The Thrill of Beginning to Write

Delilah, age four, writing names of her favorite birds.

Delilah, age four, writing names of her favorite birds.

I have been captivated of late by early and emergent writing because of the schools and teachers that we work with and because of our grandchildren. 

Our four-year-old granddaughter, Delilah, has been writing letters and words with such strong motivation and determination over the course of the last month…it’s what she wants to do more than almost anything else. 

I spend a lot of time with Delilah and her brother Asher, pulling out all of the art materials that we have in Boston or Vermont, or traveling, wherever we happen to be together.  Both of them have loved painting and drawing since they were toddlers and that has been a joy to witness.  

Last weekend, Delilah came to visit for a few hours.  First we played Bird Bingo, (her version), and then she suggested that we each choose three of our favorite birds.  I asked if she would like to draw the birds and she did.  

Sitting down with her favorite bird game pieces in front of her, along with colored pencils, colorful and black sharpies, and oil crayons, Delilah said, “First I am going to write my name.  Then, I am going to write the names of the birds so people know what birds they are.  You tell me the letters and I will write them.” She had chosen the Splendid Fairywren native to Western Australia, the blue tit native to Europe and Great Britain, and the Emperor penguin native to Antartica.  You can imagine, writing all these names took some time! 

I was surprised that Delilah wanted to take on this big project, but she did not hesitate.  She was determined, focused, and so excited that she was writing so many letters that meant something! The names of her favorite birds.  

I gave her the time, the space, the materials, and my attention.  She chose what to do.  It was thrilling to watch her write. 

Message Center. St. Michael School, St. Louis, Missouri

Message Center. St. Michael School, St. Louis, Missouri

The University of Vermont Campus Children’s School composed a piece of documentation that explains their approach to supporting children’s emergent writing as well as a framework that they reference that is also referenced by NAEYC (Puranik & Lonigan, 2014).  

The framework of is composed of three domains: conceptual knowledge; procedural knowledge; and generative knowledge.

Conceptual knowledge refers to the function of writing. Young children understand that writing is purposeful and that print carries meaning. 

Procedural knowledge refers to the mechanics of writing letters and words…learning letter forms and sounds, as well as learning and using motor skills and tools. 

Generative knowledge describes the understanding and ability of children to write phrases and passages that convey meaning. Children can express themselves in many ways including composing stories; dictating for adults to record; authoring as a group; note writing, creating lists, and sending messages. 

Four and five-year-olds working on messages and books, Principia School, St. Louis, Missouri

Four and five-year-olds working on messages and books, Principia School, St. Louis, Missouri

In addition to the framework, Puranik & Lonigan explain each stage, name it, and illustrate it with examples by children.  (At the Campus Children’s School, they used work by their students to illustrate the stages.)  The stages are as follows: Drawing and Scribbling; Wavy Scribbles and Mock Handwriting; Letter like forms or Mock Letters; Letter Strings; Transitional Writing; Invented or Phonetic Spelling; Beginning Word and Phrase Writing; and Conventional Spelling and Sentence Writing.  

Yaebinkim, T. (2017). Promoting Preschoolers’ Emergent Writing. Young Children.

Yaebinkim, T. (2017). Promoting Preschoolers’ Emergent Writing. Young Children.

Print rich environments as well as opportunities to write names, lists, observations and messages in areas of a classroom or at home all promote children’s confidence and skill in writing.  

One of my favorite areas of the early childhood classrooms in Reggio Emilia, Italy are the Message Centers. The year that we lived in Reggio and I was a fellow at both Diana School and La Villetta School, I had the chance to observe how these areas worked and to witness stories emerge.  Children and teachers had mailboxes fashioned in different ways at different schools. There was a table or desk with several chairs and many organized materials…colored pencils, fine line pens of different colors, a variety of types and sizes of papers, collage materials, envelopes, bird and other stamps.  I have two favorite stories from that year among many others that center around messages.  

The first is about a message composed by Guilia who was a student in the Grandi class which is equivalent to our kindergarten in North America. Guilia concentrated for a good part of the morning on her message with words and illustrations made with colored pens on two small pieces of white paper. The message read:

Guiia Cuoro

Guila Guilia Mondo

Guilia Stella

Guilia Nuvola

Gulia Luna

You may be able to guess the translation:

Julia heart

Julia Julia world

Julia star

Julia cloud

Juila moon

Gulia put this message in her own mailbox.  I understood that it was a poem that she had made for herself. I was so struck by this poem where she identifies with and speaks from her heart to the whole cosmos.

Guilia was five-years-old.  No one taught her to or asked her to write poetry.  Actually, no one taught her to write.  (The Italian language is so phonetic and consistent that it is much easier to learn to write than English!)  In fact, even though they do not explicitly teach reading or writing in the preschools of Reggio Emilia, a very large percentage of the children leave the schools reading and writing.  

Another story is about three children also in the class of the Grandi, Luca, Agnese, and Carla. 

Luca loved Agnese and wrote her this message…except he couldn’t write very well so he asked Carla to write for him.  (This is encouraged by teachers…asking peers who are skilled in some area to help.)

Here is the translation:

Dear Agnese, 

I am too in love with you but sometimes you make me mad because you play with others and I don’t like that because then, who am I supposed to play with? I can never tear myself away from you! Tomorrow I will marry you and run after you with my black cape. 

With many kisses, 

Dicated by Luca

Written by Carla

Agnese responded in this way with a written message::

Dear Luca,

I can’t marry you the day you said because I am too little! Right? And also, I am never going to get married because it doesn’t suit me. I will play with you but I don’t like all your kisses. I would like a lot less. One day I will invite you to my house. 

Respond with another message and I will answer you again. 


All these messages are written with what Carlina Rinaldi might call artful letters. They are on colored tissue paper written with many colors of pens, with drawings and some collage.  They are beautiful. 

These are examples of what can occur in schools where communication, relationships, and aesthetics and poetics are valued and form part of the the fabric of the culture of the school.  Maybe these stories are uniquely Italian, but I like to think that they are uniquely human.  I believe that young children will choose to write difficult words such as Splendid Fairywren if the context supports them. I believe that children who are five will write poetry and love letters on beautiful papers if the culture supports them wherever they are.

What might our framework be for this? What might we learn from the poems, songs, and love letters of children? 

Birthday message from children at La Villetta School.

Birthday message from children at La Villetta School.





A Celebration for an Exceptional Educational Leader: Dr. Ena Shelley


I met Dr. Ena Shelley, Dean of the College of Education at Butler University, on April 10, 2006.  What a lucky day for me.  Ena called me, I remember, at The College School to invite me to come to Indianapolis to speak with the Indianapolis Reggio Collaborative. The minute I heard her kind voice on the other end of the line, I knew that we would become friends.  That first visit led us into a rich and beautiful professional relationship and a warm and dear friendship.

Ena brought teachers and professors from Butler University a number of times to visit our schools in St. Louis and to attend conferences that our St. Louis Reggio Collaborative hosted.  I returned to Indianapolis and instead of staying in a hotel, Ena invited me to stay with her.  We traveled to Reggio Emilia together on a Professor and Student Study Tour. 

In 2008, I left my teaching position at The College School and Ashley and I launched Cadwell Collaborative, our consulting business for curriculum development and school design.  From that moment on, Ena became a way paver for both of us.   She provided us with many beautiful and memorable opportunities that have become milestones in our careers.

I told Ena that I dreamed of teaching a university course with her and she made that happen three times.  In 2011 we co-taught Living the Questions: Learning for the Future, focused on the fundamental principals and practices of the Reggio Approach.  In 2012 and 2013, we co-taught A Field Study in Early & Elementary Educationat Opal School in Portland, Oregon.  

Field Study in Early and Elementary Education, Butler University at Opal School

Field Study in Early and Elementary Education, Butler University at Opal School

Ena hired me to be a consultant for the new Indianapolis Public School Butler University Laboratory School from 2010-2015 working with Ron Smith and his faculty as well as the Butler faculty who taught courses on site.  This long term consultancy provided me with confidence and time to grow into and understand how I might best work with teachers and administrators. 

In 2010, Ena spearheaded an initiative to renovate and redesign an old Georgean elementary school on the Butler campus to be an innovative center for the Butler College of Education. Butler hired HOK, Gyo Obata, and Ashley Cadwell to work on that design.  Ashley and HOK authored a presentation on 21st century pedagogy and school design that was noteworthy at the time and a reference point for school architects today.

Rendering: Plans for new Butler College of Education building, HOK

Rendering: Plans for new Butler College of Education building, HOK

Last Monday, we attended the retirement celebration for Ena at Butler in the new College of Education building (a different one than HOK and Ashley designed but including many of their design principles).  I conclude by quoting some of what Ena said at her retirement celebration and much of what she wrote in her last column as dean before she retires.  There is so much wisdom here for all of us.  May we all continue to dare greatly, find joy and humor in life and in our work, listen to the children around us, and reach for the stars together.  

Resource Library at Butler College of Education: Dr. Ena Shelley Collection

Resource Library at Butler College of Education: Dr. Ena Shelley Collection

From the Newsletter Transforming Education by Ena Shelley

“How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” –Winnie the Pooh, author A.A. Milne.  

At the end of May, I will officially retire after 36 wonderful years at Butler University. I began my teaching career as a kindergarten teacher and Winnie the Pooh was present in several ways in my classroom. When I read this quote, I thought how perfect it was, sort of like a bookend to a career of learning that has filled my heart and soul with joy. If you have read the work of A. A. Milne, you know that his characters speak words of wisdom about lessons in life. I am taking this opportunity to share with you some of the lessons I have learned over the years along with a request for action that I offer as a “provocation” or opportunity to consider.

Lesson #1: Heroic work with children of all ages happens in schools and other learning institutions like museums, community programs, and hospitals every day! Through the years when I have encountered those who share their perspective that schools are failing and that the “system” is broken, I invite them to spend time with me in schools. Many times, I have found these individuals are relying on what they have heard or read but have not actually engaged with the people doing the hard work.

Provocation: How do you share your stories with others? Could your students write to policymakers or create videos of their own version of the evening news with a spotlight on “good things?” Can you invite into your setting those individuals who hold a less than positive view of education and engage them in thoughtful, ongoing dialogue?

Lesson#2: Future educators are sitting in today’s classrooms. The teaching profession is still a noble profession and is the foundation of a democratic society. As educators, we must encourage students who could be great teachers.

Provocation: I share this with you as something I have actually done numerous times when recruiting students into education through the university admissions process. We have an event with the prospective students and their parents at the Butler Lab School. I ask the parents to close their eyes and with a show of hands or a nod, indicate if they are worried about their child selecting education as a major, if they are worried about the salary of a teacher, if they are concerned about all of the challenges, including safety, teachers are facing. Each time I have done this, at least 95 percent of the parents indicate their concern. Then with their eyes still closed, I ask them to remember a teacher who positively impacted their lives. I ask them if they can picture the teacher in their mind, hear their voice, and remember what the teacher did that made a significant change in their life. Then I ask them to open their eyes, look at their child, and realize that their child can be that person in the life of someone. This is when it seems to “click” for them—YES, they want their child to be that person in the life of others. How can you create your own version of lifting up the profession by reminding others that behind every person is a teacher(s) who made a difference?

Lesson #3: Find the joy in what you do every day; even on the hardest days good things have happened—pay attention! When I student taught, one of the best things my cooperating teacher had me do was write down three to five good things that had happened during the day.  She told me even on the days when you felt like nothing went right, good things had happened. I still do this even today and I believe it is why I still love teaching. Don’t get caught up in negative talk because that spiral is an endless one-way road to being hopeless.

Provocation: If you don’t already keep a journal with positive notes, start one. Or, what if at the end of the day or end of the class period you ask your students to share good things that happened? The old saying “It is all in how you look at it” was best lived out in a conversation I had one day with a second-grader. I noticed his shoe was untied and I mentioned it to him. His reply was “The good news is the other one is fine.” Oh the wisdom of children—pay attention to them!

Lesson #4: In my role as Dean of the College of Education, I have learned that you surround yourself with incredible talent, develop a shared vision, and then run the race together, asking your peers what support they need and then provide it to them. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, described thriving organizations that had solos but also played harmoniously as a symphony. Ensure that individuals are thriving and developing their unique talents but always be mindful that they play a part in the larger organization that is the symphony.

Provocation: Are you playing a solo or do you see your role in the larger symphony? Is there someone who seems isolated in your organization who you could engage to work with you and others? Do you have a shared vision so you know what musical score you are playing?

I know that the COE will continue to DARE GREATLY and it has been my honor to be on the journey with you.  I also want the College of Education to remember, there is NO FAILURE, there is ONLY LEARNING.  When something doesn’t work out, it was a gift, a lesson, to guide you to the next step. May all of your steps be pavers to continued greatness.

Planting project at new IPS Butler University Laboratory School

Planting project at new IPS Butler University Laboratory School




Close Observation...”The Zen of Seeing”

Notre Dame, April 6, 2019

Notre Dame, April 6, 2019

What is “close observation” and why is it essential to living a full and fulfilling life? It is a skill garnered from an early age. many ways instinctual, and also learned from peers, parents and teachers.  In my humble opinion, we don’t pay enough attention to “CALL attention” teach: “pay attention.”

The most successful teachers I know use authentic experiences to CALL ATTENTION...and then follow up with asking/provoking their students to record what they observed in whatever “language” is available and meaningful to them (writing, drawing, dance, mathematics, etc.).  This apparently simple process (so simple that it’s often ignored), is the fundamental building block of all learning...of genuine understanding.  What happened?  What did you sense (using all five of senses)?  How would you, can you, describe it?  

Saint Michael School outdoor classroom

Saint Michael School outdoor classroom

I remember a personal epiphany with this process after college, when I was introduced to Frederick Franck by Louise’s mother, Adeline Boyd, an adjunct professor of Eastern Art at Washington University in St. Louis.  The book of Franck’s that she recommended to me when she saw a couple of my sketches was The Zen of Seeing, Seeing/Drawing as Meditation.  The book is a collection of Franck’s drawings and his hand written observations.  It opened a whole new way of understanding the world for me.

He writes: SEEING/DRAWING is a way of contemplation by which all things are made new, by which the world is freshly experienced at each moment. It is the opposite of looking at things from the outside, taking them for granted. What I have not drawn, I have never really seen. Once you start drawing an ordinary thing, a fly, a flower, a face, you realize how extraordinary it is — a sheer miracle.

When I take the time to SEE, the world is transformed for me…I make sense of the parts in new ways…my perspective becomes more complete…my life becomes more full. There are so many experiences that I could recount for you, both in my personal reflections, in my teaching, and my teaching of teachers. 


My most recent experience of the intractable value of close observation that leads to understanding was in Paris. When I saw the news headline last week that Notre Dame had burned, the gut wrenching blow I felt was directly related to these sketches I’d made only two weeks while sitting out front with 1,000 of my best friends from all over the world, and one four days later having stopped while biking along the Seine with Louise.

West transept and blooming cherry trees, Notre Dame

West transept and blooming cherry trees, Notre Dame

Neither of these sketches is really about “art.” They represent my full, undivided, completely delighted PRESENCE...really SEEING Notre Dame and drawing what I saw and felt.  I understand Notre Dame in an utterly real and unfathomable way.  Like feeling your breath, now gone.

quick gesture sketch, Notre Dame

quick gesture sketch, Notre Dame

Saying Goodbye to Olly


On a most beautiful, blue sky, first day of spring day, our son, Alden and his family said goodbye to a dear and beloved chocolate lab named Olly. Olly was almost 14 years old. Up until the week before, she seemed to be doing pretty well…talking walks in the snow when they visited us in Vermont, snuggling, wagging her tail. And then, she wasn't. She couldn't get up anymore by herself, she wasn’t hungry, her breathing became difficult at times, she was fading.

My daughter-in-law Caroline, brought a book home from the first grade classroom where she teaches entitled, Saying Goodbye to Lulu, about a family dog who dies. I walked over to their house to help with bed time and they had just finished reading it. Delilah, who is four, came over to me in tears and handed me the book and said emphatically, “I don’t want to keep this book. It is too sad!” Alden and Caroline were helping their children, gently and honestly, to understand that their dear dog that they had grown up with was about to die.

It is so hard for everyone to loose a pet who has become such a valued member of a family. All of us were in tears at one time or another during that hard week. On Wednesday, March 20th, I picked up Asher and Delilah from school. We walked up the stairs to their house and their parents told them, “Olly died today.” Olly was curled up on her bed. The four of them gathered around and patted her and cried and considered how things change so fast and that death is final.

Ashley and I went to join them for a ceremony for Olly. Alden dug a perfectly round and deep hole under their backyard apple tree. Asher and Delilah helped. They put one of Olly’s sheep skins at the bottom of the hole. Alden carried Olly from her bed to the back yard and laid her to rest. We held onto each other in the silent blue afternoon and felt very sad and also very grateful for each other and for the love, loyalty and joy of such a sweet dog for so many years.


Ashley and I were listening to an interview with Jean Vanier, a philosopher and Catholic social innovator, who founded The L’Arche movement which establishes communities for people with mental disabilities. He said that children teach us about tenderness, presence, and unity or wholeness. He said that, as adults, we can often be removed from the present, saying one thing and thinking another. Children, and I think also dogs, bring us into presence, wholeness and joy.


I was so touched and impressed with the way this family, led by their parents, honored the life and death of their dear dog in such an honest, real, and brave way. Ashley and I felt privileged to be a part of this passing.

Mary Oliver wrote this: Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.

And she also wrote this: Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs? 


21st Century Curricula and School Design

HOK rendering…schematic design phase for Butler University School of Education

HOK rendering…schematic design phase for Butler University School of Education

There are many ways to think about Education in the 21st Century and here is one way I have composed my understanding.  My construct begins with the paradigm shift caused by many factors, including: brain research, sustainability, and, well…living in a whole new world.  With this paradigm shift we have come to understand more about how we learn (through multiple learning styles, multiple intelligences, the 100 Languages). We have begun to frame our thinking about sustainability. And we are learning to embrace the ways that we create meaning in our lives.  Each of these areas can be restated as Skills for the 21st Century…and the skills, new and evolving, require a new and evolving 21st C Education Curricula: cross-disciplinary research projects, service projects, and an “ethic of excellence.”  New curricula requires a new way of thinking about 21st C School Design, new patterns for design, including: labs and studios, transparency, gradation of spaces, sustainable materials and energy systems, connection to community, galleries and fairs, aesthetics.  

I have composed a keynote presentation of this thinking…one that I have used to stimulate thinking in many contexts including faculty curricula design meetings and with school architects.  Here is the outline slide of the presentation…followed by a collage slide of some of the many images that I use in the discussion…and then, a partial bibliography of sources that have inspired this composition.

I’d be happy to share this with anyone over ZOOM…Cadwell Collaborative’s new found internet friend (we can host groups of up to 100!!!!). Just drop me an email at

Ed for 21st C Outline slide.jpg
collage of images for 21st C school design.jpg
Bibliography for 21st C School Design.png

Here is another outline of the thinking.

summary 20thvs21stC school design.jpg