In our Season 3 Premiere, Dawn Williams speaks with Laura Sedlock, Blue School's Director of Pre-primary Programs, and Rachel Lowdermilk, a Blue School Pre-primary Teacher. Laura and Rachel reflect on their experience consulting with Sesame Street over the past year and the story of how an inquiry in Rachel's 3s class inspired an upcoming episode. They share their deep belief in children, their capabilities for problem solving, and the power in their resilience and tenacity. Laura and Rachel also explore the role documentation and reflection can play in pre-primary classrooms, and ways families can use it at home.
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DAWN: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance can be a challenge. And as we move into this spring and summer with a hint of hope, we know that more than ever, building close connections and listening to and learning from each other is what will get us through. We see you and we’re here to partner with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way.
Today, I’m so excited to be having a conversation about Blue School and Sesame Street with two Blue School educators!
Laura Sedlock is Blue School's Director of Pre-primary Programs. Laura is an early childhood educator and leader with over twenty years experience in preschools, in NYC. Her focus is on creating dynamic, equitable and joyful learning environments, grounded in trust and respect for children.
Rachel Lowdermilk has been working with toddlers and preschoolers since 2007. She is passionate about creating a welcoming and nurturing classroom environment that supports children as they develop into deep thinkers and empowered citizens of their communities. In addition to her work as a Pre-primary educator at Blue School, Rachel also consults with Sesame Street.
DAWN: Rachel and Laura, I can't thank you enough for spending time today. I actually couldn't be more excited than to be talking about you both always when I pass you in the halls and hear about How you think about early childhood in general, but also just your deep belief in children and their capabilities make all conversation so inspiring, so to actually have time to dig in with you is a real pleasure.
LAURA: Thank you, Dawn.
RACHEL: Well, thank you so much. We're so excited to be here.
DAWN: So I'd love to start by learning more about your work with Sesame Street. How did this work come to be?
LAURA: Yeah, great. So this is Laura, and it came to be in the winter of 2019, I think it was early 2019. Rosemary Trulio at Sesame Street contacted Blue School to find out whether one of our early childhood teachers could join their annual curriculum seminar that they hold each year for writers and producers for the show. This was for their 51st season. Whenever Sesame Street is launching a new season, they have a research topic, a general theme, that they are exploring. And they pull together a panel of experts in the field. And it's about five or six people and they always include just one educator, one classroom teacher who can share stories from their classroom.
So in the group that Rachel presented in, there was also a museum educator, someone who ran education center at a museum, a play therapist. There was a researcher from a university, a child development expert. And the whole day — it was a full day, it was really exciting. We got to hear so many new and interesting ideas, we got to hear the writers' questions and responses to the stories, and also we got to be part of a broader conversation about education and young children's thinking that we knew would have really, you know, broad influence beyond the walls of our school, and that was really exciting also. What made it work well with the way that we work also is the fact that we are always documenting our stories and children's learning and play in the classroom. So we document with video, with photographs, with words, and we are always thinking about what the deeper meaning of children's play and work is. So when Rosemary contacted us, we were easily able to access these stories, and this thinking, because this is how we naturally work.
DAWN: Yeah. So I wonder if you can share more specifics about your work on the season? So what kind of questions were you pursuing?
RACHEL: Yes, so this is Rachel. The question that the creators were really thinking about at the beginning of developing Season 51 was what are the positive approaches to learning that we hope children will develop during this early childhood time period, and how do we foster those approaches to learning. And so when we think about the types of thinkers and learners that children will develop into, the skills and the processes that we're talking about are things like curiosity, flexible thinking, resilience, tenacity, collaboration. These are the foundational skills that really make a huge difference in how young children move through their world and how they react when problems arise.
And that question — I think really jives with how we think about early childhood and children's learning in pre primary at Blue School, because all of the work that we're doing is in service of children emerging as these collaborators and these flexible thinkers and these just like, compassionate, thoughtful humans who are curious and excited to tackle problems in their environment.
DAWN: I'm just realizing [LAUGH] and correct me if I'm wrong, you were doing this work and asking these questions before COVID. Right?
RACHEL: Yes. Yeah.
DAWN: And now children are — and families are experiencing your answers to some of these questions during COVID, or in this moment. Have either of you been thinking about that? if you feel, I don't know, differently, or if there's any amplification of the questions that you were pursuing then, as you reflect on them from this moment?
LAURA: yes, so much so. I have been thinking about this, about these questions of resilience, of problem solving, of flexibility. I mean, this whole experience both for children — for teachers, for parents, for everyone, has been an actual real world, very intense test of all of those skills. And a chance to really tap into them, strengthen them, access them when we can.
I think what we saw from children in the spring and through this year is how incredibly flexible, creative they are. I mean, even just the creativity with which they approached online learning, that they introduced us to ways of using the technology that we never even imagined before. There was one two year old who was pretending to be on an airplane ride with their teacher, and laid down on the floor and held the computer up above her, or maybe she was looking down at it, I can't remember the angle. But she was actually using the technology to imagine that she was flying in an airplane, there are so many connections between these approaches to learning, if that's what you call them, or just the way that children move through their world, and respond to problems and obstacles and new experiences, that have so many connections to what we've been going through, all of us.
DAWN: Yes, thanks for that. It was Rachel, hearing you say the word tenacious, or I think you said tenacity.
DAWN: And I was like, oh, that is a word that meant something different to me a year and a half ago.
RACHEL: Uh-huh. Yes.
DAWN: And now I see it in those children. Like, that skill is sort of palpable.
DAWN: So I wonder if you can share any of your learnings or your takeaways from the work that you did with Sesame Street, or you've done with Sesame Street, either in terms of ways of working or in terms of content that you're taking away with you.
RACHEL: Yes. I think there are a few big takeaways. I think the first piece of it is that as an educator, your circle of impact or your reach is really quite small, and you're often really limited to the community that you're working in. For me personally to have had this experience to be brought in as an expert.
And to have my ideas and experiences not reach just this room full of writers and producers but to have it woven into these Sesame Street stories, it's been really inspiring and very moving to see this Sesame Street institution, to see how much they value the voice of educators, and to kind of remind me how meaningful and important the work that we do in the classrooms actually is. And so that is just on a personal level, has just been really invigorating and really exciting. And then on a process — kind of a process level, seeing the very long and careful process that goes into the creation of each story and each episode that, you know, when we went on set to see this episode being filmed and they handed us a script, and it listed all of the dates of all of the revisions of each script, and it's a year plus long process, I think, again, it speaks to just the care that goes into telling these stories, and to making sure that the content that is reaching children is what it should be, because they're so deserving of it. And I think one thing that we talked about when we were on set together is that it's also, I think, a really inspiring and important thing for children to hear, that even when you're an adult, that there's this long process of creating, that, you know, I think about the first and second graders and the writers workshop going through this editing process and learning this long — this in depth process of receiving feedback and revising and editing, and that that isn't a process that goes away just because you become an adult or you become an expert, that it's always a part of the learning and creative process.
LAURA: Yes, I agree with all that. I would just add, I think for us, another part of it that was really exciting and rewarding was to see that the ways that we work at Blue School that we believe so deeply in, in terms of valuing — you know, incredible respect for children, a belief in their problem solving capabilities and their ability to kind of move through their play in community with one another, and to reach new solutions and understandings that are — they might not come to otherwise if they were not in these — guided in their play to kind of be really thoughtful about what they were doing, and to see that this work, which comes so naturally to us, is also really valuable in the broader education world, it's not that we needed affirmation, but it was also affirming. Yeah.
DAWN: Yeah, there's something so lovely — I appreciate what you're saying about all of that process, especially in something that like, as a parent, as a person, [LAUGH] like as a child, I saw, I witnessed as product, right? To me, Sesame Street was the thing that was shown to me, and to hear about all of the layers of care — knowing that as a school, we value process above all, right?, whether it's the design process or the editing process, as you said, Rachel, that to really understand all of that process in the creative work in front of us is really powerful. And it's so cool that children also will have like a little window into that, that there's all that sort of root of process under that product that you see. It's so cool.
I'd love to get into, if you're able, to more of the specifics of the episode that's about to be aired that features the work of your classroom, Rachel. Can you share the story of that work? And I'd love to hear even the longer story, sort of how did the inquiry come to be, how did the children pursue their questions, and how did you support them in that?
RACHEL: Sure, I'd love to. So let's see. In our threes classroom back in 2019, so long ago, [LAUGH] a problem kept coming up over and over again, which was that children were running out of blocks in our block area. And this was not because we didn't have enough blocks. We had so many blocks. It was because the children had created a system of saving their work that allowed their block creations to stay up indefinitely. So some children had wanted to save their work, we talked about it as a group, the children decided that if you put a sign on your work that let everybody know that you were saving it, that it could stay up and that it could stay up until you were ready to take it down. And when you work very hard on a building and you're trying to build a tower as tall as the ceiling, or you're trying to build, you know, something so elaborate and detailed, I mean, you're wanting to come back day after day, that sometimes you just don't want your work to come down. And so there was a day that we could — as teachers, we could see it coming. We knew this problem was going to come up, but all of the block shelves were empty and all of the blocks were in use on buildings that had signs that said that they were being saved.
And so this led to some frustration and to the question of well, what are we going to do about this? And so we — as we do, when a problem comes up in the classroom, we had a meeting about it and we put it back on the children to think about how we should go about solving it. And of course it started with a back and forth of we should take it down, no, we shouldn't take it down. Well, we should take it down except I want to keep my building up. [LAUGHTER] But you should take yours down. And then one student who had been quiet the whole time who was just sitting thoughtfully and he — there was a lull in the conversation and he said well, we could just make more blocks. And it was just one of those moments as a teacher that like, gives you chills, because you're like, oh, yeah. Yeah, this is exciting. And it was not an outcome — you know, we never know where a curriculum thread is going to go or where work is going to take us. And it took us to a really exciting place. We decided as a class that we were going to make 100 blocks for the block area. We tested — we did some block research and figured out what material would be best, and when we decided they'd be made out of wood to match our other blocks, we started working with the person who — with Rich, who ran our STEAM lab, and he showed us how to use tools to cut the blocks. We collaborated with the fourth graders who helped this very monumental task of cutting and sanding 100 blocks, and then finally at the end, we painted them and they became this beautiful collection of blocks that we used in our block area. And it was one of these years of work where, you know, it took a really long time — and as we were talking about, you know, by the time we were done, the blocks themselves were kind of an afterthought.
The meaning of the work and the importance of the work was that — the children did it themselves and they felt so empowered and they felt just — they felt like experts, and they felt so empowered to solve this problem and to solve other problems that were coming up. And those are — that's — you know, that's everything. That's what we're hoping happens. And so to bring it back to Sesame Street, you will find when you watch this episode that Elmo and Rosita decide that they are going to build a very tall tower as tall as the ceiling, and they need to use as many blocks as they can, and they keep getting more blocks. And they too come up against a problem where they run out of blocks, and they — from here, it takes a slightly different turn, where our class decided to make our blocks, they thought about what in their environment they could repurpose and how they could transform other things in their environment into blocks. But the underlying idea is the same, that coming up against a problem doesn't mean the end of the play or the end of the fun, it's really an opportunity to dive into something unexpected, and to see that sometimes the solution brings you — or the way that you're going to solve the problem brings you to a completely new place than you expected that you would go.
DAWN: Thanks for that, Rachel. there's something about just picturing all of those three year olds asking these questions and solving these problems. [LAUGH] That I think is just so powerful. I mean, walking into your classroom and seeing it happen was powerful, and even sort of reflecting on it feels really powerful to me.
RACHEL: It's interesting because I was thinking about it earlier in the conversation, about this past year, and all that we've learned about how resilient and tenacious and capable children are, that it's a good — I think it's a good thing to always be remembering, and that I try to remind myself all the time, that young children, even the very youngest, two and three year olds, are capable of so much, and all they just need is for us to step back and to believe that they can do hard things, and that they can get through tricky moments and find solutions to these problems, and that even the two year olds and three year olds are amazing problem solvers.
DAWN: Yeah, and there's like — not enough can be said about the curious adult standing next to them [LAUGH] who —
DAWN: Like, yes, they can do so much on their own. Yeah, Laura, were you going to say something?
LAURA: Yeah. I mean, that's what I was thinking, you need to have, you know, teachers and family, parents, caregivers around the children who not only believe in that capability but can convey that belief and then also be truly open to whatever possibility children might come up with as a solution to a problem even if it seems like a solution that in your adult brain, really doesn't feel possible. That the sense of possibility and openness, and abandoning your own agenda, or your own preconceived ideas about what can or can't be done, is a really essential part of that. And then also not just kind of stepping back and saying to children, okay, great. You have so many ideas. Go solve this problem.
They really, really need us to hear their ideas, to hear their questions, and to use our adult thinking and the resources that we know of — we often know of resources that they might not be aware of, you know, in the example of this story, the threes in Rachel's class didn't know that we had a STEAM lab, you know, with a teacher named Rich who could help them make blocks out of wood. That was information that Rachel had. But because she was so open and listening so carefully to their thoughts and ideas, she was able to connect what she knew of in the world as possible resources with what their ideas and plans were, in a way that really helped them bring these ideas into fruition, to make their ideas a reality. And I think that that is also something I think about so much with young children, is part of our role with them is to help them — not just to be excited about their ideas, but to help them understand how to grow those ideas into things that are actually happening in the world, that they made happen in collaboration with one another and with the adults in their life.
DAWN: Right. Right, so in a way, this episode becomes another level of documentation. And I know earlier you were talking about how important documentation is in the classroom, and the fact that that's always part of our practice. But I'm thinking about documentation and the way that children experience the documentation in their classrooms. And I'm wondering if you can share some of the ways that you share children's own stories of discovery or effort or challenge back to them, and what your goals are? Like, what some of the purposes are of documentation when you're using it to reflect children's experiences back to themselves?
RACHEL: Yes, so I think first and foremost, when we think about the role of documentation with children, it's to help children reflect on their own work and to see their own ideas, and to be able to see their ideas from a distance. I think a lot of times in the moment, I mean, even for us as adults, it's hard to make sense of what you're experiencing or what solutions are working or not working, and then, you know, you take a step back and you look at it from a different angle or you look at it the next day, and all of a sudden, you see a different moment and a different possibility, and so you can go back and then refine your idea. And so with children, we're also really trying to encourage that cycle of reflection and revision in children working through a problem or developing an idea or expressing an idea. But then also, in preserving work through photographs or making a book that can be read to the group or writing down children's ideas or showing a drawing, it allows other children to be a part of it. And so when one child is having this experience, or a small group of children are having this experience and making this discovery, then the knowledge that they gain, or the things that they figure out, can become part of the culture of the entire class, and those — that small group of children can become resources to the rest of the class. And then on another level, it also — in doing so, and one of the things that we often do is if we have a video or a series of photos of a moment of learning, we'll turn it into a book of images that can be read to the entire group.
And it allows the children involved to literally see themselves as the protagonist in that story in a hard moment or a moment where they figured out a solution to a problem, or handled a situation in a kind way, or took care of somebody that it really allows those children to see how important the work that they're doing is.
LAURA: I mean, I would have one additional point to add, which is about the idea of continuity of the experiences and thoughts and ideas, and that for young children, there is so much continuity, you can see when a young child becomes really curious about something. You know, whether they're wanting to know about the moon, they want to know, you know, something about an ant that they're seeing on the ground, or all the ants that they're seeing, whatever. Whatever the topic is, there's a way in which children's curiosity can take on the form of like a mini obsession. In a good way. And one thing the documentation can do is to create kind of like a mapping of their experiences and their ideas that creates a sense of ongoing continuity from one experience to another, that then tells a story of their curiosity or their idea and where it went and how it became deeper and how it grew and how it came to involve other people as well. Often, children are so present and they're so much in the moment, they might not necessarily be aware of the layers of thoughts and experiences and materials that have grown into where they are in a certain moment. But with that documentation, they're really able to — all of us can kind of go back and look and trace the path of where their ideas and their plans came from.
DAWN: I'm wondering if you ever consider sort of from the perspective of a parent if there are ways that we can use documentation or reflection in the way you're talking about it in our homes with our children?
LAURA: Yes. Definitely. I would say it definitely takes on a less formal quality, but I will say I am a parent. My children are older now but when they were young, I mean, one thing that I did that was always really fun was I just had a blank notebook that I got when each one of them was a baby, and I would just write things. And it wasn't like a, you know, traditional baby journal. But it was just a notebook, and I would write things in that about like when they said a new word or they said something funny or they turned over for the first time or — you know, the stories became — you know, or what they were passionate about, or — the stories became kind of more complex and involved as they got over, but we have this now for each of them, like this record of their childhood that is really rich and fun and funny, and moving to go back and read. So that's one thing, is that we can, you know, definitely do that. I think anything, you know, that preserves their work, their experiences, that shows — I think part of the documentation as Rachel was saying was like showing that you value what they're doing, so even if you want to have like a special space in your house where children can, you know, put their drawings, or put photographs that are special to them, a lot of the meaning I think that comes from these experiences is the value that we place on it, and framing it as something that is valuable and important.
RACHEL: I think also asking children to document their work, you know, giving them the camera, the end of them creating something that they're really proud of, and allowing them to either draw it or capture it or photograph it or capture it in some way, so that kind of they can be in charge of that work, and how that work will be preserved over time in a different form. Can be a really wonderful way to use documentation at home.
LAURA: And I would add one more thing also just about you know, our ability to record things digitally is so wonderful and so exciting, all the video that we can take and all the photographs, and the — I think a lot about how once you have those photographs and videos, like, what do you do with them? And if they're living in a computer, they're accessible but they also don't kind of live out in the real world in the same way that like, a book or a photograph might. So just always remembering that for young children especially, having those really tangible objects or places where they can kind of — make a photo album. Like, you know, or a simple photo album, or take some of their drawings and, you know, get a portfolio from an art store, and put their drawings in a book where they can look at them, so not everything needs to be like, scanned and on a computer. There's incredible value in that but it also is really wonderful for a child to kind of pull something off a book shelf and say like, oh, this is a book that I made.
RACHEL: Or if a child is, you know, stumped for an idea of what to build, to be able to go back to a photo album of their own Lego creations and take inspiration from their previous work or, oh, I want to try that again, or just to be able to show some of those images or some of that past work to somebody who's visiting. I think all of that can just be really meaningful way to, as Laura, you were saying before.
To return back to your work and to have some continuity in the work. And then also to bring other people into it.
DAWN: I really can't thank the two of you enough for this time. It's really been such a pleasure to listen to your thinking and to learn more about this episode that we're about to see. Can you tell me what episode number it is just so people can keep an eye out?
RACHEL: Sure. So this episode, Elmo and Rosita's Tallest Block Tower Ever, is Episode 24 in Season 51 and it will air on April 22.
DAWN: Can't wait to watch it and I can't thank you two enough.
LAURA: Thank you, Dawn.
RACHEL: Thanks so much, Dawn.
DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.
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