discovery in mendocino

We’re back from Mendocino! The week was stunning: the kids did great on two long bus rides to and from the Woodlands and were fabulous in creating homes away from home, being away from familiar things, and learning about a new place. We had adventures in the woods and lighting fires in the fireplaces that were in every cabin, singing songs with guitar and ukulele accompaniment, and dancing together. This tradition of spending time together, away from the school, is part of what makes Brightworks work – building and maintaining a commitment to each other as well as the work.

Richard Louv, in his book Last Child Left in the Woods, explores the relationship between children and nature and how it has changed over the last few hundred years. He starts with a conversation between himself and his son:

One evening when my boys were younger, Matthew, then ten, looked at me from across a restaurant table and said quite seriously, “Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?”

I asked what he meant.

“Well, you’re always talking about your woods and tree houses, and how you used to ride that horse down near the swamp.”

At first, I thought he was irritated with me. I had, in fact, been telling him what it was like to use string and pieces of liver to catch crawdads in a creek, something I’d be hard-pressed to find a child doing these days. Like many parents, I do tend to romanticize my own childhood—and, I fear, too readily discount my children’s experiences of play and adventure. But my son was serious; he felt he had missed out on something important.

He was right. Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging, and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.

We take this as an important challenge to address in the evolution of the pedagogy: to create authentic and meaningful integration of the natural environment in the learning experience at Brightworks. (Thank you to Gever for this quote…)









Trips like these remind us what makes Brightworks a different learning environment. The Woodlands is a place that hundreds of students visit every year, and their science curriculum is designed for such students. There are learning objectives and plans and transitions for every moment of the day. It’s a wonderful program that we are incredibly lucky to be a part of, and both years we have met amazing, talented naturalists on the staff whose job is to make the redwood forest an understandable place of magic for our kids and a place that isn’t as scary as they thought.


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First Fires - 4


But what makes Brightworks kids and staff different is that we want to take time. Lots and lots of it. And always with each other, as a group and a community. We want to play in the waterfall, explore every mushroom we find, question why some trees have grown in a ring, discover how to light a fire, learn about each other’s toothbrushing habits, slow down a lot under great redwoods and look up. We encourage questions and curiosity and have become experts in changing plans and altering schedules to follow what the kids are most curious and interested in. We loved being able to sit down when the trip was over and put names and reasons on what and why we do in the Brightworks style of teaching and learning. The emergent philosophy is to take time. Slow down and enjoy the moment.


And be curious about everything.


Brightworks is off to camp! Next week we will be in Mendocino for Outdoor Ed and the closing week of the Rulers arc. We predict good times, cozy cabins, little drama, and plenty of adventure! When we return, we’ll have a few days of closing, reflecting and student/parent/collaborator conferences, then jump right into the next arc: Clocks! Look for more in-depth blog posts during the week of October 28th about the end of Rulers, all of Mendocino, and moving forward into arc 2.

Happy camping!

ancient units play

The Happy Elephants – the new name for Lili’s band – has been working on writing a play about the history of creating units of measurement. Though the details and storyline of the play have remained a pretty well-kept secret, I’ve been told it has something to do with ancient Egyptian units of measurement. The play has been a collaboration of all band members writing together with Lili’s guiding hand.







The performance is tomorrow after lunch!

complete bridge!

The bridge – which I didn’t know was possible, even after looking at the designs and hearing the engineering discussions and examining the math that the oldest band did during this arc – is up! It’s sturdy enough to support weight and there are only a few gaps that need filling on the stairs. The band will be giving a presentation on their project in the morning to tell us all about their process, struggles, and triumphs.







On Friday, we closed the school because of a water shut down, but instead of calling it a day, we called it an Exploratorium adventure! We met the kids down at the Embarcadero to visit our friends at the Exploratorium’s new location. A foggy morning outside, a crowded museum filled with kids from the city, and explorations abounded. The day became sunny and the kids didn’t lose any energy even after lunch, and we all left happy and contented, our minds buzzing with the possibilities of returning for more in-depth study.

I asked the staff members who were there to tell me their favorite parts of the day – see below!

Phillip said, “My favorite part of the Exploratorium was watching the kids’ curiosities come alive. We’ve been working so hard on a project that is past it’s inquisitive stages that it was a great time for us to relax and learn by observation and interactions. My personal favorite experiment was the double mirror that combined my face and Christie’s face. So weird!”



Shawna reports that the Hummingbirds had a circle conversation about the Exploratorium this morning. Largo said, “I was surprised at how many creatures there were. The old one didn’t have as many creatures. I was watching all the water creatures and the rats. There was a crate of mosquitoes.  I put my hand in to test if the mosquitoes like the scent.”
Lucy said, “There was a video screen of these people saying “yes, no, maybe, this one guy was annoying because he kept saying ‘I don’t know.’ Aurora and I kept asking them so many questions.
“We liked the girl the best! she had better responses,” Aurora reported.


Shawna said, “My personal favorite was when Lucy, Aurora, and I spent probably 30 minutes under the pinboard, side by side looking up and making flashy designs with our fingers and hands. The girls did all sorts of different tests with each other and they became determined to find and then pull down a stuck pin they could see from the top. Also it was a very “Reggio” experience – letting the kids lead, being in super small groups and sharing a intimate experience where the adults’ role truly was to observe, help scaffold when the time was right, and wonder and marvel alongside the children.”


Josh said, “My favorite part was Ramses’ commitment to a polite cinema. SHHHHH! Also, there was a beautiful fluctuation between learning alone and exploring the nuance of an exhibit (nearly an hour spent at a single exhibit), and the love of learning in a social environment and sharing things with your friends (nearly an hour spent looking for Lola, to hang out with and share the coolness of the pin table exhibit).”



“I liked that Natasha, Clem and Lola couldn’t resist tinkering, even with a professionally made exhibit,” Sean said. “They played with the bubble screen for about thirty minutes immediately before lunch. At lunch, they began to wonder about using different circumference and rings…so they took (with permission!) coffee cups from the cafeteria, removed the bottoms, and thus created bubble wands in two new circumferences!”



The best part of my day was watching the kids, not necessarily participating in the exhibits. I loved seeing them interact with all the big ideas and experience pieces of the whole. My group was great at staying together and calling each other over to look at something cool. They took their time, didn’t feel like they had to see everything in the whole museum, and displayed awesome curiosity and energy for a busy place!




Gever had two stories to report. He said, “Rhone spent some time exploring the composition of colors and shapes made by his hands and body when lit by three primary colors. While we watched anxious adults pushing their children along to try and ‘see everything’, it was a pleasure to wander the museum at our own pace and linger as long as we cared to. Often, just as we were about to leave and exhibit, either Rhone, Jacob, or Nicky would discover something new and we would be glued to the spot for even longer.”


“A mirror-box proved to be an excellent provocation to spark the a discussion of the nature of infinity and whether or not there are any real infinities in our universe,” he said. “Not the infinite possibilities of monkeys banging away on typewriters, but actual, uncountable, infinities of things. We still aren’t sure, but we agreed that there certainly some very large numbers of things out there (planets, atoms, sand).”


Mackenzie said, “I was with Bruno, Ben, and Quinn. They loved the spinny table with rings. We played there for almost forty-five minutes. Bruno was really into building marble runs in the Tinkering Studio. We returned there twice. They all did a great job taking turns choosing exhibits and sharing interests.”



We’re really excited to take advantage of the relationship we have with the Exploratorium and get our kids out there more often, interacting with both the big science ideas that relate to our arcs, as well as being a part of the wider San Francisco school community. What an amazing day!


closer to complete

The megaband’s bridge is almost finished! Last week the band spent every day constructing, painting, and discussing their bridge-lifting approaches.

Phillip writes, “The closer the bridge comes to completion, the fewer hands need to be working on it so we split into a morning crew and afternoon crew for bridge work. The team not working on the bridge has been writing a detailed blog post about the construction process as well as finalizing our presentations on bridge research and building ideas.



Gever is our in house expert on bridge raising, so he worked with a small group on Thursday discussing best methods for getting it up there, carefully leading students to the right conclusions with great guided questions and student generated drawings.


By the end of the day Wednesday the bridge was nearly complete, but we found ourselves rushing to meet an early deadline. Max ended up losing control of the drill in an almost-disaster that caused us all to step back, circle up, and discuss the importance of finishing safely and well, rather than on time.


We spent most of Thursday afternoon suited up in Tyvek suits painting the tar out of our bridge as it will be easier to paint on the ground than up in the sky. Hopefully we should have her up by today or tomorrow!”






chairs, take three

The Hawks have continued their quest for the best-built chair! They’ve learned some new things from Sean about square joints, created second iterations of their first designs, and studied chair designs.



Earlier last week, Mackenzie set out the two iterations of chairs that the Hawks had built. She writes, “Presented in this way, their growth as builders and designers was obvious, though not always linear (some things were improved in the second chair while others may have been lost).  Nonetheless, their effort and mastery can be seen in the flush joints, square corners and greater stability of these new chairs. Not to say that there is not room for growth, but there is something about seeing how far you’ve come to compel you to take a step further. In a school with out letter grades these moments where learning is made visible are paramount.”



With Sean, they learned about using dowels and glue to create more polished furniture joints. He gave them three basic rules to follow: making the joints true (flushed and aligned), square (at a ninety degree angle) and precise (to a quarter inch, based on their design). They drew new designs for chairs to scale with architectural rulers and labeled the doweling points to have a clearer guide for construction. Mackenzie reported that they worked extra long and hard to build new skills of precision to make everything just right.




They visited the parklet outside of Arizmendi Bakery in the Inner Sunset to talk about aesthetics and ergonomics with the architect who designed the benches – Quinn’s dad Jack! He discussed the process he went through and the constraints of space. The Hawks measured the chairs and the parklet space to check the accuracy of the blueprints, leading to a spontaneous lesson in converting inches to feet.




After presenting budget proposals to Ellen and Gever on Tuesday, the Hawks visited MacBeath Hardwood, a lumber supply store that stocks beautiful wood and woodworking tools, to pick out and buy lengths of poplar for their new chairs.



They also visited Sean’s former workplace, where they talked to Forest of Varian Design, a furniture making company, Greg, a cabinet maker, and Toph, a retired rocket scientist turned luthier (which is a stringed-instrument-maker).




Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, Forest told them. That’s how you learn!