At the end of September, Matt Karlsen and I spoke to several groups in the Vancouver area about conditions that support playful inquiry. Over the last few years, educators in British Columbia and Alberta have shown a great deal of interest in Opal School’s work: it responds to their curiosity about the intersection of inquiry and the arts.
When we invite educators to Opal School, they’re completely immersed in children’s ideas. When we lead workshops in distant districts, we carry those voices and images through photographs, transcripts, and video. One video that we’ve found helpful over the years is Inquiry into Wild Animals, which tells the story of teacher-research and emergent curriculum over the course of a year. It is a story that begins when the teachers recognized the children’s curiosity about wild animals and decided to support and sustain it.
As the children energetically studied the animals, they kept asking about the zoo across the parking lot. What was the experience of these neighboring animals? Were they sad to live in captivity? How would they feel if wild animals came to visit? Their teachers weren’t sure what to make of that final question – they had a more limited imagination for what was to come than the children themselves. The children, though, already knew.
Rather than showing the entire documentary at our sessions in Vancouver, we chose to include just the culminating clip. In that montage, the students, cloaked in animal masks they had designed, went to the zoo and connected with the animals. When we’ve shown the larger video, educators frequently reply to this sequence overcome by emotion: they see that, by listening so carefully to the children’s interests and curiosities, the teachers were able to create an opportunity for them to pursue these ideas in spite of their own lack of imagination. For a range of reasons in these sessions, however, the reaction was different: many of the 400 or so Canadian teachers we were working with were disturbed by the depiction of the caged animals. These scenes overwhelmed their ability to consider the learning opportunity for the children – and our ability to discuss it as we had expected. So we entered into inquiry, nervously setting our agenda aside, and asked more questions, uncovering some new ideas about these approaches that we may not have fully understood until then.
Zoos exist. The Oregon Zoo is our neighbor, living across the parking lot from us. Opal School children walk past it every day, regularly enjoying its gifts. We can argue their morality all day long. We can teach children to believe what we believe. And we can raise them and prepare them to take sides.
Alternatively, we can choose to create opportunities for third doors to emerge. In spite of the fact that the teachers didn’t fully understand what was driving the children, they chose to support their innate empathy and take them into the closest contact with the zoo animals that they could create.
I believe that the surprising things that happened through this imaginative, uncertain, playful experience will serve to inform the children for the rest of their lives. I believe that this was a transformative learning experience for all involved.
Perhaps by providing room for empathy to blossom, rather than telling the children what we believe is right and wrong, children will grow up to develop solutions to big problems that we haven’t thought of yet: solutions that we cannot think of because we never had those opportunities ourselves. And this is what we were able to understand more because of our visit with teachers in Canada. The majority of those teachers think that zoos are wrong. And they assumed, because of this video, that we condoned them. But assuming that children need and are waiting for us to provide them with “The Truth” underestimates the powerful capacities of children. It undermines the development of new ways to live together in the future: because it limits play and curiosity, it limits genuine inquiry.
Having a strong image of the child means understanding that children who visit zoos are considerate of the complexity of caging wild animals.
Having a strong image of the young human being means understanding that empathy is hard-wired from the beginning and we can trust it to guide us. We can get out of its way. It wants to explore. We short-circuit its development by substituting our own version of right and wrong, by continually rewarding the right and shaming the wrong.
Last week, we were all shattered by yet another mass shooting. As we desperately seek to respond to the catastrophe, it’s important to remember that the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia were built from the rubble of World War II: they were considered to be an antidote to fascism. The work we’re doing is rooted in a commitment to building a world with greater possibilities – greater justice – than the one these children have been born into. Open, playful inquiry is messy work – because it exists within a messy planet. And it’s important work - because the world needs the gifts these children bring to creating a better one.
Parents and visitors alike often ask: What becomes of Opal School students after they graduate? Opal School students come from throughout the region served by Portland Public Schools, and as a result they’ve gone on to attend just about every public and private middle school and high school in the area. The first group of graduates are now out of their teens, pursuing a range of passions. While the paths of Opal School graduates are unsurprisingly varied, we consistently hear that these are people who are known in their communities as individuals who are self-aware, interested in others’ perspectives, and engaged in making a difference. We wonder: How do they view the role Opal School played in their lives? How do they conceptualize the jewel in their pockets?
At the 2015 Opal School Summer Symposium, a few dozen alumni gathered to reconnect and consider these questions. After an hour talking with each other and Judy Graves, Steve Davee, and Mary Gage Davis, they became the featured speakers of the final session of the program, taking the stage and sharing their thoughts with the large room of Symposium attendees. After they shared their insights, Opal teacher Joey Crume said, “I always struggle with how to describe what I do ...because it’s so complicated and it’s so messy and there are so many layers to this work… Listening to you, I can finally explain what I do.”
A few excerpts:
I recently got a scholarship and I wrote about Opal. I talked about how Opal influenced me as a student and as a Biology major. We had this project where we were talking about the feelings of flowers and I thought, flowers don’t have feelings – that’s ridiculous. Opal made me think outside the box… I always bring that with me in classrooms… I feel I have an advantage from other kids because they don’t have the experience that I had at Opal… Opal taught us to be creative and to be ourselves and to infuse that into our education.
One of the most important things was the ability to collaborate. The ability to see other people’s perspectives… really shapes me.
Interests that I have definitely correlate to what I took away from Opal – interests in how humans interact with each other and how they connect... At Opal, I never felt like I was going to school to work or do math – I always felt like I was going to play with my friends. And somehow, through that experience, I learned so much. Everything I am, it all stemmed from lessons I learned at Opal, just by being with these people and hanging out and growing to love each other.
One thing that I took away from Opal… is that you have to accept people… You have to learn to accept people for what’s inside… you can’t just jump to conclusions, you have to go through it with them and understand and learn with them and grow with them like we did at Opal.
Opal is such a huge part of my life - I am who I am because of this school. Learning to build community within diversity. Learning to respect and have compassion for all beings [across] differences and backgrounds. Learning to speak up if you have something to say because what you have to say is important and just because you’re a little kid doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be people who really care about what you have to say.
What we take away from Opal is intertwined into our lives. For me, it’s a basis of moral integrity: how to lead your life in a way that makes an impact on others and in the world. How to make friends and how to listen to people and how to treat people with respect is something I learned at Opal and has affected how I live and how I want my life to go in the future.
I learned how valuable a community where you trust other people is – how you can say what you feel. How your teachers listened to you and heard what you had to say. How the things that we did naturally as kids impacted the curriculum.
I’m going to major in Environmental Science at Oregon State University and I think one of the main reasons why I chose that is because of my experience at Opal. [Through] going out into the world and experiencing the environment and the world around us, I think I took away a lot and it affected my personal beliefs about how we should treat our world, our planet, and the people around us with care.
One of the biggest things I took away from my experience at Opal is the power of empathy and how important it is for every single child to be nurtured with that from preschool through fifth grade all the way through adulthood. It’s one of the most important things to know as a human being - to know how to care for one another and have compassion. Another thing is individuality: I feel like every single child at Opal is cared for and taught that being who they are is special and important.
We explored questions that had to do with every kind of person and that had to do with being part of the world. That felt really big and that still feels really big and I still am asking these questions because they are things that do not have answers but instead have positive action and discovery and wonder and that was huge for me. I wasn’t always super comfortable at Opal or happy but it’s become a long-term relationship for me where I see now where it’s come into my life in such an amazing way and I get more grateful every day for such an amazing experience and I realize what a blessing it has been. I see how much of a difference it has made.
These were the voices of some of those who were able to gather in Portland on a June day with a moment's notice and then stand in front of a large group of strangers and speak from the heart extemporaneously. If you were quoted above and want to add to what is here, or if you are an alumnus or a parent whose voice isn't present, I hope you'll add your thoughts to the comments section.
Readers, what do you notice? What do you wonder about?
At Opal School, we know that looking closely at children's thinking, documenting the learning that unfolds through a pedagogy of play, and sharing our stories and new understandings with others deepens our work and supports the risk-taking of other learning communities. The Opal School Blog, in addition to our video and print publications, are important pieces of that process. Here, I wanted to let our blog readers know a few of the settings where Opal School and Museum Center for Learning staff will be presenting that work in the hopes that blog readers will come and connect with us.
Our greatest hope is that you will be able to join with us for one of our immersive workshop retreats at Opal School. Two are offered during the school year and include time observing class in session; the third is a look back on a year completed.
March 17-18: San Jose, CA - Discovery Charter School
In addition to all of these outings, we continue to maintain important partnerships with nearby schools, sustain our Mentorship Program, and host study groups visiting us from far and wide. With such an exciting list of encounters, our consultation calendar is full for 2015-16 - but if you'd like to contact us regarding a future connection, send us an email to start the conversation.
Opal School is part of the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network, a group of schools distinguished in their efforts to support empathy and agency. Last year, supported by funding from Ashoka, we held a series of site visits and conversations with three other schools who participate in the network:
While distinct in many ways, all four schools have found alternatives to the false choice between standardization and disorder. We wondered how considering them through a lens of how each supports empathy and agency might be revealing. The group discovered that the consistent, collaborative effort to find that path is the foundation of how each of the schools develops cultures of empathy and agency. We shared our work at the 2015 Opal School Summer Symposium, along with vignettes from each of the school. As Ashoka's #StartEmpathy Project generates greater interest through it's partnership with #ThinkItUp, I wanted to share some of what our group presented to catalyze deeper thinking about conditions where children's intrinsic desire and capacity for empathy and agency flourish.
One of the things that we struggled to do was to define what we mean by empathy and agency. By "empathy", we mean the holding of another’s perspective holistically (intellectually and emotionally) and compassionately (with concern for the other’s well being.) Empathy, for our schools, involves a sense of inter-connectedness with that “other” whose perspective is being held: Without that sense of connection, empathy might become by pity.
Connectedness also lies at the core of agency. We saw "agency" as a sense of membership in a community where your gifts offer an important contribution to the health of the larger body. That sense of interconnectedness prioritizes concern for the whole, a value that distinguishes agency from autonomy.
In each other, we saw schools built around the understanding that all children – and the adults who work with them – have the capacity and desire for empathy and agency. Each of these schools strives to create systems that embed these natural desires into all aspects of life and refuses to reduce the incredibly complicated ecosystem of schooling to one part of the day or to a list of “Top Five Ways to Promote Empathy and Agency.” Every day, our work opens new doors to our imagination of what new possibilities can emerge as children and adults learn together. “Top Five” lists diminish the complexity of the relationships – between and amongst children, adults, ideas, materials, and environments – that lead to greater quality in education.
Amongst our small group and in our very brief visits to each other's schools, we brainstormed the following list of themes related to this question of empathy and agency. Far from a reductive "top five," each entry contains voluminous images and meaning:
What do you notice and wonder about this list?
One dynamic that animated our conversations with each other beyond what was visible in the classrooms involved the relationship between a school’s professional staff culture and the experience of students and families. In striving to create schools that present greater opportunities of quality than the ones we remember from our own childhoods, we need practice in relationships guided by values of empathy and agency. In seeking to understand what common practices and principles might exist between the different programs, we found common commitment to inquiry and reflection. Most importantly, staff must be vulnerable and present to each other and the complications of practice. “Everyone needs to be willing to step into the fire together,” said one member of the group, to which another replied, “And there is always so much fire.” The heart of a staff learning community – much like the core of a classroom – is a pedagogy of listening and relationships focused on the big ideas of the work. Agency means recognizing that each staff member’s unique insight and gifts contribute toward making meaning of this complicated work; it should not be confused with autonomy, that suggests that each actor’s independent actions can be independently developed without recognition of interdependence and the critical benefits of collaboration.
Deep in the fire at Mission Hill School
I'm curious, dear readers:
How do our definitions of empathy and agency square with yours?
What supports empathy and agency in your schools?
What are the obstacles to developing cultures of empathy and agency in your schools?
The first week of school bubbled with a first week’s special energy. Teachers developed provocations that allowed them to learn more about the children and for children to learn more about each other - to see what kinds of choices they gravitated towards and with whom they seemed to quickly connect. Rhythms and rituals that would support the communities began to be constructed. New ideas started popping: returning students eagerly re-entered into a different quality of engagement than they had been simmering in during the (otherwise wonderful) summer months; new Opal School students developed a taste for their new worlds. The days were full of risk: trying out new ways of being with others; of thinking; of developing and sharing ideas. That risk-taking was apparent for both children and adults - all walking into new environments, meeting new people and materials, leaving cherished loved ones and encountering new ones.
Filming Math in Opal 3.
There was (at least) one big difference this year’s first days: A camera crew was in the house. Opal School’s mission is to strengthen education by provoking fresh ideas regarding environments where creativity, curiosity, and the wonder of learning thrive. Because of this, our school is “public” in a way that very few others are: Educators around the world follow the stories that emerge from Opal School classrooms as sources of inspiration. Usually, it’s Opal School and Museum Center for Learning staff telling those stories but, increasingly, others are also telling the tales: we know of educators who return from trips to Portland to lead professional development for their colleagues, weaving observations and interpretations of what is happening at Opal School with stories of their experiences. When a film company asked Opal School to help them show a larger audience the value of play in learning, we knew that we were taking a risk: we would be engaging with people we didn’t know, trusting that they would be able to understand and successfully represent this value we hold in such high esteem. We couldn’t know how much of our efforts would end up in the film and how much on the cutting room floor. We also knew that having them here might cause for some discomfort for children, families, and staff.
Encountering blue in Maple.
In the Maple Room on the very first day of school, kindergartners coming to Opal for the first time, returning first graders, and their families found not only a thoughtfully prepared, aesthetically engaging environment rife with possibilities, but a film crew. A large camera and a boom mic followed children as they met materials, sang new songs, and began to reach out to each other. Some of the children’s nervousness was evident. I wondered whether the film crew’s presence was aggravating this unease.
Discovering new stories in Magnolia.
As family’s arrived the next day, I saw a dad whose child had been one of those who had a rough start. Like the rest of the group, this child seemed to be connecting joyfully by the afternoon - but in the morning, the child had a hard time separating from the father. When I checked in with the dad when I saw him the following morning, he started asking about the film crew. I assumed that he was going to suggest that the film crew was the root of his child’s calls for soothing that morning. The father surprised me when instead he said, “That’s good. I want more children to have schools like this.”
Using materials to represent your thinking about play in Opal 4
For parents at Opal School, that’s a critically important response. You and your child are participating in a school that is not only meaningful for individual students and their families: it plays an important role in learning communities far and wide. That means that there are some sacrifices: observers in the classrooms; shifting expectations of privacy that lead to your child’s image and work being shared internationally; being welcomed back to school by a film crew. Thank you for making those sacrifices. Those sacrifices are essential for furthering Opal School’s mission. Those sacrifices will bring the conditions that support your child’s curiosity, creativity, and the wonder of learning to greater learning opportunities for friends we may never meet.
Play is a strategy for learning for which humans are hardwired. This message seems clear, both in the literature as well as Opal School's lived experience. This year, we're challenging ourselves to learn more about this. What does it mean for a school to be guided by "a pedagogy of play?"
Inspired by this question, we gathered for our staff retreat and shared stories of times this summer that we found ourselves playing. What were the qualities of that experience?
Our circle was animated as colleagues told stories of being lost in play: Bike riding down hills without using brakes; walking deeper into the ocean than ever before; climbing beyond the tree-line; painting in gardens; dancing with shopping carts… While each experience was unique, several threads emerged. In many, the play-er described finding herself immersed in the experience, completely absorbed, living beyond anxiety or concern about outcome. That absence of worry, though, didn’t mean that the stories were uncharacterized by risk: Several stories involved the thrill and adrenaline that accompanies risk. Many of the adventures were social: Play involved communication, connectedness, shared experience. Creativity was another steady thread, as was an aesthetic, sensorial dimension that contributed to joy. Many involved moving out of the ordinary, into novel territory.
As we prepare our classrooms for the arrival of children, we ask ourselves: How are our physical spaces and structures creating conditions that invite these elements? How do these playful conditions support learning? How can we consistently support what physicist Andre Geim, cautious about using the word "play", calls adventurous, “curiosity-driven research"?
How did you play this summer? What were the qualities of that play? How will you create the conditions for playful learning in your learning community this year?
Today, Opal School staff returned to school. For me, it's been a very busy summer: I left the country just a few days after Symposium ended, traveled far and wide, and slept only a handful of nights at home in Portland. Returning to school was my first opportunity to carefully read participants' reflections on their experiences.
What a warm welcome back it was! Just a few of the participants' reflections are shared here along with some glimpses of the experience for the benefit of my colleagues at Opal, for the educators who attended the 2015 Symposium, and for other interested readers:
I look forward to being a part of [Symposium] every year. I always feel energized and renewed. Although I reflect daily during the school year, Opal brings me to a much deeper place of reflection and helps me see the bigger picture – or to envision a bigger picture. I look forward to each and every story that is shared during Symposium – by all the presenters, and by participants from all over the world while standing in line or exploring materials. I am never disappointed – and I love and appreciate all that you do and all that you are.
The stories of the educators here are so refreshing – the transparency, the deep reflection, the authenticity.
Deeply appreciate the effort, beauty and creativity in the presentation of materials and the time to both play and reflect.
I really loved hearing from folks from so many schools [about] how they apply and invoke these similar principles in so many different spaces.
[Symposium] opened my mind and my spirit.
Each day has been excellent – new learning each time building on the previous.
So beautifully and thoughtfully done – I am amazed and humbled to have been here.
I have had the story of what is possible awakened inside of me. [I’m] immensely energized and appreciative of the paradigm shift in my teaching practice and my view of the world.
I feel inspired by the spirit of inquiry.
Always moved by the stories, words, and work of young children. [This] highlights assumptions about the capabilities and potential that I didn’t even realize I needed to unpack.
Visiting the classrooms gave me a chance to look inside myself and feel young again. I can now go back to school and actually feel the intent of why and what I’m doing in class.
Thank you for reminding me why I am in this field and the important role we hold.
I’m happy for everything that my brain is full with. So many questions and possibilities!
I’m going home a better teacher and a better mom.
Seeing spaces and materials in the Opal School was powerful and inspiring. There is NO WAY to put a price on these connections, this education, or these ideas.
Stunning and revolutionary. I am inspired and touched!
I leave full of energy and excitement to continue this work in a way I did not think was possible. I know how I can apply these practices into my own classroom.
I can’t wait for the start of the new school year! So much to try, so many different ways to build community, empathy and agency!
Like that Symposium participant, we're also excited to start a new year and explore new ways of building community, empathy, and agency. We're eager to add new dimensions to our understanding of what is possible when children and adults come together with a spirit of curiosity and creativity. We know that it will be a year full of learning and wonder.
Opal School children, we're looking forward to your arrival next week!
Fellow educators, we hope that you'll visit this year and join us in investigating what it means to be guided by a pedagogy of play!
In a recent episode of This American Life, W. Kamau Bell struggles with how to talk to his young daughters about race and racism. As he grapples with the question, he finds great meaning in UC Berkeley professor Nikki Jones’ conception of dividing America into “White Space” and “Black Space.” Schools? White Space.
How can we create culturally relevant classrooms that support each child to bring their full selves to school? How can we teach in a way that prepares children to live in a world where culture is an asset - not a barrier to access?
Over the last year, a group of kindergarten and first grade teachers across Portland have gathered to respond to these questions. The Community of Resistance Workshop Series, led by KairosPDX, brought together a group of 15 educators, including teachers from seven schools, a community educator, and district coordinators. Meeting five times, the group sought to define what it means to guide culturally relevant instruction and practice. The sessions were informed by scholarly texts, presentations, facilitated reflection, and teacher-research centered in the participants’ practice.
A participant's display at the final gathering
When the group gathered last Friday to celebrate their growth, participants told me about the experience and their growth. One told me about how the work led her to see her students with new eyes, driving her to find the time and space to let questions simmer – even within the relentless demands of a school governed by schedule audits. Another told me that she was struck by how the group moved quickly to tell personal, risky stories with space for counter-stories – and leading her to create the space in her classroom to try new approaches with a different frame. A third reported that, for her, it involved making values visible. All seemed united in the hope that this work will lead to change for all students in Portland, supporting children in ways that meet them where they are. Opal School Summer Symposium participants will get a glimpse of this work through a presentation offered by three of the teachers who participated in the program: Kairos’ Catie Dalton, Sunnyside Environmental School’s Levia Friedman, and Opal School’s Nicole Simpson-Tanner.
How are you creating a culturally responsive classroom that will lead to a culturally responsive society? What questions and ideas does this post spark for you?
"So despite everything, it is permissible to think that creativity or rather learning and the wonder of learning... can serve as the strong point of our work. It is thus our continuing hope that creativity will become a normal traveling companion in our children's growth and development."
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