A holiday wish: be mindful of tense

This week, I listened to an expert on, of all things, grammar. A teacher named Phuc Tran gave a TED talk on the use of the subjunctive in the English language, and spoke to the power of using the subjunctive tense – to the implications of should, could and would. This meaningful tense allows us to dream big, to be optimistic, to imagine and to wonder what if. But it also allows us to wallow, to regret, to ponder what we should, could or would have done. While we all cherish and need our reflective capacities, our lives as New York City parents are way too full of wondering and often worrying about the choices we are making, the potential outcomes and the many influences on our children. And, there is no shortage of books, magazine articles and social media to nag us lest we forget to wonder and worry.

Yet Tran also spoke to the powerful use of the indicative, the present tense which enables us to talk about the here and now, to say “try it anyway” or “I want a hug” or “I want to enjoy this chocolate,” and which gives us the phrases to act, reach out, love, laugh and do. Tran reminds us: “We all use the subjunctive and the indicative every day, and we can be mindful of when we are blinded by the subjunctive and overlooking the indicative around us.”

So this holiday season, I wish that we all have more moments in the indicative tense, in being here and now and doing and making, and in acting upon the urgency of the present that makes us better parents, educators and people each day.

Color mixing, great fun, and deep learning

Last Monday, we had our first classroom-led Community Meeting for the year. Each week, when we come together, each classroom will have the chance to guide us by sharing songs, their current learning, or a bit of their classroom culture with us. Here is a video shared by Kindergarten A, showing their experimentation with color mixing, which was also recorded in their science notebooks:

The video comes from the class’s “film studio.” Teachers record work and the children review it together to determine next steps for learning in their projects. Many viewers will see articulate children, joyful engagement, and discovery, but as part of a goal to make learning more explicit and visible, I’d like to draw attention to other key standards present in the video that we work to meet in kindergarten: understanding and internalizing primary colors and what they do when mixed, applying the concepts (recipe) in other contexts, basic foundations for chemistry, managing the unexpected, articulation of ideas, the scientific method (hypothesis, experimentation, research), managing our bodies and reactions, and working with others towards a shared goal.

This week, as we move towards our celebration of imagination and discovery at our Dumbo Pop Up to meet the global cardboard challenge, our fourth grade will be sharing their process as they built automata using cardboard and other materials at Monday’s meeting. We hope others from other schools and communities will come and join us out there demonstrating the capacity of children to invent and create when given the time and tools.

Values-driven admissions

This summer, our board and leadership discussed whether to continue to use the ERB as an entrance requirement, following this guiding question: how can we align our admissions requirements and assessments with our vision, values and mission? How can we maintain our admissions process as a conversation about children and families that includes skills and dispositions but is not governed by them?

The admissions process at Blue School has always been a conversation between the family and the school over time. It is a statement our families and educators make about our shared hopes for children and our world. It reflects the seriousness of the commitment we make together to share responsibility for each child during this critical and foundational first decade of life. During our process, we strive to understand each child as a learner, a person, and a member of a family through time together, observation, and assessment. We have this thorough process because once committed, a Blue School education requires that families and children work hard with us to develop strong voices and become engineers of an ethical and harmonious future. It is joyous and meaningful work, and we want our families as partners in it.

For years, however, we have felt that the ERB did not provide adequate information for the way we see learning, achievement, growth and success at our school. We have also been concerned that its use as a universal entry test by independent schools could contribute to a culture of testing and test prep at an inappropriate developmental stage (see Jennifer Senior’s “The Junior Meritocracy” in New York Magazine or Jenny Anderson’s “Schools Ask: Gifted or Just Well Prepared,” in The New York Times). In our discussions this summer, we were reminded again and again that despite the widespread use of the ERB, we find our own assessments are deeper, more meaningful, and more effective in assessing skills, strengths and readiness for the environment we have created at Blue School.

So together, in August, our board and leadership decided to drop the ERB as an entrance requirement. Now, you will find no mention of the ERB in the description of our admissions process.  On Friday, we were glad to see, according to the New York Times’s “Private Schools are Expected to Drop a Dreaded Entrance Test,”  that so many other schools (in addition to those few who have already changed their requirements) are also asking important questions about how we align what we know about children and learning with our entrance requirements in New York City independent schools.

We are looking forward to the bigger conversations that we hope this shift will provoke for many schools, as we further align the beliefs and practices in our schools with the outcomes we hope they will achieve. We look forward to the dialogue, as always, with you.

A Late Summer Promise

There are many things I love about the beginning of the year. If I’m being honest though, my favorite part is Summer Institute, when teachers come back to learn together, plan, and set the tone for the teaching and learning of the year.

institute_inquiryThe point of Summer Institute is to do with each other what we want to do with children: imagine, play, question, make, plan, build, tinker, iterate, reflect, and try again. This year, we built a “real-life Pinterest” board around five important pillars of our work: inquiry, empathy, creativity, building a lab school, and documentation of learning. We generated a school wide question for the year — How do we connect? — and then built the words in our question out of materials gathered by our art studio and science teachers.  Each day, we also greeted one another as we ask children to do each morning. We sang together, read and reflected together, and challenged each other. In between, teachers could be heard rearranging furniture, planning first days, writing letters to families, and sharing their own life stories too.

institute_inspiration boardSummer Institute is where we make the promise that will carry us through the rest of the year. It is a promise to share, provoke, model, make magic, follow children’s curiosity, lean on one another, learn together, and discover the world. Here is where the imagining begins, the provocations are born, and the tinkerers come to life.


In our last few days before school begins, we take a deep breath as we recognize the importance of what we are about to begin, knowing the exhale will sustain us all year long. We glance into one another’s eyes, we take hands, and jump in.

Welcome back, Blue School families. We’ve been waiting for you!

Inspiration and the brain

Among the many fascinating things I learned last week at Harvard’s Future of Learning (#hzpzfol) conference was this important finding about the brain: the experience of inspiration — the welling up, have-to-act, motivating demand of attention and emotion that we feel after hearing about or witnessing something truly remarkable, virtuous, and meaningful — is connected to the medulla, the part of the brain that literally keeps our body and brain functioning and thus keeps us alive.

Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, a scientist and researcher at the Brain and Creativity Center at USC, shared the results of her research with a group of rapt educators. In her lab, she tells her subjects a story that makes them feel (as they describe) truly inspired, and then, a story that engages them but does not inspire, and then she looks closely at their brain scans. She has found that inspiration (as compared with engagement) activates the part of the brain (the medulla) that regulates our vital functions, and without which we could not live.

This is a big deal: the feeling of inspiration is physically connected to the fact of being alive, and seems to be part of the way the brain motivates us to action.

That inspiration and the corresponding intrinsic motivation that moves children (and adults) to action, creativity, and learning, is the source we tap into at Blue. Sometimes in school we describe it as engagement, or even as magic, but it isn’t either. It may be the definition of the human experience that moves us, and the force behind the human resilience that has kept our species around despite the odds.

An anecdote: Last fall, after Hurricane Sandy, which severely impacted our neighborhood, our second graders went on a walk, much like the walk they took only weeks before. This time, they were moved to action as they understood for the first time how quickly things can change. They launched a yearlong investigation into the history of the Seaport, that evolved into a study of beauty, the dynamics of change, the history of the building of New York City and the people of the South Street Seaport. At the end of the year, they created a dynamic museum and this film about their process and the Seaport’s history, and they presented it to the local community board and other neighborhood activists.

Another: as our first graders built a 15 foot wide, 6 foot tall simple machine in our fourth floor Construction Zone, they worked on different ways to move two simultaneous marbles through a series of obstacles to the end of the machine. During these extended work times, children could be overheard constantly exclaiming, “I have an idea!” or “I know what we could try.” The connections they made to one another and their own motivations to create this big machine were palpable and audible! During one afternoon, a child looked up to her busy friends and said “Wait!” The children stopped and looked at her. She went on: we need to DO something. This machine has to do something for the world! What does it do!?” The class took time to consider this question carefully, thinking about the importance of every action having a reaction, or a possible impact on the world.

What if we align our questions about education with the traits and attributes that have made our species sustainable and resilient (and thus could do so in the future)? What if we ask this question: how can we more reliably create and support classrooms everywhere where  inspiration happens every day so that children and adults can practice those feelings and the corresponding actions that lead to meaning-filled, ethical lives in their worlds now and (sooner rather than later) in the future?

A Blue STEAM engine

Right now, at the MIT Media Lab, RISD the d.school: Institute of Design at Stanford, and NYU’s ITP program, graduate students are tinkering, designing and making at the edges of technology with tools that we can only imagine, as well as tools that we have had at our sides for ages. Here in New York City, children at places like Beam Center and the Makery are working to understand component parts of technology –circuitry, sodoring, programming, robotics– in combination with a multitude of design techniques to “make” their way to innovative implemenation of powerful ideas. Taken together, there is widespread agreement that makers represent an important future direction for education — a perfect combination of tools for scientific and design innovation and 21st century skills like collaboration, flexibility and creativity.

Since our inception, Blue School‘s DNA has been infused with the spirit of making. Three of our founders (Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton, the founding Blue Men) used a variety of materials and big ideas to build Blue Man Group, and a show that comments critically and creatively on our society. Then, as now, we understand that children need to own and make their ideas real using the academic, social and technical skills we teach in school.  In many ways, Blue School assigns a 21st century exclamation point to the education research that informs our work, as well as shoots off a question mark about what is next and how we can keep getting better.rubegoldberg

A lot is going on with our makers at Blue School right now, and we are building the scaffolding for more to come.

Next week, our second graders will be learning to fly (almost). Working with a visiting faculty member from Beam Center (who is a tinkerer, woodworker, artist, and robot-maker in his own right), our seven and eight year olds will build a glider together. Their idea to build a glider emerged from studying birds and looking at DaVinci’s observations, designs, and artistry. In kindergarten, children are building houses, vehicles and hotels to redesign our neighborhood which is still struggling to recover after Sandy (yes, more than six months later). They are using tubing, soil, wood, and other materials at various scales. In first grade, children have built a classroom-sized wooden Rube Goldberg machine, and are working diligently to add, take away, and explore to see how things move, fall down, and stand up.


They are scientists and tinkerers, asking questions, failing and trying again. They discuss how machines can have an impact on the world.

And, what’s next? We are bringing the practice of making to a new level at Blue School by working to codify a sequence of specific skills and experiences children need to be innovators and makers in the era of digital technology. If we aim to graduate 21st century inventors, engineers, and creatives, then school must be a laboratory where children can test out and experience those roles now. Thanks to conversations with people like our esteemed Advisory Board member John Maeda, president of RISD, Jon Santiago at HTINK,  Mike Fischthal at Pixel Academy, Brian Cohen at Beam Center, and Deb Windsor at Construction Kids, and influences from books like Design.Make.Play and MakeSpace, we hope to make the conversation around integrating and teaching 21st century skills broader, louder and more visible by developing maker spaces and experiences at Blue School that give our children access to the same types of thinking that is happening at the graduate level.

Vehicle Stories from Kindergarten B

I’m thrilled to announce guest bloggers Molly DeGesero and Richard Jenkins, the teaching team of Kindergarten B. At Blue School, we think a great deal about how children develop not only the skills but also the agency to become active and purposeful readers and writers. In the post below, Molly and Rich show how literacy (as well as so much else) begins with children’s natural inclination to tell stories.

From Molly and Rich: 

“The children themselves continually reminded us that play [is] still their most usable context.” Vivian Gussin Paley 2004

 Every day in Kindergarten, children walk into the classroom filled with ideas, excitement and energy. It is our job as educators to watch the children at their work: play. When children play, they tell a story. They tell stories based on their lives, their experiences, their hopes and their dreams. A play theme of family might tell the story of a little girl lost in the woods found by her faithful puppy and returned to the safety of her home. Another story might begin with Ninjas conquering the bad guys of the world and transform into a peaceful meal around a common table. As we observe, we think about ways for children to document and record the stories they create through play.

glowvehicleA glowvehicleBThis year, Kindergarten B had the opportunity to visit Construction Kids, a child centered woodworking lab in Brooklyn, where we created wooden vehicles. When we returned to Blue School holding our vehicles proudly,  we naturally went back to the work of children: we needed to play with them! After painting them with Glow Paint and playing with them in various environments from the Glow Hall to our own classroom, we elevated elements of story embedded in their play with these vehicles. We asked the children to create story maps: Who drives your vehicle (character)? Where does your vehicle drive (setting) and what does your vehicle do (action)?

With our story maps and vehicles in hand, small groups of children ventured out into our Construction Lab to “play the story of our vehicles.” Children first sat in a circle and looked through their story maps, but like any good author plans change once you begin writing! A story map including an adventure in the forest changed when the vehicle met another vehicle that took them into an elaborate city dwelling. Children’s social interactions  influenced the kind of stories they were telling! At this moment, we supported the children in documenting and saving their stories. Once they had finished playing, they sat around the computer and dictated their “vehicle story” to a teacher. Children listened to one another’s stories with care and intention. They were excited at the twists and turns taken and even remarked that what they played wasn’t necessarily the story that ended up being told. Below are two sample stories from this experience.

Story A: Told in the Construction Lab with Glow Vehicle


Once upon a time, there was a car that had lots of friends. She was thinking, “Why can’t I go somewhere else?” Finally, she wanted to go somewhere and that included the places she was close to. Then she remembered that the closest places were where there was nature. Then she thought, “Why can’t I build a road there so I can go whenever I want to?” “I’m going to build a road so I can get there.” She made friends with animals. Then the animals needed to get to places. She brought them there.

The End

 Story B: Told in the Construction Lab with Glow Vehicle

I am a car, which lives in a house. I am a normal car but I fly and swim in rivers. I have three friends, one is named Orion, one is named Dino and one is named India. I can do most anything. But I can get stuck in rain. I have the power to travel anyway but I cannot die. I stick with what I know. I believe in what I see. I made my life about recycling and keeping planet earth clean. I live in a recycling plant made for cars with an area with really nice beds and jumps and everything. I love to go visit my friends India and Orion. Dino comes to visit me. Not the other way around. I have one more question. Think up some more please.

The End