Building Our Classroom

Fourth grade students found a surprise on the first day of school this year: the walls of their classroom were bare, and furniture stood in the middle of the space along with some classroom technology equipment. An accidental oversight? Not at Presidio Knolls. As one student put it, “The teachers are trusting us to figure out how to design the classroom - this is awesome!”

The progressive principles upon which PKS was founded guide our approach to learning every day. In the real world, subjects are intertwined and connected, so our students encounter academic content in the context of real-world opportunities and questions relevant to them. Our integrated “units of exploration,” which are centered on one or more questions or subjects, draw upon many disciplines to encourage independent thinking and problem-solving.

For fourth graders, the first unit of exploration this school year, “Building Our Classroom,” was based on the the question, “what kind of classroom will we learn in?” In the process of answering this question, students applied a variety of math skills (e.g., measurement, data collection, analysis, and presentation) while continuing to build their Mandarin language skills (e.g. new vocabulary, persuasive writing) and ability to work in teams. 

The teachers kicked things off by leading a conversation about student hopes and dreams for the school year, which led to robust discussion and voting on classroom conduct expectations. Instead of simply asserting a particular approach to designing and building a classroom, teachers then led students through a series of activities, each starting with a question that emerged from the goal of classroom design. For example, teachers asked, “What do we need?” To answer this question, students designed questionnaires and interviewed each other. They shared their ideas as a group and started writing “need statements” to articulate the authentic needs of the class. This process triggered further student reflections on the kinds of activities they would need to undertake to learn. Students made a list of clearly stated needs, such as, “因为我们有时候需要冷静,所以我们需要可以冷静的地方。” (because we sometimes need to cool down therefore we need a place where we can cool down), and “为了知道今天是几月几号,我们需要日历。” (in order to know what day it is we need a calendar). Teachers scaffolded this process by teaching and reviewing particular sentence patterns in Mandarin: 因为。。。所以 (because. . . therefore) and 为了 (in order to; for the sake of).

The question, “What can we learn from others?” spurred students to conduct research and build knowledge of classroom design and organizational systems. Students observed how architectural blueprints are used to visually communicate design ideas, and they explored classroom designs both near (inside the PKS campus) and far (such as in Japan) through videos and pictures. They took careful notes about what they were experiencing. 

Following this phase of the unit, students practiced formulating and articulating their opinions - in Mandarin, of course! This is how Stanford d-school describes the process: 

Students are challenged to brainstorm a myriad of ideas and to suspend judgment. No idea is to far-fetched and no one’s ideas are rejected. Ideating is all about creativity and fun. In the ideation phase, quantity is encouraged. Students may be asked to generate a hundred ideas in a single session. They become silly, savvy, risk takers, wishful thinkers and dreamers of the impossible...and the possible.

Above all, teachers encouraged students to verbalize all ideas, no matter how big or small. After discussion and some guidance from teachers, students divided into three planning groups: the layout group, which was responsible for the layout of furniture and large items, the materials group, which was responsible for the organizational systems for classroom materials, and the walls group, which was responsible for wall hangings.

As the groups started meeting and discussing their ideas, the teachers monitored to make sure all students were participating. In line with progressive learning, they did not correct participation imbalances with heavy-handed rules. Instead, they shared the observation that it is important for all students to participate in the work of each group. Asked how they would make sure that happens, students proposed that group members each have specific jobs. Students then worked out what those jobs would be and who would do them. Students even signed contracts to make sure each student completed the tasks they were assigned. 

In each group, students brainstormed ideas and documented them in written or visual form, similar to the “prototyping” phase of the design thinking process. For example, in the layout group, students drew blueprints to scale of their proposed classroom, working with our STEM teacher to transfer 3-D shapes to 2-D planes. 

Once the groups had produced documentation, they began working to persuade the larger class to agree with their recommendations. The other students offered feedback and the work groups revised their recommendations accordingly. After several iterations, students finally reached agreement and the teachers allowed them to implement their recommendations. 

When the project concluded, students were very proud to show parents around their classroom and explain its design and function. Through the unit, they learned how to implement practical solutions to problems they experience in daily life. As one student said when he was asked how the new design affected his daily learning: 

I feel really good about moving the big monitor to the center of the back wall. We sometimes use it to watch videos in Mandarin while we are eating our lunch and this gives us more learning time! We also separated the cubbies and the homework section. It was a problem at the end of school because everyone would go to that one area. Now it’s less crowded and you don’t have to wait. 

For the rest of the year, fourth graders will no doubt feel invested in the classroom space and carry with them the knowledge that they are capable of completing tasks normally reserved for adults. In the process, they practiced skills learned in math class, supported their Mandarin fluency, and developed social-emotional skills key to working well in groups. This is the heart of progressive learning. 

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