© 2013 Marla McLean


“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Mr. Rogers

I saw this quote after the Newtown tragedy and now once again I see it today after the Boston Marathon tragedy.

It is the quote that brings sanity, humanity and a lens by which to  feel both grief-stricken and heart-warmed.


The Common Core should have this listed as a standard:

Helper; (PreK-12) demonstrates, recognizes and understands helper qualities, ie empathic, risk-taking, creative, innovative, persistent, thoughtful, and kind.

There is no section in the common core for this. No room at all.

Why? It is not measurable in a data driven way.

Yet, what would you define as core or even  common within the scope of being a successful, balanced and happy human being?

What are the qualities by which you measure a community and it’s health?

Being a “helper” should be core to everything in education: language arts, the sciences, mathematics, athletics and the visual and performing arts.

It is core at SWS.

It is core to me.

In the studio, the Kindergarteners finished their Stone Cairn projects, which is just a part of the greater concept of “Construction” that has permeated the year.

The project had some beautiful  and meaningful surprises. Even more meaningful today. While I posted earlier about the project (It is impossible work and therefor we must do it.), here’s a brief recap and the powerful directions it took:


When the children had completed the construction of the clay cairn, when it had been fired and painted, the project was not done.

There was no visible meaning or intent being transmitted.

What I didn’t want to do, was send home a colorful rock sculpture that children might not explain. That parents would see as colorful glob and not a communication of values.

So, I decided to ask the children to replicate their Cairn in 2d:

This turned out to be way more challenging then imagined, so to give perspective, I gave the kids some time and opportunity to understand and embody height width and depth:

This made the process of sketching a 3d object on a 2d surface more interesting and purposeful. You can see all the color samples Electra tries to truly recreate her ceramic cairn on paper.

The next step became more complex.

Once their 2 dimensional stone cairn was cut out, they were asked

“Where do you imagine your stone Cairn is? What does it represent?

Is it to mark a favorite place? Where is that place? What is it?

Is it to mark a path? Where?

Is it to remember someone who has died? Who is that person? What can you tell me about that person?

Is it to bring good luck or health to someone? Who?

I asked them to look at the documentation, to look at all the different connections. I just sat back and watched as they discussed parts of the project they had already done as well as looking at how some of their peers had preceded to the next part of the project. Often they asked me to help read aloud parts. Mostly, they interacted with the documentation as a working breathing element without me. It was theirs.




They were introduced to using pen and ink, and asked (after experimentation), to create the setting or images that would represent the meaning of their stone Cairn. My intention was to keep this process very slow. The act of stopping to reload the pen with ink gives one space to reflect and envision  as they work.

To create an illusion of depth, bottle caps were used. Another design challenge, as the caps had to support the drawing and at the same time remain hidden. (Will, above and below)

The writing portion was an illuminating journey. And the children’s intent, their words with their images and sculpture stone cairns became an entrance into their individual thoughts. Thoughts that were poetic, charming and even even sad. Thoughts that often stay hidden. Thoughts to be shared now, in the context of this project.

Sometimes the sweetness of marking the pizza place or marking a path to the playground reminded me of the “special” places of childhood. Wesley’s path was the highway to his family in Ohio.

Can you see how just the object was just not enough to process, experience, learn and understand? It informed not only each child, but their friends, family and their teachers. It gives context. It gives connection.

This representation by Mikal reminded me of the sanctitude of the home, even for a young child. With all the running around and dreams of Disneyland, it turns out, there really is no place like home.

Many many children revealed memories of pets and relatives who had died. It is a remarkable testimony to the depth of young children. They created moving memorials.

My grandma loves me. She gave me things. She gave me songs. -Mira C.

(Ava Serefino)

Conner spent almost 20 minutes writing the intent and meaning of his stone cairn. When I helped transcribe his written manuscript I was struck by the complexities of random occurances and sadness that children must cross throughout their lives. I was honored that he felt in a safe place to express and share and mark this memory.

My great great grandma, you make me happy. My great great grandma, she had to ride in a wheel chair. -Colleen

While family and pet death are traumatic, the remembrances that some children chose to express possess gratitude and life affirming sentiments. Through creating, connecting and relationship in the studio and classrooms at SWS, something pivotal is being taught and understood.

I could go through this project and list common core standards and DC  standards in language arts, writing, math, science, art, art history, history and science. Today I would like to recognize the missing common core standard, the one inherent every day, the “Helper.”

They are everywhere in SWS, from the office to the classroom, to the studio, to the custodians, the parents, grandparents, neighbors…all around, in the most unexpected ways are “Helpers.” Most important of all, are the “Helpers in training,” the 4-7 year old children who spontaneously take a risk and demonstrate, recognize and understand helper qualities.

It is the same community that reognizes the opposite in times of conflict, and comes together to teach, nurture, model and support the “Helper” core qualities when they are most needed.

My Grandpa lived a long long time ago.

He died before I was born

but my mom told me it will be alright. -Remiel

It will be alright.

My sister-in-law ran in the Boston Marathon yesterday. Her two children (K and 2nd grade) and husband were spectators. Time was suspended as we awaited word about the four of them. I am reprinting what she sent out today.

Dear friends,

We were in Boston yesterday. Elissa G and I were running the marathon and were a half mile from the explosion when they closed the race. We just wandered off about 1,000 yards before finishing….It was truly a surreal scene and a nightmare of panic — so many people furiously texting and calling and unable to get through to the ones they love. And in the midst of this, there were so many moments of kindness. My favorite: Elissa was freezing cold and queezy and I stopped a couple and asked if we could use their phone, frantically trying to find our family. He gave Elissa his brand new bright red Red Sox jacket to get warm. About 20 minutes later when she tried to return it, he said no “you need it more than I do. Do me a favor, wear it to a Phillies game, once.” Elissa burst into tears and we say Go Red Sox! So many Beautiful Bostonians reached out to help and comfort.

We are so blessed and grateful to be safe and our hearts are aching for those not so lucky.

Thanks for all the love!

“You will always find people who are helping.”

We have a lot of work to do.

But it will be alright.


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  1. Tom Turton
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 5:16 pm | #

    Thank you Ms. McLean. You are so creative, so thoughtful, so loving and such a wonderful person for each of our children and grandchildren to learn from and to hopefully learn to become helpers as they grow. Thank you so much for sharing your caring thoughts and insight into the depth of thought our kids express through their art.

  2. Swatantar Mann
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 5:30 pm | #

    Very rewarding and heart warming post, Marla! I continue to witness and enjoy some of those beautiful moments of learning and interaction (including HELPER moments) in the art studio during my lunchtime. Every morning when i come to work i am thankful and feel fortunate to be part of this great environment of sharing, caring and encouragement.

  3. Swatantar Mann
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 5:37 pm | #

    Very rewarding and heart warming post, Marla! I continue to witness and enjoy some of those beautiful moments of learning and interaction (including HELPER moments) in the art studio during my lunchtime. Every morning when i come to work i am thankful and feel fortunate to be part of this great environment of sharing, caring and encouragement. And today you write this post on a very significant day in history, the DC Emancipation day, when an act towards humanity was put into action.

  4. Diane Beasley
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm | #

    Wow, Marla. Every time I read one of your posts I am so thankful that my child (and next year, children) are lucky enough to attend SWS. I always tell neighbors, family and friends that the main reason I love this school is because the teachers and staff are helping me to raise kind, respectful and thoughtful kids.To me that goes way beyond any core curriculum. Thank you!

  5. Lynette Craig
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm | #

    Love that my child’s heart is being educated as much as his mind Marla. Harvey and I had a fantastic conversation today about the Emancipation holiday, and he shared some amazing things he had learned from the hero lesson you gave them! I had no idea how much he had internalized those lessons and I’m so grateful that he has caring, thoughtful teachers in his life that will help him grow to be a “Helper” in this world.

  6. Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm | #

    You have written an ode to SWS, Marla! And a lovely one at that! Thank you for pointing out what is so important in our early childhood classrooms – and yet absent in all those “criteria,” “measurements,” and “tests” for school. [How would we ever set standards for this? Yet, we know it when we see it.] Helping. Lovely.

  7. Fatima Goss Graves
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm | #

    Marla, thank you so much for sharing-the stories of strangers helping one another was the only music in this tragedy. I’m so grateful that SWS is helping to build a community of “helpers.”

  8. Kevin Harper
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm | #

    I have nearly always been intrigued with cairns. Certainly I have seen them since a young age because of hiking and backpacking trips with my mother. I have given her rocks as gifts and she made a cairn or two for her massage room when she was a LMT. I learned more about cairns and connected with this post on a deep and meaningful level. Thank you for being thoughtful. Thank you for being a helper to the kids. Thank you.

  9. Kathleen Hale
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 8:38 pm | #

    Thanks for the beautiful post, Marla.

  10. Pam Costner
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 3:27 am | #

    Once again you show how you expand my child’s world in so many intentional, loving and enlightening lessons. By showing me these moments you expand my world and give me tools to help my daughter. SWS is a womb like no other. Thank you.

  11. Maria Helena Carey
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 6:42 am | #

    Hope I’m hitting the right keys, because I can’t quite see through the tears. Beautiful and inspirational, as always.

  12. Posted April 17, 2013 at 1:15 pm | #

    What a great post. There should be a different/alternative core curriculum with things like helping & honoring & remembering. Maybe that is an art project, waiting to be made.

  13. Lara D'Agostino
    Posted April 20, 2013 at 6:40 pm | #

    You are a remarkable teacher and person Ms. McLean. Your vision, openness, optimism, inspiration, humanity and creativity are lifelong gifts to your students. And as parents, we are truly grateful.

  14. Kirsten Zander's mom
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 7:11 am | #

    Your posts, like the ink pen, give thoughtful pause to a busy day. What incredible life lessons and observations you impart.
    Please thank your sister for helping me laugh thru my tears.
    Yes, I’m a Phillies Fan.

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