Cultivating Conversation Across Classrooms

For the past two years in the atelier, we have experimented with the model of a “Choice Based Studio.” While there are many things I love about this approach (see previous blog post about why we do choice at SWS), one of its greatest downsides is that when children are all individually working on their own pieces, we lose the ability to have a conversation as a whole. Children within a studio group might influence one another, but they don’t have the opportunity to influence and be inspired by children of other groups and of other ages. As a result, a Reggio research question guiding my work with the children this year is:

Guiding Question

Throughout the month of October, across first through fifth grade, we thought a lot about the things that scare us. Not the tangible things that scare us like mice or spiders, but rather, the fears that we carry with us all the time. The ones we can’t see. We named these our “intangible fears.”

First, we brainstormed some of these fears, adding each new fear to a Post-It on a shared wall. It seemed to be cathartic for many of the children to have their fears up on the wall, spoken aloud, in a way that was visible to others.

Post It Collage

Each group added to the list over a couple weeks.  We revisited the list after it grew, and I invited children to make a signal if they shared a fear as I read them aloud. No matter how scary the fear, they knew they weren’t alone in feeling that way when they looked around the room and saw that several of their peers shared the same fear they carried.  Some who originally hadn’t shared, wanted to add a fear after hearing the fears of their classmates.


Of course, discussing fears isn’t easy or cathartic for everyone. It is worth noting that participation in the discussion and subsequent art making was all completely optional.

From here, the children were invited to turn these intangible fears into visible monsters that could be seen. What defined a “monster” was left completely open; what mattered most was that the invisible was made visible. Some children chose a fear that they, personally had, and others chose one from the wall that spoke to them. As monsters were created, some were posted inside and outside the studio, giving inspiration to kids who hadn’t originally thought of creating one.

Making Monsters Collage

Soon their work will be posted on the walls of the school. I’ve been fascinated with the development of children’s thinking and expression across first through fifth grades. The plan is to exhibit their work (alongside artist statements they wrote) grade by grade. I am curious to see what patterns will emerge, looking at their work organized in this way, coming back to the question, of how framing children around a theme might have cultivated independence, ownership, and purpose.



Why Your Child Can’t Stop Talking About Burning Man

Why Your Child Can’t Stop Talking About Burning Man

This year, I received an incredible gift.  For nearly two decades, I have wanted to attend Burning Man– an art event that happens every year in the desert of Nevada– but since it was always the first or second week of school,  I could never go. So long as I was a student or teacher, it was an impossible dream.


This spring, though, some part of my intuition suggested that I simply try.  After all, tickets are not easy to get and the logistics for a first timer are so complicated, it was unlikely that it would work out anyway.

Then the magic started to happen.  Within one minute of general ticket sales, I had a ticket, and shortly thereafter, a camp of kind and friendly folks to help guide me through the logistics.

It still didn’t make sense.  Even as easily as these pieces lined up, it still didn’t make any sense for me as a teacher to take leave during the second week of school. I knew it would be easy to sell my ticket and thought that maybe I should.


A couple months passed with ticket in hand.  Then at the beginning of the summer I learned some incredible news.  The Renwick Gallery– which the students of SWS loved during its Wonder exhibit nearly two years ago– is planning its next, big exhibition which will come out at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

Its title?  “No Spectators: The Art Of Burning Man.”

As the Renwick Gallery website describes, the show “will take over the entire Renwick Gallery building, bringing alive the maker culture of Burning Man through artworks, immersive room-sized installations, jewelry, costumes and ephemera.”  

For once, my dream of attending made sense!  With the support of our principal, I was able to leave to attend during the second week of school.    Serendipitously, attending one of the world’s largest art events had become professional development!


While it’s true that many more adults attend Burning Man than children, and some of the events are not appropriate for children, there is most certainly a place for children on the playa.  Before leaving for the desert, I met with classes of students and showed them pictures and an edited video (see the full version here: The Kids of Burning Man) of where I was going.  They learned about the large-scale installations, the fantastic, homemade costumes, light sculptures, and many kids’ favorite– the art cars.

Burning Man 2Burning Man1

My experience on the playa was so dense and immersive, it deserves its own blog post (or book!).  One truly transformative aspect was interacting with the art.  In the “default world,” our experience of art is usually in the form of art hanging on a wall, in a museum or gallery, where it is to be looked at briefly and never touched.  The art at Burning Man, however, flipped this paradigm on its head.  Much of the art created for the desert is intended to be climbed upon, crawled inside of, laid underneath, or moved on wheels.  The art must be able to withstand the harsh environment of the desert sun and sudden dust storms. Sometimes the art won’t even function without participants pulling on ropes, pushing buttons, turning a wheel or pedaling hard. This form of participatory art requires us to interact with the object, our environment, each other, and ourselves in ways that challenge, entertain, and inspire.


Since returning, I can barely contain the joy (and the little giggle I have in my heart) when I hear children ask, “Hey Miss Erika! Welcome back!  How was Burning Man?”  Many parents have reported that their child asked if they could go to Burning Man, talked incessantly about it around the dinner table, or started making drawings of Burning Man at home. I even noticed one child drawing the burning of the man in the studio this week.


I am thrilled that the children are excited.  My hope is to take every child who attends the elementary atelier to the Renwick Gallery to see this work in person in the spring.  In the meantime, we will be working on projects inspired by Burning Man under broad themes such as “wearable art,” “art on wheels” and “light sculptures.”

Looking forward to an inspired year with the kids!

With love,

Miss Erika


If you are interested in learning more about Burning Man with your child, I encourage you to do so!  Just keep in mind that it is an event more frequented by adults, doing adult things.  It’s a good idea to preview sites, photos, and videos before exploring them with your child.  


Bringing The Lessons of Burning Man To The World
In this video, nine year old Julia Wolfe describes her experiences, and what can be learned from Burning Man.

The Experience Of A 12-Time, 15-Year-Old Burner
A blog post of an interview with a teenager who has grown up attending Burning Man nearly every year they have been on the planet. 

Dusty Playground
The website for an upcoming book about the children of the playa with some great pictures.


Curious about attending a “burn” yourself or with the family?  You don’t have to go all the way out to Nevada to have a taste of the Burning Man experience; there are many regional burns that happen throughout the year. Reach out if you would like to know more!



Healing the World, One Machine at a Time

In the six weeks leading up to the Winter Solstice celebration, the elementary children had the opportunity to contribute to an optional installation project.  We learned about the work of Emery Blagdon and his “healing machines.”


Emery Blagdon, a Nebraska native, lost several of his parents and siblings to cancer.  Out of this loss, he started to create healing machines– sculptures made of wire and recycled materials– which he believed could draw in energy to heal people.

The children pondered what, if they could make a machine that would heal the world, what they would like to change.  Each grade level started with a different foundation  for their machines, eventually all displayed together as one, large installation.

Below is a collection of pictures and quotes from the process and the culminating installation with all of their machines lit up with string lights.  On the day of the Winter Solstice, each class visited the studio and we made wishes for each other and the world, sending them off with the sounds of our voices singing.


*     *     *     *     *     *

“My machine heals cancer because my aunt died from cancer. She gave me my favorite lovey in my whole bed. When she died I took all the memories I had with her and put it in my favorite stuffy.”   —Olive, First Grade


Planning the design for the healing machine.
Many of the sculptures required help from friends.


“My machine heals diabetes like my brother. My design has a circle for life and triangles to show that sometimes you have to turn down a narrow way when things are not going well, but they will turn out better. The shapes that I am using, each one is a life and the color of it shows that they will get healed some day, some how.”

–Eva, Fourth Grade


The children thought carefully about how to represent their wishes for the world through their designs, use of color, and metaphor.




Some examples of 1st (paper plate), 3rd (wire hangers), and 4th (wood base) grade work.

My machine heals hunger. I see all these people on the street—mostly African American—selling things on the street just to get money to get some food. It makes me think, “What if I were like that?” Since I live in a house already, I think it would be really cool to live in the woods for a week with instructions. But if I didn’t have anything, like if we lived in a bush or something, then it wouldn’t be cool; it would be scary. It makes me feel I want to help them.”

–Gabe, Third Grade


On the day of the solstice, the children gathered in a circle in our studio.

“My machine heals sadness. Sadness is like a droopy willow tree with a bunch of snow on it. It is heavy and cold.” -Henry, Second Grade


They thought held in their minds what they wished to heal in the world.


One by one, children approached the “fire” and called out their wish by placing a candle at the altar.


“My machine heals sadness and darkness. There are some people who are really sad and I think they need to be healed from their sadness. I have a sun with warm colors on it representing light and happiness. It is surrounded by dark colors which is representing darkness and sadness. It shows you that you are not alone in the universe.”

–Fionn, 4th Grade 


Where do you find inspiration?



One of the incredible benefits of working in a Reggio-Inspired school and TAB studio is that I get to observe children at work. I, as the teacher and guide, am not the center of the conversation. Whenever possible, I believe it is my role and responsibility to step back and listen.



In my listening and observing this year, I notice that children are finding a lot of inspiration from one another. I see children get inspired by the work of their peers, often borrowing ideas and techniques from one another.




Sometimes I see connections to famous artists we have explored together, even if the last time we looked at their work was months ago.

Kandinsky, Composition VIII
Inspired by Kandinsky


I started making assumptions based on what I could see, and my understanding was that the children were primarily inspired by friends and famous artists. As I started asking the children where they get their inspiration from, however, their answers were more varied and specific than I could have imagined.screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-1-14-04-pm


 As the children continued working one day, I asked them to speak aloud where they got their inspiration from as the rest of the group listened. They came up with categories like, “nature,” “memories and experiences,” “the imagination,” and “history.”screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-1-21-42-pm

Our first art show of the year will be on this theme of “Inspiration.”  Nearly all of the children in 1st-5th grade self-selected a piece to put in the show.  Then, they reflected on where they got their inspiration for the work and chose a the category of inspiration it belongs in.

The show will be up, along with a self guided tour, by our Thanksgiving potluck day next Friday, November 18th.  Your child’s teacher may make the self-guided tour an activity that you could complete with your child at the potluck, or it can always be completed with your child before or after school.  I hope to see you having a conversation about the art in the hallway one day!

SWS Mascot Convention

Now that our school extends to 5th grade, we are eligible to have sports teams.  For the first time in SWS history, we need a mascot!


The 5th graders have thought hard about which animals should be candidates for the mascot, and why.  The children and teachers are deciding, together as a school, what animal will represent our whole community.

Today the 1st-5th graders participated in a process to choose candidates for the new SWS mascot.  Each homeroom decided as a group whether they would like to be a part of the Animals Party or the Bugs & Other Things Party.  Each party hosted their own convention simultaneously, one in the multipurpose room and one in the cafeteria.


After determining how many eligible voters were present, 5th grade teams pitched their ideas for a mascot, sharing a poster and a campaign speech they had prepared.


From there, each party had one minute to talk to the others around them to persuade the others around them to vote with them.

The Bugs & Other Things Party was a civilized group, calmly reporting their preferences.

The Animals Party was a little more raucous.  🙂

In the end, the Animals Party chose the Golden Shepherd as their candidate for SWS Mascot, and the Bugs & Other Things Party chose the Monarch Butterfly as theirs.  The election will be held the same day as the Presidential Election, on Tuesday, November 8th.




A Tradition of Kindness

This morning we celebrated our annual Kindness Day. Over the past two weeks, the children have created necklaces for someone else in their grade level, not knowing who was making a necklace for them.  I remember these times of random partner selection as a kid myself. I remember how badly I wanted for my partner to be my best friend, and how I would wish and pray that it wasn’t that kid who sat behind me and wiped his boogers on the back of my chair.

I was not as kind then as the kids of SWS are today.  As they came into the studio last week, I whispered their secret partner into their ears.  One by one, as they walked past and we shared a sweet, whispering moment together, I was amazed.  No matter who the secret partner was, each name was met with equanimity and kindness.


I like to think that this is because they have all been there– they have seen Kindness Day year after year, and know that every child wants to feel liked by their partner, that “ughs” and “yucks” are simply not tolerated in our community, that offering love to someone who might be the hardest to love feels good.  These are some guesses; I’m curious to ask them about this next week.


To make their necklaces, the children needed to think about their partner.  First graders made necklaces based the colors they know their partner likes.  In 2nd through 5th grade, we talked about the symbolic meaning of colors, and how they could send “friendly wishes” to their partner by choosing colors that communicate something to their partner that might help them or make their life more beautiful.

Then this morning, we all gathered together as a whole school, singing and walking under the arch the teachers made.  I loved watching the contrast of our 4th and 5th graders, who knew what to expect, who looked forward to walking through the arch for what may be their last time, and our three year olds, not sure what the singing and smiling was about.


Kindness takes practice.  While we celebrate kindness throughout the year, I am so glad that we learn in a school where we set aside time to practice giving and receiving, creating with another’s interests in mind, and do it year after year.  I am excited to live in the world these kids will create.




The Change to Choice

One day this spring I looked around at children creating in the studio and noticed something peculiar:  There was only little joy in the room.

Sure, they were productive and busy, and I think everyone feels a sense of satisfaction when they complete something in the end. What noticed was a lack of joy in the process of creating.  How sad– especially at a school with the motto, “Nothing Without Joy.”

I put myself in their shoes, and imagined what it likely felt like for them to interact with the studio.  If I were a child entering my classroom, I would walk into the studio, learn about what we were doing, and then be expected to do whatever it was right then. Sure, my teacher would explain how it was connected to the project work they were doing in their homeroom classroom, but I wouldn’t have time to come up with ideas or think of how I could do it best; I would simply have to get started right away.  In this way, I wouldn’t feel as much ownership as I would if I were creating something I had been thinking about making for days or weeks.


I was concerned that children didn’t have time to think of ideas, to tinker, to fail. I worried that because we were working on similar kinds of projects at the same time, they were prone to comparing themselves to others.  I observed that their styles looked very similar to one another, as though they were recycling the same few ideas.  Most importantly of all, I noticed it wasn’t as joyful as I know art to be.

I started doing some research, talked with Ms. McLean and other art teachers, and found a teaching method called “Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB),” which is sometimes called “Choice-Based Studio” instruction.  In this approach, children are introduced to the work of other artists, materials, and techniques at the beginning of the studio time. They are expected to listen and ask questions, but the are not expected to implement what they have learned right away.  Instead, they get to choose from materials that have been introduced over time, and work on a project of their choosing.

I asked the classroom teachers to experiment with this new approach with me for the last few weeks of the year.  I showed the students a video of what a choice-based studio looks like, and we contrasted it to how we were currently using the studio.  They made observations like, “The teacher introduces something, but then the students get to choose how they want to spend their time” and “The children get to use a lot of different kinds of materials because they understand how to clean them up.”


To begin this style of teaching, the studio needed a makeover. To the passerby it might seem no different, as all the furniture is mostly in the same places. What took several days of work was rearranging the room so that materials of the same media were grouped together, within children’s reach, labeled, and organized in a way that children would independently be able to manage.



Over the past 8 weeks, I have slowly introduced children to options at some of the centers-drawing, painting, printmaking, paper arts, and installation.  After I demo something at the beginning of class, the children choose which center they would like to work in, perhaps starting something inspired by the lesson, or working on something they want to finish from a previous class.


The feedback from students has been incredible. They have stopped me in the hallway to tell me how much they like the change or told their teacher that they were going to the bathroom when they were really coming to talk to me.  While writing this post I asked the students around me what they like about they change to choice and they said:

“It’s more interesting.  It’s more free, like in the wild, not in a cage.”– Matteo

“Well, I think I really like it this way.  You can create what you really want to; you don’t have to create a single thing.”– Zuri

“I like how you have to be responsible, but you can work freely.”  –Lucia


One of my favorite interactions happened spontaneously, as the student was walking out the door.

Katie S.: I really like coming to art class, because with art, I can exceed expectations.

Me: What do you mean by, “exceed expectations?”

Katie S.: I mean that when I make art, I can just be me. People expect me to make “kid art,” but I can make something really sophisticated, something that surprises adults. I don’t have to be anything other than myself, because being me is enough.

Me: Yes, whatever you create is more than enough.

Katie S.: And I can’t fail, because there is really no such thing as bad art. Who gets to judge what is bad and what is good? What matters is how well I think I have expressed myself.



In all, the transition to a choice-based studio this last quarter of school has been incredible.  More choice is coming next year!