Understanding Shelters in Gr. 3

By: Jim Reese

(This blog posting comes from Cheryl Tanski, the Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing at Washington International School.)

Grade 3 students at Washington International School recently took part in a unique learning opportunity with Project Zero Principal Investigator Edward Clapp, who visited the Primary School and led the students and teachers through a maker-centered design challenge. During their most recent International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program Unit of Inquiry, “Migration,” the Grade 3 classes learned about the current Syrian refugee crisis, and Edward was able to help them connect that lesson to their ongoing Unit of Inquiry, “Architecture.”

After seeing and investigating some pictures of different temporary shelters, students had to sketch one of their own, thinking about what goes into supporting a shelter, and all the different parts associated with it. Next, they engaged with a thinking routine, developed by Edward and the Agency By Design team at Project Zero, through which they looked at the sketches while thinking about the parts, purposes, and complexities that go into building a shelter. The students were then divided into groups of three or four and tasked with designing and building their own temporary shelter. The structure had to be able to stand on its own and sleep two children comfortably. Each group competed for limited building materials, which included cardboard, large plastic sheeting, newspapers, duct tape, and string.

The Multipurpose Room at the Primary School was transformed into a building site as the students quickly got to work. The groups brainstormed about the various parts, purposes, and complexities of their shelter and drew some mock designs before starting the building process. Each group had an entirely different idea for a shelter, which meant that none of the structures looked the same, yet almost all of the shelters succeeded in their mission: to stand on their own and to accommodate two children.

After cleaning up their areas, these industrious students went on a short Gallery Walk around the room, quietly contemplating each of their classmates’ structures. When they were done with their walk, Grade 3 teacher Foun Tang asked the students to raise their hands to the answer these questions:

  • “Who was able to learn something by looking at other structures?”
  • “Who was able to learn something because something failed? Because your structure collapsed initially?”

Almost all of the students raised their hands, which, Foun commented, “really says something interesting about learning, and shows how different people use different solutions to solve problems.”

As the activity drew to a close, Edward gathered the students together to reflect on what they had learned. They had some very impressive answers:

  • “Sometimes you have to try different things and experiment, because it doesn’t always work the first time, and you’re not always going to know what materials you need, so you’ll figure it out as you go.”
  • “I learned that you can’t only use one material. You have to use many. One material can’t do everything, and you have to really think about how different materials work.”
  • ”We thought we were going to need to make it higher, but then it didn’t work, and we realized that we were lying down, and that we’re not going to be standing up most of the time, so it could be really low to the ground.”
  • “I learned that you have to have a great working team, and take your time instead of rushing. I’ve learned that the best thing is to do it really slow; that way you know what to do.”
  • “I learned that people have to be flexible and not just have one way of doing the structure, because it’s never going to be just one way that works. And that your building/structure doesn’t always come out as your sketch — you need to be flexible and change it as needed.”

To end the activity, Foun charged the students to think beyond themselves: “Half of the world’s refugees are children. What would you feel like if this were your shelter? I want you to take turns, in silence, just lying down inside, thinking for a few moments about what it would be like to take shelter there.”

In today’s often troubling world, Foun’s charge is a necessary reflection for both students and adults.