Reflections on Creativity

  The Wolf and the Owl  by Asher Cadwell

The Wolf and the Owl by Asher Cadwell

I was lucky enough to spend last week with my grandchildren.  They are still in school so I drove them to and fro and generally helped out.  On Friday evening, we sat out on a neighbors' deck on a perfect June night with children spanning ages from 3 to 13 playing so happily.  The older girls choreographed an impromptu play with sound effects, sticks, and dance moves.  My grandchildren, Delilah and Asher, were the audience as were 3 sets of parents.  So spontaneous and refreshing! 

In Boston, we have a small condo in a duplex just a stone's throw from where my son, his wife and our grandchildren live.  It is so easy to walk back and forth and enjoy both back yards, kitchens and living spaces.  On Saturday, Delilah and Asher could come over to play and they did.  We made waffles bright and early.  After breakfast, Asher, age 6, and Delilah, age 3, wanted to put on little plays and puppet shows with props and wooden and felt toys that I keep in Boston.  So inventive and fun, and inspired, with sound effects, snippets quoted from nursery rhymes, like.."the dish ran away with the spoon!" and using unlikely props as a stage. They took turns performing and I filmed them on my phone.  We had some little digital "shorts" to share with the family and that was fun. Then, Delilah and Asher broke out a rousing rendition of "We all live in a yellow submarine."All of this, I am certain, was inspired by the plays of their neighbors from the night before. 

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After the preforming and musical arts spontaneously improvised and composed by the young team, I brought out all the art materials that I had assembled...water color and gouache paints in tubes, a variety of good quality brushes in different sizes, colored pencils, oil crayons, sharpeners and erasers, pens and paper and small square canvases.  I love to do this with them!  As an art teacher by trade, it is a supreme joy to bring out all these luscious materials for my grandchildren, to encourage them and to observe them fall in love with them.  (I became reacquainted with gouache and fascinated by offering it to young children when I visited the Campus Children's School at the University of Vermont last winter.) 

 Campus Children's School Toddler Room

Campus Children's School Toddler Room

Asher chose a small canvas as he had used one before with success at our Vermont house. He announced that he wanted to paint a dragon.  (His little league baseball team is named Dragons.) He asked me how to do that and we looked for images of dragons on my phone. (Such a handy resource these days!)  Asher found, on his own, a simple step by step dragon that he liked and proceeded to draw his own version with a pen on the canvas in short order.  Then, he mixed blue and white paint to make the sky.  "This looks just like sky color!" he said with enthusiasm.  Then, he used a different blue color oil crayon to complete the sky with the pen rendered flying dragon in the middle.  He was so very pleased.  It all unfolded so naturally and with ease. 

  Dragon  by Asher Cadwell

Dragon by Asher Cadwell

His sister was captivated by the colors of the gouache that she chose herself.  I showed her how to rinse the brush throughly in the little pot of clean water, and to dab it on the paper towel when changing colors.  She caught on right away and did this successfully from the beginning.  I don't think she had painted with gouache or in this way before. Many layers of paint on a deep purple square of pleasing card stock.  And then, with a pen she wrote, with strokes of the pen as she spoke outloud, "D for Delilah...This is for Mommy." Spoken slowly in rhythm and synchronized with the marks that she was making.  

  For Mommy  by Delilah Cadwell

For Mommy by Delilah Cadwell

What was creative about the morning that we spent together? What made the context hospitable and welcoming to the creative spirit in Asher and Delilah? We could speculate that the uninterrupted time helped; the availability of the open-ended and beautiful toys and materials that they have played with for some years now; being able to be outside on a blue sky, cloudless June day under the shade of the big maple tree; the presence of an adult in their lives who loves and knows the arts and who also loves them...their mood, luck, and I would say, freedom.  

No one was telling them what to do.  Yet materials and time and attention were given to them. They had an audience when necessary, they had a camera person when they wanted that.  They had an organized facilitator with an array of enticing materials. They had a coach to support their processes. They each had ideas that could manifest because of all this.  

Ken Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Creativity involves putting your imagination to work: you do things.  Creativity is a process, a way of thinking and acting rather than an inborn trait, creativity is something we can all learn to apply in our lives. He goes on to say that teachers can provide opportunities, encourage, mentor, and inspire creativity to thrive in their students. 

This particular morning is among the most gratifying that I can remember.  We were each doing the things we love, we were all free, we were all creating, we were all outside, we were all engaged and absorbed, we were all having so much fun both together and independently.  I was able to continue to give to grandchildren the legacy of beauty and creativity and joy that has been given to me.   We were all boosted by a morning of confidence, creativity and making things of value.  May we all have mornings like these during these most glorious summer days.   


Radical Empathy: Graduation 2018


I am always moved by graduation ceremonies.  They give us all a formal time to celebrate the enormous accomplishments of those we love.  Yesterday, our nephew, Parker Cadwell, graduated from Middlebury College.  Middlebury holds a special place in our hearts because Ashley and I are both alumni, our son, Chris graduated in 2006, and countless other family members have walked these grounds and studied here since the late 1800s.  Parker is the last Cadwell we may see graduate from our dear college at least for the foreseeable future.  We were all there to celebrate him.  Along with Parker, we cheered for the 531 other graduates from 55 countries.  


The graduation speaker was Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of the great migration of African Americans from the south to points north over three decades.  She is also a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.  

Reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I feel that I am living alongside the real people who experienced such horrific injustice for so long.  The way that Isabel Wilkerson writes engenders empathy as it informs us of three African Americans' experiences and stories of seeking a better life.  Ashley and I also listened to her interview with Krista Tippet on On Being, which we recommend.  

Yesterday, Isabel Wilkerson had this to say to the graduating class of 2018: 

Here we are…gathered together, your shining faces, the robes, exams over, requirements met…at what will now be your alma mater. 

You are singularly connected to this historic moment of polarity and promise.

You were studying and incubating into adulthood as the world changed or rather revealed itself to us. 

So today, in our fractious era, I am here to make the case for radical empathy.

Radical empathy means putting in the work to learn and to listen with the heart wide open.  To understand another’s experience well enough to know how they are feeling not as we imagine we would feel.  

Radical empathy is not about you and what you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will.  It is the generosity of spirit that opens your heart to the true experience and pain and perspective of another.

We need more of that in this world.  If you love yourself and if you love humanity, if you have empathy, you cannot hurt another human being any more than you would want to feel that pain yourself.

The work that goes into learning another person's reality opens up new ways of seeing the world, allows you to more accurately assess any situation that you happen to be in.

Radical empathy is a super power that can heal and build bridges stronger than steel and concrete. 

The most important bridge that any of us will ever cross is the bridge to the human heart. 


This year, the student commencement speaker, Sebastian Tomas Sanchez of Brooklyn, N.Y. echoed the words of Isabel Wilkerson:

At Middlebury, we have gained a multi-faceted view of the world, seeing beyond one perspective or viewpoint.  We might not like it and we might not agree, but we have the tools to challenge opinions and engage in deliberative dialogue.

We are transitioning into a world where harsh views and fake news seem the norm, where people are unashamed to spew hate.  But now we have the tools to engage with this world, leaving it a little more truthful, a little more kind. 

Though the world is wildly unforgiving, we learned to be intellectually fearless in the face of adversity.  We must press on with persistence and resilience… So, let’s keep learning, let’s keep progressing, let’s keep loving.  Let’s keep pressing on.

Onward, to all of the brand new graduates all over our country and all over the world, and to all of us.  Radical Empathy, Perseverence, Resilience, Truth, Kindness.  At this moment in time, we are called to bring all of these qualities into the world every day of our lives.  


Matters of Life and Death


Mid May in Vermont is as close to heaven as I can imagine.  Everywhere you look there are tiny spring green leaves and the palest pink apple blossoms.  Hills and fields open to the Green Mountains, finally turning shades of blue and green after what is almost always in Vermont, a long, hard winter.  

The world feels new and so do we.  We are refreshed and amazed that this time of year has come again.  Sneakers and sandals replace boots, the air is soft and light.  We hear a symphony of bird song starting at 5 a.m. as the eastern sky turns pink. 

This spring, just as all of this beauty was arriving, Ashley's dear mother, Mary Cadwell was in the process of floating out of this life.  Alive and well, present and beautiful, at 95 and a half years old, she decided to make her own exit plan and she did.  Six weeks ago, she stopped eating.  For four weeks she got dressed with the help of a care giver friend of the family and sat at her desk to write letters, talk to family and read.  Sometimes, she went outside on the porch with one of her six sons to greet the sun and the day.  The fifth week, she was too weak to get out of bed but she was still present, curious and interested in hearing about anything any of us wanted to share with her.  


We were all...her big, loving family of sons, spouses, grand-children, great-grand-children, in awe of her grace, her courage, her gratitude and her resolve.  Of course, we respected her wishes.  And so it goes.  Mary died a week ago today.  Now, in some miraculous way, she is a part of this spring that is all around us.  She is in everything...the blue sky, the shifting clouds, the new growth on the maples, the scent of her lilac bushes planted in our yard.  A cousin sent us this piece below by Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh.  It is comforting and it is true if we can allow ourselves to embrace the mystery of birth and death.  


The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, "A serious misfortune of my life has arrived." I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.

I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet... wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as "my" feet were actually "our" feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.

From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.

God speed Mary Cadwell.    

In the name of the Bee-

And of the Butterfly-

And of the Breeze- Amen!

Emily Dickinson

 Mary Cadwell in 1983 with our sons, Alden, age 3, and Chris, a few months old. 

Mary Cadwell in 1983 with our sons, Alden, age 3, and Chris, a few months old. 

School Transformation: Principia Lower School

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Over the four years that we have worked with Principia School in St. Louis, we have seen beautiful growth and change.  From time to time we ask ourselves, what did we do? What did they do? How did this transformation happen? 

For the first three years, we worked with all the grades of the Lower School, preschool through grade five designing meaningful, integrated, place-based curriculum, engaging and beautiful learning environments, and documenting student work for a public audience. 

This year, the elementary school began to work with Teton Valley Science School's Place-Based Learning Program (whose approach is similar to ours), with the Principia Middle and Upper Schools.  Ashley and I began to focus on two early childhood classrooms and a team of 5 teachers including a studio teacher who had not previously worked with children this young.  This is where we witnessed dramatic change this the rooms of 3-4 year-olds and 4-5 year-olds and the studio in between.  

Our dear friend and colleague, Linda Henke of the Sante Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership has developed nested patterns that allow a deeper culture of learning to emerge in schools.  These include a high level of collaboration, shared leadership, creativity and courage, empathy and compassion, and a growth mindset.  These are all qualities that we strive to embody as well as to nuture in the teams that we work with.  

Right now, we are reading The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski which is a must read for insights into living fully in this life no matter our profession.  Frank writes, Transformation is a deep internal shift through which our basic identities are reconstituted.  It is a metamorphosis, as radical as the catapillier's movement from chrysalis to butterfly.  In the process of transformation, the scales fall from our eyes, we we see and experience everything in a new way.


What changed over time? What evolved? 

• The learning environments evolved from somewhat bare classrooms that featured teacher made or store bought materials to layered, organized, beautifully stocked, welcoming and irresistible spaces that featured beautiful student work.  

• Rather than predictable, activity oriented themes, the project work took on new meaning and became more integrated, meaningful and dynamic, featuring authentic student learning and work. 

• Rather than teacher voice, student voice began to take the lead…children’s observations, theories, their hand written phrases and titles, and their beautiful work with many materials. 

• From a somewhat separate and self contained orientation, the teacher team of five became a collaborative team, learning from and with each other as the year and the projects unfolded. 


What was the framework and the context that led to transformation? 

• Shared reading and dialogue

• Principia Team visits to local Reggio inspired schools in St. Louis including The College School, The St. Michael School, Clayton Schools' Family Center and Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center

• Monthly Skype meetings with the team and/or with each classroom team with us to share progress, view environment, address questions and strategies. 

• Support in composing curriculum maps for projects.  

• Document sharing through google docs.  

• Appreciative Inquiry emphasizing the positive change and evidence of growth as well as shared vision and design of environments and projects.  

• Enthusiasm, persistence, openness and hard work on the part of the team. 

• On-site visit in April to celebrate growth and transformation and to envision the future. 

Teacher and Administrator Reflections: 

Heather Buchanan, teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds:

Through our Skype sessions and onsite visits, Louise and Ashley have not only helped to transform our classroom environments, but also helped us become better observers, listeners and questioners.  I learned to slow down, and to trust and value the process. This has enabled me to hear and see the depth and capabilities of three and four year-old children. I am in awe of what is possible when we work in this way.

Rachel Soney, teacher of 4 and 5 year-olds:

Last year was my first year at Principia, my first year teaching preschool, and the first time I had even heard of Reggio Emilia. It took time to wrap my head around what I was being asked to do, and how it fit with my understanding about teaching and learning. After a year of school visits, welcoming Louise Elmgren, the studio teacher, to our team, and work with the Cadwells, things began to click for me and for all of us. We entered a new chapter of richness and collaboration together.   

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Louise Elmgren, art and studio teacher:

When I thought it was done, we were just beginning.

Watching art going on inside the children, watching what their fingers said

We were there as observers, teachers, guides.

Mining for meaning among all the artifacts, encouraging us to go deeper,

Ashley and Louise were there to open our eyes to the learning at hand.

Kim Ott, Principal of the Principia Lower and Middle Schools:

This professional development has proven to be not only inspiring but sustainable as well. As thought leaders, the Cadwells have gradually created systems of support and intentional spaces for teachers to dialogue. Their scaffolded approach has helped the faculty construct a firm foundation of essential big ideas – one that will continuously guide and inform our curriculum and pedagogy. Without a doubt, Ashley and Louise have become a very special part of our school family! It has been a sheer delight to work with such knowledgeable, dedicated masters of their craft.

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We are humbled and deeply gratified by this kind of transformation in practice.  Goodness, it warms our hearts.  The relationships that we have been privileged to develop have made this kind of learning possible for everyone.  We are grateful to another team of teachers for their trust in us, their dedication to the work and their courage to engage in this process of change and growth.  It makes  all the difference to the lives of the children who come into their classrooms every day.  


Patterns and Elements of a Good Project


On everyone’s favorite Friday, April 13th, 2018, Louise and I spent a lucky day with Barbie Perez and her faculty at La Scuola, in Miami, Florida.  In 2017, La Scuola moved into a beautiful vacant school in the Dade County area of Miami.  It’s a dream come true for them with its two adjoining one floor buildings, with all rooms opening out to the surrounding four acres of woods and fields.  They are having a blast settling in, making the place their own, complete with chickens, a lizard park, favorite trees and wild peacocks.

For a number of years, La Scuola faculty has focused their curriculum around place-based, inquiry projects.  We have published previous blog posts featuring their work and our work with them.  During this day together, we decided to reflect together on their experiences with projects to discern: What are the patterns and elements of a robust, successful project?

We began with an open discussion of their ideas.  Then we considered several resources, one from Ron Berger and another from Gary Stager.  We listened to Leila Gandini interview Loris Malaguzzi about the elements that make a good project.  From these sources we discovered more ideas.  Next we looked at images from The University of Vermont Campus Children's School focused on toddlers and mark making.  Then, Ashley shared an iBook from The St. Michael School of Clayton What Is the Relationship between Animals and Humans? (a year long project with 3-year-olds through grade 6).  Finally, we viewed three La Scuola projects from this year, one on Bees and the other on Trees of their Campus.  


What we wrote that day is a work in progress rather than a definitive statement about project work.  It is the basis for a shared understanding created together in April, 2018. Surely this understanding will change and grow over time.  Just the other day, after we made this blog post public, Barbara Burrington of the Campus Children's School wrote, "It's about the story."  And indeed it is.  

From our investigation together, we summarized as follows:  

A successful project...

Begins with intentional develop a clear vision...and a map (that will be edited over the length of the project as things evolve)...the map lists the enduring understandings, essential questions, learning experiences and other sources for research and inspiration, skills developed, content explored, ways to make the learning visible (assessment).

Seeks to spark curiosity

Makes strong connections with school community and surrounding community

Gives opportunity to build relationships among self, peers and community members of all                 ages

Makes real life connections

Is relevant and appropriate for the age group and skill capacities

Incorporates an array of hands on learning experiences.  Experiences to explore...analyze...observe.  Experiences that invite theories...that involve problems to be solved

Engages students as responsible citizens

Involves life long learning and develops understanding of big ideas of Sustainability Education such as: Interdependence, Healthy Systems, Change over Time, Ecological Principles, Sense of Place, Multiple Perspectives, Local & Global Citizenship, Inventing & Affecting the Future


A successful project also...

Continues over time...plenty of time...through cycles of reflections and revised projections

Composes and scaffolds continuity...while it is open to unexpected collaborations

Has some things that go away...and some new things appear...while some may reappear

In a good project teachers...

Trust the students...and look for ways that they can and do inspire each other

Listen to the students (what goes on in the hallways is as important as in the classroom)

Elicit and listen to students’ theories

Build on interests and individual strengths

Extract what students know...and what their questions are

Value the process(es)

Build a culture of excellence, kindness and respect


Tools and techniques within the project

An array of hands on learning experiences

Rich materials

Include parents as resources and as hunter/gatherers

Close observations of ALL the students’ languages...intra-disciplinary...cross curricular

Cycles of verbal investigations (stating observations and theories) and graphic investigations (depicting observations and theories) 

Carefully constructed, beautiful work for a public audience

Collaborative critiques, many drafts, HARD WORK...perseverance

Connections with authentic use of skills...and understanding content

Portfolios of work (artifacts) assessment of academic success and long lasting learning

As we publish this post, it is with a BIG THANK YOU to the faculty of La Scuola for their good thinking and open minded sharing.  They are a wonderful group of dedicated educators.  They are doing GREAT work.

Having said that, here's hoping that their intentions become reality: to publish at least one of the projects they are completing this school year.  

And, as Louise and I were leaving Barbie that Friday afternoon, we began musing about hosting at two day gathering at La Scuola, February 15 & 16. 2019.  The focus would be GREAT projects.  If you'd be interested drop me a note.