We are rethinking the structures in schooling and placing great value on learners leading and families embracing the learning process alongside their child.
Q: Before launching your community arts center and eventually Sweetland School, what did your education journey look like?
Lindsay: I grew up in the UK where I had a very conventional educational experience. It was a top-down system with limited choices. At 16, for example, I had to take an exam that determined whether or not I would be allowed to take math during the rest of my high school career. There were numerous other instances like this that told me, “If you don’t make this choice now or meet this expectation, this door will be closed for you forever.”
I came to the US for college, and it was at that point that things started to shift for me. There was an emphasis on building relationships with my teachers, which shifted my relationship to learning itself.
Along the way, I learned about Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory. As someone who had always been interested in the arts, I thought learning more about Gardner’s work would help me better understand myself and my learning style. I was at a liberal arts school, and I just began drawing in all my classes, rather than taking written notes. All of a sudden, I began remembering all these details in math and physics that I never could before. It really opened a door for me as a learner and allowed me to be successful.
It was unfortunate that it wasn’t really until the end of my undergrad that I realized how excited I was about learning and sharing that learning. But, I went on to a graduate program through Lesley University studying Arts Integration and that program further validated a lot of my own experiences as a learner.
My initial experience in student teaching lasted about six months. I struggled grading a fifth graders work and having to fail them or hold them back. I felt challenged by the assessment system right off the bat, and I didn’t feel comfortable in that setting. I decided to look for alternative ways to provide education opportunities.
Q: What motivated you to create Sweetland School?
Lindsay: My work took on a new shape when I had kids of my own. I moved to a town with a great school and wonderful community. I started my own after-school program—and community arts center—when my own kids were very young in hopes of supporting their local school. But, when my oldest entered kindergarten, I saw him change both physically and emotionally—he retreated inwards. I felt really strongly that if this was happening to my child there had to be others having this experience. I felt this real tug professionally and personally.
As more and more families came to the arts center, I kept hearing calls to provide all-day programming that could nurture their children and allow them to thrive in new ways. I felt strongly the arts could provide the framework to allow each child to flourish. The arts provides practice in creative thinking skills and problem solving, as well as encouraging student voice, choice, and freedom. There is a natural need to make connections across all content areas when you are deeply engaged in the creative process.
An important piece of Sweetland is responding to the need to provide flexible schedules for families and staff and embracing life and learning together. We have some children attend part-time who are registered as being homeschooled and others who are with us full-time. Given this, we are rethinking the structures in schooling and placing great value on learners leading and families embracing the learning process alongside their child.
Q: In founding Sweetland, what were one or two big changes you wanted to see when it came to assessing learning and the things that were important to assess?
Lindsay: I wanted my students to understand how they learn and what they have learned through a reflective process. From the beginning, we have allowed them to be involved in their own assessment. Building awareness of how they learn and what they’re learning and giving them the freedom to decide where their learning should go next is at the heart of what we do.
We use skill sheets and a growth mindset approach for the students to define their learning, have them reflect on the learning that’s occurred, and come up with their own category of where they believe they are on their learning journey. Sometimes they see they’re ready to move forward and other times they determine they aren’t quite there yet. The skills sheets themselves contain items that wouldn’t be uncommon to more conventional standards, but they also include habits of minds and social-emotional skills that create a whole child approach.
Q: What would you say to someone who might be skeptical that a five-year-old can self-assess and reflect on their growth?
Lindsay: There is a balance. The teacher is giving support and feedback, but we want to expose the children as early as possible to the idea that they are capable learners today and can take charge of their learning.
So, for me, it’s about practice. I’ve seen kids who are resistant to the process when they first come to Sweetland, but I have also seen how quickly they turn around and begin to trust both the process and themselves. It’s all about being patient and letting time and trust work their magic.
We enroll kids who have had tough experiences and will literally hide under a table before they decide to go to math. We give them the space to process what they need to, and then, when they are ready, they are SO ready. It matters for the child to know that they’re safe, have support, aren’t being judged, and doors of opportunity aren’t being closed to them.
We, as a staff, know relationships are at the heart of our success and by working together, if we all put our minds and focus on this one child, we can figure out a way to help him or her move forward.
Q: What do you think enables a guardian/parent to wait for that transformation to take place and remain confident that it’s going to work out?
Lindsay: I think that’s a remarkable question, and it’s one I’m grappling with. I think adults value communication. We need to build relationships with them just as we do with their children. This is hard work with the life demands facing our parents.
What we have learned is how important it is to communicate Sweetland’s values. When I can say to families, “We work out of these core values,” I can then ask, “Help me understand what values you work out of.” That deepens our conversation, it deepens our understanding, and it deepens our ability to focus on the child. Because we can say, “Okay, we believe these things, and here’s how we can apply that thinking to the child we’re supporting.”
I believe very strongly that learning happens in a triangle—parent, child, and educator—and I say that to every family. If as a parent you don’t feel like you can be present or are not interested to engage, we may not be the right environment for your child.
Q: How do you engage a parent or guardian who might be single, working two jobs, and struggles to be as present as those with less chaotic schedules?
Lindsay: I like to leave it open to families to determine what engagement looks like for them. What I find most fascinating is how I can talk to two families managing similar circumstances, have the same exact conversation with each, and receive completely different responses.
When this first happened, it was a great opportunity for me to step back and recognize that from person to person, we can’t control how parents relate to our values and mission. We can only communicate the learning we engage children in and the contact we’d like to have with parents, and whoever it resonates with, we can’t wait to have them in our community.
We work to learn and grow together as a community, and this can be vulnerable work. Ultimately, we’re here to maintain our values and remain honest and open about what we believe provides a great learning experience. That’s that human piece—a willingness to ask the hard questions to parents, children, and staff alike. And, if we don’t align, we can go our separate ways.
Q: What would you say is one of your favorite learner stories?
Lindsay: I had the amazing privilege last year to work with our entry-level class—a cohort of six students who were K- 1 age. One day, my provocation (objective) was to show the students how to make butter. It was an outdoor learning day, so we were going to spend the entire day outside. I had all the ingredients ready to go, and when we got started, the children were completely disinterested. They were much more fascinated by some rocks they found on the ground. I followed their interests, and we built our lesson around the rocks.
Then, they became interested in the empty jars I had brought to store the butter in once it was finished. They ended up putting rocks into some of the jars and working to separate the heavy rocks from the lighter rocks by adding water and shaking the jars. Then, there was one child who got curious about the butter making, as I was casually shaking a jar of cream while watching the children gather rocks. Mind you, this is all developing over the course of three hours. So, we have a group working with rocks and a group now becoming interested in jars and cream.
Suddenly, a child has an idea to make a machine that can churn the butter and also separate the rocks, because they have decided they should be looking for gold in the rocks. They throw colorful ribbons over the branches of trees and attach the small jars, some of rocks and some of cream, to the end of the line. Children are pulling back and forth the jars over the tree branches and a rhythm begins, humming. Then, a suggestion to use some instruments to help keep the beat and make the “machine” work better. Everyone gets excited by the idea, and they begin tinkering away. While they’re working, one child begins humming; others start singing; and before you know it, they’ve made up an entire song together to help them churn their butter, writing down the lyrics and creating a melody.
Waiting for those moments and being open to where they will go has been a learning process for me. It happens so naturally and authentically for children this age, and it can take time to trust this process as an adult.
There is a tremendous level of engagement, collaboration, and sincere expression of wonder that is happening among all the children.
“Up, down, up, down, up, down”
“We Make butter, we get gold…With the Famous Seamus Machine.”
Now, if my only goal was to show them how to make butter, and I didn’t give them space to explore and engage in everything around them, none of this would have happened. It was like every subject got tapped into through their natural curiosity. They were exploring math, science, music, and literacy. When we reflected on the learning, new problems came forward, and I could use their excitement to build the necessary skills in literacy, math, science, social studies that I’d been hoping to cover. They created and owned the experience. Because I was there supporting their wonderful ideas, we all learned together, and there was an openness all around that allowed for a higher level of thinking and collaboration to happen.
Waiting for those moments and being open to where they will go has been a learning process for me. It happens so naturally and authentically for children this age, and it can take time to trust this process as an adult. But, once you experience it, you will most likely never go back to holding tight reins. There is a wonderful freedom that comes from time and experience with this kind of learning that allows one to feel more comfortable experimenting, asking questions, and staying open to wonder.
Q: What do you wish people would ask you more about the work you do?
Lindsay: I want them to be curious about how the learning happens at Sweetland. Some might find the butter making story too informal, and I wish they could be as excited about the authentic experiences and learning coming forward in those moments as I was. I wish they could trust that children know how to drive their learning.
I hope that in time we can build a culture that trusts children of all ages to be capable learners every step of the way. With experienced adults by their sides we can guide the learning and weave in the skills we know need to be practiced. We can also keep learning alongside the child. Play and learner-centered opportunities can provide authentic learning that keeps everyone engaged—student, teacher, parent. Moreover, it has the potential to inspire others when the work is shared.
I want people who hear those stories to get it. I want them to be like, “Oh okay, that makes total sense to me, I can see all the learning.” But, I understand it takes time. Families who are new have to go through a process of reorienting themselves around what learning looks like. They have to let go of their own experiences. We all have to learn to be patient—to respond and support with open hearts and minds. Trust, time, and relationships—that’s what it’s all about.