Together 11.18.21

July 13, 2022 | Nancy Van Epps

A Letter from Head of School Abby Hall Choi

Dear Families,

Flexible versus Efficient Thinking

Entering the 4th grade classroom at this time of year might have you wondering whether you are witnessing a STEAM course or perhaps, mistakenly arriving at snack time. Students are giggling at a table while meticulously dripping maple, chocolate, and strawberry syrup down a handcrafted ramp. Another group wonders aloud if the color of Skittles affects their rate of dissolving in water of varying temperatures. Other students are journaling the response of Tic Tacs to submersion in tap, carbonated, and salt water. In actuality, these activities are the final experiments in a three-step chemistry project.

After exploring the processes of liquids and solids evaporating, dissolving, and mixing in teacher-led investigations, students learned vocabulary terms like solvent, viscosity, and buoyancy.

“It may seem counterintuitive,” says fourth grade science and STEAM teacher Kat Jonker, “but I like students to encounter a concept in real life before they are introduced to the word. The immediate connection of the word to their concrete experience helps them fully understand the concept and memorize the word more readily.”

The third step in the STEAM assignment involved applying this freshly-acquired knowledge in a separate context to problem-solve. Students were invited to launch experiments based on their own hypothesis, and then present their findings to the class. For many groups, candy seemed to be the material of choice! Upon approaching this final phase, students had already been introduced to proper scientific procedures including online research, variable control, record-keeping, and appropriate question generation modeled in the teacher-lead investigations.

Brain research identifies the importance of support for development of both flexible and efficient thinking in optimal educational settings. Basic skills, like learning terminology, and complex cognitive processing, like employing new concepts in novel ways, are each facilitated in this project. 

“Productive learning environments attend to the trade-off between plasticity and efficiency in brain development, strategically offering activities that encourage flexible thinking along with those that encourage mastery of necessary building-block skills and knowledge.” – The Aspen Institute

Our students at every grade level are provided with age-appropriate learning opportunities that tackle complex, meaningful problems, and require hands-on solutions. From the beginning of their academic career at Mustard Seed, students are taught the power of observation.

“Noticing makes you wonder and realize gaps in your understanding. Here’s where we differ from other schools,” says Early Childhood Director, Emily Ford Sytsma. “Instead of supplying a set of instructions to follow or forms to complete, our teachers design open-ended prompts and offer a variety of materials. Students make plans and decisions based on their areas of interest. It’s not about getting the answer right. It’s a higher level of thinking.”

Technological and Experiential 

In addition to fostering higher-level reasoning as well as foundational skills, this project also illustrates the dual roles of technology and hands-on engagement at Mustard Seed.

In Early Childhood and the Lower School: “Though hands-on experience with real materials and manipulatives are the basis of learning in preschool, technology can be a useful tool for learning when used intentionally and interactively,” says Emily. ”This is different from passive screen time. Interactive media are content and applications designed to support research and the recording of learning for nonreaders. It can be used to support playful creativity and social engagement.”

The natural catastrophe scenarios constructed by Middle School science students referenced in an earlier blog post were heavily researched online. Here are a few of the completed prototypes:

Lower and Middle School students integrate technology seamlessly into real life projects in ways that are inventive and surprising. In art courses, they are encouraged to pursue mastery of techniques and personal interests online that are not offered in the classroom. For a project concluding this week where seventh and eighth graders each created three illustrations for a summer reading book, Everything Sad is Untrue, some of the students made art digitally. Although they had been instructed extensively in principles of design, and provided with many low-risk, enriching opportunities to delve into different media including watercolor, charcoal, pencil, collage, and 3-D construction, no one had received training in drawing software in class.

“One of the advantages of today’s world is the breadth of YouTube instructional videos available,” says art and fellow STEAM teacher, Clara Buckley. “Students can easily expand their knowledge base at home in an area that sparks their interest in class.”

Tapping into their intrinsic motivation in order to create authentic illustrations for the book, all of the students conducted online research to become familiar with 1970s clothing, the landscapes of Iran and Oklahoma, Persian carpets, saffron flowers, and even a prince’s castle.

“Beyond the classroom, a project brief or a customer often drives the work and there are boundaries. The specifications can force you into a different area of creation. I wanted students to experience the freedom within structure that they might encounter as adults,” says Clara.

Technology also facilitated an exciting event this week in connection with the project. The author of Everything Sad is Untrue, Daniel Nayeri, graciously agreed to engage with Mustard Seed students over a Zoom conference. ​​The young adult autobiographical book follows an Iranian boy who had to flee to Oklahoma because his mother converted to Christianity. Daniel spoke about the influences that prompted him to share details of his life, gave students advice about the writing process, provided sneak peeks into his future projects, and answered questions posed by students. At the beginning, students asked very thought-provoking questions. At the end, they added more humorous and personal questions like, “Do you like Taylor Swift?” and “What video games do you play with your son?”

This interdisciplinary project offered a myriad of opportunities to address topics like life as a refugee, family connections, and Islamic culture.

National Standards

Clara’s arts curriculum, in line with all of Mustard Seed’s curriculum, is grounded in national standards. 

“While we scored well in the creation attributes, I noted some opportunities for our growth in the presentation components of the National Core Arts Standards. Students pursuing creative careers will probably need to have skills in curating and hanging their art in addition to making it,” says Clara. To that end, she asked students on this project to devise the skills in selecting and curating art for presentation in addition to making it.

“Is each student guaranteed one piece in the show or is a judgement made about the best art? Is the art presented according to the medium used or chronologically with the book? We have over 100 pieces of artwork with space to display half that number. The responsibility in making decisions about how, why, and which pieces are chosen now lies with the students,” says Clara.

To the casual observer, the joy embedded in all of the teaching at Mustard Seed could mask our intentional work and foundation of thought. Mustard Seed’s standardized test results and global cognitive studies confirm the efficacy of JOY + RIGOR = OPTIMAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENT.

In other words, while your children may appear to be merrily playing with their food, they could actually be mastering chemistry.

I’ll close with a clip from our preschool worship gathering:

My God is so great! There is nothing my God cannot do!


Nancy Van Epps

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