More than a Doll House: A Peace Valley Project
How student-led learning works at Peace Valley School:
As I write this, two students are working together to fix a guitar amp. The sound was “brassy” so a student brought it in from home. Our resident maker (engineer, problem solver) took it apart, plugged it in and did what she does. She is thirteen. Since then, she has soldered some loose wires back in place and is trying to tweak the sound to make it “optimal.” The student who brought in the amp is playing the classroom Fender Stratocaster to help her narrow down the problem. He’s twelve.
Creating a “Maker-Space” is a new directive in a lot of more traditional schools lately, but it has tended to be more a logistical monkey wrench in the industrial model. Students can work for 45-90 minutes at a time, including set-up and tear down, and are usually limited by a teacher’s directive. It often isn’t organic, but instead more like “This is your construction period, you signed up for this class, make something.”
Making is a big part of student-led learning here, instead of an elective period for a lucky few. The guitar amp scene and hundreds of others since the beginning of the year are the best I can do to explain to curious community members what learning looks like at Peace Valley School. Sometimes it is little fixes, sometimes it is a field trip, sometimes it is an impromptu chess tournament or a trudge to the creek to build a lean-to. The learning is driven entirely by students. In the end, we reflect on what we’ve learned and I align the experience to learning standards for their transcripts. I think a great example from this year of a fully integrated student-led project is the doll house a team of students constructed and presented at our annual Winter Solstice Gala fundraiser.
Early in November, three students then aged 12, 13, and 15 gathered around bags of donated scrap fabric to sort, fold, and store it. As they picked up each piece, they shared little observations “This one looks like wall paper!” “I would wear a dress made out of this…” until our resident crafter (aged 12) said “We should make clothespin dolls!” This student found a video on Creative Bug and shared it with the other two. The conversation then became heated as they built on each other’s enthusiasm. Within 15 minutes, the clothespin doll project had progressed to a two-story dollhouse which would be a boarding school full of a diverse group of clothespin students in the country. At this point, I added seven little words to their creative mix: “Let’s do it! What do you need?”
What they needed: The blueprints to my house (they knew another student had been using them to build the school in Minecraft), tablets for research (they studied different types of architecture, clothing and hair styles, and how to build a house), calculators, rulers, a lot of balsa wood and two months. Once they had a basic idea of the materials they needed, they created a calendar. I didn’t tell them to, they just knew they needed one. Since they were each on different learning paths, they had to figure out how much time they would have to work on the project at school.
One student interns at a horse farm every week, one leaves early three days a week, and one takes a full load of high school courses. It was a lot to navigate, and it took a bit to realize just how big the project was. But they worked together diligently, making sure to communicate so that no one person did all the work. They designed the school the way a house is built: with studs and siding, to scale (14cm=8ft). They calculated the linear board feet of balsa we needed to order and then worked out the costs. They also dreamed up a motley crew of characters so detailed that a patron at the Gala thought the final product was a diorama of a young adult fantasy novel they had all read. They developed the personalities and back stories of the dolls as they sat around a table creating them: sewing, sorting, gluing and giggling.
My job? I was a guide on the side. There were rarely any conflicts, but when they arose, I aided in resolution. There were times I had to gently remind members to make time for their project. I recommended materials they were previously unaware of (such as primer, wood glue, and clamps). I also made space available for them when they needed it. They came in during winter break to put finishing touches on their doll house and the dolls (for which they had hand-sewn clothes, including blue jeans) and spent three hours staging it on the day of the Gala. At the Gala, they presented their process and their work to the patrons who attended. They practiced making eye-contact, and engaged people of all ages in their community. Every aspect of the project truly belonged to the students as did all of the glory and pride in their work.
The best outcomes for this type of learning is tied to the investment and ownership the students have in their projects. Because it belongs to them, they truly and deeply learn from each aspect of the experience. The length, breadth, and depth of the project also led to skill mastery and confidence. But mostly, because they wanted to do it, they enjoyed it and were resilient when they reached obstacles. At Peace Valley School, this integration of skills with problem-solving is preparing this group for the real world by giving them space, time, and tools to fail, improvise, adapt, and overcome.
This generation of kids is headed into a world full of obstacles and complex problems to solve. I believe that giving them practice at engaging, creating, and working together is the best way to prepare them to engage in problem-solving instead of avoid difficult situations. We need leaders and team members who are confident critical thinkers and willing to help one another accomplish daunting tasks.
Post Script: What about REAL math.
Students receive credit for the work they do on real-world projects (I align the skills to the grade-level or course-level standards.) They also choose to schedule time each day to study math with me. Those three students happen to all be taking Algebra 1 with me. Again, these students direct their own education. They ASK me to teach them Algebra 1, and they ASK me for homework. It is awesome.