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!




Yup, that about covers it. “WOW!”

Well, perhaps, “WOW!” and “Boy, oh boy, do I need a nap!”



It’s the beginning of our Thanksgiving Build 2017. All of this block thinking and work happened in less than 20 minutes!

It was amazing to experience and help facilitate it.

Prior to beginning the actual build, we prepped the room and ourselves.

  • We decided on a good spot for the tables.
  • We checked to be sure we could still move about the room as we need to for other activities.
  • We counted tiles on the floor.
  • We did some research — watching videos, reading/looking at books, and discussing our finds and understanding.
  • We chose our groups (citizens of England and Holland, passengers on the Mayflower, Native Americans).

Finally we met for our first day of building. Before working with the blocks, we held a quick planning meeting. I acted as the scribe, and recorded their ideas. Each group excitedly generated an extensive list of things they would need in their area of the build. Often their ideas played off of each other. I worked to keep the group focused and positive, accepting all ideas, confident that we would discover and modify anything that might need to be changed as we did the build.

It was interesting to make the lists together. They were invested in the process and shared their ideas with enthusiasm, but at the same moment, they were straining against the confines of the table, chairs, and list making. Their desire to begin the build was visible, and when I set them free, the room erupted into a spirited burst of conversation and movement.

They talked to one another as they moved to gather blocks and tools. Sometimes one of them would think of something else they needed, and give me a shout — “Bears! Add bears to the list Miss James!” For now the lists are posted on our whiteboard. We’ll revisit them at various points of the build — to see what has been done, what needs to be done, and what needs to be added.

Many things have to remain in balance as the build progresses. Of course, the blocks themselves must remain balanced. Given the inherent instability of certain block formations, and the sometimes whirlwind like movement of kindergartners, this is often more difficult than it sounds. But, many other things are also always in a delicate, sometimes beautiful, sometimes precarious, state of balance.

As the build facilitator I want to encourage and enable student agency, freedom, discovery, and creativity. At the same time I want to infuse their creativity with the all important ingredient of usefulness. I work hard to encourage thinking, comparing, noticing, and rethinking, without discouraging their ideas and budding understanding. Sometimes this means I have to refocus my gaze and perception. I need to look at the build not as a product alone, but as a process. And, I need to consider what my students knew before beginning, what they are expressing with their work, and what is most important.

Keeping the social emotional energy balanced is imperative. The collaboration — both physical and mental — that occurs while creating in groups is huge! Sometimes we aren’t used to this type of work, and disagreements or power struggles ensue. These moments are often fraught with emotion, but once breaths are taken, the disagreements and struggles become awesome opportunities for conversation, learning and growth.

Another area of social emotional balance involves my comments and suggestions. I have to be aware of the times when my interjections are causing too much disequilibrium in my builders. I want them to think, to struggle and to reach new levels of understanding. I don’t want them to doubt themselves or their work.

So, back to their work. We will build until winter break. Things will be added, taken away, and modified. This is just the beginning. And a great beginning it is!

Remind yourself of their age, their task, and their timeframe. And be awed!

England and Holland


The Mayflower


Native American homesite


What Do YOU Do In Math?

I wanted to remind my students we love math and being in the cloud, so I wrote Math, in a cloud, with 3 hearts.

Then I asked “What are some things we do in math?”

Check out the first 4 answers.


We are brave!

We learn!

We enter the cloud!

We think! 

I wanted to say “Preach it, my young friends! Preach it!”

So, what do you do in math?

Little Tweaks, Big Results

Innovation is not about the stuff; It is a way of

Our number of the day routine includes writing, spelling, and making a given number. We build math-muscle as we explain our thinking to each other – answering questions raised by our partner.

I love math and want my students to love it, too! Hoping to infuse a bit of passion into their routine, I tweaked the process last Friday.

Me: “Pick a number, over 20, and complete your number of the day booklet.”

Them: (with equal amounts incredulity and excitement): “Any number?”

Me: “As long as it’s greater than 20.”

Some jumped head-first into the cloud – challenging themselves more than I might have challenged them. They worked with excitement – fending off any negative feelings – as we sprawled on the carpet, and navigated the cloud together.  

Others chose safer numbers. But, they too were stretched and challenged as they wondered, discussed and devised methods to show numbers greater than 20 given only 2 ten frames and blank space.

At first glance perhaps it seems like a very small innovation. Choice. But, the result was stupendous. Trust, freedom, choice, joy, thinking, learning and growth experienced by all. What could be better?

My thinking cap is on, imagining ways to continue to tweak and innovate within our routines!

Embrace the Mess


I recently did a workshop for 4th, 5th and 6th grade students. I encouraged them to be willing to embrace the “mess” inherent in creativity, thinking, and great work.

My queen-size bed isn’t big enough to hold the “mess” of my presentation preparations. Fantabulous isn’t it?

Clearly, I embody my teaching.


Engaging in the Hard, Fabulous Work of Creativity

My bathroom has two sliding doors. I designed the bathroom with these doors as canvases for some sort of artwork. Finally, one side of one of the doors is finished!!! Well, to be specific, the artwork is finished,but the door remains perched on two saw horses in my bedroom/studio, waiting for a few coats of polyurethane before it is hung again on its slider.

.door on saw horses

It is remarkable how much thought, research, doodling, re-thinking, kibitizing, talking, looking, and physical work, are involved in being creative! I love the process, but for some reason, this project really encouraged me to notice the time, effort, thought and work of creativity.

My process:

  1. I spent days thinking about the project. I imagined what I wanted. I thought about how I might achieve what I wanted. I changed my mind numerous times. I decided I wanted to — somehow — stay true to the architectural design of my arts and craft bungalow home.
  2. This sent me on a long path of research – looking up arts and craft fonts, flipping through a plethora of arts and craft design and art books, and googling various people and pieces I was particularly drawn towards.
  3. I found two fonts, and many designs I liked. Now I had to see if I could actually use them. Could I learn how to draw them and make them my own?
  4. Next came the doodling and sketching. Funny as it may sound, I experience joy when I find and use a pencil that feels good in my hand, moves smoothly across the paper, makes great marks and erases easily. And speaking of erasing, the number of iterations I went through in order to come up with the final design, was amazing! I wish I hadn’t thrown away all my sketches. It would be good for my students to see and know that the work that looks so easy, and causes them to say, “Wow, you are so good at that, Miss James!”  is actually informed and supported by many other tries! I’ll be sure to keep the next batch.
  5. My final design is the result of being open to possibilities wherever I found them, and mashing together ideas from many different arenas – arts and craft designs, zen-tangling sensibilities, yoga, mandalas, nature, botany, math, color theory, and I’m sure many more that I’m currently forgetting!

door collage

But that wasn’t the end! The work, thinking, experimenting, ideating and iterating continued.

  1. Now I had to take my idea  – drawn on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper – and transpose it into something beautiful on the actual door. Rulers, yardsticks, lovely pencils and erasers, compasses, and scratch pieces of paper were purposefully strewn across the door. I measured, sketched, thought, looked, breathed …. and did it all again for some time. It was fabulous! Finally the design was sketched onto the door.
  2. Next was the wood-burning stage which would create the dark lines of the design on my door. I should mention that this stage was also preceded by many hours of practice. The burner comes with many different tips. I experimented with each one to see what type of line it created, which heat worked best for it, and how easily I could manipulate it to create the lines I wanted. I experimented on various types of wood – they all seem to burn differently – and then explored the different areas of the clear pine I was using. The grain caused different burning rates and necessitated changes in speed and heat.
  3. Finally, time for color! I loved the look of the design burned into the wood. I’m sure it would have been fine to polyurethane it in its natural form, but I had created it with color in my mind and knew it would seem unfinished if I left it uncolored. So, once again, I risked “wrecking it” in order to make it what I knew it could be.
    1. I laid the colors out on the design – playing with different combinations.
    2. I painted the colors onto a similar piece of wood. I was amazed by the difference in the colors out of the paint tube versus on the tube.
    3. I thought, looked and waited. Mostly the waiting was because I was working during the day and coaching in the evenings, leaving me little time to create. But, that waiting was important, because I had time to look, and look some more, and allow my brain to play with the colors.
    4. I couldn’t decide on all the color combinations so I started with one color combination – the leaves – and as I painted, the other colors combinations coalesced for me.

The color and painting process was fascinating! I tried to figure out the entire color scheme, but failed time and time again. When I stopped trying and began painting, I – for lack of a better phrase – began to see better. It was as though the process of immersing myself in the medium – the paint and the painting – increased my clarity.

I can’t explain it — many ways it was magical! As I painted the leaves, with the tubes of paint lying about me, and I would notice myself thinking “Oh! That might work.” I’d continue painting, and notice another thought “Hmm, perhaps that is too much. I think this might be better.”

Often I’d run my ideas past my brother (another creative, learned soul) for clarification and validation. I wouldn’t always use his ideas, but somehow his ideas fed mine and helped them become more “perfect.”

door closeup

Each step in the process involved risk, flow, joy, time and triumph. It was all fabulous, but the time was really important. Time to think, to do, to wonder, to mess up, to re-think, and to experience the process, the product, the materials. I would often just stand at my work – leaning on the door, examining it with my eyes. Other times, I would run my palm over the work. The tactile experience of touching my work in its various stages of completeness was incredibly important, necessary and satisfying.

It makes me think about school and my students. How can I help them have this experience of creativity — in all its angst, sweat and splendor? How can I give them the time and opportunity to experience — in their own creative work and thought — what I experienced in mine?

I’m not completely sure, but rest assured I’ll be thinking about it, and letting the question, and any possible answers, inform my teaching practice!



The Crayon Initiative

Have you ever heard of The Crayon Initiative?  Me neither! Until today.

The Crayon Initiative recycles “unwanted crayons into unlimited possibilities for children.”

How cool is that?

I’m sure there are lots of people/organizations who are doing creative repurposing with crayons, but for now, I’m liking and blogging about this one! 🙂 (No disrespect to any of the others.)


I like the process they talk about as they tell their story …

  • twirling a crayon – deep in thought
  • wondering out loud
  • asking questions
  • discovering a problem
  • being confident in their ability to discover a new way to address the problem
  • accepting the challenge to make a positive change
  • thinking
  • ideating (having ideas! Awesome word, isn’t it? Around since the 1800’s I believe)
  • bringing one of those ideas to life to “recirculate the endless supply of free materials and bring the Arts to children everywhere.

There’s a lot to love about this! The process, the creativity, the crayons (I happen to love crayons, lol.) the openness to possibility, the thought, the action, and the benefit to children and the environment.

Rock on Crayon Initiative!

Let’s follow their lead. Let’s wonder, question, think, ideate, believe, and make positive innovations!


When 2+2 does not equal 4

We had Back to School Night at our school this week. As I shared who I was with the parents, I began talking about creativity and creative thinking. I told them creativity, and creative thinking, are not just about art! Creativity, and creative thinking, are about noticing, seeing possibility, taking risks, making mistakes, trying new things and thinking new thoughts. They’re about learning. They’re about taking what you know and using that knowledge to go beyond. They’re about playing and communicating. They’re about life!

I was so excited to be talking about creativity, my hopes for their children, and the possibilities for creativity in all venues, that I found myself saying, “Even math is a perfect venue for creative thinking. I read this article once, that talked about when 2+2 isn’t 4!” As it came out of my mouth, and I saw the looks of surprise on some of their faces, I recognized the need to clarify that I would, indeed, be teaching their children that 2+2 was 4! But, I would also be encouraging them to think like mathematicians, and, when appropriate, look for those times when 2 plus 2 was something other than 4.

I want their children to be able, even as kindergarteners, to take what they know and are learning, and transfer it to other situations. I want them to see the more.

Here is how it was lived in my classroom this week.

One of my students loves to get “math problems.” She seems to have an insatiable appetite for them! I wanted to honor and encourage her love for “doing math,” but I also wanted to go beyond the rote “doing of math” and engage her in mathematical thinking! I wanted to give her the opportunity to be challenged to notice things, tinker, get stumped, and keep trying.

Yes, even in Kindergarten this is possible, and appropriate.

So, after several problems with numbers and symbols, I started using pictures. First, I gave her pictures that indicated addition and subtraction. I didn’t tell her whether the problem was addition or subtraction, I let her figure it out. Once she discovered an answer, we talked about why she chose subtraction or addition, and how she got her answer. (By the way, her answers – listed on the page – are great answers, but not the only possible “correct” answers!)

add subtract

Then I asked her to complete patterns or provide the next item in a sequence. She had to think about some of them, and occasionally gave me a quizzical look. I resisted the urge to chuckle, and instead just encouraged her to think about it. Sometimes I realized I hadn’t given her enough information, or I had been ambiguous, so, I amended my instructions.

Each time she got it! I decided it was time to take a chance, and see what she did with more of an open-ended question.

I wrote:

10 equals

She looked at me, and then at the problem. She looked at me again, this time with a bit of annoyance.

“What is this?” she asked.

I responded, “Well, what does it say?”

“10 equals. But what do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, what does 10 equal?” I asked.

She again looked at me with a bit of annoyance, and a bit of confusion. I just pursed my lips, and raised my eyebrows. “You can do it. Think! What does 10 equal?”

She looked down, thought a bit, and finally wrote “10 = 10”

“Yup,” I said. “10 sure does equal 10. Can you think of anything else?”

She thought for a bit and said “6+4.”

“Yes!” I responded. “That does equal 10. What about this? Does 10 equal this?”

10 petals

She watched as I drew. Looked at me when I finished, then back at the drawing, and said, “Yes.”

To which I responded, “Why?”

“There are 10 petals.”


We did a few more problems together – sometimes I drew or wrote for her, sometimes she drew or wrote for me. Then, I took it a step further. I gave her this problem.

not 4

Using what she had learned from the car drawing – they were coming together –  she said, “It’s 4.” I said, “True, but what else is it? Do you see? I wrote ‘not 4’ I want you to think a bit. What is it, if it’s not 4?” She looked at me for a bit. I said, “Think. I want you to think. What else can it be? Thinking is good. You can do it!”

After a bit she came back to me and said, “It’s 16!”

“Oh! How is it 16?” I asked.

She showed me the 16 dots. “Indeed! That is 16.” Now it could just as easily have been 8 because of the antennae, or the wings. It could have been 24 because of the legs. It could have been a lot of things! The importance, (outside of the math facts) was the noticing, the thinking, the sharing of thinking, the questions, the explanations, the affirmation that thinking was good, and finally the confirmation that her thinking was sound.

It would, however, also have been ok if her thinking wasn’t sound, because it would have given us an opportunity to converse, rethink, and to come to another conclusion.

So, I ask you? When is 2+2 NOT 4?

Amazingly enough, there are many times! Think. Draw. Write. Be creative. Think in ways that might not be your first choice. Think in ways that seem to defy mathematical sense. But think! Oh, and be sure to play, and have fun.

If you come up with some ideas, please leave them in a comment. In a few days I’ll post a comment with some of my ideas when 2+2 is not 4!




Sewing, thinking, and creating with Faith Ringgold

Tar Beach is, in my opinion, both simple and profound. it is easy to understand and yet filled with illustrations and ideas that inspire both wonder and discussion. It is an excellent platform from which to explore a female artist/author, and to integrate arts and creativity into the curriculum.

We did an interactive read aloud of the book – actually reading it two or three times at different points along the process of the project. We watched videos of Faith talking about her writing and art – especially her story quilts. We examined pictures of the quilts and noticed that the stories were told in word and illustration. We inquired about, reflected on, and discussed many things.

Why is the book called Tar Beach? What is the tar beach? Have you ever been to a tar beach? Do you think it would be fun? Why or why not? Can someone really fly over the city like Cassie? Do stars come lift you up so you can fly? What could Faith Ringgold possibly mean? Why does Cassie fly where she flies in the story? Have you ever wanted to belong to a club but couldn’t? Have you ever wanted to do something to help others feel better? Have you ever wanted to do something to help your parents feel better? What are your dreams? Where would you go if you could go anywhere?

The discussion was rich, and continued as the girls worked on the art/literacy project.

I combined ideas I found on the web (see resources) with my own ideas to create a project that involved drawing and a certain sense of mapping – choosing and implementing the body position of their flying person, as well as placement of their person on the paper, color mixing, painting, small motor skills (cutting, gluing), sewing, imagining and writing.

The project was not simple. It took a bit of prep on my part and a good bit of stamina and work by the girls. We worked together on this project for several days.

  • I measured the paper and cut many sheets of paper. We needed a background, a piece for the sky, a piece for them to draw themselves flying, a piece for them to write their dreams, and squares to glue around the edge for the quilted part.
  • The girls brainstormed how they might look if they were flying. Once the had an idea they liked, they set to creating it in pencil. Happy with their work, they went over the lines with sharpie markers. (There is something striking about children’s work in black sharpie.) Finally they added color to their person.
  • They pasted the square pieces – in the fashion of a quilt – along the edges of a 12 x 18 sheet of paper. By the way, it takes a LOT longer than you might imagine. I was impressed with the girls perseverance.
  • They created a night sky using various shades of blue and purple and filled the sky with glitter stars.
  • Once their sky painting dried they decided how they would fly and glued their person onto the sky.
  • They were very careful and deliberate with all their work!
  • Finally, after thinking deeply about where they would want to fly and why, they used their best spelling, and writing, to transcribe their thoughts onto the project.


At first I thought that would be the end of the project – glue all the things onto the background and display them. However, it seemed unfinished, and somehow disrespectful of the strength and capabilities of the girls, to have quilt pieces devoid of any sewing.

I was reminded of a quote by Jerome Bruner. After visiting some Reggio Emilia schools (they are early education classrooms, by the way), Jerome commented on the level of respect afforded the children by the educators. “It is like a seminar at the graduate department of the university, with the same kind of respect, of exchange in talking about what you have just said, and about your former thinking” (Rindaldi, p. 58). While the quote comments on thinking, I believe it can be expanded to include respect for the students’ work as well as their thinking.

I decided I would bring in my sewing machine and have the girls sew their art pieces with my machine. We talked about the fact that I, and many of the adults in their lives, sew on a machine. I explained the way the machine worked – in all its glory as well as it’s potential for harm. (No one wants a needle sewn through their finger!) I told the girls that I was confident in their ability (with my help) to use the machine and generate beautiful things. Then, we got to work.

faith ringold sophia

I sat behind them as they sewed. We had a dialogue regarding where and how they should sew. We talked about going fast or slow. We discussed hand positioning. We agreed that if I said “stop” they would immediately remove their foot from the pedal. They were fantastic! For a five year olds, there was quite a bit of sewing – and it was all straight lines so they had to work on keeping the paper at the proper guide. After a bit of time coaching each girl, I was pretty much a watchful spectator.

When we were all finished, I created a used their pieces to create a quilt on the hall bulletin board. It was awesome to notice all the older girls and teachers who stopped to examine, and marvel at, our words and artwork.

faithringold quilt


Inspiration for art project:



  1. Making the quilt –
  2. Writing Tar Beach –

Faith Ringgold:


Reggio Quote:

  1. Carlina Rinaldi, In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning. London: Routledge.