May 19, 2021

Thank you Opal School

Ben Mardell

A few years ago I went to an exhibit about Black Mountain College. If, like me, you hadn’t heard of the college before, a bit of history. Black Mountain began in 1933 in North Carolina. Organized around John Dewey’s principles of education, the college was founded with “the holistic aim to educate a student as a person and a citizen.”

Black Mountain was in existence for a little more than 20 years. By all accounts it was a place of innovation and exciting intellectual life. It had a remarkable set of students and faculty—artists, architects, poets, photographers, musicians, and more—including Ruth Asawa, Walter Gropius, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Weil, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Aaron Siskind, Jacob Lawrence, Elaine de Kooning, and Mary Caroline Richards. The college provided inspiration for other alternative higher ed institutions including Evergreen State and Hampshire College. Despite closing in 1957, Black Mountain’s legacy has continued into the 21st century.

I found myself thinking of Black Mountain College recently when I heard the news that Opal School, an amazing preschool and K-5 public charter school in Portland, Oregon (USA) would be closing at the end of this school year. Opal was founded in 2001 as part of the Portland Children’s Museum. Inspired by the municipal infant toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, Opal’s goals are two-fold: a) to create environments where creativity, curiosity and the wonder of learning thrive for the 125 students who attend the school, and b) to share their learnings with others, which Opal does annually with thousands of educators from around the world, through in-person and online professional development.

Opal has been of particular interest and importance to the Pedagogy of Play (PoP) project. Opal’s pedagogy is guided by the idea of playful inquiry which “invites children to learn and make sense of the things they encounter with curiosity and joy.” The five core PoP teaching practices—empower learners to lead their own learning, build a culture of collaborative learning, promote experimentation and risk-taking, encourage imaginative thinking, and welcome all emotions generated through play—have direct connections to teaching and learning at Opal. Susan MacKay and Matt Karlson were on the advisory board of PoP and continue to provide support to the PoP work.

I first went to Opal as a curious friend, and then as a collaborator on the research project Inspiring Agents of Change. During each visit I was immensely impressed by the children—how they interacted with each other, their teachers, and visitors to their school. I was also impressed by their work—their drawings, writing, and conversations. Take, for example, this conversation in a kindergarten/first grade about an activity of looking closely (zooming in), taken from Susan MacKay’s new book on story workshop:

Alex: If you don’t’ zoom in, then you don’t really know what something looks like.
Astrid: You might miss something important!
Evelyn: Yeah, and people like to know what things are!
Teo: And people like to learn.
William: They are curious.
Alex: If you never look closely, you might be scared of something when you don’t need to be! Just because you don’t understand.
Sam: Yeah, and humans just want to understand why. Zooming in helps us understand why.

During my visits I would marvel that young children were having such conversations. My friend Matt Karlsen would call me on this, wondering if I had an impoverished image of what children are capable of. After some reflection, my response was that I wasn’t surprised young children could have these conversations. What surprised me was that they were having these conversations in school.

Opal is a school that illustrates what is possible. Next to my desk I have a poster from Opal. The top reads: What happens when a community values the participation of its youngest citizens? What happens is a school where children learn they have a voice in their community and the world. What happens is a school where children engage in learning not because they have to but because they find it meaningful. What happens is a school where emotions and intellect work together. What happens is a school that promotes democracy.

Opal’s closing is a great loss for the children and families in Portland, and for the educational community around the world.

And like Black Mountain College, Opal’s twenty years of playful inquiry will have influence far into the future.

Resources from Opal, such as stories of practice and teaching tools, are still available on the school’s website. Susan and Matt have started the Center for Playful Inquiry and are continuing to provide powerful learning experiences for educators. I’ll be joining them at Project Zero's upcoming virtual event, PZ Sparks, to facilitate a workshop titled Welcoming Uncertainty by Supporting Children as Agents of Change. And the next PoP at Play post will discuss Susan's new book, Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers—a very playful approach to literacy in the early childhood and primary years.