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Together 3.4.22

March 4, 2022 | Nancy Van Epps

by Head of School, Abby Hall Choi

For an interdisciplinary examination of light, Kindergarten students were asked to conduct an inquiry and build a model exhibiting their choice of natural or artificial light. The vast array of resulting projects reflects the rich diversity of backgrounds and interests of the students. One student chose to present the New World Flying Squirrel whose fur, scientists recently discovered, often glows with a fluorescent bubble-gum pink under ultraviolet light.

“They turn it on! Just like a firefly!” she said.

The amalgamation of cell phones, fireflies, flashlights, bioluminescent snails, campfires, and candles, generated by this one assignment, illustrates the exponential power of collaborative learning with people who are different from you. After acquiring information about their chosen subject on their own, students have the opportunity to see how their peers react to the same prompt, activating cognition. The child who studies the flying squirrel notes a similarity with another child’s lightning bug project. Although he chose to research the jellyfish as his project, my son Jacob has been running around the house for the past week with a flashlight (gifted him by Gabe Cuervo) to determine whether materials are opaque, translucent, or transparent. Neurodiversity in the classroom inspires the formation of connections and the synthesizing of new knowledge into a larger context.


Put simply, whom you learn with matters.

This year’s River Class is a case in point. In keeping with the Reggio Emilia approach, the construction of knowledge at MSS is viewed as a group process, and much of the curriculum emerges from the interests of the children. 

Since the Fall Semester, the 2021-2022 class of three-year-old students has demonstrated a heightened fascination with spiders. Outside on the playground, in the school vestibule, or underneath the classroom light table, the students are vigilant in their hunt for any evidence of the arachnids. Everything stops when one of them gleefully shouts out, “Spiderweb!”

Honoring her students’ sustained attention, Kristen Jordan developed a six-week curriculum in January that entailed resource books, multiple art projects, and even a Zoom talk with a spider researcher from Harvard! Children discussed different perspectives of their shared love of spiders over snack, and voted on a name for their class’ pet spider. They wondered how it felt to be a wild creature living in a jar for a short time.

A minor change in the configuration of this class of students could have produced a vastly different curriculum for the year.

We have personally witnessed the value of diversity in the classroom, and our intentional practices are supported by scientific studies. Brain researchers tell us that exposure to a peer’s novel ideas and life experiences leads to enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In Mustard Seed School’s new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) statement, we declare our commitment to diversity. We welcome diversity as a benefit to everyone.

We commit to being a community of welcome where families of every composition, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, culture, faith tradition, sexual orientation, and gender expression feel they belong and together care for God’s world.

In Middle School (MS), this commitment to diversity is evident in the selection of work groups. Students sometimes seek out classmates who possess counter points of view or complementary skill sets for projects. 

For a project on the radiant waves unit, MS science teacher, Melissa McCallihan, assigned groups that crossed grade and traditional affiliation lines. Mirroring their anticipated experience as young adults on a college campus or in a work environment, students were asked to successfully complete the project by collaborating with students from other grades and friend groups. Couched within the directives for the project were hints about how to work with people who are different from you.

Students were given the following objectives:
Design a presentation to teach us about your topic.
Include a demonstration (may include a model).
Include an interactive component.
Work well with your designated team.
Do your share of the work.

The crew of Ally, Carter, and James, representing the eighth, seventh and sixth grades, seemed to enjoy their collaboration. After quickly assessing their strengths and weaknesses, they divvied up the work. Collectively, they felt optimistic about their project. They also stated that the novelty of working with new people facilitated higher productivity.

At MSS, much of our most complex learning and work is disguised as play. Here is how the Kindergarten class pauses to reflect and take a movement break after an intense Math Workshop on geometry concepts.

All of us reap the benefits of working and playing together with people who are different from us. As we move ahead with the unveiling of our new DEIB statement, I look forward to experiencing this journey with you.

Nancy Van Epps

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