Archive for February, 2015

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

Posted on: February 4th, 2015 by jnovakowski 1 Comment

The Gift of Time

 I consider myself so lucky to have been given the opportunity to visit Opal School.  What an amazing experience to see playful inquiry in action and spend three days reflecting, questioning and examining my own practice.  So many things connected, challenged and extended my thinking.  Although not a new idea, I was struck by the depth of thinking shared in the Opal 4 class (ages 9-11).   Listening to these students engage in discussions was nothing short of inspiring.  Not only were they actively listening and responding to each other in such a respectful manner, but their comments, connections and questions reflected a higher level of understanding of the content being discussed.  What was it that nurtured this kind of deep thinking?  As I reflected upon the how’s and why’s I kept coming back to the same thing and that was that this classroom was not rushed.  These students were given time to formulate their own ideas and then time to each share their questions, theories, and ideas.  Each morning we were there, the students were given an invitation to ponder upon as they arrived in the classroom.  One day it was a quote from a text to reflect upon in writing and the next day it was an invitation to sketch their mental images.  These opening activities gave the students time to reflect and formulate their ideas.  The class then met for their opening meeting.  The children sat in a circle and each shared.  Once again, these children were given time to listen and engage in meaningful discussions together in a safe and respectful community.   I believe the children were so engaged because they knew their thinking had a purpose and would be listened to.  I truly believe that each child has a different connection, perspective, or question to share that will enhance or challenge the thinking of a group.  Put simply, each child has a right to be heard and we need to slow down, be present and really listen.

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This notion of time and thoughtfully building ideas together was in all of the classrooms at Opal.

Michelle Hikida

grades 2&3 teacher, Diefenbaker Elementary


*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here 

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

Posted on: February 3rd, 2015 by jnovakowski 1 Comment












These are all words that are repeated multiple times as I review my notes and observations from Opal School last week. I feel extremely honoured and grateful to have had the opportunity to sit contemplatively in several Opal classrooms full of students and teachers over the course of two days. While there were many things that struck me in my time at Opal, the overarching idea that has stayed with me as I reflect on my learning is Language.

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The language practices of both the students and teachers at the Opal School are respectful, consistent and obviously well modeled. This was very evident across the classrooms and ages of the students. There seems to be more space and time for language and dialogue at the Opal School. Perhaps part of the effect the beautiful aesthetics of the classrooms have is creating spaces for dialogue and conversation amongst its inhabitants.

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Michael Halliday says “Language has the power to shape our consciousness; and it does so for each human child, by providing the theory that he or she uses to interpret and manipulate their environment.” An observer at Opal School can quickly ascertain that the teachers at Opal fully understand the significance their language has on helping or hindering the development of the children. Words are chosen very carefully and intentionally, and are spoken calmly and purposefully. The teachers do not take up “more air time” than is necessary to provide scaffolding and subtle direction required in the moment. The words are empathic and the language is structured in such a way that it invites others to continue the conversation. And my there are conversations!

On my second morning observing in the Opal 4 classroom (9-11 year old students), I was so excited to see the continuation of their inquiry into the history of the Columbia River Basin. They have been wondering about the ideas surrounding land, place, people, settlers and how people come to be in a space. The class has been working in small groups to learn more about the geographical features and boundaries associated with the place of specific Native American peoples. During the discussion, one student had noticed that his people “owned” land that was the same as another group. A classmate then said that both peoples were “using” it. I watched as their teacher skillfully and purposefully brought forth the somewhat subtle difference in language as she said, “I notice that … said that they owned the land while … said they used the land. I’m wondering if those words are important to talk about?” For the next ten minutes I watched in total awe as the group set into a dialogue that covered the big ideas of territory, ownership, intentions of others, mistakes, misunderstandings, law, justice and more. The teachers transcribed and listened carefully, but let the students continue in their questions and group conversations that led to better understanding and perspective about the people of the Columbia River Basin. It was beautiful and I felt truly grateful that I was there to see it.

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Peter Johnston’s book “Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives” is a resource that the Opal School staff have studied and they refer to it’s significance on their blog. It is an inspiring read about the power that language has in our classrooms and our lives. Johnston says, “ In this book, I show you how our values, our beliefs, and our histories, and the context in which we work, have an impact on the language we choose. I also show you how our language choices have serious consequences for children’s learning and for who they become as individuals and as a community. I help you make productive choices, because the language we choose in our teaching changes the worlds children inhabit now and those they will build in the future.”

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 All over the walls of Opal School amongst a multitude of provocations and documentation, one consistently finds three questions. What do you see? What do you think? What do you wonder? I hope that I’ve described a bit of what I saw and thought. Here is a bit of what I’m wondering. I’m wondering how I can make language a more intentional and purposeful part of my own teaching practice? I wonder how a shift in my language and words as a teacher might affect the language choices of my students? I wonder what kind of a world I might help create for my students if I were to make language a more explicit part of my planning process.

Thank you for reading!

Braunwyn Thompson

Woodward Elementary School

*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here

a visit to Opal – January 2015: reflections

Posted on: February 2nd, 2015 by jnovakowski 3 Comments

As I reflect on my three days visiting the Opal School in Portland, I go back to one of my tweets that kind of sums things up for me – “values, humanity, joy” and of course #playfulinquiry. The focus of the visitation days was looking at questions and playful inquiry. As a team we wondered about how we might make sense of Opal’s interpretation of playful inquiry for our context.

We knew we were going to see beautiful environments. We are fairly well versed in Story Workshop and the use of loose parts. As fellow pacific northwesterners, we too embrace our outdoor learning opportunities year-round. We also knew we were going to powerful teaching and learning. And we did.

I think the most powerful practice I observed was a pedagogy of listening enacted by both teachers and students in every classroom we visited. I have never seen such patience and kindness and strong trusting relationships between teacher and child but also between the children. During class meetings, the students often sat in circles so that they could all see other. They each had a turn to speak and respond as needed. The teachers genuinely listened to the children and responded with a prompt or question to continue the thinking and discussion. When there was a conflict, and of course there were conflicts as these are real children we are talking about, the teacher kindly coached the children through the conflict. In a classroom of 9-11 year olds, we witnessed the children doing this for each other, with no need for adult intervention. The students have experienced this way of being in a community, many since they were three years old or in kindergarten and the teachers commented that the students often take the language of listening home to their own families. I never heard a raised or cross voice the whole time we were there and I never observed a sense of being rushed, or needing to wrap things up to move on to the next thing, whether during solving a conflict or during a class meeting. There seemed to always be time to listen to each other. What a gift. What an important priority.

At the core of what we saw was shared values amongst all community members – teachers and students, the sense of humanity in all that was done and a sense of joy that filled the classrooms and spirits of those who lived in those spaces.

Outside of each classroom, there was an introduction to that classroom community and a sharing of the values and principles. Within classrooms, there were often prompts posted such as “What does it mean to be together in this community?” that focus on the sense of community that was so evident in every classroom we visited.



We wondered what it would be like to teach in a school community where everyone shared the same principles and values about children, learning and teaching? We have experienced pockets of that in our schools but along with the right of autonomy in our system, sometimes comes quite disparate views on what it means to be a teacher and how children are viewed.

Throughout our visit, the power of story kept resonating and reminding us that we all have a story to tell. The Opal teachers and students look for the stories that live within materials, ideas and concepts. They create stories to think, to learn, to understand and make sense of the world. They share their stories. It was not surprising that one of our last acts on the last afternoon of our visit was to engage with studio materials and create a story of our experience at Opal. All four of us created very different stories, but with similar themes.



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During our visit, we were also struck by the way teachers position themselves as teacher-researchers. Now being a perpetual student myself, this has probably always been how I see myself although I have not articulated it that way. I think positioning yourself as a learner and with a stance of inquiry yourself is a very powerful model for your students. The Opal teachers carefully jotted down students’ comments, diagrammed their creations and transcribed discussions on both clipboards and using iPads.

The documentation that teachers engaged in was visible in all of the classrooms and hallways. We found out that the staff has a professional learning meeting every Wednesday afternoon from 2-4 and also meets with their grade group teams twice a week after school for planning, collaborating and reflection. We learned that the staff all uses Evernote to share their transcriptions and documentation, with teachers all having a different colour to comment and reflect within their shared learning documents. Whereas some of our teachers might spend time photocopying or “unit planning”, the Opal teachers seem to invest their time in discussing their students together, thinking about what is at the essence of the stories that are emerging in the classroom and how to negotiate an inquiry-based curriculum that connects to their state standards but builds on the students’ interests, stories and questions. Documentation that makes both thinking and learning visible is an essential part of their process and reveals what has happened so far in the students’ stories and what might come next.

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I truly felt I was in the presence of brilliance.

In terms of a negotiated and inquiry-based curriculum, the teachers referenced Loris Malaguzzi and the notion of the “ball toss” where teachers may toss a ball out to the child/class and in a way provoke or invite engagement but then the child/class tosses the ball back with their own meaning, ideas and questions and so it goes, back and forth. For this game to be successful, so many things need to be in place and we talked a lot about this in our team. Relationships, trust, care, community. And for many teachers, an uncomfortableness may be caused by a letting go that is needed to negotiate and plan alongside and in response to students.

Many of our schools have seen evidence of the power of a common vision when they choose a school goal and all focus on that, using consistent language and working towards a common goal. Examples are many of our schools who use the language of Adrienne Gear’s Reading Power or our schools that our focusing  on mental mathematics strategies. There is power for all involved, teachers and students, to have some consistency and community around the way we talk about thinking and learning together in a school.

How might we choose to live with our required curriculum? The Opal teachers have state standards, Common Core and testing. Here in BC, we have mandated curriculum and learning outcomes but have much autonomy as to how that curriculum is enacted in our classrooms…we can choose to live with our curriculum in a manner that is less restrictive for our students and ourselves and is more connected, purposeful and meaningful.



As we move towards our redesigned curriculum here in BC, I see this as an opportunity for shared understandings and working together towards some common goals. The competencies, inquiry-based approaches, focus on personalized learning and teaching and learning through big curricular ideas will all need to be a common focus of all our K-12 staffs as we move forward together to support student learning.

In Richmond, our core belief statement is “the focus in on the learner” and I felt many connections to this at Opal School and felt that focus enacted and lived by both teachers and students. The child as learner, the teacher as learner. A focus on learning and making that learning visible. It was a rich professional learning experience to reflect on our own beliefs and principles of teaching and learning. By living in a different context, even for a short time, you are able to hold up a mirror to yourself and reflect on where we are in our own story.


*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here

a visit to Opal – January 2015: an introduction

Posted on: February 1st, 2015 by jnovakowski

I was part of a team from our district that visited the Opal school in Portland, Oregon at the end of January. I was already acquainted with Opal school, having attended events where teachers from the school shared their experiences and I have many of their published resources. Teams of early learning & Kindergarten teachers from our district have visited Opal. Marie Thom, our Early Learning and Full Day Kindergarten teacher consultant, has continued to nurture learning environments in our district’s classrooms that honour the child and Reggio-inspired practices. All of our StrongStart classrooms and many of our kindergarten classrooms have been influenced and inspired in this way. We have beautiful, inspiring classrooms we can visit in our district and many of our kindergarten teachers are investigating Story Workshop with the support of Marie and Lisa Schwartz, one of our literacy teacher consultants. Story Workshop is a foundational piece in Opal classrooms and videos sharing the Story Workshop experience at Opal can be found HERE. Many of our early learning and  kindergarten teachers are also exploring natural spaces, gardens and outdoor classrooms with their children. A Museum Centre for Learning video created  about the importance of nature play can be found HERE.

This time, our district team was comprised of myself, Michelle Hikida (grades 2&3 teacher at Diefenbaker), Braunwyn Thompson (grades 3&4 teacher at Woodward) and Hieu Pham-Fraser (teacher-librarian and resource teacher at Blair). Our professional focus of our visit was to look at the systemic big picture and structures that were in place to nurture and support inquiry-based learning for primary grades and beyond. We wanted to consider what might be needed in order to grow the practices that are taking hold in our early learning and Kindergarten classrooms to classrooms with older students. What might be the perceived constraints that teachers are feeling? What aspects or interpretations that are “fitting” for our younger learners might also fit with our older students, or what adjustments might be needed?

Michelle and Braunwyn are math mentor teachers in our district and we were also looking for examples of mathematical inquiry and mathematics teaching and learning that is based on the practices, principles and beliefs we know the school is known for. Having been a teacher-librarian and resource teacher myself, I know the influence this role can have in a school and is one of the rare opportunities we have in our system for teacher teaming and collaboration which is the lens Hieu was looking through during our visit. We came to realize that teacher collaboration was such an essential part of what we experienced at Opal.


More information about Opal School, including its guiding principles, can be found HERE.

*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here

Our first evening at Opal, we were drawn together in the theatre space at the museum and provided with an overview of what our experience would be. With the thinking frames of noticing and wondering as well as collecting, connecting and sharing…we set off to the classrooms. Of course, we loved what we saw but we also had many wonders. We made many connections to things that were already happening in our district and connections to our redesigned curriculum in BC and its focus on competencies, inquiry and personalized learning.

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We then spent two full days at Opal. The mornings were spent in classrooms while the children were in attendance. We relished these times, being a “fly on the wall” and having a glimpse into classroom life at Opal and what it meant to be in those classroom communities. In the afternoons, we reflected, listened to Opal educators share their stories and thinking and had time for group discussions.

Part two of this series of blog posts will share what I think are the essential elements of what we experienced and I will make connections to our Richmond context.