a visit to Opal – January 2015: Hieu’s story

Posted on: February 4th, 2015 by jnovakowski 2 Comments

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Today, six days after our visit to Opal School in Portland, Oregon, I find my mind is still reflecting, questioning and creating meaning from the experience. Every moment of the conference gave me new insight to the practice of teaching.

On the first evening, my colleagues and I entered empty classrooms and observed the projects and environments that children were engaged in.  As I wandered in and out of the six classrooms, I was taken aback by the aesthetic of the materials, the walls and the artwork produced by students as young as three to as old as 11. Some questions popped into my head. “How did the teachers come up with these ideas?” “How did the teachers know what they wanted children to learn?” “How could these students come up with such complex ideas and how did they learn to express their ideas in such sophisticated ways?” 

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“How might we use the wire to create a balanced composition that represents the idea of a community?”

However, it was not until the next day when we returned to observe teachers and children in action did I realize that nothing in the environment compared to the interactions and conversations I heard and saw. In every movement, every comment, every question, there was genuine care and respect. I saw students hugging each other, smiling at each other and displaying positive body language during whole group and small group conversations. In small groups, I heard only one voice at a time; children gave the speaker attention and responded truthfully and thoughtfully with their ideas. It did not seem as getting the “smartest” or “rightest” answer mattered, it was that each person had a voice. In this community of learning, competition did not take precedence and students and teachers felt they could take risks in areas where they felt most passionate and connected. Though I didn’t hear phrases such as “well done!” or “that’s a great comment,” I also didn’t see students seeking for teacher attention or affirmation. These students displayed a high level of self-awareness and self esteem at such a young age.

In the afternoon, at the Museum of Learning, we sat and listened to the teachers speak of their practice, I discovered that teaching was their life’s work and this place allowed them to share a core set of values. They spoke of teaching as a craft and as project in humanity. I realized their practice as individuals and as a collective is powerful because of their values. I reflect now on my own values. What do I believe education is? What do I see children as? What is authentic learning? Who sets the goals for learning? How is authentic learning measured? By measuring a child’s learning, what practice places judgment and what practice prepares the child for the step?

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Each teacher that came up to speak spoke of the work they do as teacher-researchers. I have come to understand that this is a subtle but very significant shift in perspective when it comes to effective professional development. I asked teachers in a small group discussion what they did to harness their values and improve their practice. They said that they committed themselves to a reflective share in a circle space together once a week. Just as they planned circle time for students to share ideas as equals, they too, share their practice, their queries, and their need of help. From there, they work together to imagine and create possibilities for their students.


I learned the power of circle within my own practice from my colleague and friend, Lynn Wainwright. I was able to witness the affect of a commitment to deep listening of each other’s stories. It is through our collective stories that help us to reflect on ourselves and give us knowledge and courage to transform our practice for the sake of children’s learning. The teachers at Opal not only teach the process of inquiry, they also live it themselves.


At Blair, we value collaboration. We believe that an inquirer must have certain capacities, those capacities include the ability to reflect, communicate, and to think critically and creatively. But above all else, we know that a safe environment of community must be fostered before any depth of learning can occur. We are working to “walk the talk” through our own collective practice. This year, in my role of teacher-librarian, we have carved out blocks of collaboration time that can last for a full term of three or more months for interested teachers. The collaboration blocks allow students time to dive deeply into the big questions and enduring understandings; but, they also free teachers from time restraints so that we can reflect on patterns of our practice and develop our hunches and follow through with action learning (Halbert & Kaser, 2013). I am inspired by the collaboration I saw in Portland. I am wondering, “How can I open up spaces for teachers so all are invited to challenge their own practices?” “What are the structures we can use so that we focus more on the process of learning rather than the product of the weeks we have together?” “What do I need to do to improve my interaction as a collaborator to my colleagues?” To answer this latter question, I am reminded of two quotes I encountered in the past weeks.

“Listening is the simplest form of respect.” By Bryant H. McGill


“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By Simone Weil

My personal take away from my days at Opal is to exercise restraint. In restraint, I can allow space for others to speak and feel. In restraint, I can allow myself to think carefully the language I will use to show respect and gratitude.  In restraint, I will try to not react to my own emotions or my own assumptions.  This is a goal for both my personal and professional relationships with children and adults.


I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to attend the Opal School Visitation Days. I truly felt that I saw the art of teaching before my eyes. I am eager to try the many other facets of inquiry learning that I witnessed there including the use of studio materials, the strategy of story workshop and many others. I believe that there is much that can be applied to our British Columbian context and also to our Richmond context. My learning journey is richer because of the teachers and students of the Opal School and because of the organization of The Centre for Children’s Learning.

Thank you, Hieu

Blair Elementary (teacher-librarian and resource/ELL teacher)

2 Responses

  1. Matt Karlsen says:

    So much fun to combine that effort toward restraint with considerable intention, isn’t it? I’m excited to read about how your teacher teams collaborate around documenting student thinking in a way that supports the kinds of learning communities you’re newly imagining, Hieu. I’m so glad to hear that your time in Portland was filled with fresh insights. Here’s hoping you’ll return to Opal School soon!

  2. […] Thinking”, as well as Primary and Intermediate interests. I also have a presence on the District blogs and the school’s twitter feeds. Using these platforms, I am able to join into […]