. Angelou made the space feel intimate by singing an old song with lyrics: "God puts rainbows in the clouds." She explained her belief that the rainbows in the clouds are there "so that each of us- in the dreariest and most dreaded moments- can see a possibility of hope." Angelou told her own life story and spoke about her own rainbows that allowed her to grow from a child who was selectively mute for several years into the woman, defying any label, that she is today. Then, she said to all of us, "YOU. You are the rainbows in the clouds."

We educators are lucky in that no matter what our school's circumstance, our every day work begins with hope. We come to school with the hope and optimism that today, we might change a life, light a fire, catch a moment of creativity that can one day change the world. We also hope that the minds we touch will not only be changed but that they will change others.  Every day at Blue School, I cherish the responsibility to lead a school where it is possible, through our efforts, for children to do  and practice the kind of thinking that can "make a ding in the universe." We do not take this responsibility lightly.

Angelou ended with the poem, Brave and Startling Truth that she wrote for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. These two final stanzas remind us that we represent the possible:

"When we come to it We, this people, on this wayward, floating body Created on this earth, of this earth Have the power to fashion for this earth A climate where every man and every woman Can live freely without sanctimonious piety Without crippling fear

When we come to it We must confess that we are the possible We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world That is when, and only when We come to it."

I am grateful to have the chance to come to it each day.

Posted on March 20, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.

Budding scientists

A few weeks ago, I went to MoMath, an incredible new museum in Manhattan where the beauty, complexity, and joyful nature of math is visible and available for thirsty and voracious learners to explore. I gravitated towards their Zometools, building tools that allow children to build all types of geometric constructions. I rushed to purchase many boxes of these tools (among other fantastic games) for Blue School. I delivered them to classrooms on Monday. On Thursday, a child came to me with the sculpture he made from the tools, and a card on which he labeled the sculpture, "Flaming Flowers." He told me I could "borrow" the sculpture for a few days – his way of saying thank you for purchasing the tools for his classroom. It sits on my table now, on loan until Monday. 

We examined it and spoke about his process, and then we turned it upside down, and we saw his flowers become a rocket ship. Later on in the day, I walked upstairs, where kindergarten children created a structure by balancing sticks on top of one another. They had created a perfectly balanced cluster of about 15 sticks on top of just one or two. I asked them what they were building and each child joyfully shared a different description. I challenged them to keep going to see how high they could build their structure. One child said, "But what if it falls down?" and the other responded, "Well then, we will try again."

What does this have to do with saving science?

Dr. Anissa Ramirez, Ph.D., engineer, who spoke with co-founder Matt Goldman at SXSWedu last week, credits her inquiry training in the sciences with giving her the ability to "stare at an unknown and not run away, [because this] melding of uncertainty and curiosity is where innovation and creativity occur." By giving children the space and time to explore a variety of materials, we encourage them to question, take on new perspectives, work together, conjecture, and support their thinking with evidence. At Blue, children are given time to observe and reflect, to compare, connect, and extend their ideas. They learn how to assess what worked and what didn't, and how to try again.

Across the subject areas we explore at Blue, we emphasize the tools children need to be active learners and partners in their education rather than passive recipients of content. As the E.O Wilson offered in his advice to young scientists at TEDMED, "What is crucial is not technical ability, but imagination in all of its applications."

So, when you hear someone speak of creativity in opposition to (or even just next to) science, remind them how Ramirez and E.O. Wilson, and all of our most cherished scientists and engineers, use their creativity. Tell them about the courageous, imaginative, disciplined, project-based work that scientists do in pursuit of the big ideas they create that make the world better. Then, tell them Blue stories about balancing acts in kindergarten and the flaming flowers/ rocket ship in first grade, and more, about ways our children are thinking about pop up playgrounds for areas impacted by natural disasters, methods to solve a math problem, or ways to preserve the history of our Seaport. Creativity is not just for the arts and it is not an add-on to the Blue curriculum. Creativity is essential to everything we do, including as Ramirez says so well, to saving science.

Posted on March 8, 2013 and filed under Uncategorized.