Intent-based Leadership in Kindergarten

My brother just hipped me to the concept of Intent-based leadership. He sees value in adding it to our coaching practice. It sounds promising so I’ve started watching the plethora videos he suggested. As I watch I have to say I agree with him, and I’m thinking — “Wow! This isn’t just a good idea for our fencing team, this would be great to share with my Kindergartners!”

Leadership, responsibility, intent, learning, in Kindergarten
(created the photo art with goart.fotor.com)

Intent-based leadership looks like another awesome way for my Kindergartners to grow in their CASEL 5, as well as, academic excellence and joy. It will encourage my students to think about what they know, what they don’t know yet, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what and how they’re learning. My hunch is it’s going to be a powerful tool in the classroom.

Intent-based leadership was developed by L. David Marquet, while a Captain in the US Navy as a Commander of the nuclear submarine Santa Fe. Two quotes on his website hooked me! (I’ve adapted them for the classroom.)

Imagine a school (work place) where everyone engages and contributes their full intellectual capacity. A school (place) where people are healthier and happier because they have more control over their work – a school (place) where everyone is a leader.

Teaching (Leadership) is communicating to students, colleagues, and parents (people) their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.

How fantabulous is that? I’m still exploring and pondering, and there are a gazillion good ideas to consider, but here are five of my “OH!” and “AHA!” moments regarding using intent-based leadership in the classroom

#1 There isn’t one source of power, information, and leadership on the nuclear sub or in our classroom. Students and teachers share in the responsibility of learning and growing a fantabulous classroom community.

Do I have a lot of information as the teacher? Yes. Do I bear a large portion of the responsibility? Yes. Do I have a considerable amount of power? Yes.

However, do I have all the information as the teacher? No. Do I have all the responsibility? No. Do I have all the power? No. My students also have a considerable amount of information, responsibility, and power.

My Kindergartners are knowledgeable about many things — they understand what they love, what motivates them, what they think they know, what they think they don’t know, what they actually know and don’t know, what’s going on with them and their friends, what’s going on at home, and so much more.

Ask any of my students if they have any responsibilities in our classroom. Each will say yes. They have class jobs. They are responsible for how they behave, what they say, what they do or don’t do. It sometimes takes them a bit to realize just how responsible they are. Here’s a common conversation.

Student: “My mom forgot to put my folder in my bag, Miss James.”
Me: “Your mom forgot to put your folder in your bag?
Student: :Yes.”
Me: “Whose folder is it?”
Student: “Mine.”
Me: “Who forgot to pack it.”
Student “My mom.”
Repeat until ….
Me: “Who forgot to pack your folder?”
Student: “Me?”
Me: (with a big smile) “Yup! Hope you remember tomorrow!”
The folder always makes it in the next day.

My students are strong, rich, and powerful. Some understand that and use it well. Others don’t realize the power they have. Still others know they have power, but don’t always use it in the best way. I’m eager to help them recognize, embrace, and use their power well. The fantabulous humans in my Kindergarten and I are going to have a remarkable leadership journey together this year!

Our classroom community will flourish when we all co-exist as bearers of knowledge, responsible classroom citizens, and powerful leaders. As we step into our leadership opportunities, listen to one another, reflect upon what we hear, and value one another’s ideas, my Kindergartners will begin to blossom. They will experience and understand themselves as valuable and essential partners in our classroom community and in their learning journey.

If David is correct — and all the data suggests he is — this will reduce tension in the classroom while increasing productivity and happiness.

#2 It’s valuable to know what you intend to do, why you intend to do it, and how you intend to do it.
There are times my students need to do what I tell them to do. But there are other times when they are able to choose between various options. It would be amazing for them to be able to choose based on what is most valuable and helpful to themselves and their learning.

For instance, in reading they might listen to reading, read to someone, work on writing, or do some word work activity. How do they choose what to do? Do they simply follow a schedule I set up for them? If so, then they intend to follow directions. There is value in following directions that is true, but there are also times when it would be good for me to allow them to decide what they intend to do.

For instance perhaps they intend to — share a favorite book with a friend, or listen to reading so as to learn about snakes, or do word-work so they can learn their sight words and thereby grow as a reader. How awesome is that? They understand why they are doing what they are doing, and are working with intrinsic motivation.

I want them to know that even if they haven’t received specific directions from a teacher, they can still do wonderfully productive and fantabulous things. I want them to be confident in their ability to think, reflect, and make good decisions. And, I want them to actually make those good decisions.

This will require a good deal of trust on my part. I will need to trust myself, my students, and the process. And, I will have to be willing to take it one step at a time.

I know I will need do a good bit of frontloading, modeling, and scaffolding. We will have to build relationships, trust, and skill. There will be many discussions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What did we experience? What do we want to experience? What did we learn? How did we learn it? When might we do that again? Is there anything that might work better?

The process feels incredibly daunting, and, at the same time, amazingly powerful and exciting.

#3 Student: “I intend to …” Me “What am I thinking right now?”

When my students tell me what they are motivated to do, and what they intend to do, it will be important for me to engage in conversation with them. Sometimes it might be — tell me more. Sometimes it might be “What am I thinking right now?” These questions allow my students to take ownership of themselves and what they intend, while at the same time having the benefit of my thoughts, experiences, and sense of things.

Some of the things I’m thinking might be:
Is it safe? Convince me that it’s safe.
Is it productive? Convince me that it’s productive.
Is it the right thing to do? Convince me that it’s the right thing to do.
Is it kind? Convince me that it’s kind.

This type of exchange is a learning experience for my students and myself. I get to learn what they’re thinking, and why they’re thinking it. I discover areas that aren’t clear to them and that might benefit from greater explanation or experience. They get to think through the process, consider their actions, and remember the purpose of the particular learning moment.

Again, I’m struck by the enormity of the process. And yet, if my goal is to begin to help my students become their best, most brilliant selves, I must take the chance. If I hope to help create not just students who can do what I ask them to do, but humans who can make good decisions and impact themselves and others in powerful ways, then it’s time to give it a go.

#4 We are all leaders and all followers

This isn’t about anarchy. We are all leaders, and all followers. We cannot just choose to intend to do something that is against the guiding principles of the organization. We choose to be part of the organization — in my case, my students’ parents choose to have their children be part of our classroom community. After making that commitment there are certain ways we must comply. For instance we must do our best, be kind, and treat each other with respect. There are other ways we can exercise our leadership and creativity. It’s always about learning and growing and being our best possible selves as individuals and a community.

#5 You can do it, *Molly (*Insert your name here.)

In one of the leadership nudges, David suggests we use our name when encouraging ourselves. Instead of “I can do it.” I would say “Molly, you can do it.” At first it feels a bit silly, but after trying it, I like it. David posits that using the third person way of speaking to ourselves puts us in a bit of a less emotionally charged space. I experience it as though a kind friend is giving me the encouragement. I’m definitely going to suggest it to my Kindergartners. I think it will be valuable, and be worth a few chuckles.


So, there you have it. I intend to embark on the profound journey of intent based leadership with my Kindergartners this year. And, I intend to have a fantabulous year together. Wish me luck!


Here’s a bonus nugget so you can get a feel for intent-based leadership from David himself. The three name rule. I’m thinking about how to incorporate it into our classroom community.

SEL and Setting Intentions In Kindergarten

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an essential part of living and learning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has 5 core SEL competencies, called the CASEL 5 – self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

According to CASEL, the social emotional learning that happens as we develop and use these 5 core competencies “is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that list of outcomes is spectacular! I read it and say, “Oh, yeah. I want that!” And, I don’t just want that for myself. I want it for my family, my students, and gosh, for the world.

I’m always looking for ways to enhance the SEL in my classroom. My question is always how to most effectively and efficiently give my students agency over their own SEL. I think I’ve found an answer in intention setting.

We talked a lot about setting intentions in our B4C training. We considered: How do I want to show up? What do I want to notice? What emotion do I want to cultivate?

Sometimes our instructors would invite us to join them in a particular intention. At other times they would encourage us to take a moment, and then set our own intention for our practice, or our time together. As I set intentions, I noticed myself using the CASEL competencies.

Self-awareness and self-management: What am I feeling/thinking? What did I hope to feel/think? What do I need? What might help me reach my goal?

Social awareness: Who is around me? How might I influence them, and them me? How do I want to show up in relationship to them? How might I grow?

Relationship skills: How might I show up as a leader, speaker, listener, and/or collaborator?

Responsible decision making: Might I increase my curiosity, courage or kindness? What is my role? Might I think more critically, more creatively? What is happening today? How does all of this impact my decision of how I might show up?

My best intention setting happens when I am present to myself, others, and the moment. I’m able to breathe, notice, think, and choose an intention that actually helps me to become the person I want/need to be in that moment in time. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But, I tell you it’s true. Our minds are incredibly powerful, and our thoughts, emotions, mental images, and inner talk actually shape our brains, our experiences and our very selves. There’s tons of research out there if you’re interested. Here’s one article from Stanford News on the ability of our minds to shape our reality.

I definitely want to share the practice of setting intentions with my Kindergartners.

I imagine the power my Kindergartners will experience as they decide how they want to show up — kind, brave, happy, curious. I am sure there will be lots of modeling, lots of inviting them to join me in an intention, and lots of conversations about our intentions. We will have opportunities to share our intentions. We’ll wonder and talk about how it might look for us to live our intentions to be kind, or to be a good friend, or to be brave. At other moments we’ll check in with ourselves and each other to recall our intentions, reset them, or simply celebrate remembering that we set an intention. We might explore what happens if we set an intention and then forget it, or don’t actually do what we intend. It’s all part of our SEL and growth as our best selves.

I’m super excited to begin this work with my Kindergarten colleagues. My intention is to honor them as capable human beings, and give them tools they can use now and in the future. I’m hopeful this supported agency and growth in the CASEL 5 will empower them to be more self aware, more mindful, and more in charge of themselves and our classroom community.

I believe in the goodness and ability of my Kindergartners, and I believe in the power of this process. I know that there may be times I will need to intervene, so I will of course, remain in the mix. But, my plan is to remain more as a lead learner and model, rather than an arbitrator of all things necessary. I’m confident we will experience a positive difference in our classroom community – socially, emotionally, and academically.

Join me for a piece of PIE #4

I’m finally taking a moment to write. As I sit wondering what to share, the sweet smell of freshly cooked waffles is finding its way into my space. “Mmmm, waffles.” quickly becomes “PIE! I can share another piece of PIE!” I hope you’re hungry, and ready to enjoy a delectable piece of PIE – Picture-book Inspiration and Encouragement.

Today’s PIE has been baked by the talented Skye Byrne and Nic George – The Power of Henry’s Imagination. The ingredients in this delicious PIE #4 are Henry, Raspberry (Henry’s beloved stuffed rabbit), Henry’s grandpa, the mailman, love, and the incredibly flavorful ingredients, Henry’s imagination and creativity. Henry and Raspberry do everything together — until the day Raspberry goes missing. Henry can’t find Raspberry anywhere – and no amount of looking seems to help. Henry’s grandpa tells him there’s only one thing to do — “Imagine Raspberry is with you!” Clearly, Henry and his grandpa love each other very much. So, given the advice, Henry does just that.

The illustrations in the book are lovely. They’re a delightful mix of photographed items and hand drawn images. The illustrations and wonderfully crafted words encourage us to imagine along with Henry — and perhaps into our own lives. The Power of Henry’s Imagination is a beautiful story, and a scrumptious piece of PIE just begging to be shared.

One of my favorite illustrations — I love how real Raspberry looks!

Henry’s imagination is awesome — and as the title suggests powerful. For me, what makes it so powerful is his willingness to enter into the process. He doesn’t just sit and think about Raspberry, he goes about his days as though Raspberry is with him. Raspberry and Henry go on adventures together. Henry goes on the adventures in the physical world. Raspberry adventures through Henry’s mind, heart, and imagination. These imaginative experiences brings joy, peace, and much less fretting into Henry’s life. It’s amazing, really.

Perhaps as you’re reading this you’re thinking. “Oh, come on. This is a made up story, and it’s about a kid and his stuffed toy. What does this piece of PIE have to do with me in my life?” It’s a good question — especially when the situations we find ourselves in often feel more real, more important, more fraught with anxiety and possibly dire consequences than the simple losing of a beloved toy.

Amazingly enough this piece of PIE has a LOT to do with us and the situations that cause us to feel things like worry, stress, anxiety, fear.

The neural pathways of our brains are strengthened by use. The ones we use the most transmit information the fastest. If you’ve ever hiked, or spent time by water you’ll recognize this phenomenon. The paths that most people walk are cut deeper, and are easier to notice and follow. The ones that are less traveled — by humans, animals, or water — are harder to find, and following them is much more difficult and time consuming. So, if we spend a good bit of time fretting, reminding ourselves of our fears, or the things that cause us to feel worried, those are the neural pathways that get strengthened and become easier to to travel. Happily that is also true of the pathways that might bring us joy, peace, and ease.

Our imagination and creativity — much like Henry’s — are remarkably powerful. The essence and power of imagination and creativity is the ability to bring something new into existence — new thoughts, new ideas, new emotions, new things. We imagine what is possible — or perhaps, we open our minds to the possibility that something else is possible. Noticing a new possibility, we choose to believe — crazy as it may sound — that this new thought, reality, option, item, emotion, possibility might be able to become a reality. Then, we open our hearts, minds, and lives to this possibility, and actively work with our creativity to bring it into existence.

For instance when I’m feeling anxious, I entertain the possibility that I can feel peace and joy — even in the midst of whatever is causing me to feel anxious. Then I work to make the possible real. I might become aware of my breath, my emotions, my thoughts. Deepening and slowing my breath is a physiological way to ease my feelings of anxiety. Bringing a smile to my lips and recalling a time I was, or a way I can be, calm, peaceful and happy, begins to allow my anxious feelings and thoughts to dissipate. The smile, and my imagination begin to feel and be real. Might there still be a reason to be anxious, sad, whatever I am experiencing — yes, of course, but my imagination is allowing me to create space, to create possibilities for moments of peace and joy. And as I do so, my brain is creating those neural pathways. It’s a remarkable thing.

And, it’s not just imagination creating thoughts and emotions — powerful as that might be. It’s also imagination creating ourselves — or perhaps allowing ourselves to see the possible and to begin to live it. When my students repeat our affirmations “I have a big beautiful brain. I have an awesome heart. I am kind. I am brave. I can do hard things. I am fantabulous.” I want them to hear it — from me and themselves — and to begin to see it, to feel it, to know it in their imaginations, and then to begin to embody in their very selves and lives. Repeating these phrases changes their inner landscape — strengthening the neural pathways that help them be their most fantabulous selves.

And, wait, there’s more. Imagination and creativity is what allows us to do all sorts of beautiful, new things each day. How might I show my love more fully? How might I help my family, or my neighbor? How might I listen differently, react differently, and therefore get a different response? How might I envision my students as their best selves? How might I include parents in new ways as partners in the learning journey with their children? How might I use what I learned yesterday to create an even better lesson for my students today? How might I set up my learning space?

And, as I run through all those “How might I?” (which by the way grow in power when they are able to become “How might we?”) I am struck by perhaps the greatest quest for my imagination and creativity. How do I want to show up today, every day, wherever I am? And, how might I do that?

Yes, Henry’s imagination and creativity is powerful. My imagination and creativity is powerful. Your imagination and creativity is powerful. How might you use it to increase the love, joy, beauty, fantabulousness of your life and the lives of those you touch.

I read The Power of Henry’s Imagination with my students at the end of the year this past year. After I read it, we talked about our imaginations. We talked about these questions: Have you ever used your imagination? Have you ever used it like Henry did — imagining something to be real that isn’t yet real? Then, I asked them to think all the way back to the beginning of the year. What did they not know how to do, or not yet believe about themselves? Had they used their powerful imaginations to help themselves accomplish their task, or believe something about themselves. All of them had. Their answers were amazing.

(To honor the students I’ve kept their spelling in their sentences.)

“At the beginning of kindergarten I did not know how to wite lower cace
but I amagend that I cod now I can”


“At the beging of the year I had to amgin colering in the lines now I can.”



“I was shy so I imagined.  Then I made new friends.”


I was, and am, blown away by their answers.

This year I’m going to use the book earlier on. I want them to know, think about, and use their imaginations and creativity to be their best, most fantabulous selves from the very beginning. And, I want to do the same as well.

Where Henry and Raspberry ever reunited? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Or perhaps just continue to use your imagination, like Henry, and have many great adventures.

_______________________________________
An interesting read: The Neuroscience of Behavior Change


I Crossed My Fingers and Hoped for No Crying

I’ve been having my Kindergarten artists work in a sketchbook before they tackle the blank page of their final piece. I want them to get used to the artist practice of sketching without fretting, and without erasing. I want them to have the freedom to try all sorts of things without the concern that sometimes comes when they are creating their final piece.

They’ve been doing so much good work. They are filling the pages of their sketchbooks with a plethora of fantabulous experiments. Their faces beam as they show me their work, tell me if they love it or have more to add, and give me virtual high fives (which become high one hundreds) through the classroom D10.

This week I decided to try something new. No sketching. No exploration. No pencils. Just a sharpie, our big beautiful brains, awesome hearts, courage, and creativity! At least two colleagues chuckled and said “You are a brave woman!” I responded, “Nah! They can do it. I know they can. I’m going to tell them that!” I paused, and laughed, and then added, “And then, I’m going to cross my fingers, and hope for no crying!”

When art rolled around last week, I did just that. I started sharing that I have a sketchpad and often do sketches before I paint. But, other times I just use watercolor or pen and ink directly in my journal. As I spoke, I shared some pages from my hiking art journal. “That’s what we’re going to try today – no sketching, just being free and working directly onto our watercolor paper.” No one said a word, and since I’m on the D10 I can’t always read their facial expressions. I kept going forward. “You can do it. You’re amazing artists with big beautiful brains, awesome hearts, and lots of courage and creativity. … Are you ready?” Shouts of “Yes!” were music to my ears. With a huge smile on my face I said. “Awesome. Let’s get started.”

I led them through a few steps to create the shape of the face — complete with the asymmetry, unusual scale, and a crown we noticed in Sandra Silberzweig’s original piece. I encouraged them to follow along, but to also make decisions as the artist of their piece. Once we had finished the outline, I set them free to add details. I suggested they take time to look, and think as they drew.

The learning space was quiet as they created. I worked, and waited, with all my fingers crossed.

I am overjoyed to report that there was no crying! There was only excitement, enthusiasm, joy, and awesome art making.

Look! (There’s more, but I figured I’d just share a few.)

These young artists aren’t artists because I think they are. They’re artists because THEY think they are. They’re artists because they’re noticing, thinking, wondering, trying, making decisions, and creating their own art. They’ve embraced themselves as competent artists, and creative thinkers who can have ideas, think creatively, take risks, solve problems, and make great art. They are artists, they know it, and they’re loving it! So am I.

That confidence, and ability to think, and take a risk– without tears — doesn’t just show itself during art. It pops up often, and each time it’s a joy to experience. Most recently it was wonderfully evident in a homework assignment I gave them to record a video on flipgird,.

If you’re a teacher and you’ve never tried flipgrid, give it a go. It’s a great platform for you and your students to share ideas, comment on the ideas of others, be inspired, and help one another problem solve. When they record, my students practice oral literacy skills in a friendly pressure free arena. I smile each time I decide to redo my video and get the “You got this! Try again” message. A bonus is that flipgrid provides us with playful opportunities to add boarders, stickers, writing, and other fun ephemera to our videos and screenshots.

Pre-covid we did a lot of block building. When we build with blocks we play and learn. We think creatively, critically, and spatially — and we grow in our ability to do so. The somewhat transient nature of block building allows for lots of ideas, quick iterations, struggling, failing, succeeding, problem solving, learning, and sharing — all while having fun.

When Covid hit I looked for ways to to engage and grow my students imagination, creativity, courage, spatial muscles, grit and resilience through building. I wanted a building option that was compact, portable, open ended, and relatively inexpensive. I finally decided on Plus-plus blocks.

Now that I’m back — but remote — my challenge was how to share all of the greatness of our time together in the Kindergarten Makerspace making all sorts of cool block builds when we weren’t in the same physical space. I decided to give flipgrid a try.

I created a flipgrid homework assignment. I encouraged my students to play with their blocks, create things, and then record a video showing what they made, what they learned, and what they still haven’t figured out. I posted my own video in response to the assignment sharing some of my struggles and asking for their help.

Flipgrid Plusplus Blocks Assignment

The things they made were fantabulous.

Here are a few:
A baking bird – brown and white for brown and white sugar.
A statue – which when you add the baking bird to the statue now has moveable arms.
Two cars and a garage.
A rainbow bridge, a sidewalk, and a bracelet.
Saturn, Jupiter, the sun, and Momo and his magic wand.
An adjustable ring, a flag, a plane that transforms into an eagle.
A cookie and apple who become friends.
Flower and all the characters needed for the story of her escape.
A girl named Anastasia

But, what really struck me was the builders themselves. I saw those same awesome artists simply working in a different medium. They shared their ideas bravely. They offered suggestions. They asked and answered questions. They explained their thinking. And, they interacted with their blocks in ways I never imagined — crafting stories and making connections.

One of them said this: “I love these blocks. You can make anything you want with these. You can just get creative and make whatever you want, and make your own dreamland.These blocks are just wonderful.” She had a beautiful, satisfied smile on her face she talked and shared her creation.

As I watched the videos — leaning in to see things more closely, chuckling at their stories, overwhelmed by their awesomeness — I was reminded of an idea of Loris Malaguzzi – Children are strong, rich in potential, powerful, and capable.

Yes, yes! Strong, rich, powerful, and capable. It’s important that we know and believe this truth about children. And, it’s essential that we reflect this belief to them. Our best selves, and our greatest sharing and learning, happens within relationships of respect, awe, and love.

They are artists. Yes. They are builders. Yes. They are awesome and fantabulous. Absolutely. But mostly they are themselves, and they are strong, rich, powerful, and totally capable. I’m so grateful I get to know them, teach them, and learn from them.

Brave One

My Kindergarten artists’ journals are finished and fantabulous. One, however, tugged on my heart and begged to be shared.

I love the art. But what took my breath away were her words:

Brave
(her name)
Love

Once my breath returned, I texted a friend the photo and this message ” Oh my gosh! My day is made. My work is done. My heart is full.”

Of course, my work continues, but wow, for today it is done. This young one knows and loves herself as brave. Simply fantabulous.

Look, Wonder, and Ponder Possibilities

This week my Kindergarten inspirational artist was Ashley Bryan. What a remarkably talented artist. He’s a painter, a storyteller, a writer, and a collage artist — to name just a few of his artistic pursuits. Any one of those might lend itself to an art project. But, which one would work for my students, with the supplies they have, in the time we have? And, which one could I successfully model for them remotely?

I spent days researching Ashley. I studied his art, listened to him speak, and read articles about him. And then I did it all again. I was quite struck by two things he said:

I make flowers of all my mistakes.

and

In Kindergarten we made our first books … little one of a kind, limited editions. Bringing them home was the greatest reward.

That was the my first aha, We could be inspired by Ashley’s flowers, and his recollection — in his 90’s — of the joy he had at creating his own books in Kindergarten. My artists’ finished flower art pieces would become the covers for their own one of a kind, limited edition journals.

When I shared that with my artists, one asked “But what are we going to put in it.” I shrugged my shoulders and said “I’m not sure. It’s your journal. You’re the artist. What are you going to put it in?” She persisted, “But what can we put in it?” I persisted, too. “You’re the artist, you can put whatever you want in it.” Murmurs filled the room and wafted towards me across our remote connection. I smiled as I watched them begin to plan what would fill their journals.

But, I get ahead of myself.

I had the flower journal idea, but I wasn’t sure how I could help my artists emulate the loose style I perceived in Ashley’s flowers. Back I went to examining his work and words. I contemplated lots of possibilities, but each one felt less than exciting, and didn’t quite measure up to what I was hoping to achieve.

Then I saw Ashley’s lithograph and stained glass window work. That was it! Both of those included black lines and shapes. This would allow my artists to use their black markers to create the loose flowers. They could then use watercolor paint to add the color. I chose to focus on the stained glass creations because they included the color found in Ashley’s paintings.

The process and product of my Kindergarten artists was joy-filled, courageous, and filled with sharing of ideas. As an educator, I was super satisfied. As an artist, my creative thinking, and artist work continued.

I always make a demo piece, and then work on my own art as my Kindergarten artists work on theirs. This was my demo piece.

I liked it. But as I looked at it, I wondered what else I might do to it? How might I take it further? Was there something I might do to take it beyond a Kindergarten project? And of course, the ever present question “What if I mess it up?” It always makes me laugh out loud when I hear myself wonder that. It keeps me humble, and reminds me how brave my K artists are each time they take up their tools and get to work.

I got my white paint pen and began adding marks. I thought the detail would be what I needed to add some sort of pop. I was wrong. I got more pens and added more colors and marks. It got better, but then it seemed to have lost its original connection to Ashley Bryan as the flowers and black lines became less pronounced. Much like when I prepared to teach my lesson, I took a break. Each time I passed my art, I gave it a look — many looks, from many different angles. I contemplated many what ifs, and, maybes.

Finally a possibility made enough sense so as to become a plan. I decided to paint all the negative space with titanium white.

I am totally digging the result of my creative thinking, and artistic doing.

i created a second piece so I could paint with my artists during our second class. I was inspired by their drawings — some had intense amounts of detail, others had butterflies, birds, and lady bugs. The plethora of flowers and nature set off the white of the framed word in a great way. I loved it as a black and white piece.

Then I added paint with with Kindergarten artists.

It’s nice, and it was admired by all, but I’m not loving it. Perhaps it’s the starkness of the word frame compared to the color. Perhaps the color has muddied the detail of the background. I’m not exactly sure.

For now I look, wonder, and ponder possibilities. But soon, I paint.

I Am An Artist

There is such power and joy in being able embrace oneself as an artist. An artist able to:

  • be inspired by other artists
  • use that inspiration to create your own art
  • inspire others
  • make creative and artistic decisions
  • carry out your plan or
  • enjoy the freedom of artistic and creative play and experimentation
  • speak your truth through your art
  • embrace your artist-self by choosing your own name (Hundertwasser)
  • share your understanding and vision by naming your artwork (Thomas)

The power and joy explodes, I think, when you can do all these things as a young child.

Last week my Kindergarten artists explored the work and life of Alma Thomas. She began her career as a representational artist, and later in her artist journey embraced abstract art. Amazingly, at the age of 80 in the early 1970’s she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NYC.

The kindergarten artists loved Alma’s use of color, and enjoyed trying to guess what she named each of her paintings. They worked hard — first in their sketch books and then on the final watercolor paper — to recreate with crayons, the marks Alma made with acrylic paint. By the way, in case you’ve never tried it, it takes a lot of dedication to fill a 9X12 piece of paper with marks the size of your thumb.

As my artists worked in the classroom, I worked alongside them in my home studio. Like them I made my own crayon marks, and then added layers of watercolor wash. My work was often interrupted by “Hey Ms. James. This is …..,” as they slid their work under the document camera so we could marvel and talk together.

Encouraging them to include all the elements we noticed in Alma’s work, yet at the same time allowing them to make their own artistic and creative decisions and plans, is a delicate line to walk. I often wonder how close their work has to look to our inspirational artist’s work.

As I’ve worked with them this year, I’ve become more convinced that there are four non-negotiables. My fantabulous artists must:

  • include the elements of the original piece that we notice and spoke about together
  • be free to use their big beautiful brains and awesome hearts to decide how to incorporate the elements into their art
  • be allowed, encouraged, and enabled to find joy in their process and product
  • come to know themselves as artists

So, I work on pointing out what I see — what I see that reflects the elements we discussed, the things I notice are missing, and the many things I wonder about. I do my best to guide my artists to walk that delicate line of agency and requirements with me. Sometimes I set them free to make the decision as an artist, sometimes I request they put the artwork down for a bit and then look at it again to see if they are still happy with it, other times we find a compromise that allows them to have freedom while still following the guidelines.

Here are some of our Alma Thomas inspired works of art. I’m always interested to see how they interpret the current artist’s work, and how they incorporate some of the other artists we’ve explored previously. I’m amazed and edified by their title choices. The titles add to the power of the piece. They speak to the audience to share the artist’s thoughts and understanding, and speak to the artists themselves to affirm who they are.

The Master of Sjhapes
Magical Squares
Tornadoes Howling
A Meteor Shower
The Inspired Painting
Artist’s Lines

When I read their titles my heart is full. These Kindergarten artists are perceptive, thoughtful, confident, and invested in sharing what is in their minds and hearts. Everyday I do my best to affirm them “Indeed my young artist sisters, you are masters. You are inspired and inspiring artists. Don’t every believe anything less.”

World Changing Ideas

I shared the book What Do You Do With An Idea with my Kindergartners. Sometimes it’s hard to see them when I’m teaching remotely — especially when I’m sharing my screen. I was a little disappointed in my lesson, wondering if I had been able to spark ideas, and share the amazingly fantabulous idea that we ALL — no matter what — can have beautiful, world changing ideas.

After the lesson I shared 3 videos with my students — how to make a squish-squash book, an accordion fold book, and a silly fold book. I asked that each student make at least one book, put her ideas in it, and then share her book and ideas by video on SeeSaw.

I’ve been looking at the responses and leaving comments, and wow, I’m so happy. They are sharing their ideas, reading what they wrote, explaining their illustrations, and talking about things they wonder about from the book we read together.

Here are some of their ideas:

flying unicorns
making a tree to climb when she becomes seventeen
ice cream everywhere
writing a book about her favorite stuffy
sending her ideas to the clouds for them to get stronger
looking at the clouds to see what they look like
not holding onto her ideas but sharing them with others
making a car that goes wherever you tell it
reading more books,
being a superhero and discovering how to fly
stating what she knows, doesn’t know, and wonders,
helping others and saying “No problem!”
creating a cardboard igloo over the summer
making a robot that can help her and others

It might be easy to discount their ideas as childish, sweet, or silly — after all, flying unicorns and superheroes? How is it possible that these ideas are world changing?

Perhaps, for just a moment, imagine those same ideas from the perspective of a scientist, designer, or researcher. I’ll consider just a few but they ALL are equally full of potential.

Flying unicorns can easily become a cure for cancer or other devastating diseases. Much like flying unicorns, a cure seems far off. Imagine if the scientists didn’t engage in their fantastical dreams. Imagine if they didn’t try to attain them. Imagine if they had people around them saying “That’s a sweet idea. Too bad it can’t be done. There are no such things as flying unicorns or cures.”

Ice cream everywhere is a problem of ingredients, process, temperature, distribution, and end users. It’s reminiscent of a remarkable story of creative design thinking shared by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. The Embrace Infant Warmer helps save the lives of premature babies. Similarly to my student’s desire for ice cream everywhere, the warmer was the solution to a problem of ingredients, process, temperature, distribution and end users.

The idea of making a tree to climb when she reaches the age of 17 sounds a bit unusual to our adult ears, but it’s really quite spectacular. Don’t just hope there will be a tree to climb. Work to make it happen. Work to bring your ideas and dreams to life.

I’ve got some ideas and thoughts of how I might improve my next remote read aloud. I’m excited to try them and continue to grow my relationship with my students. But, I’m no longer worried that the idea of having ideas was lost or lessened by the remoteness.

I miss sitting next to them, creating, talking, and sharing. And yet, being able to watch their recordings is powerful. Watching and listening is a gift. It’s great to be able to have a recording of each student as she formulates her thoughts and chooses what to share, and it’s quite fantabulous to have the opportunity to reflect and respond to each one.

I’m hopeful they feel the power and joy of our remote conversation. And, my fingers are crossed that my enthusiasm and ideas about their ideas change the world for them just a bit. They really are fantabulous, and their ideas are game changers!

Matisse and Me

I’m teaching art with my Kindergartners and that always has me reflecting on my own process, emotions, and thoughts as a creative.

I’ve been painting when I hike for a few years now, but this year, I began working in a watercolor journal. All the paintings — no matter my opinion of them — are there. I’m always kind of surprised by the courage involved to put pen or paint brush to paper — especially when it is in a bound book, or done without pencil sketching first. I wondered it if I were the only one to feel that. Surely not, I thought.

Looking for affirmation for my feelings I set about finding articles linking courage and creativity. As I looked I stumbled upon this quote by Henri Matisse “Creativity takes courage.” Ah, even the master felt it!

And then, as I read more, I nearly fell out of my chair. Matisse — the man whose pencil drawings of the Madonna enthralled me at the Museo d’Arte e Spiritualita in Brescia, and whose Cut Outs took my breath away at the MOMA — said this:

“It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.”

Wow.

When I read that, I was amazed and encouraged. If Matisse could be bothered that he didn’t paint like everybody else, why would I be surprised that I feel that way? If Matisse said it, and yet went on to embrace his work — grow, change, re-invent himself when he saw fit — then I could, too.

It’s remarkable how freeing it is to know Matisse was bothered that he didn’t paint like everybody else. Somehow that gave me a great sense of freedom. Just paint, draw, do your thing. Notice, think, wonder, and make creative and artistic decisions. Your thing is yours, it’s beautiful, it’s creative, it’s artistic — but most of all, it’s yours.

What if Matisse had stopped doing his own thing and tried to be like everybody else. Yikes! That would have been awful. So I encourage myself — I am in amazing artistic and creative company, and if a master like Matisse could just say “Hey this brings me joy, and expresses what I see and feel” then so can I.

So I paint on. I draw on. Seeing my work, and the work of others for what it is — us.

I photographed daffodils on a recent walk. Wanting to make some art I grabbed a small piece of watercolor and got to work. Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Yes. Did it bring me joy? Yes. Does it bring me joy now as I look at it? Yes. Is it me? Yes. Is it my style? Yes. What more can I ask for?

For now it sits on my desk to remind myself of the joy and awesomeness that is creative and artistic me — the joy and awesomeness of creating from who we are, where we are, with all we are.

When I work with my Kindergartners I want them to have this freedom — the freedom to know they can make great artistic and creative decisions, the freedom to find joy in their process and product even if it looks different than others, the courage to create with confidence in their own fantabulousness.

From Matisse, to me, to them. Who knows where it will go from there?

Trust and Art

I’m teaching again! I’m super excited to be back, getting to know the girls, and doing my thing.

One big wrench in the works — or one gigantic and glorious opportunity for new thinking and wonderful possibilities, depending how you look at it — is that I’m teaching remotely. Most of my class is back in school, and one student continues to learn remotely.

It’s a lot of work to teach and develop relationships in person. Now I’m doing that remotely. Can you say “PHEW!”

This week I got to teach art. I could cry with happiness!

And, speaking of crying, I did cry — big ugly crying — as my colleague and I tried to work out the logistics for the art class. We went through many possible iterations, and each one seemed to have a reason it might not, or would not, work. Thank goodness, my colleague was super understanding and encouraging. She told me I was doing a great job and it was only the second day back in school. She assured me we would work it out. and it would be awesome. I decided to believe her, and signed off for a much needed moment and cup of tea.

Once I was settled and able to agree — It is only the second day. I am a fantabulous teacher. It is going to be alright, maybe even better than alright. — I was able to take a breath, and think creatively about what and how to teach. I settled on Hundertwasser.

First I considered how my image might be the large enough for them to see me, and the art I shared, while still allowing me to see all of them. A friend of mine signed on to a zoom call with me — along with her two daughters — to test out spotlighting and pinning. Pinning seemed to be the best choice.

Then I looked at my Hundertwasser books. What images did I have? Could I narrow them down to no more than 5? I wanted the Kindergarten artists to have time to notice, think, and wonder about the art, but I also wanted them to have plenty of time to create their own work, inspired by Hundertwasser.

What did I want them to know about Hundertwasser? I decided on these points:

Hundertwasser was curious and couragous.
Hundertwasser did a lot of thinking and imagining.
Hundertwasser’s ideas became artwork or buildings.
Hundertwasser liked spirals, wavy lines, bricks and stones on his buildings, lollipop trees, and color.
Hundertwasser changed his name when he became an artist.

I shared these images with the Kindergarten artists, and we dialogued about them.

Once they were familiar with Hundertwasser, I asked the Kindergarten artists to use their sketchbooks to experiment with, and practice, the various elements. They worked with determination, focus, imagination, courage, and joy. They used the classroom document camera to show their sketches to me. I shared what I noticed, thought, and wondered. I did my best to encourage their artistic freedom and decisions making, while also highlighting the elements we were using from Hundertwasser’s art.

I was surprised how well we were able to interact with one another. Even though we were miles away from one another, they seemed to be able to feel my love, respect, awe, and joy. I worked hard to express it through my emotions, language, and very self. I was very intentional with my words, and actions, so as to be able to express what I was feeling, thinking, and believing about them.

Before the second Hundertwasser inspired class, I again thought deeply about what I would present, as well as what we would discuss. The time and zoom constraints were a blessing — an annoying blessing but a blessing none-the-less. The constraints forced me to be very clear about my purpose and plan.

The Kindergarten artists and I reviewed the elements together, and re-examined the images so they were fresh in our minds. I shared a bit of my thinking as an artist. “I do lots of thinking – and often move my head or step back in order to see my art work in new ways.” I told them Hundertwasser was very thoughtful as well. I assured them that they could do great art thinking, and make great artistic decisions, too! I showed them a few watercolor tricks – using your dry brush as an eraser of sorts, and mixing colors on the page rather than a palette.

Finally I reminded them about Hundertwasser changing his name when he became an artist. Since we are all artists in Kindergarten I suggested we all change our names for this piece of art. I told them some names I was considering, and remarked that Hundertwasser changed his name to something that had meaning to him (peace and water).

After reviewing the steps – pencil first, sharpie marker next, then colored pencils if wanted, and and finally watercolor — I set them free.

I decided to work on my own art while they worked on theirs. I resisted the urge to micromanage them, but instead chose to trust them as artists. One of my colleagues asked if a teacher should see their work before they moved on with each step. Taking a deep breath, and willing myself to continue to trust those artists, I said wanting to be clear to her and the Kindergarten artists, “Nope. We don’t have to see it. They know what they have to do, and I trust them as artists. I’d love to see their work, but they don’t have to show it to me.”

My art was wonderfully interrupted by Kindergarten artists eager to share their work with me. Each time I would do what I did with their sketching. I would affirm their artistic decisions, express awe and joy, notice the elements they had included, and encourage them to think if they might add whatever was missing. But, if they pushed back that they were totally happy with their work, and it didn’t stray too far from the path we were walking together, I accepted their decision.

At the end of the class I heard a call “Ms. James, the artist known as Dog, would like to show you her work. And here is the work of the artist known as Creative Trees. Oh, and the artist known as Swirl, as well as the artist known as Creative Ruby, would also like to show you their work..”

I laughed out loud, and expressed my joy to these fantabulous Hundertwasser-inspired artists. Their work was amazing. Their name choices were spectacular.

I’m SO glad I took the risk and trusted the Kindergarten artists!

Their work didn’t turn out as I imagined it might when I picked Hundertwasser as our inspiration. But, that’s exactly as it should be! Their work turned out like a piece of Hundertwasser- inspired art — created by them, not by me.