The Visual Arts Process

It’s easy to be seduced by the finished product and rush to our imagined goal. The creative process is, however, just that – a process. As with any creative endeavor be it writing, composing music, acting, dancing, or painting, creators must lose themselves in the making in order to discover something new along the way. And in that journey, they look for and find inspiration, which results in the unexpected.

Many of us are wowed by the end product of the MTS art room. What we don’t often see is the process and creative choices that go into making the artwork. In this issue we highlight two recent projects, one an MTS tradition and one new, that shed light on the role that process plays in art at MTS.

"The creative process is a process of surrender, not control." - Julia Cameron



Kindergartners and Dino Land


“What’s the first thing you do with the clay?” asks art teacher Evy Packer of the kindergarteners sitting around her at the table. Students respond with various answers, and she echoes it enthusiastically, “We roll out the clay into the shape of a burrito!” The “Dino Project” that kindergartners work on in Tyler Bewley and Evy Packer's visual arts class is an MTS tradition. The beauty of the project is two-fold: most obvious is the ceramic dinosaur which many students  cherish for years to come (8th graders often still have and talk about theirs), less obvious, but just as important is the creative process.


Students start out researching, looking at pictures of and drawing their favorite dinosaurs. Next, they create clay versions of the dinosaurs from the drawings. After creating the 3-dimensional version, students look at the unfinished clay model and make another drawing - this one to envision the colors they’d like to glaze the dinosaur. The kindergartners then have the opportunity to mix the colors and glaze their dinosaur, which is baked in the kiln. Once they have their final dinosaur, which they all give names – this year’s include Isabelle and Rainbow – they create a second dinosaur out of clay to be a friend of the dinosaur. After going through similar steps to create the second dinosaur, students then work together to create a “Dino Land” where the dinosaurs can live among volcanoes, trees, rocks, rivers, and waterfalls. The entire process allows students to experience multiple ways of looking at the same idea, a dinosaur, and to watch their creation go through various phases before they have the final dinosaur in hand.

Weaving in the 6th Grade


Local Oakland artist, Alicia McCarthy, is the inspiration behind the Weaving project 6th graders are working on this spring. Considered an integral member of the Mission School, a group of young artists associated with San Francisco Art Institute in the 90’s particularly known for graffiti art, McCarthy has developed a style of painting that weaves interlocking colors in a grid-like fashion in simultaneously casual, yet structured compositions.

McCarthy’s process is central to this project. After learning about McCarthy’s work, the students started by writing down their thoughts about what might inspire them to make their own compositions. They were encouraged to think about what feeling they’d like their work to elicit, and they looked at color wheels to help figure out a palette that would best reflect that feeling. Next, they began to sketch out ideas for what their weave patterns might look like before setting out to work with strips of paper to create their own woven compositions with the idea that the notes they’re taking are part of the final piece. Like McCarthy, the process included numerous, intentional creative choices along the way.

In an interview McCarthy had with SFMOMA about her early graffiti days, she says, “There wasn’t a preciousness about what we were doing, where we were doing it, or what materials we were using. It wasn’t about a particular end. I didn’t necessarily go paint on the street wanting other people to see it. It wasn’t about showing. It was just an activity that was thrilling and freaky and fun… It was about the act of doing it, and it was also a way of digesting the urban environment…” In a similar way, Evy and Tyler encourage MTS art students to find meaning in and lose themselves along the way of a project, to see each step as an integral part of what they’re making, and to take pleasure in and learn from those steps as much as they do from their final, woven piece that they hang on the wall.

Writer's Workshop

“The perfectionist in me has a really hard time with the fact that writing is messy at first. I want my first draft to read like my last draft, and it doesn’t happen. Writing is rewriting…” - Shannon Messenger, Author of “Keeper of the Lost Cities”


Understanding the writing process, including rewriting, is critically important when learning how to write. Writers must learn that we can always continue to revise and improve – writing is never really done. The writing process comes to life in MTS lower school classrooms through the Writer’s Workshop. The Workshop has a very specific, structured approach for guiding students through the process of writing, as evidenced in the recent progression in 2nd grade humanities class. During a project that focused on opinion writing, three discrete steps, called "Bends," were introduced. During Bend I of this unit, students learned how to write about some of their favorite books in a way to persuade others to love them as much as they do. The unit kicked off by teaching students how to form opinions about the books they read by thinking deeply about the characters. Students also learned how to state an opinion clearly and support their opinion with evidence.


Bend II of the unit focused on raising the level of their letter writing. Humanities teacher Rachael Olmanson coached students to engage in close reading as a way to spark new ideas to push themselves to deepen their thinking. Students used Post-it notes to mark the parts of their favorite books that they could elaborate on as evidence in their opinion pieces. The class is currently wrapping up this bend with the students participating in punctuation inquiry and application to incorporate the conventions they notice in published books into their own writing. 

In the final bend, Bend III, students will shift toward writing letters that convince their readers that the books they are reading are worthy of awards. They will also learn how to stretch their thinking and writing by comparing two books. This step-by-step process guides students along, one technique building upon another, allowing them to take what they’ve already written to a deeper level or to build upon what they’ve learned and try writing about a similar topic in a new way.

No matter where students are in the writing process, at the core of Writer’s Workshop is the “mini-lesson,” a ten to fifteen minute teacher led focus on a particular technique or tool for writing that is used in all grade levels. Recently the 5th grade class focused on the mini-lesson, “What makes a quote powerful for opinion writing?” After some class warm ups, Ally Svirsky, 5th grade humanities teacher, gave a personal example to help get the conversation moving, and then the students took the exercise back into the pieces they had already been writing, using quotations to bolster their point.

In later writing assignments, students may or may not use all the writing techniques they are taught in these mini lessons, but they will have these tools in their writer's toolbox to draw upon. Students write every day, practicing and building up a broad range of  essential writing skills. While the interactive mini lessons keep the students excited about writing, they also instill the process of review, rewriting, and revising their work. This practice places little emphasis on the end product and highlights the beauty of enhancing their work. The celebration of writing happens throughout the writing process, as students take the time to share parts of their writing they are proud of. As Rachael puts it “By the end of each unit, students have a plethora of skills they can utilize to better develop their writing. This process has really kept writing exciting and slowed down students from wanting to rush to the “publishing party” at the end. I really love the way it inspires students to outgrow and improve their writing again and again!”

Creativity and Constraints



The MTS mission statement now hangs on a wooden plaque in the entrance to school opposite the student-curated digital display – a physical manifestation of our tagline “where tradition meets tomorrow.” The mission’s physical presence has inspired me to reflect on it more regularly; I often read it to students who are waiting to be picked up early and ask them what parts we do well and what parts we could do better. As you will hear in my upcoming State of the School on April 18th, some words and phrases in our mission statement are deeply resonating with me as I head into the next three years of my leadership at MTS. One of those phrases is “creative and process driven.”  


Visitors to MTS often comment on how well-kept our campus is and that our program seems highly structured with students moving every forty to eighty minutes. Those who are in the classrooms, from math to art to PE also note the impressive discipline of our students.  Order and discipline are not what most of us think about when we envision creativity and process.

Doesn’t an improvised, changing schedule or messy studio yield greater creativity? As we strive to further live our mission, does our structure and discipline keep us from offering a “creative and process driven” education? I do not think so. In fact, I believe that we are onto something that many great creatives know, creativity needs structure. Four years ago I wrote a piece titled “ISIS, Latin, and Middle School” about just this. That essay was inspired by David Brooks’ New York Times article “The Good Order”  in which he shares the ways that “creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines.” From Maya Angelou to John Cheever, Brooks writes, “They think like artists but work like accountants.” Poetry, particularly the sonnets of Shakespeare or the haiku of Basho, is further evidence that structure and limits, breed creativity. And it is not just art that needs structure. The same applies in Silicon Valley. Research on “organizational slack,” lack of structure, shows that too much “free time” is counterproductive to innovation.

As we focus on offering a creative and process driven education, we do not need to lose our structured identity. In Brooks’ words “order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.” Our order and discipline, though, does not guarantee creativity and daring; it is only a prerequisite. In the months and years ahead, we will be looking at how we work within our creativity-inducing structure to ensure that we are living the “creative and process-driven” call of our mission. There is outstanding creative and process-driven work happening on campus each day – some of it documented in the two articles in this month’s MTS Too. Is there room for more? Absolutely, and we have the right structure in place to see that creativity realized.

Thoughts on Technology in School

We spoke with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology, and Lauren Mayer, Middle School English teacher who uses technology in her classroom, to learn more about the School's approach to the use of technology. 

A conversation with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology


Q: We are fond of saying that technology at MTS is intentional, not ubiquitous. Could you talk about this? What does that mean in practice?

MT: One of the reasons I like the approach toward technology at MTS is that we focus on what the main goal is: what are we are trying to teach- that comes first. What tool can help me do that? - that comes second. If it’s the other way around, with technology first, not second, then you’re developing a program that needs to be justified. I’ve seen this kind of approach at other schools I’ve worked in the past. Here at MTS, we have technology options available for use, but it’s not considered the end-all, be-all. The school values more personal, hands-on approaches when applicable such as reading books, talking in a circle, and the value of human interaction in social emotional learning tools.

I’m an advocate for technology given my role, so it’s possible I may come across as a “pusher.” My job is to find ways to help teachers utilize tools that are available to improve their lessons. “What is the end goal of the lesson? What do you want the students to learn? What tools might be available that could help you with that?”


Teachers sometimes have fears and anxieties around using technology. They need training. I try to ask the questions to guide teachers in how and where technology might be useful by asking certain questions – “Where’s your most problematic unit? When are your students tuning out? Where are you using up too much time?” I then ask “What’s the lesson supposed to do? What are you trying to teach? What do you want the students to think about?”

In general, I like to think of using technology in a way that fits into one of these categories: Efficiency, Engagement, and Enhancement. In other words, is it efficient? - making lesson plans quick to put together and also making good use of class time; is it engaging? - making sure we keep the students interested; and does it enhance or improve the lessons to make our teaching more effective? If you decide to use a digital learning tool, it needs to fall into one of those categories. At MTS, we want to develop a culture around the idea that technology is available to help by giving teachers the opportunity to attend workshops, so they can see and understand the options that are available. It’s really all about balance.

We also need to understand the curriculum development and the progression that students are making with regard to the kinds of digital tools they should know how to use. How can we best prepare them for high school and beyond in terms of the real world application of technology? What technological skills will they be expected to have in high school, college, and the work force? It’s important that we help students develop the basic skills and productivity tools that will ensure them future success. 

Q: What are the concerns around using technology in school?


MT: Is it reliable? Teachers worry about this. They decide to take a risk, plan a lesson using technology, and then it’s not working the day of the lesson. Maybe the internet is down or the application isn't functioning correctly. These types of issues discourage teachers from adopting and planning around it.

Another concern is distraction and classroom management. If the students are on devices, will they get distracted and off-task? Do they have easy access to the internet? This can be difficult to monitor.

For some teachers, the use of technology is counter to their philosophy. And then there are some subjects that you simply don’t want to use a technology solution. It feels like it's at the other end of what you're trying to do. For example, in social emotional learning, you don’t want to replicate human interaction with a piece of equipment. Not every teacher needs to be using it, not every class, and not every lesson. There's a real need for balance.

It's become such an integral part of our culture that it's important to teach what’s acceptable, using common sense, and keeping in mind that we're responsible for creating a healthy environment. Our job is to be sure that balance is achieved somehow. If we’re putting a laptop in every kids' hands, is it too much screen time? We all have to work on it, parents, teachers, and students alike. And in order to ensure that we're intentional, as teachers we have to know that part of teaching is showing how and when to use the tool by describing how and when it should be used and taking ownership of it.

Q: What’s your role at MTS?

MT: When I started, and an ongoing part of my role, is focused around systems and infrastructure. I make sure all the school's systems are working as they're meant to. The other fundamental part of my role, and the area I'm most excited about is laying the foundation and helping shape the culture at the School around technology. I'll be reviewing the students' curriculum from K-8 to see where we might implement specific workshops and programs that can help the faculty understand where and how they can use technology.

A conversation with Lauren Mayer, English


Q: How do you use technology in your English classes?

LM: In 7th and 8th grade English, we primarily use technology to support and facilitate the writing process. Google Classroom is a great platform for many reasons–as a teacher, I can easily send out assignments to students, post upcoming due dates on a class calendar, track student progress, and provide timely feedback on essays. Classroom makes it easy for students to submit drafts, read teacher comments, and revise their work, as well as have a digital copy of their assignments. When students sign up, the platform automatically creates a folder in their drive that stores all their work and keeps it organized.

It’s efficient for both students and teachers as both can access it anywhere with internet, and it allows for and tracks the natural back and forth process of writing and going through multiple drafts. I can give faster feedback for writing, because I can just type it instead of writing it down on paper, and then it’s all captured digitally and can be accessed later at any time through the process, making it easier to track a student’s progress. The platform even has an audio record option, so I can dictate feedback, and the students can listen to it later.

As the teacher, I can easily pull up global summaries of who has turned in assignments or I can organize summaries according to each student. I can post announcements, and upcoming assignments, or I can pose questions with the  discussion/comments feature. I can post questions to all the students as a group in a forum-like fashion, or I can ask “closed” questions to get feedback from students where only I can see the answers. I can see previous assignments and can repost old assignments to a new class without having to re-do everything from scratch. I don’t use it for everything. For some lessons like grammar and vocabulary we still use a pen and paper, but the digital platform definitely has its place.

Q: How has this proven successful? Have you encountered any challenges?

LM: I think students really enjoy using Classroom. They can access assignments at home, collaborate with classmates for peer editing, and have immediate access to a digital “portfolio” of their major assignments. Classroom links directly with Google Drive and other Google Apps, which helps students organize their work and easily review prior teacher feedback. We occasionally run into glitches, but overall it’s been very helpful.

Q: How do you see the use of technology as beneficial to the students? Do they like it? Does it improve the lessons you’re trying to teach?

LM: I think the greatest benefit of Google Classroom is the ability for students to readily access their assignments, organize their work in a centralized location, and receive timely and specific feedback from teachers.

Q: How long have you been using this teaching method for your English classes? Did you use this in previous teaching positions?

LM: I have been using versions of G-Suite for about five years, and it’s been exciting to see how Google has updated their program to directly influence classroom learning. The platform is constantly evolving and improving, making it better and better to use. It’s more and more student and teacher “friendly.”

Intentional Technology Use


“Hard things are hard.” President Obama kept a plaque on his desk with these words to remind him of the importance of not taking the easy road. These words resonate with me as a parent and school leader. Being a parent is hard. Academic studies show that the two easiest paths to parenting – the strict and controlling ‘authoritarian’ and the laissez-faire ‘permissive’ – are less effective at raising well-adjusted children than an artful blend of the two, ‘authoritative.’ Authoritative parenting requires that we balance control and independence, authority and warmth. In my experience this balancing act is hard, and I don’t even have teens yet. Indeed, hard things are hard.


Technology use in schools is, I believe, a hard thing and requires a similar challenge of balancing two competing “easy” forces to yield the best results. It is tempting to put a device – whether iPad, chromebook, or laptop – in the hands of every child. With our students on screens in each class we would look like a school “of tomorrow.” However, research is showing that our children are only getting more and more screen time. This screen time is, in turn, having an impact on social skills such as empathy. And, skills like note-taking are proving to be more effective when done by hand rather than digitally. I recently watched our students build and test helicopters as they learned about air resistance. Their hands-on simulation was just as, if not more, effective than an online-simulation. And, over the course of the period, the students practiced how to work with others rather than click a mouse. It is not just the adults who are recognizing the downsides of ubiquitous technology. I have worked with middle school students in a 1:1 environment who bemoaned that every assignment was on their iPad and that they were too often distracted by YouTube and games, just a swipe away.  


As the pendulum has slowly started to swing away from constant connection, including during the school day, some Silicon Valley leaders – those we would expect to endorse technology –  are sending their children to schools with no educational technology or trying their best to limit access to screens for as long as possible. A tech-free school and life, though, also seems too “easy.”  At school, technology can deepen understanding. At MTS, students are able to learn the thinking routines and skills of a programmer with a computer and robot. English and humanities students get real time feedback on their writing from teachers and peers on a writing assignment. Math and world language students are able to get “reps” at just the right level using a blended learning platform such as XYZ or Language Nut. Technology can even further learning in the arts – this week the Scene Study class is using iPads to record, watch, and critique their own performances. Furthermore, when our students start 9th grade at just about any high school, they will be required to interact with teachers and peers using technology.  


So what is the future of educational technology at MTS? Like ‘authoritative’ parenting, there is a sweet spot in the middle between ubiquitous computing and a Luddite refusal to use technology.  To me that balance is best described as “intentional” technology use. Our goal is that our teachers have the training and support to recognize when technology could deepen student understanding and the devices to implement those tech-enabled lessons. We do not want students using technology for the sake of using technology, even if it looks like something a school in 2018 “should” be doing. We also do not want our students missing out on opportunities to grow in the classroom because we don’t have the support or the machines to enable this growth.  

I am thrilled to work with Mike Taverna, our Director of Instructional Technology, as he builds relationships with teachers and shifts more of his time to helping teachers implement effective uses of technology. And, like parenting, technology integration is not always perfect. There will be lessons where we use technology and the learning objective is muddled by the machines. There will also be lessons that, in hindsight, could have been strengthened by a digital tool. We will always, though, keep our eye on finding the balancing point of “intentional” technology use that prepares our students for their future while maintaining the strength of face-to-face and analog learning. Intentional technology use is hard. Hard things are hard. And, we are committed to getting this hard thing right.

Try It Truck

The Discovery Museum's Try It Truck came to Mount Tamalpais School in January 2018. The truck is an "engineering lab on wheels" that introduces students to the engineering design process with both high and low tech tools that encourage them to experiment and try new ideas. The truck visited MTS for 3 days of activities for grades K-2, and it was such a resounding success that we brought it back for a second week, so that third and fourth grades could also participate. Here are some highlights from the first week. 




The first day of the visit, students were able to explore a number of different stations, which included:

  • Hammering wood
  • Dismantling computers, adding machines, and old calculators
  • Laser cutting hand-made designs drawn on tablets
  • Manipulating clay to simulate a beaver dam, crab shell, or bee hive


Hummingbird Nests

Students were presented a "problem" experienced by a local animal and were then challenged to "solve" the problem with a custom design. The local animal on this day was the hummingbird. Students learned about the small size of hummingbirds, and their correspondingly tiny eggs. They discussed the importance of creating nests that can withstand wind, predators, and keep the eggs warm. After students spent several minutes drawing their prototypes, students were then given a wide array of materials to build and test their designs. A station was set up with fans in order to see whether the nests could hold up against the wind. 

Week 1, Day 3

Bat Shelters

Day 3 of the Try It Truck, K-2 students were presented a new challenge focused around bats. They learned about bats and how bat shelters differ from those of hummingbirds. Unlike hummingbirds, bats sleep upside down, and enter their shelters from the bottom.

As such, students had to create a shelter for a bat that:
1) Is warm and narrow
2) Is rough on the inside
3) Has an entrance at the bottom


What Parents are Saying

"So excited the 3rd graders get to experience the Try it Truck!" - Michelle Young

"Amazing! Chase has really loved this! Brilliant idea" - Katrina O'Connell

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"Thanks so much for the opportunity to volunteer at the Try it Truck yesterday. What a great program!" -Kristin Baehner

"We heard a lot about the truck at home, ..obviously we should get her some power tools next Christmas ;)" - Laura Moore

"Aisling absolutely loved the truck too! She went to great lengths to explain in detail every activity! She was super enthusiastic." Orlaith Dolly

Service Learning at MTS

Community has always been paramount at Mount Tamalpais School. Through our service learning program, we strive to broaden our students’ community while preparing them to be responsible citizens in a global community. It is our hope that our students have the opportunity to realize the impact of their work and to understand and connect with people from different backgrounds, stories and traditions, all the while exercising empathy and compassion. We currently ask all middle school students to complete twelve to twenty hours of service over a year. The students will then share their experiences with the younger grades in an assembly this spring. We hope that sharing their stories and feelings will help other students appreciate the importance of volunteering, and will guide them in their future endeavors. We are also working with the parent association and student council to develop further opportunities for students and families across the school to engage with the broader Marin and San Francisco community.

A few of our alumni and eighth grader service learning experiences are shared below.

-Barbara Guarriello

Samuel Potter, Class of 2017

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Organizations: Swim Across America, Bay Area Make-A-Wish, and PAASS Challenger Sports

I naturally fell into much of my service learning due to a family connection with both Swim Across America (which has included many MTS participants over the years) and the Bay Area Make-A-Wish. Because my family were actual beneficiaries of both organizations, it felt very gratifying to give back to them by raising donations, and I continue to do so to this day.

Therefore, I was surprised when I found a third organization that made an even greater impact upon me personally. Volunteering for PAAS Challenger Sports, which helps children with physical and emotional disabilities to play organized team sports, was a really incredible experience.

I first signed up for Challenger Baseball, and I was nervous: I had never played baseball and, more importantly, wasn't sure that I would be any good connecting with the children.  It turns out that it didn't really matter what my sports skills were. It was more important to be present for the participants, giving these children your enthusiasm, patience, and friendship.  In later years, I also volunteered for Challenger Basketball. I left the practices and games feeling that for an hour and a half, I had really put myself out there to connect and play with the children.  Having this really intense face-to-face relationship with the kids who participated in Challenger Sports gave me a greater understanding and empathy for others.

Jacqueline Patterson, Eighth Grader

Organizations: Camporee, Arequipa, and Fireside


For my service hours, I have done mostly two different things. One of the things that provides me an advantage with service is that I have been a girl scout for the last 7 years. This has given me the option of doing Camporee leadership which provides me with 90 service hours and Arequipa, a girl scout day camp, that provides me with an additional 35 hours. The other service I do is volunteering at Fireside (temporary housing for homeless).

I choose to do these activities because they really were fun to do and made me feel very accomplished with what I have done. During Camporee leadership, you get to watch as the months worth of your work becomes an incredible camp experience for the younger girls. I really enjoy these service opportunities because I love knowing that I'm making an impact on someone else's life. These opportunities are also fun because the activities are meant to be fun. When I go to Fireside, I often start by coloring with the kids or doing a planned craft that goes with the holiday closest to the time. This is really enjoyable because I get to interact with the kids and even have made a few friends. Then after the kids leave, the adults come in to play some very competitive rounds of bingo.

I have learned many things from my service in Marin. I have learned how to interact with people of all different ages and abilities. I have also learned how to act when in a leadership role and how to handle the responsibility that those roles included. There was a lot of work to be put in for the girl scout events on my part. The day camp required going through a difficult and rigorous training course which was challenging to complete.

Oscar Nesbitt-Schnadt, Eighth Grader


Organization: Glide Memorial Church

For a lot of my service learning, I worked at the Glide Memorial Church. Most of the time, I would arrive early in the morning and head downstairs to prepare the large amount of sandwiches necessary for people’s meals. I chose this organization because I could really feel and see that my assistance was having an impact on the community. When I walked past the many different faces along the streets, I knew that I would be helping some of them that same day. The satisfaction of knowing that I was contributing to those around me made all of my work worth it. And from seeing people eagerly awaiting their small portion of food, I learned that even people in bad conditions who have been dealt an unfair hand by the world can still find gratitude and kindness in their hearts.