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Together 2.24.23

February 21, 2023 | Nancy Van Epps

by Head of School, Abby Hall Choi

For an upcoming study of the fine artist, Faith Ringgold, in celebration of Black Excellence, Ms. Buckley plans to introduce the preschool students to oil pastels.

“Ringgold expresses herself in vibrant jewel and earth tones. Oil pastels favor that heavy saturation of color,” says Ms. Buckley. Following an examination of Ringgold’s oeuvre with her students, Ms. Buckley will observe their receptivity to exploring the use of this media in their own work in the Ringgold style. In keeping with the responsive approach emblematic of the Reggio-inspired classroom, their level of enthusiasm will drive any future exploration. If there is no interest, Ms. Buckley will suggest and teach another medium. At Mustard Seed, students are offered a standing invitation to direct their own learning from the very beginning.

For as long as anyone can remember, plastic rainbow chain links have been a staple in the preschool classroom in late winter. “The links are excellent tools for teaching fine motor skills and some basic foundations in math,” says Program Director, Ms. Sytsma. “In some years, the links might just sit quietly on the shelf after their demonstration during group time. In others, they might spark some curiosity. This year they caught fire!”

Full day preschool students, Maisie and Brady, discovered the links first and began building long strands. Traditionally, children have just as much fun dismantling their strands as assembling them, but Maisie and Brady had other plans. They decided to join their two strands, keeping the resulting cable intact and adding to it each day. Other afternoon students joined them. As the cable grew long enough to reach from one side of the classroom to another, the class’ interest remained high. Brady measured the length by counting the links. Maisie measured it by counting her footsteps alongside it.

Like a story pulled straight from a children’s picture book, the rope began to outgrow the classroom. Students wondered how far the rope would extend if they dropped it out of their window like Rapunzel’s hair. Inspired by a book about cranes, the students made predictions and developed a plan of action to check their ideas. After some preliminary testing, their teachers suggested that a fourth floor window might be more in keeping with the length than their classroom window on the second floor. Mr. Dominguez’ bear, Chuck Beary, was enlisted to weigh down the end of the chain and stabilize it against the wind.


Ms. Sytsma documented some of their experimentation.


This window event did not mark the end of the students’ interest or the project. A measuring wheel was borrowed from the Extended Day Program so the students could continue to monitor and record the chain’s growth. On final count, the chain was 706″ long— a length of 558 links by Brady’s standard of measurement and 100 normal steps by Maisie’s footsteps calculation!

This preschool experience gestures toward the students’ future role as a Mustard Seed Middle School Scholar. At that time, students construct knowledge through hands-on engagement completing eight academic exhibitions as a requirement for graduation. By seventh grade, students are accustomed to serious consideration of their curiosity and work. They have witnessed shifts in resources and curriculum in response to their interests since an early age. Assuming personal agency over their own learning, students take an active role when choosing topics and lines of inquiry for their exhibitions.

Early man was the assigned time period for the history exhibitions this year, but any topic within that period was fair game. Sophie and Amelia chose to work as a team because they were both interested in comparing and contrasting contemporary aspects of modern life like clothing, housing, diet, and musical instruments with early man. 

Mr. Martino’s detailed schedule aided their project management. They said that they knew from past projects that following the assigned timeline would ease their work in so many ways and it did! Sophie and Amelia’s research uncovered some unexpected discoveries: the early man’s musical wind instrument, the didgeridoo, is still used today. Ötzi the Iceman, discovered by the German couple Erika and Helmut Simon while hiking in 1991, may have been the victim of foul play or a hunting accident. Early man created art for their dwelling walls.

The history exhibition documents the students’ learning with a speech, slideshow, and an artifact. Even before the day of the exhibition, Mr. Martino had been impressed by the team’s extensive research and recommended them for this article. Amelia’s grandparents, visiting from Pennsylvania, were in attendance for their presentation. Following their speech, the team received immediate feedback from their teachers and peers. This team’s process and outcome exemplify our JOY + RIGOR tradition, a hallmark of Mustard Seed School.

Nancy Van Epps

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