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Clue: Ask hard questions

Great colleagues become friends for life:

Gloria Dunn, Marianne Malmstrom,

Barbara Landberg and Jean Timbrell 2014

In the early 90’s, I began teaching 3rd grade at The Elisabeth Morrow School, a small independent school in Englewood. Founded in 1930 as a progressive school for young children, I was drawn to the child-centered philosophy and relished working in a school where teachers were given freedom to develop curriculum.

It was exhilarating to work with such an accomplished group of teachers who were all passionate about making learning come alive for students. Our principal, Emily Hewetson, supported and encouraged collaboration in order to ensure our curriculum was interdisciplinary. Working with a team of like-minded educators was profound both intellectually and professionally. We were always looking for a new spin on old themes or new projects to keep our students (and ourselves) engaged and excited about learning. We ignited our study of human migration during the Ice Age by having students prepare and hold a clan gathering. Numbers took on a whole new meaning when we decided to investigate the size of a million. We committed to collect one million pennies and use the money to buy books for schools in need. It took us six years to accomplish that goal! By the time we finished, several classes of 3rd-graders had developed a new appreciation for the immensity of numbers.

We worked together to give our students many opportunities to experience and immerse themselves into their learning.

By far, the best work we did was to develop a unit that allowed both teachers and students to see how far we could stretch the learning. We weren’t even sure it would work, but the idea was so epic that we decided we had to try. We wanted students to imagine they were 30 years old and colonizing an extreme climate. The objective was to help them understand the question, “How do people adapt to their environment?” At the same time, we wanted to create an exciting space for creative problem solving.

The first part of our “New Colonies” unit was the same for all classes. We taught the students the backstory and outlined the steps need to begin this unusual journey. The story was simple. The world had become so polluted that people were unable to breath without assistive devices. The President asked for brave volunteers to colonize the most extreme and uninhabitable parts of our globe. They needed to find a way survive that was both sustainable and in harmony with the planet. Students were asked to identify and generate a list of experts needed for such a venture. From that list they chose one of the professions and wrote a letter of application to “Madam” President explaining why they were qualified and should be considered for the job. After that, each class took a different path.

Classes were assigned one of three extreme environments; desert, rain forest or tundra. The first month was devoted to researching how people, flora and fauna survived in those climates. Students were asked to determine a survival strategy and generate a packing list. Packing lists were laminated so they could never be altered. They were to represent the only tools the colonists would have available to solve their problems.

The following month was devoted to the actual colonization. This is when things became intensely exciting! By then, we had decorated and transformed our classrooms to reflect our respective colonies. Each class used a simple convention such as a hat to help students make the transformation from 3rd-grader to adult colonist. Each colony chose their own form of governance. I could devote an entire post on that process alone as the process was so fascinating. Most years, classes chose some sort of council, occasionally opting for a President. One year I was surprised they discussed the viability of a monarchy!

When students were engaged in the “game”, roles changed. they took responsibility for running all meetings and making all decisions. Teachers moved into the background as “Dungeon Masters”. In other words, it was our job to give them dilemmas and problems to solve. This was an agile process based on the twists and turns of how each colony’s story unfolded. We didn’t make it easy. In fact, we gave them really, REALLY tough challenges! Often we had no clue how they would do it, but they ALWAYS found viable solutions. They challenged our preconceived notions about what young children understand and value as important. As teachers, we were blown away by their creativity, ingenuity and thought processes as they wrestled with a variety of difficult scenarios.

The unit stayed fresh because it was always driven by the children’s work. There was no predetermined lesson plan. Each dilemma or challenge given was based on the environment and previous choices so it was highly customized. The course the colony took was agile, dynamic and very real to them. As teachers, we met after school to discuss what had taken place that day and brainstorm possible scenarios that would keep students engaged and challenged.

Our objective was to create an immersive space that would inspire creative problem solving. That first year, we were concerned that we might be asking too much of our nine-year-old students. However, our concerns were laid to rest after watching every child rise to meet the challenges presented to them.

I have so many incredible memories and surprising stories of what the children accomplished in that space. That first year, my class imagined that they colonized a remote region of Namibia. Despite their initial research indicating that lions were almost extinct in that part of the world, students freaked out when faced with a small pride of lions occupying the very space they had to traverse to get to their destination. Their first instinct was to shoot them as they had packed 50 rifles. Thank God, they had neglected to pack any bullets! The kids spent two days heatedly arguing how to deal with the lions. On the third day, a quiet child who struggled with dyslexia, shyly raised her hand and asked if it was cheating that she read about lions the night before. The group decided it was permissible and explained that lions will ONLY attack people if they are sick of alone. She suggested everyone stick together and make lots of noise.

Sometimes the debates got rather heated with raised voices and occasional tears. We allowed that to happen. We learned that the great solutions came from having the time and space to deeply consider and grapple with a problem. Working through frustration, learning how to be heard, appreciating that sometimes the best ideas come from the quietest places; these are essential life skills we wanted to engender. We had created a safe space for our students to struggle and persevere.

I don’t want to color the experience as always a struggle, on the contrary the majority of time was spent in joyful play as students dug up the playground to test irrigation systems, constructed models of their housing and sewed prototypes of clothing. These hands-on activities were just as important as they allowed students the opportunity to form ideas, test them and make adjustments.

As much as our students may have learned, it was the teachers who grew the most out of these experiences. We learned not to be afraid to ask hard questions, even when we didn’t know the answers. We learned that students are far more capable than we typically expect in school.

I taught that unit for over nine years before moving on to teach 4th-grade. Every single year it was completely different but always incredibly exciting. That unit transformed me professionally, raising the bar of what I now know is possible. It continues to influence the way I think of creating space for learning. It is why I’ve been drawn to virtual worlds and sandbox multiplayer games, those platforms provide a blank slate for this kind of work.

I am grateful to have worked with such dynamic and passionate educators. I learned so much from their generous mentoring as well as the work we did together. Best of all, those lessons learned and


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