Together 11.5.21

November 5, 2021 | Abby Hall Choi

Dear Families,

Imagine arriving at work one day to discover that, as an authority on genetic variations and natural selection, you have been selected to manage a project. Your department will conduct research and determine the myriad effects that a natural disaster will have on an ecosystem. You will design an immersive model for your colleagues and the public illustrating those effects. You may choose the scenario of a catastrophe that most sparks your curiosity among six options. An example of an emergency might be a dramatic temperature drop across the globe, causing the Earth to become a giant ice ball, and the top five feet of the ocean as well as all the water on land freezes.

Your budget allows you to choose among many mediums for your prototype, and up to three people on your team. You have ten days to complete the project.

Now imagine that you are a sixth, seventh or eighth grade student tasked with this assignment.

Middle School science teacher, Melissa McCallihan’s final project for their unit on evolution is the most recent instance of the purposeful investigations that happen every week in our classrooms.

The disaster scenario where a giant asteroid hits the Earth with such an impact that it creates a rift on the Earth’s crust interested Kyle. Along with wire trees, Kyle is building the asteroid and animals out of clay.

“Mrs. McCallihan is bringing greenery for my trees tomorrow. I’m not worried about completing the project successfully. We are getting a lot of time in science class–ten days!” says Kyle. “Also, I’ve built a ton of projects like this in my nine years at Mustard Seed.”

Our students at every grade level are provided with learning opportunities that tackle complex, meaningful problems, and require hands-on solutions. From an early age, they 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.”

At a recent field trip along the Hudson River, Kindergarten students were encouraged to gather artifacts along the trail and notice details like the number of sailboats on the water. Later in the classroom, children were guided through the steps to recall and recreate what they saw. Equipped with their artifacts and photos of the park and water, they rebuilt the space in blocks and natural materials.

Second and third grade students were directed to follow a similar process for an architectural project in Nathan Johnson’s art class. After a walking trip where they surveyed structural details like coining, bay windows and buttresses around Hoboken, they spent a week researching architectural terms and photos in printed material. They created observational drawings outside before designing their own row house.

Reflecting upon their research and observations, students designed personalized row houses that met the following criteria:

  • A realistic design that would look at home in Hoboken
  • Incorporate five architectural features
  • Include three natural wildlife or landscaping details typical of local fauna

They then built models of their plan using cereal and shoe boxes. Because of the beautiful diversity of our student population, townhouse roofs ran the gamut from housing a pigeon with a nest and an egg to featuring a border of jagged fencing that discouraged pigeon habitation. Flowered vines curl up the columns of one of the houses. Cats peek out of windows.

Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for allowing the use of your video!

“I remember building a whole town when I was in second grade,” says Middle School student, Bella. “We had to think of different ways that we could make the town better.”

Now tasked with the science disaster-anticipation project in Middle School, Bella recollects those times with joy. “It’s so fun to be able to work together and make something with our hands again this year! I’m not worried about completing the project in ten days–I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been making models all my life at Mustard Seed.”

Happy weekend,


Abby Hall Choi

Head of School

Abby Hall Choi has a Masters in Social Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a BA in Psychology and Elementary Education from Covenant College. She is also completing a Certificate in School Management & Leadership from Harvard University. As she helped lead Mustard Seed School’s NJAIS accreditation efforts and our most recent strategic plan development, she has gotten to apply and grow her learning. 

Ms. Hall Choi has worked as a fifth-grade teacher and a multi-grade fourth-fifth grade teacher. She has held several administrative roles including Middle School Director, Director of School Initiatives and Improvement, and Assistant Middle School Director.

She likes thinking about how people work together. She enjoys leading work and conversations that enable our community to thrive because we work through complex problems together.

Ms. Hall Choi values caring for the whole person. She believes it’s most important that everyone knows they are a child of God and loved all the time, no matter what. 

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