Slice of Life: The Opal School


Time for Slice of Life at Two Writing Teachers. Join us every Tuesday. You will find more links here.

The end of the summer is fast approaching.

I’ve read wonderful books, attended fantastic conferences, and I can’t wait to try it all on for size with students in a few short weeks. My planning brain is starting to kick in, and those always too few minutes of instructional time are already cramping my style.

But before I lose myself in that, I’m going to take a deep breath and dig back into a miraculous Saturday.

There was no traffic. Miracle number 1. Once in city of Pasadena, I found an unattended parking lot right next to my destination. I saw signs about towing, yet couldn’t find the pay meter.  Just when I thought I’d better find another spot to park, a young woman got out of her car and shouted, “It’s free parking on the weekends!” Miracle number 2.   Minutes later, I have a cup of hot coffee and bagel in hand; I sit outside in a beautiful courtyard waiting for the Opal School’s workshop. Nine o’clock, and I walk in to find a lovely display on each table. I want to touch, but I restrain myself.

The 75 minutes that followed was a miraculous montage of story, pictures and children’s work accomplished through the pursuit of play and discovery.

We started out our session with a quiet reflection on our own memories of play. What are the feelings we think of when we remember play. Responses of joy, freedom, creativity, messiness came up around my table. One person said, she was an only child and for her play involved a creation of other worlds.   The creation of roles, rules, and games are all play “moves” and take us to a place of joy.

We then listened as the team from Opal eloquently and precisely named their mission and beliefs. The words below are from my notes and paraphrase their beautiful thinking:

To be in a state of wonder is to be vulnerable. Children are born willing. We can choose to remain by their side because they know we know. But, children are competent meaning makers.  Every individual brain is driven to attach importance to new information. It is about habits of mind and seeking connections. We are wired to connect ideas as much as we are wired to explore. This needs to be nurtured  and we need to learn to listen for engagement; listen in solidarity with children’s struggles. We can arrive at much of this through play. Play is relaxed alertness, the opposite of boredom, the antithesis of specialization and standardization.

By allowing children the opportunity to explore through play with “intelligent” materials, Opal teachers guide children to make connections and find learning. This play is expertly crafted to get children to discover things. Clay, blocks, cardboard, tempera paint, black line pens, wire, and natural materials are used as a part of the writing process, to question and discover ideas and meaning. It is fascinating. While I listened, I’m thinking, where and how could this fit into my student’s lives.

They told the story of using watercolors to explore balance. Three girls embarked on this journey and produced an amazing array of paintings one morning that demonstrated balance in shapes, lines and color. When they presented their work, the class found much more than the girls intended.

After listening to another story about a four-year old conquering his initial beliefs that he could not draw his flower, we were “invited” to “explore” one of the natural materials placed around the table.

I studied my dried seed pod closely, carefully and noticed. Looking to “establish a relationship”  with this object, I found myself diving into the process ignoring those ever-present feelings of artistic incompetence and the artists beside me. Pure and simple, it was a focused, joyful experience.. The process of study made me lose myself in the work. Music played and talk eventually ceased.

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After this, Opal school teachers asked us to comment on any connections we made through the work or concerns we had about the materials.

One woman tentatively asked, how do you connect this to the curriculum.  It did seem rather magical, but it is clearly a result of extensive study, research and crafting of  lessons that are mindful of the possibilities the materials and the process present. Students are offered up the choice, given the time to process, and then guided towards idea and questions that link back to the curricula.

My take away for now is about habits of mind. Noticing, slowing down and processing through materials connected to my thinking about reading and writing. The study of materials allowed me to reach an awareness, a mindset this work cultivates. And while I wouldn’t be able to handle the realities of clay in my classroom, fine point pens, wire, and natural objects are clearly doable for the practice of noticing and processing.

As I get back to the realties of day-to-day planning work, this magical Saturday experience filters into my thinking about supporting readers and writers.

For more information on the Opal School, check out this link. It is worth a little exploration and discovery. See if you can make some connections.