Pastries and Pigeons: A Map for all the World to See

At Brightworks, we push students to approach the world beyond our school doors as their rightful learning domain, rich with opportunities for connection, exchange and inspiration. The exploration phase of our arc is marked by field excursions and contact with community experts. Professionals take time to visit our students and share their passions, inspiring new ideas and project directions. From this simmering of perspectives we expect to change what we – the children, collaborators and experts – initially perceive as possible.

It turns out that lot of magic can happen when a mutually inspiring exchange occurs between a student and an expert, which is what occurred between Beth and Natasha, resulting in a surprising turn of events this fall.

During our Maps Arc last spring, we had the pleasure of welcoming our neighbors, Beth and Shawn from Stamen Design, into our space to present the kinds of maps they make. In her enthusiastic blog post, Beth noted that the children quickly understood that “maps are pictures of data, and data can by anything.”

Natasha Mei was particularly inspired by the presentation and decided that for her final project she would do what Stamen does: put two seemingly unconnected data points together to make an interesting and beautiful map.


Throughout the process of planning, researching, doing field work for data collection, emailing La Boulange some questions, consulting with Beth, seeking guidance from Gever and me (her collaborator), and lots of testing and revising, Natasha stayed committed to her vision of a beautifully detailed product. Her work culminated in a multi-layer map showing a relationship between La Boulange cafès and pigeons, a work of art and science that she calls “Natasha’s Pigeon and Pastry Project.”

Recently, we received word from Beth about the UC Berkeley Symposium, “Mapping and its Discontents”, which called for submissions of “see-through maps that lay bare their point of view discussing the position of the mapmaker, the ways maps reveal or hide their agendas, and the uses to which maps are put.”

Natasha needed no further persuasion to submit. She explained to me that, if chosen, it would be really exciting to have her map published in the world, “for other people to see, [not just] Brightworks people at the exposition night.”

Not only was Natasha’s map chosen as a notable map among other provocative and beautiful entries, she received an Award of Special Merit!  Check out Natasha’s page, which includes her essay, on the symposium’s web site (

Natasha attended opening night with her parents, which was formatted much like the Brightworks Exposition night in which creators stand by their projects to answer questions and talk about their process and rationale.


Her mother Aleksandra reported, “During a break she spotted Beth from Stamen, went to say hi (Edwin and I hung back), and Beth greeted her warmly and introduced her to quite a few people.  From there, Susan Moffet and Jennifer Wolch, the Dean of the College of Environmental Design, came over to say hello to Mei and present her with an award of special merit. Mei had a lot of presence and answered questions with clarity and poise both during this break as well as after the speakers concluded.”


Check out symposium attendees’ tweets about Natasha Mei’s project:

When I asked Natasha what it was like for her, she said, “I was nervous, but I was proud. I was the only kid there. I got one of only two awards given out!”


We are all so proud of Natasha, so grateful for our relationship with Beth and the gang at Stamen, and we feel certain this will not be the only case in which our students’ projects get notoriety in the world!

exposition night

We had our year-end celebration and Maps Arc Exposition last night! Old and new families gathered with guests and friends to ask questions and look at the kids’ amazing projects from Maps.

















drawing, climbing, filling maps

No good project in this world would ever get started without a moment of exuberant optimism. How else would you cross the gap that lies between where you are now and what you want to get done? Optimism is the fuel that gets projects started, but persistence gets them done.

Maps often describe the boundaries between this and that, and us and them. Inspired by personal events in their own lives, Nicky and Mason used this arc to look deeply at the border between the United States and Mexico. They each discovered something unexpected – tunnels dug nine stories deep into the ground, stories of smugglers risking their lives to get people across the border, and more – and developed informed opinions of border policies and politics which they organized and shared with the school. From compelling statistics to re-enacting the interception of a border crossing.



Quinn shared a progress report on the development of his multi-player cooperative role-playing game. Working with multiple experts from the game-design world, he’s been learning the difference between good ideas and good game-play and how one evolves into the other.



Max thought that the hardest part about writing a book would be the writing – turns out it was the editing. Max spoke eloquently about the struggles of a writer – the blank page, the distractions, the self-doubt, the plot problems – and how he worked through them to finish his first novella. We were gripped by the action in the excerpt he read.



From the department of Be Careful What You Wish For, Madison and Zada may have thought that they were “getting away” with something when they proposed the creation of a mythical island as a project for maps, but when the work started and questions started coming up they realized that there might actually be more work in really inventing a culture than just studying one. When every narrative invention leads to a “why,” they wrestled with what history really is.





It seems like a simple question: “will comparing seemingly unrelated kinds of data on a map reveal previously overlooked relationships?” Isaac wanted to build a map of San Francisco that he could use to explore different kinds of data. He set about to draw every street in every neighborhood in San Francisco and mastered the basic drawing capabilities of Adobe Illustrator, one of the more inscrutable tools in the Graphic Designer’s toolbox. Like a monk working on an illuminated manuscript, he transcribed and interpreted the pixels painstakingly into vectors that he could work with. His work-in-progress result may communicate more about his tenacity than his data (some of which he lost when his laptop died). At one point, Isaac pulled up Natasha’s layered transparencies to explain how virtual layers work in Illustrator, much to her delight.




Henry is the first to admit that a climbing wall is a bit of a stretch as a project for maps (aside from the “you know, climbing routes” argument), but there is an audacity to the project that appealed to the whole school. He will be coming back this summer to finish it up, but it is already inspiring to see it rising above the cork floor. Working with Josh and experts from the local climbing gym, he shared with us the process of developing and refining his ideas and plans until he had something that would be fun to climb, feasible to build, and safe to use for years to come, handling the questions with confidence as he hung monkey-like from his structure.




Here at Brightworks, we don’t always look for “done,” which can so easily be a disguised version of “stopped,” choosing instead the more elusive but valuable condition of being good work with deep emotional and intellectual investment.

mice, maps, games, and comics

This morning, the mouse group from the Coyotes, Clementine, Lucy, and Noah, presented their hard work in creating houses for mice and learning the answers to their big question, “What do mice like?” They took turns to tell us the story of the project’s origins and explained the steps they took to create a friendly environment for their mice. They were very level-headed when they explained that one mouse had died because of territorial wars in the mouse mansion, and showed us the maps they made based on the time-lapse maps from Stamen design to show where their mice moved in their new home.





Eight Sand Leopards presented their projects this afternoon. Their work was clearly inspired by their explorations from the arc and they showed off the hard work that comes from asking big questions.

Thea displayed her collage mural of Italy, which was based on her trip to Italy a few weeks ago. She modge-podged maps of Venice and Florence around a central map of Italy and explained that the words around the map represented the things she saw there, namely the art and the marble. She used mixed media to complete her project and told us that she felt she had improved as an artist since the beginning of the year because she was more deliberate and careful with the artistic choices she made while creating this piece.



Coke showed off his four comic book pages that he wrote and drew during Expression while trying to answer the big question, “How do I make a comic about extraterrestrial life?” He told us how he worked with his expert Caroline to come up with new techniques and ideas for his storyline and the illustrations. The story, as yet unfinished, is about an explorer who visits a new planet and is mapping the terrain while running into various mishaps.



Theo created a trivia board game based on a map of the world, with questions about food, music, and other special cultural aspects from different countries around the world. He told us that the story of the game is that the player is a kid failing in school. There’s no power, so you can’t use the internet, so in order to pass into eighth grade, you have to travel the world to bring back fifteen facts about different countries.


Meg used her expression phase to do a research project on the future of human evolution. She worked with Uyen, who knows a lot about evolution, to look at what changes we can already see in different species and read more about what evolutionary scientists predict will happen with humans. She learned there are two hypotheses: that, based on the large, non-isolated population that humans are, they will either continue to evolve but slowly, or stop entirely. She thinks humans will either die out, stop evolving, develop exaggerated features, or become a mix of all races.



William talked about the role-playing game he created during Expression called “Natives,” which is based on Native American spirit mythology and the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. He explained that a player first starts out in a village and through a long series of decisions on different challenges, become involved in hunting for food, bigger and more high-stakes battles, and dangerous quests. He and Coke demonstrated game play and added that playing epic music in the background was one of the major rules.



Frances asked the question, “Does the Brightworks community prefer organic or non-organic ingredients?” and used her lunch-making experiment for two Tuesdays to test her hypothesis that people at Brightworks would prefer the taste of an organic-based meal. It was true! Looking at surveys she took on both Tuesdays, she discovered that students and staff could tell the difference in flavor between the two meals, although she admitted that there were some variables, like too much Green Goddess dressing, that might have skewed her data. She gave us a brief history of organic food and said she’d been inspired by the locavore meal the Sand Leopards cooked during Exploration.



Audrey talked about her family ancestry project, both the non-fiction aspects and the fantasy map aspects. Because she was interested both in family history and writing stories, she combined her curiosities to create two parallel stories, one based on family history and the other about another world based on the locations that her family lived. She worked a lot with her grandmother and discovered that the Portuguese part of her family is from an island called the Azores.



Kaia presented her animal migration map where she had drawn the migration patterns of arctic terns and humpback whales. She told us about all the research she did with facts about the habits of each type of animals’ migration, saying that animals tend to follow migration patterns when food sources change or the weather becomes too cold. She said she used books and internet materials to do her research and had to use correct citations to keep track of the research, and would include more animals on her map next time.



pigeons and labyrinths

Norabelle, Bruno, and Natasha presented all their hard Maps work today with three great presentations!

Bruno started us off by explaining the origins of his project and his big question, “What is the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?” He described the field trips he took with Norabelle and the process he took in creating his finger clay maze – inspired by a finger maze at Grace Cathedral – and his succulent plant maze – inspired by his interest in corn field mazes. He talked about various types of mazes around the world and said he would be most interested in visiting a water maze, which he learned can be found in the United Kingdom.



Norabelle described the field trips that she and Bruno went on to learn about labyrinths. They visited labyrinths at Grace Cathedral, McLaren Park, Sunset Playground, and Veriditas in Petaluma. Norabelle told us about the different parts of a labyrinth and that they represent aspects of life. She explained that her favorite part about the difference between mazes and labyrinths is that one is designed to trick you and the other is to help you find your way. She talked about her final project, a big maze painted on canvas, that was inspired by visiting expert Ulrica’s floor-sized labyrinth.



Natasha told us all about the map she made called “Natasha’s Pigeon and Pastry Project” based on the questions “Do bakeries and pigeons relate?” and “Is there a pattern for where people placed their La Boulange locations?” She talked about her visits to five different La Boulange cafes around San Francisco to observe the pigeon activity and whether the birds like regular butter croissants or chocolate croissants more. She discovered that pigeons have their preferences, just like humans! She showed us her beautiful map of San Francisco where, inspired by Stamen design, she had layered the information she gathered on three huge transparency sheets.



circumference and pangaea

Exposition presentations have begun! This afternoon, Ben and Lola showed off their braininess to us.

Ben’s project started with the question, “Who was the first person to discover that the earth is round?” Throughout Expression, he has explored the shifting of tectonic plates and the make-up of the layers of the earth. He discovered that a Greek mathematician Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference of the earth using the shadows in the cities of Syene and Alexandria, and used this same idea to calculate the circumference on his own, with help from Mackenzie and Mackenzie’s dad in San Diego. Initially, he explained, he got the calculation wrong because of an incorrect assumption about degrees, but he fixed the issue and ended up with the actual number.



Lola brought us over to the dining room to talk to us about her work on Pangaea. She explained that at first she had no idea what continents even were and thought the project would be really hard, but she learned a lot about why it looks like the continents fit together – because they once did! She did a lot of research and learned about tectonic plates and the ways they move. She told us that one of the reasons scientists know that Pangaea existed was because fossils are similar on the edges of certain continents and that animals – like ostriches and emus – have developed similarly. Then she showed us her awesome music video. Check it out here!



Also, many thanks to Bryan and Gladys, from the Cayman Islands, for feeding us hot lunch today! Our stomachs greatly appreciate it!