What a fantastic week this has been at Presbyterian School! We had an incredibly spirited and student-led Pep Rally on Wednesday afternoon celebrating all of our fall sports and athletes. We had equally spirited competitions in all of these sports during the week, culminating in our Volleyball teams’ domination of St. Francis in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades on Wednesday and Thursday, an equally thrilling throttling of AOS by our Football team on Thursday night, and our Cross Country team's strong showing in the John Cooper Invitational on Saturday.
However, the highlight of my week was easily an even more spirited activity that revolved around bridges . . . that’s right, bridges.
As I wrote in my Looking Ahead piece at the end of last year, our fifth grade program in 2011-12 is a little bit different. We have hired an all-new team of talented and experienced folks who will only teach fifth grade—no more “cross-over” teachers and no more sharing of teachers with other grade levels. We moved all fifth grade classes except science to the far north end of the middle school hallway so that our newest middle school students would be able to make the transition to that division surrounded by familiar faces and shepherded by their teachers in close proximity.
Then, we built bridges.
Fifth graders began this year with the task of designing, constructing, and completing a group project focused on building a fully functional bridge out of matchsticks and glue. At the beginning of the unit, each fifth grader completed an interest inventory for placement in one of the following jobs: architect, project manager, accountant, and transportation chief. Once placed in these jobs, the students received their group (or, “company”) assignments and were given $1.5 million as their initial budgets.
Then, the fun really began. During their math and science classes, students worked in these groups as they engaged abstract topics related to stress and the law of gravity as well as the relative strength of different geometric shapes. All the work was hands-on, and most of the learning was inquiry-based. At the same time in their Social Studies classes, students were reading about the history of bridges—researching famous examples, finding photos, and sharing information with each other. In English classes, the project managers were writing in company journals; back in math classes, the accountants kept ledgers and balance sheets while also writing checks and completing purchase orders. Students implemented technology to create company signs with Microsoft Publisher using logos and mottos they had come up with while also consulting two interactive websites to research and describe stress on different geometric shapes.
Students also had to deal with real-life hazards. Fines were given by inspectors for messy job sites, accounting audits were ordered if balance sheets were out of whack, and engineering fees were assessed if companies needed help with their design/construction. Finally, unexpected wildfires caused the price of lumber to increase without any notice. In fact, one company actually experienced bankruptcy; however, I am pleased to report that they recycled their materials and worked their way back to solvency. Only in America!
Then, our fifth graders came together to watch their bridges get tested and to see which ones would hold up, and which ones would not. This event—part demolition derby, part pep rally—is what I got to see first hand on Thursday morning . . . and the energy and enthusiasm in the room was unlike anything I’ve seen for an academic project since I’ve been the Headmaster here. In a word, it was EXCITING!
Sure, the “curriculum connection” with this activity was to introduce our students to concepts like accounting, scarcity, supply and demand, trade, resources, and opportunity costs. We wouldn’t be doing our job on the school end if I didn’t tell you that. However, far more important than these ideas, our students—who are crossing their own metaphorical bridges into the middle school—were challenged to work with others to accomplish a common goal . . . to foster a sense of camaraderie that will last throughout their time in middle school . . . to see each other in different ways while also challenging each other to be their very best. As we said at the beginning of last year, these students were ultimately challenged to build bridges rather than fences, to invite others in rather than keeping them out . . . and they did just that—and did it very well. I wish you all could have been there to see it.
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