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Together 3.10.23

March 9, 2023 | Nancy Van Epps

by Head of School, Abby Hall Choi


Inspired by the oral storytelling tradition of indigenous people, Mr. Johnson chose a novel process to prepare students for two play performances based on origin stories of the Cherokee nation. Second and third grade students repeatedly viewed videos of Robert Lewis, an award-winning Native storyteller, author, and artist of Cherokee, Navajo, and Apache descent, and his dramatic reenactment of Native American myths and legends.

“For the first 5-6 viewings, I did not share with the students that we would be producing the two stories. We talked about these examples of another culture’s folktales and worked on exercises as part of their unit of study on the Cherokee nation,” says Mr. Johnson. “I did ask them to focus on the changes in physicality and voice that the storyteller employed in portraying different characters in his stories.”

When he announced to the class that they would be staging these stories for an audience, Mr. Johnson introduced an unusual stipulation. He did not want them to work from a prepared script. He asked students to watch the videos another 1-2 times with the idea that they would retell the stories using their own interpretation. Those students who felt strongly about working from the written word would have the option to compose their lines themselves, from memory. Students practiced twice a week for five weeks.

“My only requirement was the need to demonstrate proper respect for the beauty and dignity of another culture in the students’ retelling. While there is humor in these stories, we couldn’t get too silly with our rendition.”

In keeping with the Reggio approach, much of the work on “The First Fire,” and “The Brave Turtle” was determined by the children. Similar to their process for telling the story, Mr. Johnson encouraged the students to advocate for their needs. Students could select preferences for the role of a storyteller, a main character, or a supporting character. When one student expressed a reluctance to play any speaking part, Mr. Johnson set parameters for her participation.

“I told her that she did not need to portray a speaking character, but then she would have to play a major role behind the scenes. She would need to do something big.”

In response, this student elected to design the prototype for all of the costumes. Although each student created their own character’s wardrobe, there is unity in the production. Costumes adhere to the construction developed and illustrated by her sample, and the majority consist of a sandwich board ensemble with straps at the shoulders as well as a headpiece.


Perhaps the scariest creature in either play is the wolf, whose defining feature is his distinctive and sinister voice. Wouldn’t you expect a ferocious wolf to have a loud commanding intonation? One student pursued the role of the wolf primarily because she wanted to adopt the tone she had used when she was much younger and would get angry. It is both deep and a whisper. “I tried out my voice during the second practice and everyone really liked it.”

Another student was very interested in depicting a main character. He had participated in the acting class offered in MSS Enrichment this year as well as played the lion king in a resort production last August while vacationing in Jamaica for a wedding. This play would be his third production event. 

Because he had a turtle when he was younger—Theodore Mendez, III—he brought a wealth of personal observations to his portrayal of the brave turtle in the story. He noted that turtles have eyes on the top of their heads, so he knew from experience how his character would appear when he looked up. He drew from first hand observation in creating an authentic costume as well, highlighting the plates and soft places in the shell that he knew so well from Theodore.

This project showcases many historically unique characteristics of Mustard Seed instruction. In keeping with the Reggio approach, children are active protagonists in their own learning with teachers acting as guides. They build on past knowledge and learn new material across disciplines—in this case, social studies, biology, creative and performing arts, geography, and more. They are offered spaces to lead, collaborate, and work independently. Let me assure you that we are incorporating all of those special and valuable Mustard Seed traditions into the Small & Mighty model.

We are also introducing new elements, some of which we have piloted this year. Because of our size, we will have the capability to respond quickly and nimbly to community and parental needs. We can test an offering on a small scale, and then adjust further decisions based on data from the pilot program.

Our 2023 Summer Camp pilot, Choose Your Own Adventure, is one of our most exciting new programs. This will be the first year we’ve ever facilitated instruction in the summer and we have a kaleidoscope of engaging opportunities for rising PreK-Grade 8 students to explore and discover new passions. For Grades 2-5 (one week) and for Grades 6-8 (two weeks), we are offering an AI class developed and taught by Stanford and MIT grads over Zoom with an MSS teacher facilitator. Students will investigate different applications of machine learning models and learn about how artificial intelligence can help us develop a deeper understanding of language, fight the COVID-19 pandemic, power self-driving cars, and much more.

Check out the full range of summer enrichment classes here.

Learn & Play, our new Reggio-inspired toddler playgroup is a good example of one of our early successful pilots. Late last fall, we started with an hour-long class with the thought that we could gauge interest with this one-time offering. Input from class parents and caregivers in that first class helped shape the nature of the group. We had such overwhelmingly positive support that we offered the program almost immediately again in the winter and added a session on an additional day. We are now in the midst of enrollment for two classes again for a spring session.

Our Before School Care, begun in January, is another case in point. Before School Care supports families who may have a schedule which differs from the traditional school day hours and is held on days when school is in session. While not as wildly popular as our toddler playgroup, it has greatly eased logistical challenges for some of our families and we see value in continuing this program.

Like Before School Care, our After-School Enrichment classes were developed in response to data from current parent surveys. The on-campus classes have grown from one offering to two. At the end of day next Monday, we will be closing registration on our two After-School Enrichment classes for this spring quarter on campus: Large Scale Mural Painting taught by Ms. Buckley and Mr. Johnson, and LEGO® Engineering with Bricks 4 Kidz, a STEM-focused program giving students the opportunity to combine scientific discovery and team building. There are only a few spots still available.

These pilot programs followed a process that we plan to continue next year. After identifying a need in the community, we will Generate solutions, and then build a programs intentionally with the idea that we will remain flexible and adapt as new information becomes available.

My vision for the MSS Small & Mighty model includes retention of the core values that have made the school special  since our founding, while responding quickly and accurately to the needs of our current families and community. I will be articulating more on the model in the coming weeks.

Here is a peek at the sketchbook of “Lightening” from the plays. Each second and third grade student owns an individual idea journal which is kept together with their classmates’ journals in the studio.

Nancy Van Epps

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