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


Classroom Setup 2017-18

Merriam-Webster’s sixth definition of setup is “the manner in which the elements or components of a machine, apparatus, or system are arranged, designed, or assembled.”

I love to remind myself of this definition while I’m going about my classroom setup. I am designing a system in which I, and my students, colleagues, and parents, will work, create, play, and learn. If I’m any example, creating a classroom system requires a lot of thought, reflection, iteration, sweat, and muscle!

As I worked, thought, and sweated, I reminded myself of the truth about myself and my students. We are “rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent(Loris Malaguzzi quoted in The Hundred Languages of Children, 2nd addition, p. 275). I also thought back to my MA research where I considered the environment that might best support creativity and academic excellence.

I read so many thought provoking things as I researched for my MA. I synthesized them in an article in Creative Education.  If I were writing my dissertation, or the article now, I think I might title it Managing the Classroom for Creative and Cognitive Excellence. I want my classroom setup to support creative excellence, and cognitive excellence. To do that, it has to include and support the 6 elements of Teresa Amabile’s KEYS I adapted for classroom management in Managing the Classroom for Creativity:

  • Freedom which enables and and encourages ownership, motivation, and engagement of all the learners.
  • Positive challenge which helps everyone know the tasks/skills they engage in are important and valuable.
  • Supervisory Encouragement which values work and thought, and encourages inquiry and exploration.
  • Work group support which encourages the generation and exchange of new ideas.
  • Easy access to sufficient resources.
  • Organizational Support of our shared vision and an infrastructure that enables and empowers everyone in my learning space.

I’ve finished my initial classroom set up, and am super happy with the result. There is more work to be done, but I’m ready for my learners to join me in the space.

In addition to including the 6 elements listed above, I worked on including more visibility this year. I was mindful of balancing beauty and utility. I wanted our work, vision, thought, prototypes, iterations and our creative and cognitive “mess” to be visible. It adds a richness to the space — telling our story while increasing curiosity, inquiry, wonder, learning, understanding, creativity and excellence!


Here are a few photos with my reflections.

Last year our maker projects where stored in a classroom cabinet. This year, some awesome maintenance people ripped out the cabinet, and I replaced it with this open shelving unit. The wall behind and beside it is covered with a large art piece my students made last year. (How awesome is that?!!!) The use of that artwork, the trays for student work, and the words on the front of the shelving unit let everyone know these things are valued and supported.



A second smaller shelving unit — on the coolest, gigantic wheels — keeps our tools neat and easily accessible. There’s opportunity for remarkable exploration and learning through the use of these tools.



The maker trolley has always been a part of the makerspace, but this year I am repurposing the back to hold more materials, and storing our large item bins in the open. I am hopeful this will increase use and understanding.



The two classroom easels provide opportunities for creative art experiences outside the regular art curriculum. The second is actually a double easel – fabulous for conversation and inspiration! I love leaving the dried paint on the easels. It adds an element of beauty and history to the space, and allows for freedom as one paints.

I’m thinking about the resources I have that might enable me to store paper beneath the easels — enabling the artists to be autonomous in their work. I have some ideas I’m going to try this week.


I love the connection between my learners’ art experience and mine (the watercolors are my work). I also like the suggestion of a connection between painting, shapes, blocks and building.



Print is plentiful and purposeful in my learning space. I want my students to read the room and learn. I want them to become more skilled at letter recognition and use, and to be inspired — to see, read, absorb, and live, what is important.



I love all the little print treasures in my space, so it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite. However, I am enjoying this one quite a bit!  I wonder what it will evoke or awaken in those who see it. For me it stirs up joy, possibility, positivity, and continuing even when obstacles arise.



And this, partially hidden gem, out of the way of traffic, is a message from me, to me. “Be a superhero every day. The kids and the world deserve it!”



All the best to all my fellow educators. Arm yourself with another Malaguzzi truth “Nothing without joy!” and have a fantabulous year!



Whenever I write, I think of all the remarkable people I’ve read, talked with, and researched . I think about adding tons of links to each post. Instead, I offer my deep gratitude to all those who informed my research and learning,  and remind my readers there is a great bibliography at the end of my Creative Education article.





Creative Arts and the Art of Creativity

Amazing how much past learning, reading and conversation is coming to mind and  informing this post.  Thinking of a title for the post I considered Creative Arts or the Art of Creativity. Almost immediately, Uri Alon’s TEDtalk, and his use of the phrase “Yes, and …” popped into my mind. Nope, can’t be or, must be and. Hence the blog post title —  Creative Arts and the Art of Creativity. Both are valuable and important, and I don’t want to suggest anything different in my title.

Will Burns wrote an article entitled Should Education Focus Less on the Creative Arts, More on the Art of Creativity? I loved his conversation with his son about creativity.

Just this morning I asked my son who just graduated high school to name the most creative person in his class and why he thought so. He thought about it and said, “I think it would be Cassidy Davis (changed name) because she is incredibly good at drawing people’s faces.” My son seemed to equate “creativity” with a talent. But, interestingly, he went on to say, “Yeah, she does these drawings of people but then puts them into these scenes that are totally trippy and surreal.” (Will Burns, Forbes, August 7, 2017 @ 01:26 PM)

Burns exclaimed “Now that is creativity.”

I chuckled when I read that. I agree, that does sound creative. Cassidy moved beyond her talent to produce “good drawings” and interjected some creativity — placing the expertly drawn faces in fantastical scenes, created in her imagination and translated onto the page through her fingers.

Considering the definition of creativity, and whether or not something was creative, brings me back to the many awesome conversations with Karl during and after my MA Creative Thinking work at UCLan.

What exactly is creativity? Is it the same as talent? Is it connected to talent? Can we teach it? How? (And, a zillion other questions.) For now, the important conversation centers on the definition of creativity.

Creativity is new and useful or appropriate. So yes, when I read Burn’s son’s description I thought “Wow, that sounds creative, and quite cool.” But, if Cassidy’s drawings were not appropriate to the task at hand, they would not be creative. Talented and unique, perhaps, but not creative. Interesting, right?

I thought of this the other day as I did some plein air painting in the Adirondacks.

After hiking in, I settled myself, and my watercolors, on rocks in the river. I love this spot on the Ausable River, and I wanted to enjoy the river, the air and the moment. My artistic/creative goal was to capture the movement and spirit of the water, while incorporating a bit of the color mixing I had done at home.


As I sat — breathing and thinking in this great space — I was splashed repeatedly by the river as it flowed by me. Through those splashes, I felt the river asking for my attention, gently nudging me to capture its essence by actually using it in my painting.

I put aside my waterbrush and began gathering water from the river. Slowly, splashes, drips, and then rivers of water, formed on my paper. Grabbing my brush, I wet my paints with the river water. The many colors of nature began to form on the page as the paints moved through the water. Sometimes they glided past one another without mixing, and other times they crashed into one another, swirling into ribbons and pools of new colors.

It was a fascinating and enjoyable process. I noticed the many things I could, and could not control in the process. Much like I must do when walking on the river, I accepted and relaxed – respecting the power but not fearing it.


I am not sure anyone would consider me a great watercolor talent after seeing this painting. I am growing in my knowledge, skill, understanding and talent. But, a great talent? Not yet.

But, is it creative? Yes — it is a new idea that is appropriate to my task and goal.

I wasn’t sure I had achieved the essence of the river until I tried to photograph the painting. It looked best when it sat amidst the rocks. Just like the water around it, it gathered strength, grace, beauty and meaning from the rocks.

Back to one of my original questions. Is creativity the same as talent? No.

Is it then, completely different, completely removed from creativity? Again, no. includes ability as a synonym for talent. They define it as “natural or acquired power” in something.

I am, for the first time, having this insight about talent and creativity. Perhaps talent and creativity are related just the way talent and playing the piano, talent and doing math, or talent and fencing are related. As my skills grow, my talent grows. As my understanding grows, my talent grows. As I practice, try, fail, learn, succeed — my talent grows. The talent can be in relationship to a plethora of different things — including creativity.

And, as my creativity grows – as a thinker in general, or in a specific arena – my talent, so to speak, always grows. Think of jazz musicians, scientists developing life saving drugs, mathematicians proposing or solving incredible problems, poets writing exquisite poems — their talent feeds their creativity, which in turn feeds their talent! It is a beautiful feedback loop.

Neither talent nor creativity are fixed abilities. We all have the ability to be talented and creative. Some may be more innately talented or creative, and levels of talent and creativity vary.  But, and this is an incredibly important thing for everyone — perhaps especially, parents, teachers and young people — to hear, with learning and practice, everyone can grow in talent and creativity.

This leads me back to Mr. Burn’s article Should Education Focus Less on the Creative Arts, More on the Art of Creativity?  and back to my “Yes, and …” from the beginning of this post. I love Burn’s thoughts in his article about the importance of creativity, and of a teacher with an MA Creative Thinking to help others navigate. However, I lean towards Uri Alon’s idea — Yes, and.

Yes, creative arts, AND, yes, ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY the art of creativity.

I think, perhaps, Mr. Burn’s would agree with that statement. But, that’s for another post!


Creativity and Leadership

I recently had an article published entitled Cultivating Dynamic Leadership through Creativity.

I give three examples of leadership in a creative venue:

  • She leads through her curiosity and sensible risk taking, and all emerge with new understanding and innovative methods.
  • She leads with empathy, which drives her to connect and comfort others.
  • She leads through her belief in the power of possibility, discovery, research and experimentation.

When a friend of mine read the article, and these examples, she said “I wonder if people just read these examples, if they’d know who you are writing about.”

I wonder that, too!

So, who do you think she (or he) might be?

A teacher? An entrepreneur? An artist? An IT professional? A psychologist? A parent? A scientist? A researcher? A doctor?

While each are suitable guesses, they are not who I had in mind when I wrote.

I didn’t write of a professional, or even of an adult. Instead, I wrote of my kindergarten students.

build leadership sized

They are remarkable, strong, powerful children. While they are fantabulous, these characteristics are not unique to them. All children, have incredible strength, power and potential.

My teaching practice is informed by my belief in this profound power and potential of children. I try, as best I can, to allow my teaching, and my reflection, to be nourished and driven by the “joy, passion, wonder and conviction” of my understanding of the truth of the strong, powerful child. (Managing the Classroom for Creativity, James 2015)

Children are natural leaders. Placed in an environment that enables and encourages creativity, their innate leadership abilities germinate, increase and flourish.


James, M. (2017). Cultivating Dynamic Leadership Through Creativity. KPS Voyager, 2017, 8.  (
James, M. (2015). Managing the Classroom for Creativity. Journal of Creative Education Vol. 6, No. 10, 1032-1043 (


Seeing Spelling With New Eyes



I read this the other day. When I reached the end and read buttufele, I had an epiphany about spelling!

Spelling is a remarkably daring journey into  possibility thinking, creativity and design!

When trying to share our ideas, encode sounds and/or spell words we all go through the following steps:

Possibility thinking: How might we use what we already have/know in a new way? What letters or letter combinations are possible?

Creativity: We have to be brave and take risks.We use what we know to make something new and useful.

Design: We define a design challenge. ( For instance, write the word – beautifully.) We ideate. (butfoolee, beyuootefooly, beeyutyfuly, buttufele), and prototype (see illustration above). Then we test. (Can I read it? Can someone else read it? Can the person I wrote it for read it?) Our test provides us with data, and perhaps, new understanding. The process then begins again for this, or some other, word.

I love this understanding of spelling. It brings an element of play, and ease into the process of spelling. It embraces the fact that the spelling process, like all other design processes, often includes failing.

I’m wondering if approaching spelling this way, might make it easier for our students. Understanding they are choosing a design (spelling) challenge might empower them. Being creative might infuse joy into the process. Embracing failure as a natural part of spelling might diffuse some fear, and increase learning.

I’m going to work on my language and give it a go with my learners. I’m hopeful!

And just a note: Conventional spelling can also be approached as a design challenge. except now the challenge might be “Spell beautifully as it is found in library books, or on”

Translation in case it is needed: She is very pretty. She is funny and she is goofy. She is a kind princess. She lives in Westfield. She sings songs beautifully.



The Power of Language

Lately I’ve been struck by the profound power of language.

Last night at a mindfulness session someone pointed out the difference between saying: “I am a worrier!” and “I am experiencing worry.”

Do you hear a difference? Do you feel one? They are very similar statements, but the small variations cause large differences in meaning and impact.

The first statement says something about me, and therefore about the possibility of my actions or thoughts. I AM a worrier. If I am a worrier, I have no choice. I worry. If, instead, I am experiencing worry, I have choices. I can notice the worry. I can observe it. I can choose to turn towards the worry and learn from it. I can choose to do something to alleviate it. Or, I can worry, lol.

The point is, the change in my language opens possibilities for me! It gives me options. It creates space to be, and to do.

I share the worry example because it helped me to understand my experience of another rather subtle change in language.

I’m writing an article on creativity and leadership. My editor suggested I change “How might we?” to “How can we?”

What do you think? Say the questions to yourself a few times. What do you experience when you read the questions? Do you notice a difference? Do you have pull or preference for on or the other?

I definitely experience the questions differently, and I have a clear preference!

I am experiencing — in my life and in my practice — that the power of “How might we?” far exceeds the power of “How can we?” Sounds a bit crazy, right? But, it’s not!

“How can we?” offers two options: we can, or, we can’t. That’s it. Too often, when given the choice of can, or can’t we choose can’t.

I can’t do that! I can’t walk a half marathon! I can’t solve that problem. I can’t write a story. I can’t do a multimedia presentation. I can’t pass this test.  I’m not able. There is no way. (sigh)

If we avoid the “I can’t!” quagmire. We may fall into the “I don’t know” trap because”How can we?” suggests we are looking for the correct way to do whatever we are doing. If the person being questioned is at all unsure, this often leads to the answer: “I don’t know.”

In both instances — “I can’t” and “I don’t know” — the problem remains unsolved understanding stagnates, learning is limited, and, perhaps, most tragically, the one questioned is now more convinced than ever that they really don’t know, and they really can’t .


In contrast, “How might we?” is more flexible and less prescriptive. “How might we?” invites divergent thinking, allowing us to go wide with our answers. Even the uncertain can offer ideas because the “rightness” of the answer is not demanded.

Often the answers which fail, are more valuable than those that immediately succeed. They allow us — demand it actually — to reflect, examine, explore, talk, learn and try again. In this process many positive things happen. To name just a few:

  • Understanding (of ideas, materials, students, ourselves, others) deepens.
  • New strategies emerge.
  • Trust, confidence and relationships grow.
  • Thinking and ideas are valued.
  • New ideas are formed.

The power of simple changes in language is intriguing. I’m super excited by the possibilities of HMW questions, and am working on using them more often in my life, and in my practice.

Give them a try. If you do, I’d love to hear your reflections.


Breathe, Pause and Listen

golden windows


“I love your gold windows” I said to one of my young painters.

I smiled and began to move on to the next student, and the next thing to notice.

As though she sensed my attention was moving she said with urgency and haste …


“It’s the sun, shining off the windows!”



It’s the sun, shining off the windows! Of course it is!

I love that, for her, the gold windows were purposeful and beautiful. She didn’t use the gold simply because it was sparkly and pretty. It was the sun, shining off the windows!

I love too, that she shared her thoughts with me

I am struck by the profoundness of that moment – her words, her joy, her sharing, my being the recipient of her beauty, awesomeness and understanding – and how easily we could have missed that encounter!

I took the briefest of breaths as I began to move on, and she grabbed that moment and shared her noticing, remembering, joy, beauty and understanding with me.

I am grateful for her deep desire to share, and her willingness to call me beyond noticing – which is good – into sharing and conversation – which is great.

Take that extra breath, that extra moment, and just listen.