October 14, 2022 | Nancy Van Epps
by Head of School, Abby Hall Choi
Worship at Mustard Seed is a continual invitation to a spiritual moment. Our three- and four-year-old students’ introduction to worship features the Bible story of creation. Each day of the seven days of creation is examined in turn over two days of worship. One of our initial hopes for our preschool students is that these stories will instill a foundation of awe and wonder for the diversity and abundance of God’s creation.
Those themes are further integrated with science and art exploration in the classroom. So, for example, when students hear that on the second day, God created water and divided it between the water above (sky) and the water below (land), they talk about the science of clouds as evaporated water. They see photos of different types of clouds identified in a book and observe them on walks. They cultivate their fine motor skills to create tissue clouds and twirled paper waves, and their social skills to build group collages of those pieces. They paint clouds while learning the proper use of a brush in the shared space with their art teacher.
Amidst this kaleidoscope of learning, children are also being introduced to their role as students. For many of our preschoolers, Mustard Seed may be their first school experience. Sitting cross-legged and quiet in a circle on the floor in a group with other students around the teacher may feel odd and new. For children born just before the pandemic, the novelty of these fundamental behavior norms is amplified. As MSS art teacher and parent, Clara Buckley noted, some current preschool children may never have had the opportunity to walk in a line or even seen people walk in a line. Why would they? When you walk with your family, you walk side-by-side holding hands.
“After COVID, children are relearning how to be part of a community outside of their family and one to two friends,” says preschool head teacher Kristen Jordan. “In our classroom we are moving them towards independence. They learn to zip up their own backpack and sweep up their own snack crumbs.”
As articulated in our 20 Habits document developed years ago by co-founder Shanna Pargellis, children are encouraged to express kindness by serving, welcoming, and encouraging. On the playground, Ms. Jordan may say things like, I see that you played with the same two friends this week. Are there other classroom friends that you can play with today? From the beginning, Mustard Seed students learn that the answer to their classmates’ question, “Can I play?” is always yes.
The behavioral infrastructure established in preschool is further expanded and refined throughout the academic career of the student at Mustard Seed. We intentionally devote the first six weeks of every school year to learning more sophisticated age-appropriate rules of behavior and constructing a covenant tailor-made for that class.
“Covenant-building in fourth grade is generally not as concerned with practical items as first grade,” says head teacher Kate Streelman. “It’s less how to care for the materials, and more about respecting and honoring each member of the community. This year the students included a digital citizenship pledge to govern talking to classmates online. To address past issues, they also established prohibitions to passing notes, telling secrets, and talking behind people’s backs.”
By eighth grade, students actively engage in creating a nuanced definition of what is and what is not community. Their answer to “Can I play?” could be, “Not today because I have already made plans for park. Can we play tomorrow? Let’s see what we can do together.”
Eighth grade student, Polly, remarked on the value of spending time hearing exactly how people want to be treated as opposed to making assumptions: “Everyone knows what to do, and everyone feels safe.”
Our community has a wide umbrella of diversity and abundance. With all of the different cultures and countries celebrated by our students, intentionality in establishing rules of engagement can be difficult but is vital. The strong spirit of unity recently experienced by Middle School students at Spruce Lake could not have been achieved without the sometimes challenging exercise of covenant-building prior to the trip.
Mustard Seed School is no stranger to desirable difficulties.
As early as our founding, we decided that the challenges invoked by our commitment to inclusion alongside Christianity were worth it. We agreed that all of us benefit from learning with people who are different from us. Our differences have always been our treasure, and we embrace them.
We heartily acknowledge that we are making things hard for ourselves in the process. Jason Craige Harris, managing partner of Perception Strategies, facilitated a staff development session this summer on Restorative Circles, giving us another tool in navigating successfully under the umbrella of our diverse community. With an emphasis on dignity for all, Harris rejects the notion of a punitive reaction to accountability. This approach is proactive—defining norms and building relationships before any hint of harm.
Embracing the challenges of complexity and recognizing the desirable difficulties are uniquely Mustard Seed. I am so proud of my membership in a community that believes that easy isn’t always better and l am so proud to lead it.