© 2013 Marla McLean

Welcome to the Bubble!


We moved again.

First we were SWS at Peabody, then we packed up and moved to the Logan Annex in 2012.

Logan Annex is a nice way of saying Trailer, or as the facilities director called it, a Bunker.

After a year of basically fitting sixty-three clowns into a Volkswagen Bug, we moved, again.

This time to a huge building, Goding, located on 920 F Street NE.

This move marks the final home of School Within School and the realization of a dream. Our school will expand and continue on as a DCPS Elementary School.

Then came reality.

This is August 17, 2013. This is the Atelier/Common Area.
my space 8-13

The week of the 19th was slated for professional development.
This is August 23rd:

The families and children were to arrive August 26th!

This is the same scenerio we were in when we moved to our Logan Bunker last year.

The teachers and staff took deep breaths and began with a great deal of sweat and long hours to do the magic.

This included days and nights right through Saturdays and Sundays.

An all-call went out to the community and soon parents were coming in right from work, before work, during lunch, after they got their kids dinner, it truly was magic.


Most of us teachers shed a tear or two, from exhaustion mixed with great gratitude.
This is August 24th:

It is this cycle of ridiculous hard work, vision, compassion and belief that envelops and connects me to School-Within-School.

It is when two weeks before school is to open and Nicole Mogul, SWS parent, facilitated and organized teachers, parents, neighbors and community volunteers from Howard University to turn our weed filled mess of a yard into an oasis.

Look at this transformation:


This is why, despite the lack of sleep (and sore muscles this time) I continue to feel that I work within a community that is a model for caring, democracy and educational reform.

SWS actually re-forms, re-imagines, re-creates, respects, and realizes the beauty of childhood and learning.
triangle mirror

Not just once.

But again and again and again.


So we did the magic and then, here comes the children.

This is where the excitement and passion and work comes alive.
ramp dorian and gabriel

I never had a space this large before.

I am struck by the possibility of truly exploring The Environment as the Third Teacher (This link is a fantastic blog out of Australia called Let The Children Play, it is a constant support of ideas and inspiration!), which is a fundamental principle of Reggio Emilia-inspired schools.

When Jere Lorenzen-Strait, SWS Kindergarten Teacher,  asked teachers at a staff meeting to write down their intentions for the year I wrote;

Deeply observing and exploring the Environment as the Third Teacher


Keeping the Reggio Emilia principles alive and burning.

light 3's 
“We believe the brain is not imprisoned by genes, that thought can be modified inasmuch as it interacts with the environment and that intelligence is the result of the synergistic cooperation of various arts of the brain.”  (Loris Malaguzzi)

I decided to wait out starting a project, until I could really observe the children in the space, make changes and adaptations based on my observations, and slowly give all children guided discoveries while using our new space.

 “This space is so big, I don’t even know what to think!”  Dominic, Kindergarten

As I began this journey of observation and forming new connections with children (as well as reconnecting with returning students) my usual frustration of waiting to start a project was turned to glee;

 The space, and the interactions of the children within the space is the project.

Here are some of my ongoing questions I am putting out into the community and universe. (These are images for these first few weeks of school, wow!):


It has been just three and a half weeks now.

I see the yearning and excitement and wonder as the children slowly encounter the Atelier and the Common Area.

There is so much space that collaboration happens more naturally than in all the past years.

My theory for this, is that children are now able to have personal space while working with small groups of their peers. Their bodies don’t accidently infringe on others space causing reaction. Their bodies are not accidently knocking over constructions or materials causing resentment.

The children can more readily access intentions because the space respects them, thereby encouraging them to seek, express, and exlore.


When I,  for example introduce the Water Table, I sit next to the children. I facilitate relationships with the materials, their peers, and safety. I take notes, write down their conversations, struggles, actions, and interests.

waterwater inclusionwater pour

When the water table exploration is done, I circle the children up.

 “I know you thought you were just playing in the water, but you were artists and scientists. You experimented, used machines, tested theories, and explored. Some of you were authors and storytellers, using your imagination and creating new ideas.”

I then go around and read my notes about each child.

“Grace, I saw you being a scientist. You were exploring the marbles and the tubes with Zeke.”

She smiled, surprised that I saw this and then reflected, “When I played with the marbles, it went into the water but it didn’t float.”

They feel pride.

They feel accomplishment.

They are usually surprised and often nod or add anecdotal pieces.

“Lily and Ravi, you were authors and stortellers who used your imaginations. You had sick babies that needed medicine. You were measuring and giving them medicine.”

Lily added, “I like…LOVED…doing chicken noodle soup for the sick baby.”

And Gabe, you were an inventor who used his imagination. You said, “Let’s collect the marbles and make a waterfall of marbles!”

Josh added, “A waterfall of marbles, great idea!”

They feel noticed.

I then say, “Now I’d like each one of you tell something interesting or fun you did.”

Sometimes it is hard for children to do this at first.

Finn, PK4 “What was that thing called I like?”
Me, “A funnel.”
Finn, PK4, “Why is it called a funnel?”
Me, “I don’t know, Why is a table called a table?”
Finn, PK4 “I think I know why a funnel is called a funnel, maybe because it’s fun!”


Finding value in actions or thoughts or conversations and verbalizing them can be difficult. With support, every child was able to voice what was valuable. More importantly, these shared values are how the popular culture of School Within School grows and develops.

Supporting children to listen to their peers reflecting is equally important (and often equally as hard to do.)

Facilitating learning by helping children to stay connected, builds competencies of compassion, creativity, thinking, and ethics.

Yesterday, in the morning, Andrew Chapman, SWS PE Teacher, gracefully and quietly informed me we were on lockdown.

Since I have been teaching in DCPS for 20 years, this triggers memories to all the other lockdowns.

My heart did a nosedive to sadness.


But the children did not know.

There was exploring and singing.piano joy
There was laughter and quiet concentration.


There was stories, reading and writing, and painting.

In the past five years I have noticed a horrible practice happening in many area  schools.

Children of all ages are told they must walk the halls “with a bubble in your mouth.”

Just imagine this sight, lines of children looking quite freakish with their cheeks blown up, while intermittently a teacher snaps, “Put a bubble in it!”

How disrespectful.

How wasteful.

Think of all the places you must walk and be civil. Sometimes you might just look around, sometimes you walk with a friend or co-worker and have a really good conversation.

When I ride the metro and see children swearing and yelling and being socially inappropriate for the setting, I always think, “They weren’t taught, it wasn’t modeled or practiced, someone told them to “Put a bubble in it.”


So yesterday, while on lockdown, because a man with a gun tragically out of control gunned down innocent people in the Navy Yard building while they were just walking in the halls, this is what I saw:

A class walking past talking to their friends in twos or threes  as they walked or looked around at the environment, waving hello to friends or teahcers as they passed.

I saw two children skipping from the bathroom back to their class alone.

I saw one child yell out her younger brothers name. He ran and hugged her, and then they both continued with their class.

I saw a class go by and they all were holding their arms out like a circle and making SHHHH SHHHH noises.

“What are you?” I called out.

“We are walking sinks!”


At School Within School, we don’t put a bubble in it.

We find new ways to be, to grow, to find hope, to develop theories, to meet needs, to nurture, to recognize the glorious interconnectedness that can blossom within the walls of a DC Public School.


Again and again and again.


When the parents all came in to retrieve their children because of the lockdown, their faces beared the stress of others’ grief and the want to be close to their family.

 I smiled and greeted them. I reminded parents that the children did not know.

“This is the most wonderful protected place to be,” I told them, “Welcome to the bubble.”









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  1. Rebecca Hawes
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 5:42 pm | #

    Thank you so much for taking the time to post your wonderful thoughts and observations, pictures, stories and hopes for the new school year!

  2. Danleigh Kaplan
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 6:32 pm | #

    Thank goodness for the bubble that is SWS. Very interesting to think about how not asking them to put a bubble in their mouth encourages community, social skills and kindness. I think we need a little (okay, ALOT more) of that in the world. Thank you for so closely observing and making our children feel noticed. What a great space you have for all of them to learn and explore!

  3. Posted September 18, 2013 at 6:11 pm | #

    This comment was emailed to me via Jennifer Mampara, SWS Parent. It is from her mother who is a retired Director of a Reggio Inspired school in Denver:
    It reminded me of 9/11 when I believed that we could give our children the most precious gift, a day of peace while the rest of the country and, maybe, world was fearful and shocked. And I saw how the children helped the adults through their anxiety by just being children and giving war weary adults hope. These posts are wonderful. I enjoyed seeing Ravi at school. It also serves to remind me how wonderful it is to be retired and reading about others doing this important work so well while I sit back and do things I enjoy. I loved the comments about how children walk down the hall. Wouldn't you just like to shout that off the rooftops. I used to love the RC halls where kids from the older grades could count on big hugs from the younger children as they walked down the hall because classes got together weekly for reading buddies and big sister/big brother activities. How wonderful to have your boys in such a child-centered environment.

  4. Kirsten
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 3:50 pm | #

    Our children are warmly embraced – daily – by the environment and people that are SWS. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  5. Adam Ruben
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 7:09 am | #

    So startling how far we’ve come since that vision we all shared on the top floor of Peabody about how we could be something more and welcome more kids and families to our community. Thank you, Marla, for all your leadership and inspiration in making it happen!

  6. Posted September 21, 2013 at 9:58 am | #

    Adam, you are such a huge part of making it happen. Your negotiating, calm manner, and passion mixed with thought, steered us through many bumps. Thank you!

  7. Amy Salunga
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 7:32 am | #

    The school looks wonderful. Many, if not most of the kids live in relatively small, dark, narrow spaces, so having the big, bright, open areas there at school must provide a great new learning environment. I’m looking forward to seeing how SWS evolves over the coming years.

  8. Posted October 25, 2013 at 9:22 am | #

    Hi Marla, Congratulations on the creation of such a beautiful space for living and learning with children. We met at the Sabot School institute and I’ve visited your blog from time to time. I’m inspired by your images and I’m excited to peek in via your blog from time to time.Thanks for sharing the love! -sarah, durham, nc

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