Founder Focus: Learning Innovator, Angela DeVincenzo
I met Angela DeVincenzo on one of those gloriously hot July summer weekends when you’re relieved to be near the ocean and not in midtown Manhattan. Angela and her husband Jeff had decamped to Bridgehampton, the Hayground School grounds, to beta-test their progressive education initiative Blocks, Trucks + Art – all housed in Big Mama, a converted classic 18-wheeler.
I was by told by friends that I just “had” to meet Angela. And as I stood in the blazing sun, staring at Big Mama and shaking Angela’s hand for the first time, I knew just how very right they were.
A believer in life-long education, Angela’s educational career includes 15 years in New York City’s premiere independent schools and studying at NYU, Bank Street College of Education, and Harvard University. She discovered the power of blocks during her tenure at City & Country School in Greenwich Village.
You’re an educator and learning specialist, with an expertise in block building. Tell me more. Why is block building an important educational tool?
I was fortunate to begin my career as an educator in a small, progressive, independent school in Greenwich Village, NYC. This special school, City & Country, is known as “The Block School.” Its founder was the inventor and creator of unit blocks, Caroline Pratt. This was a powerful and formative time in my career, and I’m thankful my teaching foundation was built here. Fifteen years later, I continue to study and admire the power of blocks in teaching and learning.
As educators, we have the responsibility to respect and value the development of the whole child — their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. We need to provide opportunities for children to express what they know, how they know it, and what they want to better understand about themselves and the world around them. It is through block building that children can process and express their thinking, try their ideas on for size, and integrate themselves as learners and workers alongside their peers. This hands-on work allows educators to get a deep understanding of students — the whole child — the strengths, the areas for growth, the areas of interest, where passions lie. Teaching and learning with blocks reveals not only what the child is ready for, but who the child is, as a person, as a human being. This is progressive education, the teacher progresses alongside the child. And, I believe teaching in this way is truly an art form.
Why this specialization? How did you come to be the block-building learning specialist?
I taught 6 and 7 year olds for most of my career. I gravitate towards this stage in childhood because to me, this is an incredibly exciting and fascinating moment in child development. Children’s skills and pathways for learning are so very varied and open at 6 and 7 years old. For example, some children enter first grade decoding Harry Potter (not understanding it, of course) and others struggle with reading words like, ‘pot’ and ‘sat.’ And then of course for some, there are viable gaps in learning, children with learning differences. Creating and building a community of learners with such varied learning and developmental needs, is both a beautiful and complicated task for a teacher. Thank you, blocks, for helping me to find answers to questions about what makes children tick and how to engage them in the learning process. These simple, yet dynamic, materials bridge and unite children in a most magical, organic way. The richness of a working block area is abuzz with anecdotal information, and such observations strengthen the educator’s understanding of her students on both a broad, and intimate scale.
Children need access in order to learn. Blocks provide the entry point. Other than books, I’ve yet to value another material quite as much as the marvelous unit, wooden blocks.
Why is it important to incorporate play into learning activities?
Play is the work of children; it is how children learn to be learners.
Block building is more than individual learning and enhancing a student’s understanding of concepts, it is also about team-building. How have you seen that in action?
Absolutely, block building is all about collaboration, working together. Building a community of learners in the classroom is by far a priority, and I believe, the main ingredient to successful classrooms and schools that motivate and inspire children. Block building brings a classroom of learners together in authentic, meaningful and powerful ways. The teacher works alongside the children, guiding and facilitating, and it is through these intentional teaching moments that children can feel the importance and value of their work. The teacher spends time observing closely what children do, and uses these observations as fodder for deeper, more individualized teaching. And because the children know and feel that their work matters, has value, and is important to the whole classroom community, the children own their learning and truly become responsible learners—they are motivated to work together, to work through challenges, to create, to share their vision. And this experience is ultimately satisfying for the teacher and the children.
And blocks aren’t just for kids, right?
Unit blocks are now used in schools all over the world—they’ve become quite universal. When I consult with schools and teachers about the value of blocks, I always have teachers get on the floor and build, so that they can experience what this kind of work feels like. The reaction and feedback is always fantastic! Teachers say it is liberating, challenging, and that they learn so much more about teaching with these materials after they work with blocks themselves. They can witness, first-hand, and relate to the challenges and triumphs their students encounter. There are many types of open-ended materials out there, and yes, there are no age limitations. Engaging in the process of creating is necessary to free the mind and conjure up ideas, and ideas inspire and motivate us to do terrific things. That being said, at the forefront, my work is and always will be with children (and, of course, teaching educators and parents about why work with open-ended materials is so beneficial and crucial to child development).
What are the various ways block building can be integrated into leadership or team-building exercises?
As a learning specialist, I’ve been looking deeply into learning and the brain. Something I see daily in my office is that children express their thinking/understanding in a variety ways. And most importantly, they need to identify which mode works best for them, and why. Not everyone is expressive verbally, or in the written form. Some of us are far better with sketching an idea, or speaking from an image. Offering opportunities for expression is the best way to get work flowing, teams building, uniting and productive. And so, I would recommend giving people tools, materials, and not always the 2D realm of paper and pencil.
Tell me about your new venture Blocks, Trucks + Art. Is this your first entrepreneurial venture?
Blocks, Trucks + Art is a progressive education initiative for children. My husband, five-year-old-truck-loving son and I invested in an 18-wheeler and created a children’s workshop space inside a 48’ moving trailer. Our mission is to get kids collaborating, sharing ideas, and problem solving. We know that schools spend less and less time on exploration and creative, self-directed work. Young children, especially, need time and space to explore, manipulate materials to express thinking and understanding. Without such opportunities we are taking away crucial experiences necessary to develop inspired, life-long learners. This is our first family, collaborative venture, and it’s been quite a wild, exciting ride!
What excites you about launching your own company?
Collaborating with my husband is super inspiring and gratifying. He has such vision and creativity—talk about an alternative thinker! What’s most exciting is that we do it all for our boy, Luca. He is the ultimate inspiration. I’ve worked in schools for a long time, and so it’s liberating to be able to create our own vision and mission, to get to the bottom of how to excite, motivate and inspire kids. This work is meaningful and creative — and we’ve found a way to meld our talents: progressive educator and designer. We can’t wait to see how things continue to develop and grow.
What’s next for you and Blocks, Trucks + Art?
We will soon launch our Kickstarter campaign (spring 2016). We are planning to raise money to keep the program going, and to extend it beyond the 18-wheeler. We aspire to bring the program to schools, camps, hospitals, libraries, etc. I will continue to educate and develop teachers’ and parents’ understanding of blocks and the power of open-ended materials in early childhood education. We will be back out on the East End this summer, at a camp in Bridgehampton, working with children and families in our rig, celebrating creative collaboration and learning, alternatively.
What’s your favorite gadget at the office?
Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not much of a gadget-girl. I work best surrounded by books, plants, and lots of light! My husband though, would say, “The red pen!” as I can be overly corrective.
How do you stay on task? Any suggestions for the rest of us?
- Multi-tasking: I find that completing smaller, more petty tasks (i.e., to-do list items, composing/responding to an email I’ve put off, setting up an appointment, calling a parent, etc.) is highly satisfying and motivating. It is through the completion of such tasks that I can ultimately chip away at a more daunting task (like this interview!).
- Chunking: A most important strategy – breaking up the task/assignment into smaller, more manageable chunks.
- Movement breaks: Getting a cup of tea, taking a walk, chatting with a colleague…
- Verbalizing: For me, verbalizing is essential. Talking through an idea or problem is how I make sense of next steps. It’s like planning for me. I can get back to the task with clarity and direction after I’ve done some talking.
What’s your motto?
Keep on truckin’, of course!
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what occupation would you pursue?
I truly can’t and don’t want to imagine myself doing anything else. The beauty of working with children is that you bring your whole self to the work. All that I enjoy in life enters my experience as a teacher: dancing, singing, baking, reading, writing, etc. And, children are so innately kind and generous; they inspire me to be my best self. And, kids are always up for a fantastic giggle! And, and, and….!