Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Where My Benches At?


The moral of this story is saying yes to things can yield really awesome things for your students. Especially when you say, "Yes, but what if it was More?"

My district started an initiative this year with the goal of connecting businesses to classrooms. They would enlist professionals to collaborate with teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and together the teachers and business people would create some kind of experience for the students that helped them see how what they are learning connects to the wider world (don't say "real world", our kids live in the real world and school operates there already). Because I'm one of the two teachers at my school who is known to default to "Ok, let's try it" I got asked to volunteer to be a part of the program. The other teacher did too.

We were paired up for Fortis Construction, who is currently employed rebuilding one of our high schools. An educational consultant firm (I think, I'm still not clear on what this third party does) joined in the party too because they wanted to help build a wider curriculum out of whatever we came up with. This was a pilot year, so no one knew anything. I like this, because it means steering can happen more easily. When someone thinks they know exactly where they're going it's harder to change course. We were ground floor, which means everyone was looking at each other going, "I dunno, maybe this?"

The third party presented us- myself, the other teacher, and Fortis- with a packet of ideas they'd come up with that were "elementary appropriate". The other teacher and I looked at the packet for about five seconds before tossing it aside and asking for the middle or high school packet. You see, the elementary one was fine, or would have been had it not involved our classes. It was experiments in if you make a ramp at this angle how far will the marble roll and such. Fine, but easy. My kids had already made a cardboard arcade at this point. We're past ramp building. During the initial brainstorming session we landed on what is to be key in my project-based learning flow chart from here on out- How can the product be visible and exist in the real world for a real amount of time? This lead the other teacher to suggest a bench. As is, what if our classes designed and built a bench that Fortis, being a construction company, could then build and install? The guys from Fortis looked at us long and hard for a minute and then agreed that yes they could do that. Cool cool. (From here on out I'm going to only be talking about what my kids did because the other teacher dropped out of the project. he had 40 students and a lot going on. No guilt, no complaint. But I wanted the initial idea's credit to go to the proper place.)

We planned four dates out. First, Fortis would come into the classrooms and explain the project. Then they'd go away for a week while I led my students through the design of the benches. Rather than one bench it was decided that I would break my kids into eleven groups, each group would design their own bench. Then Fortis and a panel of experts would choose four of the eleven to actually build. Fortis supplied my students with basic parameters like how long the benches could be, how tall, how wide, and what materials they needed to use (wood only). Students were encouraged to get creative.

I didn't find out until much later than none of the other adults in the group understood what the students would be able to create. The Fortis guys actually thought the whole thing would probably go up in smoke. I mean, fourth graders creating benches? Really? And I understand this point of view, especially if you don't work with kids like we work with kids. You don't know what ten year olds can do unless you let them off the leash and the room has been built to allow that kind of thinking anyway.

My kids got to work on their designs. The next two Fortis visits were them coming in, looking at designs, and offering professional feedback. I didn't want to make it sound like they weren't invested in the previous paragraph. They were, they just didn't know what was possible. After the first pass through looking at designs they realized that not only would they be getting workable designs, they'd be getting deep, creative, thoughtful designs. And they went full-on, going group to group, offering advice, not stifling ideas. My kids went bug-nutty on it. Groups designed benches to look like panthers (our school mascot). A bunch of groups decided that a problem with the benches would be the rain or the sun, so they figured out how to engineer covers over their benches, going so far as to measure how tall they were sitting and standing and trying to figure out how tall a cover would have to be to work while not taking anyone's head off. When I say there was a billion different completely organic math problems involved in this project I do not use hyperbole. Kids sitting on yard sticks trying to figure out how many students could sit to one bench, kids stopping kinders in the hall to see where their knees bent so the bench heights would be 4th grader and kindergartner-friendly. The panther group put a tail on their bench design which wrapped around to the front and could act as a footrest.


I warned the groups that were going real big, like the groups with covers and tails, that I wasn't sure their designs were buildable, but told them not to hold back. Do it, ask for help from the pros, and let's see what happens. So they did, all with good measurements and specific blueprints.

Ah, blueprints. I make my kids plan everything they build, always have. Otherwise you end up with cardboard everywhere and nothing to show for it. But the Fortis guys showed them how to make useful blueprints, with three views and how those views work together and where the measurements went to be clear.

Then Fortis showed me one of their fanciest toys- a mixed reality headset. Mixed reality is different than augmented reality (as the guy in charge of that explained to me) in that AR is Pokemon Go, where something just appears in front of you but doesn't really react to the real world in any way. MR mean the program sees the space it's in an changes how the design is placed in the world. Here's the simpler version of that- The guy loaded up the high school's digital blueprint into the helmet and put it on me. Then I got to walk around inside a line drawing of the high school. The blue lines were the beams and the red tubes were ducting and the green squiggles were wiring. And as I walked around the room in real space a GPS in the helmet told the program and I moved around inside the blueprint of the high school. It was the freaking future, and it was cool as hell. They told me that before this program they had to really check all the drawing to make sure walls didn't meet weird or wiring went somewhere it shouldn't, and with this program they could just see where everything went before they built it.

So I went back to my classroom and showed my kids Tinkercad, a 3D design program that is free and you don't have to download, it runs right in your browser. I want to stress that I didn't teach my kids how to use Tinkercad. I used one computer lab day to point them at it, briefly show them "Look, you can make shapes and move them in space" and that was the extent of my instruction. Then I planted in their heads "Wouldn't it be cool if your benches were built in Tinkercad so you could see them in three dimensions and rotate them and stuff?" I did no Teaching. I showed, suggested, and moved aside.

Which leads us to the fourth and most important week of visits- The Pitches. To choose what benches to build we had the Fortis guys, plus their superintendent, my principal, my superintendent, and some other muckity-mucks come into my room and sit on a panel and judge each of the eleven presentations based on specific criteria. To prepare, three days before we did mock presentations and I gave very specific, detailed, Paul Hollywood-style feedback about presentation style, content, models, designs, everything. Then the kids rehearsed rehearsed rehearsed.

You have never seen a more prepared group of fourth graders. I have never seen a more prepared group of fourth graders, and I do a bunch of presentations every year. Authentic audiences and stakes matter.

Friends, I could not be more proud of how my groups did and how hard they made it on the judges. There was great speaking, there were designs on paper and in a 3D-computer generated space, there were reasons why the benches were needed and why their benches solved the problems best. There were all the design elements I'd mentioned before but polished and reasoned to a T. They killed it. I mean, it's one thing to impress your teacher, but it's another to Wow a roomful of strange, important adults.





Four benches were chosen, and Fortis set to work on the construction. In the meantime, my class was redivided into groups that were all about checklists- Quality, Safety, Security, etc. You see, the plan was to put them outside in our school garden. We'd even collaborated with the 5th grade class who was redesigning the garden so we were sure our bench designs matched their garden plans. So much collaboration and cooperation.

Thursday the benches were delivered. Unpainted, but built, and we got to do a Grand Reveal. They looked Amazing. Again, better than any one of the adults expected. (Except me, and I don't say that to brag. I just...knew. If Fortis followed the designs the benches would look great.) And this is where my kids had to learn another lesson. You see, the plan was for the wooden benches to be painted, purple and black mostly, and according to the designs. But the wood used is really nice wood, and it looks great. Some adults resisted the painting, saying it would be a shame to cover up the wood. I advocated for my kids and their designs. We got to design them, you do what you picked. I don't care that now it's prettier than you thought. I'm still not sure how that will shake out, but I'm hearing that there's a stain that will make the benches purple while still keeping the wood grain. When I put it to my kids they agreed that could be a compromise.





Just look at how beautiful those benches are. My kids did that. Fourth graders designed that. With directions, parameters, and help but not nudging, fourth graders planned, blueprinted, measured, and justified those benches into existence. The only thing they didn't do, and I wish we could have, was turn a bolt or cut some wood.

The other compromise was a disappointment to everyone but came from above my pay grade- it was decided that the benches look too nice to be left outside where eventually the elements or other humans might ruin them. But put inside they could be used and maintained, lasting for a long time. I was not happy with this- my students designed the layout of the benches to be a social area while also allowing for an outdoor classroom feel one adult (not me) was asking for. The kids pushed back on the idea of bringing the benches inside, understanding the argument but at the same time holding their ground and proposing all kinds of covers and ways to protect the outside benches. Alas, my children, sometimes decisions are made for us. So we got to pick where in the school the benches will be place instead. And, now that I've got some distance from it, this is the right call. The benches will last for a long time inside the school, and probably only four or five years outside. But still, it was hard to change a plan that had been in place since day one. There's a lesson there too.

There is a happy ending to this part, however. Fortis, being cool  and righteous, understood our disappointment and agreed to build us four-to-eight cheaper, simpler, sustainable benches that could be placed in the garden. My kids wrote letters asking for that.

I cannot express the amount of work that went into this by the four or five Fortis guys who came into my room to help my kids, or by the district people, including my admin who supports me in all my madness, who helped guide this and make it possible. This sounds like a humblebrag and maybe it is (and if it is I earned it, damnit), but they gave me a lot of credit for setting up the classroom to be able to pull this off and for supporting the kids in all the way they needed to make this work. And I did do that. But what I really did was get handed a unique opportunity, crank it to eleven, and have faith that my kids could pull it off.

And I'm already trying to figure out how to top it next year.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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