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BANNER, December 2015: Middle School boat building project

“Can fourth and fifth graders work together to build a boat that can hold one to two kids and float?” This is the question driving a compelling project in Brookwood’s Middle School in which 90 fourth and fifth graders are collaborating and working with teachers across disciplines to construct one MacIntosh Canvas Boat by the end of the school year. It is a voyage of discovery with an answer yet to be learned.

The idea of building a boat within the entire division has been a topic of discussion for a few years, but when classroom space became available once the third grade moved to the Lower School, the "Boatyard" was created and boat building began! Once funding was secured, the Middle School team knew this was the year they had the opportunity to move ahead.

While the details were being worked out, the educational mission behind the boat-building project was always very clear. “Every year we have a theme that we use to weave together our work with current brain research, awareness of differing learning styles, social emotional/Responsive Classroom work and Brookwood’s Mission in Practice,” explains Grade 5 teacher Sven Holch.  [Watch the VIDEO]

Hands-on learning, design thinking, and team building are all important lessons learned through the project, he adds. “Design thinking and project-based learning (PBL) were the focus of a school-wide professional development initiative (Amory Parker Chair, 2012-2014), and so we saw an opportunity to directly apply those concepts and skills to this project. Team building and hands-on learning are fundamental necessities to the success of this project.  In fact, the teachers went through many false starts, as we had to find a design that would allow for the most hands-on possible! This was not easy, and of course consulting local experts and boat builders was a key first step.”

The 90 students are organized into nine working groups of 10 students each, and are, in keeping with maritime nomenclature, called “watches.” One teacher is assigned to each group (a mix of students by gender, homeroom, and grade level), and the watches all bear important local sea-faring names: Stellwagen Watch, George’s Watch, Ipswich Watch, and so on. “The Tinker/Boatbuilding room is ideally situated on our floor between the fourth and fifth grade classes. It has been dubbed the “Boatyard” and about twice a week, every “watch” is working on a direct or indirect boatbuilding activity,” Sven says.

The boat building work is interwoven with the fourth and fifth grade curriculum in many creative and interesting ways.  “The Social Studies units in the fourth and fifth grades make numerous ties between their respective curricula and maritime studies on which the boat literally floats,” Sven says. “Our literature in language arts and geography in social studies have very direct connections to the project. For example, our fifth grade class novel, Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus, has an entire glossary in the book dedicated to sailing and whaling terms. In fourth grade, our study of ancient Greece connects ancient shipping routes to our modern merchant marine, and tracking container ships is just a click away.

Our use of the practices and basic tenents of the Responsive Classroom connect our social curriculum to that of the group work and collaborative nature of boatbuilding and being 'on watch' and on a voyage together. The math, science and classic STEM curricula tie to the project in numerous ways, including but not limited to displacement, angles, scale, joinery, characteristics of water, measurement and more.”

Middle School Coordinator Lisa Johnson reflects on what she says is a remarkable learning opportunity. “I continue to marvel at how we got to this point. Here we are with a project involving 90 students getting their hands on tools and helping to make something that will hopefully float. While the ‘on-watch work,’ in the Boatyard has a very clear ‘end’ of a usable vessel, their ‘off-watch work’ is equally important.  You can see our Mission in Practice in each activity,” Lisa says. “Whether it is a design challenge that requires collaboration, strong communications skills, trial and error, and risk taking; to their reflection on ‘What worked? What didn’t work? What will I do/what do I need to do to keep moving forward?’ in their logbooks; or, just the complete engagement that comes when one feels both the personal and community responsibility working together on something that matters. Listening to the comments our students make tying in this work to their everyday classroom work speaks to the connections we look for to build a strong learning foundation.” 

Lisa goes on to say, “From hatching the plan and being awarded the funds to now seeing this project in action has been a journey not only for the students but also for us as teachers.  We are all on this voyage together, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.  There is more work ahead but we are ready for whatever comes next!”