Friday, February 27, 2015

Snow Days and Working Mommy Frustrations

I just survived another snow day. I've lost count of how many we've had this winter, but enough that they are starting to lose their appeal. I love snow days, in theory. A little day off here and there - everything being paused for a moment. Sadly my love of snow days is slowly changing now that I have kids. It's not that I don't value the gift of a surprise day with my children, because I do. It can be chaotic and filled with too many off-key renditions of Let it Go, but still a wonderful day. What has become more and more difficult is that while I'm reading books and building forts I know my colleagues are working. My phone pings with new emails constantly, which I desperately try to ignore. I can't give meaningful replies and make sure my almost one year old doesn't eat the cat food. At 7:45, when both girls were in bed I finally checked my work email. 55 new emails. Many requiring thoughtful responses, which at this point, after a full day of child wrangling, I was not cognitively available to give. The guilt and frustration are there though. I know my colleagues were working hard during the day and I just couldn't do the same amount of work. I couldn't even reply to whether or not I was available for a meeting because that would involve checking my calendar and in the two seconds it would take to do that my little one would have made a run for the stairs. (I swear she knows when I'm not paying attention.) 
Snow days seem to add another layer complication to the working mommy challenges. I don't want to ignore my work emails for 12 hours while I know my colleagues are working hard. Yet I can't ignore my young children to keep up with the work email conversations. Getting to emails at 7:45 at night, hours after everyone else problem solved, volunteered for tasks and made decisions is discouraging. There are no good answers, and I know years from now I'll blissfully wish for these chaotic-filled snow days. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

School Accountability and Student Behavior

This week in Education Week Sarah Sparks reports on a new study from the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER).* The research asks some insightful questions on what the accountability process has done to student behavior in schools. The study found that student attendance directly increased in elementary and middle schools when schools were held accountable for student attendance as a part of Annual Year Progress (AYP), but that negative student behavior has increased as well.

"In the year after a school was identified as not making adequate yearly progress, Ladd, a public policy professor, and Holbein, a postdoctoral candidate in the same field, found that on average, censured schools had 280 fewer absences, .5 fewer per student, and 80 fewer tardies, or .2 fewer per student."

"On average, in the year after missing AYP, schools had:
  • 21 more out-of-school suspensions, a 16 percent increase;
  • 14 percent more fights, more than one more per school;
  • 20 percent more instances of major "disruption"; and
  • 12 percent to 13 percent more drug possession and sexual offenses."

"These misbehaviors were the highest among the lowest-performing students and among black students, though Ladd said she was surprised to also find increases among the top performers."
"At the lower level, we think there's just pressure being put on students, and they might not have the capacity to withstand that pressure," Ladd said, adding, "These are the groups most likely to be left behind."

This study brings up so many questions. What do we do to combat this trend? Do we put a greater effort into teaching students perseverance strategies and executive functioning skills? Do we need to become more mindful of the pressure we are putting on these students? Do we (as the study suggests) start holding schools accountable for student behavior as well?

Whether or not a student's behavior is inappropriate is often based on the teacher's perception. If the teachers are stressed they are more likely to perceive behavior as intentionally disruptive. Is it that the students are reacting to the pressure or that the teachers have a lower tolerance for misbehavior (even developmentally appropriate behavior) because of the stress they feel to meet academic goals?

I can absolutely tell you that it is true for me. Right now I am feeling the February panic of not having my students where I want them to be academically. Every little disruption from them puts me on edge, even when their behaviors are completely what one would expect of a five year old, especially a five year old who just came into the country. It's hard to remind yourself that the behaviors driving you crazy in the moment are the same ones that are helping the child process the world. My limited tolerance for their minor behavior creates a vicious cycle that tends to end with certain students acting out more in response to the tense environment I've created.

It will be hard to tease out if the behaviors are from student pressure or teacher pressure. Do we need to remind ourselves of what is considered developmentally appropriate for students?

Whatever we do we can't overlook this research. The increase in negative behavior we can observe means most likely there is also an increase in negative non-observable behaviors that keep our students from learning and being comfortable in school. How do we tackle high expectations while also de-pressurizing the environments where the students are learning?

*Good grief, there are some specialized centers out there...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Girls & Books

 I always swore I would be the kind of parent who would let my children read anything. Captain Underpants, silly graphic novels, whatever they get their hands on.

That was until I found this gem in my daughter's stack of library books. Meet Ballet Kitty, who throws a mighty tantrum because without her ballet slippers she does not feel pretty. It doesn't matter that at the end of the book she learns that she doesn't need her ballet slippers to have fun, the one page is there and sends the message that happiness and feeling pretty are tied together.

Parenting a little girl feels like a minefield some days. Just a simple trip to the library can bring unwanted messages about what it means to be a girl to my daughter. I wouldn't say that I am trying to raise my daughter with gender neutral parenting, but I don't want to be spending my three year old daughter's impressionable years giving her the idea that pink, tulle, and princess crowns are her only place in the world. She takes in every book she reads like it's a new bible, asking many questions about each page and then going to bed with it at night, as though cuddling with it will bring her closer to understanding the meaning of life. When she goes to bed cuddling a Winnie the Pooh novel I hope innocents of the characters soak into her soul. When she goes to bed cuddling a paperback of the tween Dora I want to sneak ala Grinch style and snatch it from under her pillow.

Have you seen the new tween Dora? I've caught my daughter practicing her tween Dora laugh that Dora seems to save for Diego. Ugh. My three year old does not need to practice flirting now.

But she's a girl who goes to daycare with other girls and has been introduced to princesses, tutus, Elsa, and ballet. She likes these things and I don't want to stand in her way of enjoying them, as long as they don't come with horrible messages like "The only way to be happy is to wear pink and be pretty."

There are some fabulous books out there with strong girl characters that I love reading with my daughter.

Ladybug Girl: My current favorite, by far is the Ladybug Girl series. Lulu, dressed as Ladybug Girl, can do anything. The books are full of Lulu exploring by herself, being bored and discovering imaginative ways to entertain herself, and then overcoming things that are hard because she's... Ladybug Girl! My daughter loves these. She loves them so much that we made her own Ladybug Girl costume out of tissue paper, ribbon, and pipe cleaners. She can wear a tutu AND be brave. In fact, when wearing her Ladybug Girl costume, my daughter is more likely to speak up to strangers and take risks.

  Fancy Nancy: Every time I read a Fancy Nancy book I'm pleasantly surprised. Fancy Nancy may love fancy things, but she's also polite, thoughtful of her friends, and loves to explore and try new things. She's creative and has personality. Somehow even with all those dressy clothes she doesn't seem particularly girly. Perhaps I love her so much because I feel a kindred spirit with her poor mother, who does not look like a woman who you'd expect to raise a Fancy Nancy girl. She looks like a woman resigned to her daughter's love of fanciness. She's not going to stand in the way of her daughter's obsession, but she didn't teach her daughter to be like this. She understands what it's like to have a little girl with a big personality.

And then, of course, there is The Paper Bag Princess: All. Time. Favorite. I even have the board book version and have been reading it to my daughter since she was a baby. The best. You can be a princess- you can be brave, and clever, and independent. You can be a princess without looking like one.

What are your recommendations for strong girl characters?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The R-Word vs Intellectual Disability

I'm typically not one to get offended easily over politically correct terms, yet after teaching students with intellectual disabilities the R-word (retard) now hits me like a punch in the stomach every time I hear it. Recently I was going through a student's file to write a case history. As a young child he was found eligible for special education under the category of mental retardation, because it wasn't that long ago (five, six years ago?) in my district that we used the label. The words just sat there coldly on the page-Mental Retardation. Do I write that in my report, I wondered, and then note the change of the term, or do I just act like the MR term was never there to begin with. Can I actually bring my fingers to type the words? So much has changed since a committee of educators gave that little boy the legal label of Mental Retardation. The student is now eligible under Intellectual Disability (ID), which is a much more respectful term, but means the same thing.

Joanne Jacob's touched on the R-word debate in her recent post. It's one that I almost forget is going on because it feels we have come so far from using the word. It wasn't that long ago it was still the legal label we'd use in the school system, and now I couldn't even bring myself to write the words in my report even though I would have simply been recording the facts.

In the rush away from using the R word we left out an important group of people- the parents of students newly found eligible for the term. When my school first opened we received a group of students who had just recently been found eligible for special education under the category of Intellectual Disability. In the education field we knew this was the same as being found eligible for Mental Retardation, but the parents did not. We had many uncomfortable conversations with parents explaining to them that the year before they signed papers agreeing that their child had an Intellectual Disability and required a specialized program. We could show them their signature, the psychological report with the IQ scores, the large amounts of documentation the school had put together, and the legal definition of Intellectual Disability (ID) on the paper they signed, but the parents were still shocked. They hadn't fully understood what an Intellectual Disability was when they signed off on it. They thought it was another term for Learning Disability. This did not just happen once. It happened time and time again. The nicer, more respectful term meant that the parents hadn't fully understood what was going on in the meetings.

 It's hard for parents to hear that their child is so far behind their peers, that the child's IQ is significantly below average, and that their child requires specialty designed instruction outside of a typical classroom in order to maintain and apply knowledge he has been taught. When we tell a parent that their child has an Intellectual Disability we are telling them that their child will most likely not get a standard high school diploma. That they need to start saving and planning for the future right now, even when their child is five, because their child may not be able to be financially independent. Using the term Intellectual Disability has made this conversation easier in the moment, but only because it momentarily softens the blow. Parents are more likely to accept the ID label, but only because they do not fully understand it. The new term does not change the reality of the situation. It does not change their child's current ability or needs.

When we are sitting down with parents at eligibility meetings we have to honest about what the term Intellectual Disability means. We cannot hide behind political correctness and hope that the family will slowly discover the reality on their own. If the parents do not understand what ID means then we are not having an open and honest conversation with them. We are doing them and their child a disservice, and we are asking parents to agree to legally binding documents they do not understand themselves because we used a fancy term instead of one they understood.

The R word should go- I'm not arguing that. But we have to do our jobs to make sure parents understand that we have simply renamed it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Comments- appology!

In a moment of procrastinating I was playing around with the comment page and I realized that I have tons of unpublished comments from as far back as 2013. Some were spam, but others were meaningful, thoughtful comments that I'd never read before. I didn't mean to not publish any of your comments- for whatever reason I never saw them.
If you commented and never saw it appear on the site please don't take it personally- I'll try to be better about checking the actual blog for comments waiting moderation instead of just relying on my email notifications.

Thank you for sharing all your thoughtful insights with me!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Where Does the Introverted Teacher Fit? Reflections on my journey in a Professional Learning Community

Professional Learning Community. In my district the term has become so common that it's practically lost meaning. Every school has a PLC these days but what it actually looks like seems to vary from school to school. The term in many ways leaves educators with a vague feeling of something they have been told to do but may or may not understand.

I work in what feels like THE Professional Learning Community. We opened our doors three years ago and before the building was finished, before all the teachers were hired, the school was operating under the ideas behind the concept. For us it is not a vague idea or an educational trend but a way of life. You rarely hear the term inside the school because it is just what we do. It's no longer a thing in itself, it is a part of the building.

If I am honest I must admit that in many ways my journey within this PLC structure has been rocky. I came from an amazing school that I feel was torn apart by the district mandating the PLC path. There were of course many reasons for the changes that came to the school, but like a child trying to understand his parents' divorce, I grabbed onto one tangible, intrusive change and held on tight.

The first year at my school I was teaching in our Intellectual Disabilities program. I loved it, but was frustrated by the PLC culture because I very much felt apart from what was happening with the rest of the school. It felt isolating and almost as though it had created a popular clique between my team and the rest of the school. In March, after one meaningful conversation with the administration we changed our structure and found a way to include our team in grade level planning meetings. I started to warm up more to the idea of this PLC. I started to see the value. Once my team was included in the planning meetings I saw the level of achievement of my students rise. OK, there was something here.

The following year I was no longer in the Intellectual Disabilities program, but was a part of the special education team that supported the rest of the school. I experienced the PLC through a different lens, and one that often left me struggling with how I felt about it. I saw the value and watched achievement rise, but something wasn't sitting right. After a few months I realized the problem. Being an introvert in a Professional Learning Community is extremely difficult.

Our meetings involve a lot of people. The four grade level team teachers, the reading or math specialist, the grade level ESOL teacher, the special education teacher, the gifted and talented teacher, technology specialist, the administration, and often visitors from other schools. We plan everything together, laying out the plans for the week in an online notebook. It's amazing and efficient in a lot of ways, but as someone who often thinks before she speaks, it is wildly intimidating. There is a lot to discuss, not much time to discuss it in, and many people want the opportunity to weigh in. People tend to talk over each other, or politely pause to allow someone to finish speaking without fully listening to what was said. For those quieter, more reserved teachers it can feel like those who speak the most become viewed as the ones with all the answers, and those who speak the least are seen as not a true member of the team, or just along for the ride. It can be uncomfortable leaving those meetings week after week feeling like you aren't able to contribute because although you had something to offer you were not able to get a word in edgewise, and when you did it wasn't taken seriously.

We teach our students to listen to one another and respect each other.
Are we modeling that in how we treat one another?
Of course, with time and relationship building everyone can become comfortable at the table. As people get to know one another more they will grow to have mutual respect. But relationship building takes time and often is not something we have time for on a day to day basis. And relationship building cannot come from those amazing ice breakers people so often want us to do as educators- you know, the ones third graders love but make us feel ridiculous as adults. I have never heard of a real relationship blossoming from playing "stand up, hand up, pair up". You want to lose an introvert's interest in a topic or professional development? Forced participation is always the answer.

Giving teachers time to form real relationships is not easy. We barely have time to plan, let alone to sit down and bond. Yet any good working relationship has to be formed over time. True collaboration cannot just happen by lighting a match. I am sure this is a problem in all fields, and one that all introverts struggle with. The book Quiet, by Susan Cain provides an excellent example of the struggles that introverts can feel in the work place. What's different with education is that it was not always this way. As the field becomes more and more collaborative the introverts that were doing wonderful lessons with great results in their own classrooms are being viewed as not being team players. The collaborative structure, which often forces wonderful, yet introverted teachers out of their comfort zones, can be quieting quality voices. Often these voices have creative solutions and meaningful insights to their team's work, yet are not comfortable in the new collaborative culture.

Three years into this Professional Learning Community I have become a true believer. It is incredible to see the success our students have. The results speak for themselves. The structure also promotes fast problem solving that benefits everyone. I've been amazed at how issues that can cripple other schools are solved in a ten minute meeting where people put their heads together. As I become more comfortable in the school I no longer feel the frustrations I felt last year as an introvert with my internal struggle of how to participate in the meeting. But I watch others struggle, their excellent, thoughtful voices quieted. As a field we must continue to promote collaboration. It is absolutely, without a doubt the key to student success. But we should be examining our collaborative practices and asking ourselves whether or not we have truly collaborative teams or if we are inadvertently creating structures where some teachers openly share ideas and other just nod and smile. We need to ask ourselves what we can do to promote better collaboration and respect on our teams, even when our precious planning time as educators is limited.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Time, Scheduling, and Special Education

The other day I took part in a conference call with special educators from across the country. The Government Accountability Office had gathered us together to ask about how following the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) impacts our day. How much time do we spend on paperwork? Do we feel that this paperwork helps achieve the goals of IDEA? What would we change? What from the paperwork is beneficial?

It was fascinating to hear other professionals' responses, yet I found myself depressed about the call all weekend. Every educator on the call professed to working hours and hours after the students left. The mind boggling paperwork seems to crush our profession, and many shared about time consuming paperwork that holds them accountable for their actions while taking away from their time with the
students. Many talked about refusing to sacrifice valuable time to work with their students during the school day, which of course means they must do paperwork on their personal time. It was depressing to hear about the paperwork requirements other districts have put into place to be able to prove that they are following IDEA. Some of the paperwork is valuable, but some seems to just be creating a paper trail to protect the school districts from law suites.

One participant made a comment about teachers who choose not to work at home and to be with their families instead of working after hours. It felt that their argument was that those teachers sacrifice time from working with the students for their own personal time. As someone with two young children at home that stung. And keeps stinging. Almost every day I am faced with the decision of what work I am going to take home and what I will leave at school so that I can have a few hours with my family. It is always a hard decision knowing that my students are so behind and need so much in order to catch up. Yet my own children need me too. I know every teacher out there, even those without young children, feel this daily battle. We desperately want our students to succeed, and we want to do everything in our  power to make that happen, so where do we draw the line between home and work? 

We have to be careful of not falling into the "I work harder, longer, and make more sacrifices than you" game. What are we doing to each other? We have to stop being a profession of martyrs. We are burning each other out by not putting any limits on our work expectations. Tired, grouchy teachers do not do anyone any good.

This is true in all areas of the profession, but particularly in special education where we don't give ourselves enough time to do paperwork during work hours. We often feel guilty if we are sitting at a computer working on the paperwork side of the job instead of working directly with students. No one became a special education teacher because they were excited to fill out forms, document daily progress, and find the perfect, legal sentence that accurately describes how a student is performing in the classroom. We worry that the classroom teachers will judge us for sitting at a computer, and we often judge ourselves.

The paperwork is a significant part of our job, and one that is often overlooked. It is seen as less valuable because it does not directly touch kids. Yet the paperwork is valuable, but only when it is done well. When true data is in place and the paperwork communicates a full picture of the student we are able to gain new perspectives and develop more meaningful plans to help the child learn. We can accurately assess where the student is performing and what the next steps are. We gain insight and an understanding, and protect the student from the harsh judgement of other educators who may view the student as lazy or incapable without knowing the student's background. If we skimp on our paper trail we are doing a disservice to the student. Who knows what others reading the student's file will believe about the student after reading our work?

Almost every teacher I know has developed an uncanny ability to productively use every minute of every day. Lining students up for lunch? A great time to work on counting skills or ordinal numbers? "Who is first in line? Who is second?" Valentines Day? The perfect opportunity to teach how to write a letter. Because we are constantly trying to use every second of every day as effectively as possible we often do ourselves an injustice with scheduling. Ask a teacher how many times they use the bathroom during the school day. For many teachers I am willing to bet it is only once.

To be fair to ourselves, our colleagues, and our students we have to be nicer to ourselves. We have to stop feeling guilty for spending time doing paperwork, for not taking work home every night, or even for giving ourselves a twenty minute lunch break where we are not pulling students for a lunch bunch. There will always be work to take home and students to see, and there are days we will sacrifice our personal time to get these things done. But let's support each other when we choose to create some sort of balance. Let's remind one another that we work better when we work smarter and not harder, and that our students benefit from well planned lessons instead of ones planned on the go because we did not have planning that day. Let's advocate for our planning time with our administrations and not be worried as being seen as lazy or not child focused for asking to have the time to do an essential part of our job. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Grit and Racisim

I was catching up on my blog reading when I stumbled up a recent debate that rose up around whether or not teaching students to have grit is racist.
Grit has been a popular term in education the last few years, and like anything that becomes popular it was bound to get some push back. The idea behind grit is that when students from poverty succeed, what makes them succeed is their work ethic and resiliency, not just what we do for them in school.

I had to read the blog post multiple times because I was so confused. Why would grit be racist? While it become a popular term in reference to teaching resiliency to students from poverty, I'd always thought it was what all of our students need. In fact, as a parent I'm often focused on teaching grit. It is exactly what I want my daughters to have. An ability to work hard, meet challenges head on instead of giving up, and to attempt tasks they are not sure they can do. In the world of the helicopter parent I think it's what all of our students need- not just those from poverty. I'd never thought of the term only being applied to students from poverty. Anytime we apply a concept only to one subset of people I suppose it is racist. But I am doubtful that there are schools out there saying, "OK, you white kids over there can take a break but everybody else better keep working on these math problems during recess."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

You Have the Power

  While working through the Feelings Target from the Unstuck and On Target curriculum with a group of fourth grade students I was trying to get the students to identify how they feel when they are a number five, and what they can do to get back to being a number one. After an enlightening discussion on what each student feels like when they are in the five range I tried to change the conversation into what we can do when we feel that way. One student interrupted me, "But Mrs. Lipstick," he interjected with a matter-of-fact sincerity, "I have anger issues." 

Exactly my friend. That's why we are here. Now let's talk about the power you have over your actions.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"What's Latino?"

Our fourth graders are preparing for a Socratic Seminar on Sonia Sotomayor, and so this week guided reading groups are dedicated to discussing her and encouraging them to develop deeper questions and connections about the text, A Judge Grows in Brooklyn. It's an absolutely beautiful book, written in English and Spanish, and lends itself to so many discussions.

As we read it yesterday I watched the faces of the four students in my reading group. Three speak Spanish and are the first generation Americans. One just came into the country from an African country a few months ago. They are an engaging, energetic, and generally happy bunch. I suddenly desperately wanted them to connect with the Sotomayor's story. I wanted them to hold on to the message that your background and other people's prejudice does not mean your life story is already written.

"It says here that Sonia understood how Latino people felt. What does Latino mean?" I asked. Blank stares. Nothing. So I'm left with the ultimate teacher question- understanding that Sotomayor is Latino is a fairly important element in the book. Three of the four students sitting in front of me could be classified as Latino. Do I have to be the one to put that label on them for the first time? Do I need to tell them that the world has words that separate who we are based on where we come from? As I stumbled through describing what Latino meant I felt strange because I realized I'm not even sure how we use the word. They looked at me like I was crazy when I applied it to them and they pointed out that they are all 1) from America and 2) their families are from different countries so they are absolutely NOT the same.

OK, good point. Do I have to tell them that they will meet people in their lives that just don't care and will group them all into the same category because of the color of their skin?

Do they have to have a deep and meaningful connection with this book because I- a white, middle class teacher- have decided they should?

 Next page in the book.

"What's prejudice?" I asked, immediately wishing I hadn't based on our discussion of what Latino. I was met with shrugs and a series of "I don't knows."
"People can judge you for where you came from," I started, and had one student nodding vigorously.
"Yeah," he piped in, "Like you have to know where someone came from- were they at school, or home, or the mall? And what country are they from? Otherwise how will you know to speak Spanish to them?"
OK, different angle-
"You know Martin Luther King? What did he teach us?"
"That people should be nice to him. He didn't have enough friends. OH! and it doesn't matter where you sit on the bus. You get what you get and you don't get upset."  Another one contributed, "OH yeah...  didn't he want us to be nice to everyone?" Deep breath- how are they in fourth grade and have missed the whole idea of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

"Sonia grew up poor, but she ended up being a judge on the Supreme Court. Is that surprising to you?" 
"No. My dad is from El Salvador. He had one bed for his whole family. But now we're here."
"Oh yeah, my family in Bolivia has a tiny house. Being poor doesn't matter."

I was met with a love for my community, childhood innocents, and the unbelievable unfair nature of our culture. These are fourth graders. Eight and nine year olds. Right now they don't see the lines our society has drawn. They are living the American Dream for their families, and do not even know that debates rage about whether or not children like them should be allowed to go to college. They don't understand why they are lumped into one group simply because of the color of their skin and the language they speak. They see people, not labels. They believe us when we say they can work hard and go to college, that being poor doesn't matter, and that they can be anything they want.
How soon will they start to feel racism? When will they realize they don't have the opportunities their classmates have? How important is my role in drawing their attention to what's different about them? What happens if we just let them go on believing that Sonia Sotomayor's story is typical, and they too can achieve it if they just work hard, set goals, and believe in themselves?

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Freedom to Tinker, Explore, and Problem Solve

Since moving out of our very small town house into a single family home I've found that we have a bit of space in the unfinished part of the basement to dedicate to solely to crafts. My mother had done this for me when I was little and gave me a craft space out of the way of my younger brothers where I could create anything I wanted. I decided to do the same thing for my three year old.

The first and probably most important aspect of our craft area is the tub of trash-turned-treasures waiting to inspire an idea. I throw in paper towel rolls, egg cartons, interesting boxes and anything else that I suspect may inspire creativity. Obviously I don't let it get out of control. If the box is full then it's full- nothing else will be added. It's one tub and is kept out of the way under a shelf. I just toss items in here that would otherwise head for the recycling bin. I also keep other items on hand for her to use such as ribbon, pipe cleaners, paint brushes (she has to ask to use the paints), and glitter pens. She has easy access to all of these so that they can easily inspire a creative idea. Items she needs help with are kept visible to remind her she can use them, such as the button jar, a glue bottle, and  the paints.

 Since we started using this for arts and crafts I've noticed a change in how my daughter approaches projects. The other day I was finishing up an egg carton and she asked me if she could use it to make a train. 
"What do you mean?" I asked, feeling lazy and not wanting to take the carton down to the basement if it wasn't actually going to be used. 
"First I'll cut it here, and here, and here. In half. And then paint it and put it together like a train" she explained. (She doesn't actually know what half is, but it was a nice attempt at using a new vocabulary word.)  Her plan was enough for me. We put it aside and this weekend while her sister was napping we got it back out.
 She carefully dictated to me the exact steps. I (tried) to only do what she said. She gave me exact directions on how she wanted it cut. Then she stared at the pieces of the carton for awhile before deciding how she wanted to decorate them (with pieces of the Frozen ribbon, *sigh*) and then put them together. She needed me for the cutting, putting holes into the egg carton and squeezing the glue out of the bottle, but other than that she worked independently, problem solving and narrating as she went.

As we've done more and more of these projects I've watched her ability to plan a project, organize the steps, orally explain what she wants to do, and problem solve when it does not work flourish. Her art project certainly does not look academic, but the skills she's learning from having the mental and physical space to create are what I want all children I work with to have. More than rote knowledge, the ability to set a goal, develop steps in order to meet that goal, and then to problem solve when needed is what helps us be successful as human beings. There has been so much talk about grit and executive functioning skills in education in the last few years, but not much has changed in schools to help students gain these skills. We may talk about goal setting more than we did before, but we often are not providing students with safe opportunities to practice their skills. There just isn't time. We are too focused on improving the academic skills we can test. Yet these are the skills that make the difference in the achievement gap. Children who have the freedom to explore like this at home at an early age, and those who do not. We have to be able to find a way to give all students a chance to practice these skills so that they can use them with confidence when the stakes are high.
My daughter's train does not look much like a train. Yet she is ridiculously proud of her creation. What more can you ask for?