Together 12.17.21

December 17, 2021 | Abby Hall Choi

Dear Families,

This impressive feat of engineering is a two-phase project formulated and constructed by first grade student, Sam. Upon completion of a nest created with blocks, Sam built additional floors a few days later after reconsidering the needs of its inhabitants.

“I wanted a place where all flamingos would be happy and be able to make friends,” says Sam. In addition to Phase One’s nest to relax and sleep, there is now also space to eat popcorn and watch movies or play video games together in additional floors upstairs. “Flamingos can walk into the nest on the ground, if they want, or soar in through these slats along the sides.”

Soon, in his academic career at Mustard Seed, Sam will explore the strongest shapes for bridge design with STEAM teacher, Clara Buckley. Science and literature classes will teach him more about the habitat and diet of flamingos. For now, however, Sam’s demonstration of awareness of the needs of others, and the integration of kindness and empathy into academic projects, expresses the heart of Mustard Seed School’s mission. Development of social-emotional competencies begins early on our campus, and is nurtured through the formative years to become a core strength of our graduates’ identity.

The Bear Visitors

“…including Teddy Bears in early-grade classrooms is neither frivolous nor irrelevant. Indeed, including them in the classroom process can give children a voice for fears, worries, and conflicts that sometimes underlie inattentive and disruptive behavior in the classroom.”—Lesley Koplow, Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street College


In both appearance and personality, the Preschool Bears are surprisingly detailed. Their ages range from babies to 78-year-old Banana. Periwinkle, a ballerina with periwinkle blue hearts on her dress and a matching beaded necklace, paints her long felt fingernails red. She likes eating cupcakes and eggs. Corduroy also wears a beaded necklace. His shoes sport cleats for running. Every day he likes to get messy, and after school he takes a bath. Ambulance the Bear enjoys eating pizza, sushi, and pierogi. At school, he likes to cut paper and read about airplanes.   

Bears first made their appearance in an MSS preschool classroom several years ago, when the need for some trauma-informed teaching arose. Staff had attended the Safe and Sound Schools Conference: The Essentials of Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street College of Education, and the bear concept was presented as an effective recovery tool in a breakout session with Lesley Koplow. Early Childhood Director, Emily Ford Sytsma, committed to designing a curriculum for the affected class based on the concept. Shortly after the bears’ introduction, teachers recognized their value for all preschool children in supporting social-emotional development.

The bears are identical upon their entry into the classroom in keeping with Koplow’s techniques. Following Choosing Day, the children engage in a plan-and-model process that will be repeated in other settings over and over throughout their time at Mustard Seed. Children invent the identity of their bear using words, pictures and consideration, and then proceed to implement their ideas by creating the bears’ clothes and narratives. 

Children who are young in terms of attachment, self-concept, or object permanence maturity can utilize bears to support their emotions during the day. Power and vulnerability, peer rejection, and other anxieties can be played out symbolically with the bears. For example, in understanding friendships, children might be asked: “What happens when bears want the same toy? What should the bears do if they want to join in a game or if they want to play alone? What happens when bears use their hands instead of their words or when they say mean things?” In the formation of burgeoning friendships with classmates, and in speaking with other adults in the room, every child has a conversation starter: “How do you recognize your bear? What is your bear’s name? What do they like to do?” 

Students have opportunities to talk or draw about what a good, safe place looks like for both the bear and the child. Children can see that teachers listen to them, hear their needs, and are interested in making a safe place at school. In addition, the bears are always available with open arms to comfort the child. 

Social Concerns in Harlem and in the Classroom

Employing stories of iconic figures from the last century’s Harlem Renaissance, fifth grade students address the dynamics of social justice and inequality. They study the use of literary devices like metaphor and simile in poetry. Sprinkled among identification of figurative language in music clips, and discovery of Ella Fitzgerald’s music, and Langston Hughes’ writing, students are also invited to cultivate social-emotional skills. 

This week, like every week, Chloe Jang looks for opportunities to acquaint students with the often unwritten rules of healthy engagement. She notes that sometimes it can be easy to cross boundaries in interactions between friends when actually those communications should call for the most care. Navigating challenging interpersonal situations with step-by-step guidance, fifth grade students receive detailed instruction on recognition of non-verbal clues like crossed arms, and the importance of eye contact. 

“At school, children learn to be part of a community. I continually model respectful behavior and language in the classroom,” says Chloe. “This age is a time of tremendous social and emotional growth, and I want to make sure that students understand the impact of their behavior on others. When supporting resolution of conflict, I try not to speak for the child. I listen to each child separately, and then facilitate their conversations together. I often have to remind students to speak directly to one another rather than to me. We focus on tone and honoring personal space as well as being honest with emotions.”

Emotional Well-Being and Math

In addition to the emotional benefits of mastery of social skills, brain research confirms the impact of a safe and nurturing environment on cognition and academic performance. The data supports our approach. Our Middle School assessment scores in Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) Growth testing this year are extraordinary.

Because our students feel comfortable and connected, we can challenge them to learn in layered, interdependent, and complex ways at their full capacity. Although memorization has a role in efficient thinking, we also encourage students to think like mathematicians. Students are taught to look for patterns. In third grade, students investigate a multitude of paths to solve, “What is 12 x 5?” (See illustration below.)

“There is an art and a science to math. Children become expert learners when they practice checking assumptions, taking intellectual risks, considering various perspectives, fully engaging and objectively analyzing and evaluating the information, and communicating their theories (in an organized, coherent argument supported by evidence).”—Shakeh Tashjian, Director of Grades 2-8 

Shakeh affirms that our students are not just trying to say what they think the teacher wants to hear. Moving well beyond the state standards, they are genuinely creating math. As a result, every Mustard Seed eighth grade student completes a course of algebra.

Full of Adventure, Full of Discovery

The mini courses generated a lot of excitement and new learnings this week.

Mustard Seed School is a magical place where teddy bears learn to share, flamingos have room to soar, and eighth graders solve for x. 

As we move into the holiday season, I’ll leave you with some footage of music class warm-ups for Las Pasados.

Merry Christmas!

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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