Together 5.26.23

May 26, 2023 | Nancy Van Epps

by Head of School, Abby Hall Choi

Upon their return to the classroom from Park Time, preschool students know to search for their name stick on tables for Snack Time each day. 

Employed in this scenario, the name sticks:

  • Increase the agency of the child: No adult is pointing to a chair and telling them to sit. Mustard Seed preschool students are empowered by the daily routine to hang up their coat, wash their hands, retrieve their snack box, and look for their name among the tables in the classroom.
  • Decrease the transition time, so more time may be devoted to instruction
  • Aid in reading skills: The names are written in capital letters which the children are mastering. With this practical application, students recognize the value of reading and learn to identify the letters of their name and their friends’ names. (They also reference the sticks when writing a message to a friend.)
  • Support positive social dynamics in the classroom: Children share Snack Time with a different combination of friends every day in a manner that feels natural and non-confrontational.

Although such a small detail could go unnoticed to the untrained eye, this practice, like so many features of the Mustard Seed classroom, is thoughtful and intentional.

Ms. Sytsma first encountered name sticks while student-teaching at Syracuse with an innovative, expert teacher, Deb Rodriguez. Ms. Sytsma says that in the decades that followed, the use of name sticks has become more widespread, but at that time they were a revelation.

“I first introduced name sticks to Mustard Seed in the Lower School classroom as a means to support equity in discussions. It’s easy to fall into calling on the same students who are always first or make an exclamation in raising their hand. ‘Pulling from the can,’ choosing a name stick from the jar, generally increases randomness. Another benefit is that the exercise increases wait time, giving some students who need it more time to think before answering. Assigning student work partners ‘from the can’ also allows the teacher to mix groups without conflict. There are also times when students may feel anxious about the randomness of the name sticks so it’s not the only strategy teachers use—but it helps us check our bias sometimes. ”

A multitude of practices like these, implemented with intention over the course of the student’s academic career at Mustard Seed, results in graduates who engage with and care for their classroom, school, and the broader community. Students are accustomed to feeling empowered and substantial. When they speak, adults in their lives are interested in what they have to say. Señora Oro-Hahn likes to use the analogy of a fish “to talk about the power of our ‘birth’ culture…how we don’t easily see what is our norm. The point of that illustration is not knowing when you operate out of your culture.” I would suggest that analogy could also apply to our student culture. From the start, our students blossom in an environment, that feels like the norm, surrounded by adults who value each of them as a precious child of God.

The Sixth Grade Social Justice Exhibition is a case in point. Students do not shy away from tackling complex and difficult issues like child abuse, animal cruelty, and immigration for this exhibition.

As families and faculty approach their individual presentations, six graders deliver prepared speeches on their researched topic. Over and over throughout the evening, Mustard Seed students expect and receive the undivided attention from their adult audiences on subjects where they are playing the role of expert advocate. In addition, students must engage in extemporaneous speeches for the questions that follow their rehearsed talk. Traditionally, the adults ask attentive questions with the assumption that they will receive comprehensive responses—and many of the questions are challenging. This year, one student who spoke on speciesism was asked if she was a vegetarian. 

​​From science and art projects to options for “Choose to” to expressing their views in worship, students are empowered with opportunities every day to make choices and be heard. In this way, MSS students learn to see themselves as part of a global community and choose to act as compassionate advocates who learn from and serve with others in solidarity.

Nancy Van Epps

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