Steinways and Snow

My first Kindergartners are now 10th graders. Hard to believe, but true.

Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing one of them participate in the NJ Poetry Out Loud finals. She recited three poems. Each was filled with pauses, inflection, breath, emotion, and gestures, which drew me more deeply into the words and meaning of the poems.

My favorite was Undivided Attention by Taylor Mali. It’s a fun, and thought-provoking poem for an educator. An added sweetness was that  I was introduced to it by my alumna!

If you’re unfamiliar with the poem, take a moment to go read it now. Especially if you’re an educator, read it — right now.

I’ll wait.

The whole thing is glorious. But, if you ask me, the most striking part is:

So please.

Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers’ crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.

Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

(Mali. Taylor. “Undivided Attention.” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. Print. (ISBN: 1-­‐887012-­‐17-­‐6)

Fabulous! Right?!?

As I listened to my alumna recite the poem, I imagined the educator asking permission of her administrators, coordinators, and colleagues to allow her teach in this fashion. As I listened, I heard her imploring others to share her vision.

Later that day I read the poem to myself, and then aloud to others. I heard it differently. I’m not completely sure why.

Perhaps I heard it differently because  it was my own voice that spoke the words. Or, perhaps it was because Mali’s words had been floating in my brain since the morning, somehow becoming my own.

“Let me teach like the Steinway …so almost-­‐falling, so hinderingly dangling … let me teach like the new snow, falling.”

The word I heard, with soft, encouraging, invitation was me. It felt like a quiet manifesto.

Much like the piano movers I need to move my personal Steinways. My Steinways are lessons, ideas, inspiration, motivation, classroom culture, design experiences, creativity, and much more. Similar to the movers in the poem, occasionally, my eye-popping, jaw-dropping, risky, awesomeness has to hang out the window. Scary, but also a huge blessing, because, hanging out the window, others can see it, engage with it, and be excited by it.

First snow, falling, is nothing new, and yet each time it falls it feels new. The snow beckons all who notice it to come and look with long interested looks. It reworks the view out the window. It offers the opportunity for play, and the necessity of work. And, when examined closely, it reveals the marvels of each unique flake. That is a profound way to teach.

Yes. Let me teach like that Steinway — big, brave, bold, and fantabulous. Let me teach like snow falling — offering play and work, changing views, and surprisingly breathtaking wonders.

Let me

Let us.





Learning through Rapid Prototyping

I recently presented a workshop on Design Thinking with a fabulous NJAIS colleague.  It was an incredibly thought-provoking experience for me. Teaching educators about using design thinking in the classroom forced me — or, more correctly, allowed me  — to immerse myself, again, in a plethora of creativity and design thinking resources. I read, listened and thought deeply, as I searched for the connections, and inspirations to share with the participants.

The idea of rapid prototyping was particularly provocative. It’s not the norm for education, and yet it has the potential to be profoundly valuable. By prototyping rapidly — with ideas, strategies, or products — we gather large amounts of information in a relatively short period of time. In the process, we discover our own strength and agency, and we experience the hidden potential of failure.

Rapid prototyping and gathering information from each failure, is a natural mechanism for learning, problem solving, and innovating.  I experienced its value as I watched my students attempt the Tower of Hanoi math game.

I prepped them for the process. I emboldened them in their willingness to try. I told them they might not get it  — the 1st, the 5th or the 100th time —  but they should keep trying, and learning with each move, mistake or failure. After listening to the rules, they gathered their three blocks, and set to work figuring out the puzzle.

One of the  girls was  the epitome of rapid prototyping. Rarely taking her eyes off the blocks, she moved them without discussion.She made hundreds of moves. She appeared undeterred by her failure to solve the puzzle, and seemed to find joy and interest in the process.

The number and quickness of her moves, might suggest her moves were aimless or unstudied. Someone watching might  wonder whether she were learning anything, or making any progress. But, looking at it with the eye of a design thinker, it became clear she was rapidly prototyping.


towers 2

Her movements were speedy, and many. But, they were definitely not without observation, noticing, thought, or purpose. As she made her moves, she clearly learned about the blocks, the puzzle board, and the ways in which everything worked together. After what seemed like hundreds of moves, she paused, looking at the board. Then, she  made the seven moves necessary to solve the puzzle!

(I particularly love this photo that captured the rapid movement of her hands as a blur of motion.)

towers 1

It was fascinating and a bit humbling to watch her! I was struck by how wonderfully it illustrated how we learn, as well as my role as an educator.

I must create a culture and environment that supports my students. A culture with resources that bolster their knowledge and understanding, while encouraging them to be brave, and to believe in their ability to work and learn. I must give them provocations and opportunities to problem find, and problem solve.

Then, I must step back and let them do their thing. I must resist any urge to jump in and rescue them before they actually need my help. I must sit in my own discomfort, and trust. Trust the process of learning. Trust creativity and design thinking. Trust rapid prototyping and learning from failure. And mostly, trust them!

Finally I must breathe! My breath helps me pause and gift my students with time and space. It helps me remain calm and confident, unafraid as my students heroically brave the unknown.

It’s a spectacular process that inspires and teaches me. My students — our students — have a tremendous amount of courage, insight and capacity to do and learn. All they need is the opportunity — and our trust and breath.

Letting My Learners Lead Me

We had the best social studies learning time today! It was spectacular. I know I always say I wish I had a videographer, but wow, I really wish I had one today. My girls were fantabulous — full of energy, passion, and awesomeness.

Let me explain.

We are part way through our super hero unit. We’ve explored fictional super heroes, and created our own personal fictional superhero. After numerous discussions, we decided there aren’t just fictional superheroes, there are also real superheroes! We generated a list of superheroes in our own lives. They included: police officers, firemen, firewomen, grandmothers who get up early every day to make us breakfast, sisters who help us cross the street, dogs who bark at bad guys, teachers who teach us, dads who give us medicine when we’re sick, and nannies who always play games with us.

Today’s topic was  how we can be, and are, superheroes. I planned on showing them Brad Montague’s (Kid President’s brother-in-law) video This is a Joyful Rebellion, and then work on Mirror Messages as a way to give them concrete examples of them being superheroes.

I told them we’d be watching a couple videos this week. I mentioned Kid President and his pep talk for superheroes. None of them had heard of him, so I pulled up a quick photo to show them. They were enamored with his image, the fact that he is a kid, and the idea of a pep talk. They all wanted to watch him TODAY! They were quite emphatic.

I thought for a moment. I wasn’t prepared for an activity for this video, but they were definitely into it, so I decided to give it a go, and see what happened. I asked them “So you want me to change my plans so we can watch this today?” They responded, enthusiastically, “Yes!” I paused, thought a moment and said “OK, let’s watch it, and then talk about it.

OH MY GOSH!!! They got so much out of the pep talk! Their observations, insights, and discussion were amazing.

One said: “But Miss James, we can’t be REAL superheroes!”

I took a breath, put my hands on my hips, thought for a moment, and said “What do you mean?”

She repeated herself: “We CAN’T be real superheroes, Miss James!” and added “We can’t fly.”

“OH!” I said, “You mean we can’t be like Superman?!”

“Yes!” she replied.

As I began to explain that Superman isn’t real, but is a movie and comic book character, another girl interrupted. She practically yelled …

“But they’re NOT REAL! They’re FAKE!”

“Yes!” I said (giving her a high five).

She continued “We’re real, and we can be REAL SUPERHEROES. We don’t need to be able to fly, or shoot lasers out of our hands”

“YEAH!” another said “And we don’t need to have laser eyes!”

“That’s true! We don’t have, or need, lasers hands or eyes!”

Now came the big question. “So if we don’t have laser hands or laser eyes, and we can’t fly, do we have super powers?”

Their eyes seemed locked on me as they struggled with that question. The room was completely silent.

Finally, one yelled, “YES! We do have super powers!”

“What?” I asked.

“We have heart power!”

“YES!! YOU DO!” I exclaimed in return.

I cheered them on as they continued. We have:

  • Big Beautiful Brain Power
  • Our Own Ideas
  • Making Power
  • Kindness Power
  • Niceness Power
  • Friendship Power
  • Art Power
  • Science Power
  • Math Power
  • Loyalty Power
  • Brave Power
  • Strong Power
  • Muscle Power
  • Generosity Power
  • Loyalty Power
  • Creativity Power
  • Honesty Power
  • Helping Power
  • Inventing Power
  • Gift Giving Power
  • Listening Power
  • Thinking Power
  • Word Power

“Wow!” I said “This is fantabulous! I think we have to make signs with our powers. Shall we use big or small sheets of paper?”

“BIG PAPER. Let’s use big paper!”

Of course we had to use big paper. What was I thinking? Their powers, their hearts, their minds, their spirits, DEMANDED big sheets of paper. What else could even come close to holding them?

We each got our favorite color 12×18 inch sheet and set to work writing and illustrating our powers.

After social studies, we had choice time. One of the girls asked if she could work on our 120 chart — we had begun constructing it during math. “Sure! How many numbers do you want?

“Two.” she said.

She took two and placed them in the chart. Then she took a handful. A moment later she said, “I want to finish the whole thing!”

“You go, girl! Use your math power!”


40 minutes later the chart was completed!

We sat and looked at it together. “Wow,” I said, as we high-fived. “That is so fantabulous! Thanks for using your math power to help us get this done.”

I’m sure social studies would have been good if we followed my plan to the letter. But, I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been this good. And I have no idea if this girl would have had the confidence in her power to finish this chart on her own. My decision to allow my students to lead me — to step into the unknown, trusting in them, me and us — made all the difference.

I’m so glad they asked to lead, and I’m super glad I said yes, and followed them.


Helping Students Reach Higher

As educators we often talk about wanting our students to:

  • reach
  • stretch
  • go as far as they can
  • achieve

We also work hard to provide:

  • instructions
  • help
  • scaffolding
  • tools
  • structure

My classroom word wall is quite fluid. Sometimes it has our names on it, other times it has words we may encounter in our various learning units. Once we return from winter break, and move towards spring break, I begin to give the world wall more and more to my students.

In reading they each write three words they want to add to our word wall. They must be words they know how to spell like they are written in a library book.

I’m careful to not say “Three words you know how to spell correctly.” When they use inventive spelling — which is appropriate and important in Kindergarten — the words they write are correct if they, and I, can read them. For instance eat might be written ete. Or, teacher might be encoded as teechr. These are examples of correct inventive spelling, because they follow phonetic rules, and accurately convey the sounds, words, and thoughts of the writer. I don’t want them to begin thinking that the way they write is incorrect, and only by memorizing words, or asking for help, are they able to spell, write, and share their ideas.

In Social Studies, my students think of three words related to our topic, that they’d like to add to our word wall. Often these are words that are difficult to spell like they are spelled in library books. My girls stretch them out as best they can, then we work together to make any needed changes. This gives me the opportunity to share rules, digraphs, blends, and crazy things about the English language (for instance, ir, ur, and er have the same sound!), as well as help my girls find their own errors in thinking, hearing and sounding out.

For instance, one girl wanted to write strong. She srog. We stretched the word out, tapping the sounds – to try and tease out that n sound. She added it. Then I asked her to read me her word again. She read strong. “Hmmm,” I said, “I read srong.” She looked at me with a puzzled look, and sounded it out while holding my gaze. Then she looked at what she wrote and sounded it out again. Finally, she laughed and said “Oh, t! I forgot a t.”

These moments are examples of my students reaching, stretching, and attaining, while I support and scaffold. Sometimes, though, the reaching, stretching, and scaffolding is much more literal.

My students are confident in their own ability to find safe and effective ways to use things in our classroom to achieve their goals. So, they often create their own scaffold, and reach as high as they desire.


But, there are times the height they hope to attain is beyond their reach. That’s when I offer myself as a resource. I provide the scaffold they need to reach higher than they might on their own.


I really like that I am supporting them, rather than holding them. They get the chair. They have to be brave enough to step onto the scaffolding (me) and stand tall. Even though I am spotting them all the while it’s not always easy! Once on the scaffold, they have to breathe, trust, focus, reach higher. and write — undeterred by the distance they are from the floor!

For me, these are all moments of creativity.

  • Thinking outside the box.
  • Being open to possibility.
  • Inventing as we spell.
  • Not being deterred by what seems impossible considering the tools we have or do not have.
  • Risking.
  • Being brave.
  • Giving it a go.
  • Reflecting, adapting and rethinking.

And, let us not forget the equally important and essential parts of engaging in creative thinking and doing:

  • Experiencing joy.
  • Being struck by beauty and awesomeness.
  • Learning.

Grab A Moment

I’ve been thinking a lot about finding time in the day to “give” to my learners — time for them to make and invent, time to think creatively and critically, time to think about possibility, to experience joy, energy, challenge, freedom, and agency. It’s not so easy to find, but I just kept thinking and wondering.

I noticed I sometimes have small pockets of time in morning meeting. Not a lot of time for sure — maybe 5 minutes — but I thought I’d see what we could do in that time.

I searched around for LEGO bricks in the classroom, and found quite a few. I took out most of the pieces that suggested any thing in particular (trees, people, wheels). I hoped by doing that to have the creation be more open to possibility, and the imagination of each maker, and less led by the ideas of the LEGO makers. I found a basket that made it easy to send the bricks around our morning meeting circle, and eagerly anticipated our work together!

lego basket

By the way, we hadn’t used our LEGO bricks in some time, so they were in a need of a wash. I loaded them in a mesh bag, and washed them on the top shelf of my dishwasher on a cool setting. Worked great! Thanks to all the people who posted things online about ways to wash them.

The first two times we gave it a try, we worked together to create one structure. We each picked a lego, and added it to the structure as we passed it around our morning meeting circle. Here’s our first creation.

inventing 2

Sometimes the girls were quiet, watching each other add their brick. Other times they kibitzed about where to put the brick, or shared with a neighbor what it might be.

When we finished creating the structure I placed it — with a pencil — next to a clipboard reading “Our morning meeting invention might be … ”


Over the next few days, the girls continued to think about what the structure might be — not what it is, but what it might be — and when they had a moment, they added their ideas to our lists.

The girls loved creating together, and writing their ideas one the lists. In the process we all got to practice and grow in many ways. We

  • used our imagination.
  • thought creatively and critically.
  • were open to possibilities.
  • collaborated.
  • were flexible when our friends accidentally knocked a piece off, and replaced it in a different spot.
  • acted as individuals, and as a team.
  • practiced handwriting, and encoding our thoughts into words so others could read them.
  • were resourceful — figuring out how to create something with a small set of bricks.
  • worked on our communication skills — as we created, as we talked about the creations later on, and as we shared our ideas.
  • enjoyed each other and the process.

It may seem like there is no time in your day to allow your students to invent, create, make, think, dream, imagine, wonder, and enjoy. Don’t believe that. Be open and observant. When you notice a moment or two in your day, give it to your students, and yourself, as moments of possibility.

Often times this is my mantra: “Small moments. Small creations. Big impact.”

Give it a go. Grab the moment! Your students, and you, deserve it.


By the way … 

If you find a moment and do something, leave me a comment, I’d love to hear what you did, and how it went.

If you find a moment and have no idea what to do, ask a colleague, or leave me a comment. I’d be happy to brainstorm some ideas.

if you look at your schedule and say “Molly does NOT know what she is talking about. My day is packed, and there is NO WAY I can do one more thing!” leave me a comment. Maybe we can look at your day together and find some time.




Kids and Educators Inventing

January 17th is Kid Inventors’ Day.. It’s held on the 17th to coincide with the birth date of Benjamin Franklin — an imaginative and creative inventor. (Check out the link to find out about some of his inventions. There’s even a video of William Zeitler playing  a modern version of Franklin’s glass armonica. It’s pretty cool!)

Prior to the big day we read What Do You Do With An Idea by Kobi Yamada. It’s such a great book — simple and yet profound at the same time. We talked about ideas — theirs ideas.

“Do you have ideas? Do you have good ideas? Do your ideas always work the way you plan? Do you always have ideas alone, or sometimes with others? Are you always willing to tell others about your ideas? Are you sometimes a little worried people may not like their ideas?”  I agreed with them when they said they had ideas, and I encouraged them when they said they are sometimes afraid to share or try their ideas.

Then I showed them my latest invention — an idea book I made for them!

“Yes, I know a book isn’t my invention, we already have them, but,” I said, “this one’s a little different. I wanted  to give you all sorts of places to write, sketch, and store your ideas so I changed some things about a ‘regular’ book.”


I proceeded to show them some of the different bits of the book — skinny pages, fat pages, pages made from magazine pages, an envelope, blank white paper, blank grid paper, and accordion folded pages in the center. I told them the books were theirs to keep, and they could use them however they liked to store their ideas. The only thing they had to do was record some ideas.

“Can we put stuff on the cover, too?!”


“Of course!!!”

I also asked them to let me know, after they used the book, if they had any tweaks I might make to make it even better. The book was so different that many immediately asked me to make changes. I asked them to try it first, and then let me know if they still wanted me to tweak things. “This way,” I said “we’ll all be part of the invention process of this Idea Book. I made it, but you’ll test it, and give me suggestions.” They seemed to like that.


Kid Inventors Day in the classroom was great. The girls were enthusiastic and worked on their projects for hours.  Some of their creations were completely unique, others were recreations of existing items. There was a lot of creative questioning that went on that day! How would their creation be an invention — something new? What tweaks could they make to whatever they were considering to make it even better? One young inventor declared her jet pack better than the existing one because it used Daddy-power. “Because, ya know,” she told me, “my mommy won’t let me use fire and real fuel!” Can’t argue with that logic!

The day was a success, but I wanted them to concentrate on problem finding a bit more. I decided to have us work as inventors in our next science class. We would concentrate on the first 3 steps from this  Invention and Design Process Mash Up poster I put together. (The 1st 3 are in color because those were the ones I wanted to focus on in this class.)

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 4.57.35 PM

I had some questions and wonderings as I entered the lesson design process:

  • How might they have the best experience?
  • How might I have a record of their work to share with others?
  • Should they work in teams? In partnerships?
  • Should I give them the choice of working together or alone?
  • Should everyone have their own notebook?
  • Should we create posters of problems? Posters of brainstorms?

I was kind of plagued by the question of wether they should have their own notebook because then they would have something written down to take home. Normally I don’t really care.

I know that learning happens in the making, the doing, and the discussion, so I typically don’t do concentrate on a notebook to take home. I’m not against writing! Tons of amazing things happen with writing, but generally I don’t mind if there is nothing to send home on any one day since I document with photos, and share the photos and explanations after the fact. But for some reason this time I couldn’t shake the idea of an “Inventor’s Notebook” to take home. So, I gave it a go.

I loved our discussions. The girls were enthusiastic and worked hard to understand and express themselves.  It was a ton of  fun to watch them try to explain what brainstorming is — using great facial expressions and hand gestures to explain that the thoughts you have are like storms in your brain.

“”Yes!” I said “You do have lots of ideas in your brains, but how do they become brainstorms? What happens when it storms outside? Is there just stuff in the clouds but nothing else?” “NO!” they yelled ” It rains! Or it snows!” “YES!” I replied, with nearly equal exuberance, “And is it just one rain drop?” They looked, as though stunned, but then responded “NO! It’s lots of drops!” “YES!” I agreed, “It’s lots of drops, and when we brainstorm, we want to share LOTS of ideas.”

The inventions we looked at were awesome. They helped the girls understand that sometimes inventions are a mash up of ideas already existing, and other times they are completely new. And, perhaps most importantly it opened their minds to the truth that KIDS are inventors — with big beautiful brains and hearts — who see problems and work to solve them. We looked at the cereal serving head crane device as well as fabulous, and hilarious, children’s inventions. (Can you imagine having a spider lick your face if you don’t get up on time?! They could!)

But the notebook, and allowing the girls to mostly work alone, didn’t work as well as hoped. As the class progressed, I noticed many ways I wanted to tweak the notebook, and the process.


My prototype for the next try will include a notebook for work at home. It will include the mash-up poster, some information for parents, and some blank pages for sketching and note taking. But, for our time together in the lab, we will work with posters and post-it-notes.

We’ll create several Problem Posters. Then, after some brainstorming, I’ll arm each girl with a pad of post-it-notes, and a pencil. This will give them the opportunity for many casual collisions, which will oblige and allow them to interact — sharing ideas, energy, laughter, and angst. Hopefully the size of the note, and the fact that they have a pad of them, will encourage quick sketching, and many ideas. I’m excited that this method  will give us a class artifact of our work together. I’m hopeful it can then be used for further thought and engagement in the invention and design process.

Funny, even though I understand the design/invention process, and I know the girls learned and did great things, I’m unhappy with myself for not thinking  of these tweaks before I did the lesson. But really, how could I have thought of them before? It’s a new lesson, a new creation and invention, and as with all inventions, it gets better by working the process. — think, sketch, make, test, tweak, sell, repeat.

Perhaps we as educators need to share more of our failures, near misses, thought process, design process, thinking, and challenges. This way everyone will understand that everyone needs to work the process, and the process is hardly ever as easy, or mess free, as we make it seem.






When the Smithsonian Invites …

You say “GET OUT OF TOWN!!” Then, you accept!

I have been meaning to blog about this for quite some time, but as I began to investigate the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation  I kept finding new things that made me go “WOW!” and kept me from blogging.

If you’ve never given their website a look, you really should. They’ve got some awesome thinking and resources.

Look at some of the things they believe, and attempt to live:

“In Spark!Lab, we believe everyone is inventive, and hope that our visitors continue to create and innovate long after they’ve outgrown us.”

I LOVE this. Even though I’ve read it several times, it still makes me shake my head. That’s exactly what I think and hope about my Kindergartners. They’re all creative, inventive, and fantabulous! My hope and intent is that they experience, learn, embrace, and live those truths, with me, and long after they’ve left me!

Another post said “Lemelson team members pride ourselves on ‘living the mission’ as creative problem solvers.” They tell the story of  trying to rescue a lost  phone, and document the process at the same time.

I laughed out loud as I read this story. This is my life as a Kindergarten teacher. Always trying to work with my girls to figure out ways to make things possible — all the while doing my best to snap photos.

And, as I think about it, this is my Kindergartners life too! They are living the mission as creative problem solvers as well! The other day I discovered two girls — bottoms up in the air, faces on the ground, arms reaching under a block cabinet — all the while talking furiously with one another. What was going on, you ask?

Someone had washed a yogurt container, and when they placed it in the ‘use for making’ basket, the container fell behind the cabinet.  The girls could squeeze their arms under the cabinet, but they couldn’t reach the bottle. The flurry of conversation was about the blocks and other items they were trying out as tools to retrieve the container.

To add to their challenge, our classroom has art projects taped to the floor and the edge of the closest art project is about 18 inches from the edge of the block cabinet.

27021766_10215417468569449_6082601414156124466_o (1)

The block cabinet is on wheels, and a visiting teacher volunteered to move it. The girls rejected this simple solution because they didn’t want to risk harming the art project. It was fantabulous to watch their intentness, inventiveness, and collaboration as they worked to retrieve the container.

Then there is the Lemelson Center strategic plan .

(This is just a small portion of their plan. I’ve put their thoughts in bullets form to make them easier to discuss here.)

  • Value creativity and embrace the potential rewards of risk-taking.
  • Inform and delight audiences and convey the enthusiasm and joy that are integral to the invention process
  • Encourage visitors to participate and see themselves as inventive
  • Push the limits of exhibition design to advance visitors’ curiosity and active learning
  • Our work has the potential to inspire millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide to view themselves as having inventive capacity and to build the skills and confidence needed to overcome barriers to innovation.

At the risk of repeating myself, I love these ideas, and they are a large part of my strategic plan as well. Perhaps it seems odd that a Kindergarten teacher would have some of the same strategic plans, hopes, visions, dreams, and goals, as the center of a major organization. But, if you think about it, it makes perfect sense, and seems to me, should be true of every educator.

Educators do remarkable work, with remarkable people — colleagues, admins, parents, and students. These constituents have limitless potential for imagining, thinking, creating, making, and impacting the world for good. Our work — informed and driven by our plans, hopes, visions and dreams — holds the possibility for profound and far-reaching impact. What we do influences those we  interact with each day. This in turn influences every individual and problem they encounter, now, and in the future.

I’d love to tweak their ideas — making them more mine — and create a canvas of some sort for my learning space.

  • Value creativity.
  • Welcome cognitive and creative risk-taking.
  • Be open to possibility.
  • Teach for delight.
  • Nothing without enthusiasm and joy.
  • Embrace and encourage curiosity.
  • Enable active learning.
  • Live the profoundness inherent in teaching and learning.
  • Believe in the incredible power and potential of my learners.

If I do actually make a canvas, I’ll be sure to share. Until then be inspired, and embrace the profound awesomeness that is you, your work, and those around you!



New Blocks


An educator friend was getting rid of her wooden Cuisenaire rods. She wondered if I might have any use for them.

Lovely colored, wooden blocks?!?!!! OF COURSE I can use them!

Happily, my students are as excited by new materials as I am! As I put them into containers yesterday, this conversation ensued:

Them: “What are they, Miss James?!!”

Me: “New blocks!”

Them: “New blocks?!?!!! For us?!!”

Me: “Yes!”

Them: “What are we going to make with them?”

Me: “I don’t know. What are you going to make with them?”

As others gathered — helping to put the blocks into the containers — conversations and gasps of delight erupted around me.

I love when excitement, joy, imagination, creativity, conversation, problem solving, and possibility surround me. And when it’s precipitated by wooden blocks saved from the trash bin, it’s extra special.




Label Your Build

Labeling is part of every build in our classroom. Sometimes my request for labeling is met with a bit of grumbling. “Labels? Do we have to label? Why do we have to label things, Miss James?”

I always respond the same way. “Yes, you have to label things. Everyone find at least three things to label.” and “Why label?!?!!! You have to label things because when you label them, everyone else gets to know and understand your great ideas and creations!” Once they get over the need to stop building in order to label, and any hesitancy they have in their ability to write things that others can read, the labels begin popping up all over the build site.

Here are a few from this year’s Thanksgiving build.


(bed, home)


(bed, pillow, home)


(food place)


(person, Lilly)








(trap door)

There’s tons of value in each of their labels. I can assess their phonemic awareness, and their ability to encode the sounds they hear. I get a deeper understanding of their thinking and building. And, perhaps best of all, they get to share their thinking and work with everyone who visits the build.

My favorite thinking shared this year (and mind you, they are ALL fantabulous and bring me great joy) was this one.


(For you, Mayflower. This corn is for you.)

We learn that the passengers of the Mayflower stole corn from the Native Americans. At first, the girls respond with outrage. “That wasn’t very nice! Why did they do that? That’s mean!” I acknowledge their observations and feelings, agreeing that it does sound mean, and not very nice. But then, I encourage them to think a bit about what the passengers of the Mayflower might have felt — and what we sometimes experience in our own lives.

“How do you think the Mayflower passengers felt when they arrived?” I ask. “They were on the boat for 66 days. The Mayflower wasn’t very big and there were a lot of passengers.” My students are silent, clearly trying to figure things out. They begin to share their recollections and thoughts — “There were storms. People died. A baby was born. Maybe they didn’t have enough food. They were probably cold. Maybe they were hungry.”

One asks “Why didn’t they just ask the Native Americans for some food?”

“Good question.” I respond. “Why didn’t they?”

At first they are silent again. Then I ask them. “Did the Native Americans and the passengers of the Mayflower looked alike? Did they dress the same? Do you think they spoke the same language?” They quietly and thoughtfully respond “No.”

Now I am silent. For a moment or two I let them sit with that information. Then I ask them “How do you think they felt?” With a greater of empathy they respond, “Maybe they were scared.” I shake my head, “Yeah, maybe they were scared.” Wanting to bring the two ideas together, I continue “It wasn’t nice what they did. They shouldn’t have stolen the corn, but it’s good for us to remember they might have been afraid, and hungry, and didn’t know what else to do.”

When the girl made those bags of corn, she showed them to me. “I decided to make these for the Mayflower. I’m going to leave them by the boat so they see them. Then they can just have this corn, and not steal ours.” I responded, “That’s a great idea. I bet they’ll be happy to find it.”

There is so much I love about her thoughts and work. Kindness. Empathy. Problem-solving. Offering without being asked. Leaving it with a note — therefore forgoing a thank you. Believing this will help them, and keep them from taking your things — without telling them not to take yours. Lastly, I love that the build, and the labeling, allowed this student to show the depth her understanding, empathy, kindness, and problem solving. May she keep it, grow it, and use it all her days!


Bringing Ideas to Life

Creativity is an interesting mix of thinking and doing. It’s about having new ideas, conceiving of new ways to do things, imaging a particular physical product — and then working to bring any, or all, of these things to life.

Both the thinking and the doing require a significant amount of

  • curiosity
  • wonder
  • imagination
  • team-work
  • risk taking
  • confidence
  • playfulness
  • resilience
  • perseverance
  • knowledge
  • research and learning
  • struggle
  • pro-typing and iterating
  • the seemingly magical, but often hard won, moments of “aha” and resolution

My girls worked on their Thanksgiving build from the beginning of November until winter break. They had a plethora of ideas. Some were created, some were not. Through out their thinking and work, the girls exhibited all the things listed above.

Some of the most interesting observations for me, occurred as they struggled to negotiate, and embrace and enhance each other’s ideas and thoughts. It’s a tough line to walk — advocating for your own ideas while at the same time being open to the ideas of your friends and fellow workers. It’s especially problematic when other’s ideas are significantly different than yours. Emotions occasionally ran amuck, and sometimes required interventions — with recommendations of alone time, breathing, thinking, listening, and sometimes suggestions of how to speak to one another to understand and resolve differences.  Particularly interesting to me is how similar these young work groups are to the work groups I belong to as an adult. New ideas are not always welcomed, different ideas are sometimes hard to imagine or embrace, old patterns are sometimes very strong, and emotions often make things more complicated.

I loved their conversations and subsequent research as they wondered, and imagined things they would have liked to have as a citizen of England and Holland, a passenger of the Mayflower, or a Native American. — Would the castles of England and Holland have had elevators? What about trap doors? Where did the Native Americans get their food?  Did they have toys? Was there a hospital on the Mayflower? Did people fall in the water? How did they save them?

So much about my students, and their thinking and work fascinated me! I often laughed out loud in awe and enjoyment of the fantabulousness of their ideas, and their beautiful confidence.

This person did it for me this build:

IMG_9226I don’t recall any other student making a person with  three-dimensional components. I exclaimed “Wow. I love that! What a great idea!!” when I noticed her work.

She responded as though surprised by my awe. “I just think it, and I do it, Miss James!” I think I laughed out loud AGAIN when she said that to me. That is some beautiful confidence — in her thoughts, and creative ability.

Other times, my delight and fascination came from stretching their thinking, as well as their belief in their own abilities. One student this year wanted to make a dog. Her first try was lovely, and she was quite happy. I chuckled to myself as I opened my mouth to speak. “Would you mind getting your person? Let’s see if this would be a good pet for her.” She looked at me with a bit of incredulity, and perhaps even the slightest annoyance, but she quickly went and retrieved her person. Her dog’s head was the bigger than her person was tall. She reacted with amazement and a bit of disequilibrium! But, she was used to making dogs this size, didn’t believe she could make it any different, and told me it was fine. I laughed and asked her to stand up. When she did I asked if she would want a dog this big (and showed her how big her drawn dog was compared to her person). She laughed and said no, but when I suggested she re-draw her dog she said she couldn’t. I pushed back a bit and told her “Of course you can! Give it a go.”

She redrew that dog at least 10 times. The first 6 were almost identically sized. We cut the paper smaller, and she only fit the on the paper. Finally at about try 12, she created this:


Perfection!!! She added a speech bubble filled with barks, and gleefully added her dog to the build.

Both experiences are valuable parts of creativity, thinking, learning, and life. Sometimes you simply believe in yourself and know that you can “just think it and make it!” Other times, when it seems impossible, and you doubt your ability, you have to struggle, and keep trying over and over — sometimes embracing the encouragement and pushing of someone you love, even when it’s uncomfortable  — until it happens.

With luck — and reminders from me — the one with belief in her abilities will be able to access that confidence when she has to work hard in order to succeed, and the one who had to struggle will experience those deliciously magically moments of creative ease.