Thinking Outside the Box

In my last year of teaching, I set aside the standard curriculum at the start of every week and introduced what I called “Outside-the-Box Thinking.” Monday mornings began with a game or a challenge. I would have my students first work individually, and then after a certain period of time, collaboratively.

One such challenge was Make-a-Box Day. Upon arriving at school, half of the class found a small container of Play-Doh on their desk; while the other half found a small pile of toothpicks. Their goal was to make a box out of either Play-Doh or toothpicks. The classroom had to remain silent and sharing supplies was not allowed. Some of my Play-Doh kids quickly formed a small solid cube, while others patiently rolled their Play-Doh into a long, thin “snake” which they used to form the outline of a box. The students with the toothpicks completed their assignment in just a few seconds, making an outline of one or more boxes. When everyone was finished, we walked around the room silently admiring everybody’s handiwork.

The room erupted into cheers when the kids heard about the next step.

We formed teams: a Play-Doh student and a toothpick student.

The goal: to make a box.

There were no rules.

Talking with partners and borrowing ideas from other teams WAS allowed.

What did we end up with? One team made 10 small, solid boxes, ignoring their toothpicks. Another team used the Play-Doh to bind their toothpicks together in a 3-dimensional cube. A third team made Box Man, a person with a square head, square hands and square, box-like feet.  Some teams walked around to borrow other classmates’ ideas. After we wrote in our journals, we debriefed. Everybody agreed that creativity burst to the forefront when students could share supplies and ideas in an environment where there weren’t any hard-and-fast rules. Given the chance, most students seemed to discard the natural inclination to compete; instead, they took the time to listen, observe and build on each other’s ideas.

When Pamela posed the question, “Maybe we could have a schoolhouse in the backyard?” she started an out-of-the-box conversation about not only Natalie’s schooling, but learning in general. Collaborating with Bill, they paved the way for an unconventional solution to a conventional problem: How Can This Student Fall In Love With Learning?

Read our book The Schoolhouse Experiment: Reimagining School at Home and in the Classroom (available in our website shop) to be inspired by what is possible when thinking and learning are allowed to emerge from a one-size box.

Trust Your Instincts

Once we become parents we are constantly faced with watershed moments when we have to trust our instincts and make the best decision that we can for our child—even if it means deviating from the expected path. Most parents agree that when we are faced with these moments, the answers aren’t always crystal clear and, in the end, they aren’t always perfect. After sorting through well-meaning solicited and unsolicited advice, we benefit by listening to our own inner voice.

Teachers and parents have an amazing opportunity to trust their instincts, think outside the box, and work together to guide children along their education journey. This can even happen in a standards-oriented, test-oriented school environment. In the public school where I was a teacher, a beloved art teacher suggested that we invite one of my students to explore his engineering talents by attending an extra session of art. This young boy who had been a reluctant writer, enthusiastically put pencil to paper and wrote about his inventions—and wrote more than he had all year. I watched a highly capable, reserved third grade student find her strong, leadership voice after she worked as an art class assistant. Another student failed a written science test, but received 100% when the test was administered verbally. And when teachers transformed a dull states research project requirement into a choose-your-own-topic report and presentation, student motivation soared.

So here’s my advice. When that parent voice inside your head keeps you up at night whispering that something doesn’t feel right for your child, listen to it. Then talk to your child’s teacher, like Pamela and Bill did. There is a good chance your child’s teacher is your ally. Work together—teacher, parent and child—to explore the possibilities both inside and outside of the classroom. If, like Pamela and Bill, you are still searching for the answers you need, remember that you can always color outside of the lines. In other words, allow yourself to be open to unconventional solutions.

Crossing Paths on Morning Walks

The alarm goes off at 5am. We leave the house at 6 and we’re on the trail by 6:30ish. Every morning as I stumble out of bed, pushing past sore muscles and rubbing sleepy eyes awake,  I remind myself how lucky I am to live minutes away from beauty.

Hiking in the mountains in the early morning many days a week is my new-found  superpower. Aching hips and muscle twinges aside, hiking regularly makes me feel strong in body and soul and helps me put things in perspective.

Because we walk the same section of the same trail many days of the week, I guess that makes us “regulars,” and we’re finding that there are other “regulars” out there too.

There’s The Early Guy Who Runs With His Dog. We always see him at the start of the hike. He hooks his pup to a leash and steps off the trail when he sees us coming. I always wait for his cheerful: “Have a good hike!” 

We’re always on the lookout for Mr. Orange Running Shoes because he’s a stealth-runner who manages to sneak up behind us without fail. One minute we take a peek and the trail is empty. The next second we check and he materializes. All we have time for is a quick wave.

We smiled when we first met the Turkey Lady who told us that she heard wild turkeys a little bit up the trail.  The second time she told us, we nodded skeptically. The third time, we dismissed her sighting outright until that day when a mother turkey and her flock of chirping chicks crossed the path right in front of us. The Turkey Lady reminds me that there is always a little unexpected magic out on the trail.

Then there’s Gary and Sue. They have a fleeting presence on the trail, coming and going with no particular rhythm. When we see them, it’s a treat.

David. Dressed in blue shorts-blue shirt-blue shoes. He’s a slow-and-steady runner who is now a steady presence in our lives.  David is there every day and probably even on the days that we are not. He started it all off with an uplifting ‘hello’ and when there were about fifty hellos hanging out there between us,  David introduced himself. I look for David like I look for my trail markers; a comforting and reassuring presence.

Early Guy Who Runs With His Dog. Mr. Orange Running Shoes. Turkey Lady. Gary and Sue and David. You are ‘our regulars’;  our neighbors on the trail. You give us predictability and a little friendship right now when the ground beneath us feels a bit shaky.  Our intertwined footsteps mark the trail.

These days, aren’t we all cobbled together into unexpected communities? Together, we’ll find the path forward.

Abraham Lincoln

Dear Pamela,

I found this cool, small company called Litographs based in Boston. I was impressed that besides printing very unique shirts, etc. with words, they also encourage reading and donate books to communities. In addition, when I ordered the shirts, they were donating all of their proceeds for two days to Black Lives Matter.

So, at the very beginning of June, I ordered a Lincoln t-shirt for myself—for my birthday—and one for you—who I will name as my “Lincoln buddy.” The words printed on the shirt are President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

We have talked about our respect for this simple man, a leader who displayed so many honorable attributes. There is so much going on now with Black Lives Matter and part of the process is figuring out who in history was working hard enough for equal rights for people of color. After a lot of thought, I think Abraham Lincoln is a figure who moved us in the direction toward the equality we are still working so hard to attain. In my mind, Lincoln would have been the first to say that he was an imperfect human being. I’d like to think that if his life had not been cut short, he would have continued to learn from others to remedy those imperfections.

Anyway, I ordered the shirts in size Large because they said they run small. After two weeks, they arrived. Too small!! So I sent them back and reordered XL. I received them on Friday: one was beautiful and one had a printing fault. I contacted Litographs right away and received a beautiful apology from the CEO with the promise that a new shirt would be on its way in a week. Wow, that’s customer service!

I decided not to wait to give you your shirt. Originally, you shirt was going to be purple and mine was going to be blue—but now we’re swapped. They are both beautiful so it doesn’t matter. I hope you enjoy yours.




Dear Pamela

When you told me the other day that you had stashed small give-away containers of Play-Doh in your Little Neighborhood Free Library, I knew that all would eventually be right with the world. I know this because Play-Doh, that malleable blob of vibrant color from my childhood, always gave me permission to empty my mind and make something surprisingly uncomplicated, personal and creative.

I wonder…

Do the recipients of your gift emit a cry of victory when finally prying off the snug-fitting lid? Does the Doh still bounce slightly when it falls from container to the table top? Does that first whiff assault your senses and sear a memory in your mind forever? Does absent-minded pushing and pressing without a plan suddenly reveal an unforetold creation?

As a child, I loved Play-Doh because I didn’t need to have a plan. Something would always emerge if I let it. In a young life full of rules and expectations, that made a difference. Unconsciously, I would empty my mind when I emptied the Play Doh container. My mind on Play-Doh went blank like I was gazing out of a car window on an endless family drive. With a one-handed squish, I knew, with total certainty that my ideas would emerge.

It’s no surprise that Play-Doh (or an occasional homemade imposter) became a fixture in my home when my own kids were young. Squeals of delight filled the room when, as a teacher, I doled out canisters of Play-Doh; an invitation to wipe the slate clean and stop planning and thinking if only for a moment during a demanding school day.

And now, dear Pamela, knowing that you fill your community library with little canisters of Play-Doh, I experience pure joy. What could be better during a pandemic and a time of national reckoning? Right now, kids and adults alike need permission to clear their minds, wipe the slate clean and create something beautiful and new. Play-Doh could help.

Love, Judy

A Teacher’s Perspective on Effective Classrooms

If we peek into the most effective classrooms, we will probably see not just students thriving, but also teachers thriving. We all know that with so many kids with different needs and so many demands to juggle, every day won’t be perfect for each and every child. In the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic, writer and educator Erika Christakis states, “Our public education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society.” I agree with her.

So, here is the question I have asked myself:

What makes a classroom dynamic effective for each individual learner and the classroom as a whole?

Borrowing an ideology from our son’s elementary school that the best learning environments honor the important connection between head, hand and heart, I have made a list of what that means and what it might look like in a dynamic classroom where those three needs are honored and met. Over the next few days, I’ll write a little something about what each one means to me.

The best learning environments honor the important connection between head, hand, and heart. I have made a list of what that means and what it might look like in a dynamic classroom where those three needs are honored and met. Here, then, is how a nurturing classroom recognizes that we are all unique learners:

Head (Cognitive)

  • A thriving classroom “meets students where they are,” which means not all students should be working on the same task or at the same pace. Some students will be working independently, while others will work with partners or in small groups supported by the teacher or a student leader.
  • Learning is collaborative, not competitive. Teachers make sure that students have time to think and voice their ideas without being interrupted. Classmates learn how to listen when other children are talking.
  • Teachers take packaged curriculum and revise lessons to make learning meaningful and accessible to every student. If a child is not developmentally ready to tackle an assignment, the teacher will pre-teach the lesson or send the lesson home for pre-teaching. Expectations will be modified.
  • Teachers diverge from prepared lessons to address student questions and follow paths of inquiry that are interesting to students. Teachers make room for students to pursue their passions.
  • If students don’t understand a lesson, teachers re-teach the lesson in a different way.
  • If there is homework, it should be necessary, reasonable (no more than 10 minutes added on for each grade level) and modified to make every student feel successful.
  • Required textbooks are supplemented with interesting, age appropriate, up-to-date resources from a variety of media.
  • Teachers are always looking for ways to integrate learning across the curriculum.
  • Teachers employ a variety of methods to assess whether a student understands new material.

Hand (Physical/Creative)

  • Learning is active and hands-on. Students should be moving around the classroom independently and actively engaged in the tasks at hand.
  • Teachers recognize that every child is gifted and talented in some way, and find ways for the students to share their talent.
  • Art and music are present in the classroom or the school. Is there a classroom library? A school library?
  • There is time each day for teachers to read aloud to their students.
  • Time is made for classroom movement breaks in addition to regular recess.
  • Teachers show children how to use classroom tools and time wisely, and then they trust them to do just that.

Heart (Social/Emotional)

  • Teachers take the time to teach children how to care for others. Everyone helps each other succeed.
  • Teachers try to understand the challenges that children may be facing in their home life.
  • Teachers recognize that parent input is critical to their child’s success.
  • Everybody gets the chance to be a leader.
  • Student work is highlighted all over the classroom.
  • Children feel that they are part of their classroom and part of the school community.
  • Students are encouraged to be active participants in making their community and the world a better place.
  • The students and the teacher are joyful.